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  Witchcraft (from Old English wiccian, ‘to practise sorcery’) is using esoteric skills and occult knowledge to manipulate the natural world. It includes such benign activities as divination and healing, and such malign ones as causing disaster and communion with evil spirits. Witches can be of either sex, and they use ‘familiars’ (spirit-slaves which take the form of animals, usually birds or cats) and ‘talismans’ (inanimate objects invested with magic powers).

Such is the popular view of witchcraft: and it is an outsider\'s view, coloured by the hostility of some religions (notably Christianity) to practices which seem to involve the supernatural but which lie outside their control. In Europe, at least, actual practitioners of witchcraft see what they do as beneficent and harmless, as a holistic system of belief and practice which bypasses formal religion and which has existed since prehistoric times. By invocations, ritual and spells, witches assert their community with Nature and with the supernatural world; this identity gives them no special powers or prerogatives, but may enhance understanding. To ‘real’ witches, what they are and what they do are utterly remote from the witch-stereotypes of folk tale and the popular imagination stereotypes—whose persistence and vigour nonetheless seem to speak of a need, in societies and artists of all levels, to embody the Other and so, perhaps, control and demystify it.

Anthropological studies of witchcraft have tended to look at it not from the insider\'s point of view, but from that of the society in which witches operate. In particular, anthropologists have examined how societies allocate blame in cases of witchcraft—on the individual, the supernatural, or in some cases on a physical substance. (Among the Azande of Sudan, for example, witches are believed to inherit witchcraft in the form of a substance, mangu, which lies dormant until activated by grudges against neighbours. Blame is not attached to the person inadvertently causing witchcraft, but to the person thought to have caused offence, usually by excluding the person identified as a witch from full social relationships.)

A pattern of accusations and blame has emerged in societies ranging from the Azande to Tudor England, which has resulted in the theory of witchcraft as a gauge of ‘social strain’. Those accused are usually people in the weakest positions in society, such as old women living alone. The threat of witchcraft serves as a double-edged means of social control. As well as controlling the weak, it also attempts to ensure that proper social relations are maintained.

While Westerners make a distinction between intention and the actual outcome of an evil act, in other societies evil is seen as part of an object or a person. The widespread belief in the evil eye (one of the main powers attributed to witches everywhere) conceptualizes evil as a force associated with the act of looking, capable of harming children or animals. Closely related to feelings of envy, it is a voluntary power associated with the destructive force of individual envy, but it can also be considered involuntary with certain socially excluded classes of people (old women or disabled persons). The notion of the evil eye serves to explain why misfortunes or illness happen to particular people at particular times.

The embodiment of spirits often provides a means of negotiating with their negative aspects as in the case with possessionary spirits in the zar spirit-possession cult of Egypt and Sudan. Sometimes the spirit is assumed to be completely outside moral control. On the other hand, witchcraft can be seen as an integral part of moral systems, in the way that is is used as a social sanction. The question of attribution of responsibility reveals a great deal about how good and evil are seen in relation to personal responsibility.

Feminist studies of witchcraft concentrate on activities in 15th-century Europe, in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries and 17th-century New England. In these three areas thousands of people, 90 per cent of them women, were accused of witchcraft and in many cases were tortured, imprisoned or burned. Feminist historians and theorists have tried to discover the reasons for this persecution. Some maintain that these women belonged to a witch cult that was woman-centred and at odds with the dominant, male-centred Christian religion. Others argue that these women were persecuted because they had special knowledge of healing and mid-wifery that challenged the new all-male professional doctor. One of the main ideas that underlies most feminist views of witchcraft is that the women who were single with children, spinsters or widows were outside the control of the patriarchal family, and that the threat and terror of an accusation of witchcraft were used as a method of containing them.

Many different strands of feminism, including psychoanalytic feminism, have shown that masculinity includes fear of the woman\'s body as Other. This is important for feminist studies of witchcraft, for witches—as fairy tales and horror films make abundantly clear—can be seductively beautiful as well as hideously ugly, and sometimes both as once. Many Eastern religions also feature women (dakinis) who seduce men and during intercourse suck away their vital juices. The eroticisation of witches as seductive and bewitching reveals, for many feminists, an unconscious male fear of the difference of the female sexual body. French feminist theoretician Helene Cixous proposes that witches are model women who exist on the edge of language and culture and, together with madwomen and hysterics, resist patriarchal structures.

Witchcraft has another aspect in some kinds of feminism. During the late 1960s and 1970s feminists began to ‘reclaim’ witchcraft or wicca as a woman-centred religion. Feminist spiritualists worship a Goddess and celebrate the connection of the rhythms of the body and world. The feminist study of witchcraft is part of a greater trend to construct histories of women that have been left out of the ‘official’ history books, centred as they are on male, ruling-class views of the world. TK RK CL KMcL

Further reading Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology; , M. Marwick (ed.), Witchcraft and Sorcery; , Margaret Murray, The Witchcult in Western Europe; , D. Parkin, The Anthropology of Evil.



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