Interpretations #3: Anthropology

To: all
From: Jenny
Date: 29 Apr 1998
Time: 10:29:39


Originally the Burning Times were largely the private domain of historians. They happened in the past, so who else would have the expertise to discuss them? In the 1960's, another group of scholars climbed into the sand-box: anthropologists. And they challenged one of the most fundamental assumptions of both rationalists and realists.

Rationalists and realists assumed that the Burning Times were weird and abnormal. They had to be either explained away or blamed on someone. For instance, rationalists assumed that sane people don't normally hunt Witches. The Burning Times were a unique outburst of insanity, which they blamed on the Church's "superstition." Realists weren't as negative on Witch hunters. But they still saw the Burning Times as unique (the interaction between the Church and one long-dead Pagan faith) and blamed a particular group of people for them (the Church, which couldn't stand rival faiths).

Anthropology's first contribution to Witchcraft studies was widening our field of vision. Historians concentrated on history, on European trials from the medieval and early modern periods. Anthropologists looked at the Witchcraft beliefs of other parts of the world. And what they found shocked historians: the Burning Times were not unique. Other parts of the world hunted Witches. And the foul crimes they attributed to Witches (cannibalism, baneful magick, etc.), were *extremely* similar to the crimes blamed on European Witches. There was clearly no way that the theology of the _Malleus Maleficarum_ could impact the Azande of Africa -- so why were European and African Witchcraft beliefs so similar? Neither rationalism nor realism could explain this (since African Witches were alive, could be interviewed, and were clearly not members of Murray's Witch Cult).

In the theoretical vacuum this new info caused, anthropologists suggested an interpretation that stood the old theories on their heads. The Burning Times were not unique. Witch hunting was normal -- something you should expect to find, not a weird behavior that needed to be explained away. And since it was normal, you didn't need to blame it on anybody.

By "normal", I don't mean "good." Everyone agreed that the persecutions were foul. But anthropologists speculated that human beings naturally tend to demonize things that are not like them. They create an Evil Other, a mirror-image of normal society. A group of Outsiders who do the exact opposite of what Good People do. And since most human cultures share some basic opinions about what's bad (cannibalism, murder, hurting your neighbors), our Evil Others will tend to be similar.

But if Witch hunting is normal, why doesn't it happen all the time? Well, it does. Once scholars stopped defining Witch-hunting narrowly, they discovered that there were many, many more "Burning Times" about. In Europe, there were the pogroms against the Jews and the Blood Libel myth (Jews sacrifice Christian babies and use the blood in their rituals) or the rumor panics surrounding "the Leper's Conspiracy" (Moslems and lepers are attempting to poison all able-bodied Christians). Witch-hunting exists around the world. And in our own time, we have the Communism scares of the '50's, the Satanic Panics and day-care trials of the '80's.

Anthropologists made Witchcraft studies a scary, relevant field. This wasn't "about" some weirdo event that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is about stuff that *we* do, that still goes on around us.

Perhaps the biggest boon of this new theory was that it let us move beyond blame-oriented explanations. Previously historians had wasted a lot of time and effort looking for scapegoats: some one group to blame this unique horror on. This also included ignoring evidence, because our data implied that every part of European society supported these trials. Anthropology did away with the need to blame. All human beings tend to do this. We don't need to find one group to hold responsible, if the evidence suggests that all groups shared the blame.

It also re-directed our gaze towards prevention. Previously scholars had focused on causation. They assumed that these trials don't normally occur and they searched for some factor that created them. Anthropology suggested that these trials *do* happen normally. What we need to search for are the societal factors that prevent these beliefs from blossoming into lethal trials -- *and* why those safe-guards failed in this case.

There were a couple down-sides to the new anthropological interpretation. First, it tends to be pretty abstract and hypothetical. Some historians (yours truly amongst them <g>) feel that anthropologists occasionally pay too little attention to history. They build these elaborate theoretical constructs, and don't think about what actually happened and whether or not there's any *evidence* to support their theories.

Second, it undermined the importance of actual Witches. For anthropologists, the theory (the conspiracy of the Evil Other) is important, not the Witch. In fact, scholars stopped calling wise-women and cunning-men "Witches". "Witches" were "really" people accused of being the Evil Other. Traditional magick-users were "simple sorcerors" instead.

As a Witch, I resent this. These men and women *were* called "Witches" by their contemporaries. They *were* important. It's all well and good to create nifty theories and to study rumor panics in the abstract. But the real -- the women and men who were named as Witches -- matters too. For me, anthropological interpretations can become so abstract that they lose touch with reality entirely. They become an interesting intellectual exercise, but not an explanation of actual events and people.

The anthropological interpretation continues to be one of the major schools of Witchcraft interpretation today. Its adherants are a sizeable minority of scholars. And it was the parent of the current reigning theory, the Social History interpretation.