Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic and Witchcraft in Present-day England

“The invention of tradition is an intriguing topic: why is it that history should grant such authority, even in so rational an age? Witches speak of a secretive tradition, hidden for centuries from the Church’s fierce eye, passed down in families until the present generation. There is no reason that such claims could not be true, but there is very little evidence to support them. The most sympathetic scholarship that speaks of an organised, pre-Christian witchcraft has very shaky foundations – although there is more recently work that suggests that there were at least shared fantasies about membership in witch-related societies. But those accused of witchcraft in early modern Europe were very likely innocent of any practice” (Luhrmann 1989, 44).

“Witchcraft is meant to be a revival, or re-emergence, of an ancient nature-religion, the most ancient of religions, in which the earth was worshipped as a woman under different names and guises throughout the inhabited world” (Luhrmann 1989, 45). Perhaps this is true, but as Luhrmann rightly points out, much of the early concepts and ideas behind the formation of Witchcraft owe their provenance to the likes of Aleister Crowley’s Golden Dawn movement, Freemasonry and folklore (Luhrmann 1989, 43). This become quite clear when you take into account its various peculiarities. From the inclusion of degrees of mastery, spatial positioning of candles to the notion of secrecy, sect, symbolism and tool use, these elements of ritual practice central to Luhrmann’s witchcraft are also core elements of Freemasonry and Crowleyism (Luhrman 1989, 43 – 48). Finally, the romantic notion of the lost Celtic race, discussed by Luhrmann, which begot a once powerful and magical peoples in the form of Witches seems to draw very heavily on folklore for its structure (Luhrmann 1989, 43).

In Edward Evans-Pritchard’s “The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events” there is a clearly defined distinction between Luhrmann’s Western concept of Witchcraft as a positive force and the Zande idea of Witchcraft as a construct to “explain why events are harmful to man and not how they happen” (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 63 – 72). Evans-Pritchard further states that, “Witchcraft is a causative factor in the production of harmful phenomena in particular places, at particular times and in relation to particular persons” (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 72). This is seen through what effectively becomes a culture of blame with the witch as the central scapegoat (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 73). Throughout the chapter there are examples of how anyone can effectively be a witch at any time, without even realising it, and by being so can cause harm to others (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 63 – 83). Conversely though, while an individual might perceive or proclaim witchcraft was indeed involved in some negative action or incident, the larger Zande society may not agree, but would not dare speak outwardly about it, at least not in the presence of the aggrieved (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 77).

This stands in stark contrast to the Witchcraft in Luhrmann’s writing which states that “Witches try to ‘connect’ with the world around them. Witchcraft, they says, is about tactile, intuitive understanding of the turn of the seasons, the song of the birds; it is the awareness of all things as holy, and that, as is said, there is no part of us that is not of the gods” (Luhrmann 1989, 46). It is evident from the reading that the Zande would not only disagree with that sentiment, but may even have a difficult time conceptualising it. Evans-Pritchard explains this by highlighting the fact that the “Zande experience feelings about witchcraft rather than ideas, for their intellectual concepts of it are weak and they know better what to do when attacked by it than how to explain it. Their response is action and not analysis” (Evans-Pritchard 1976, 82). Without that all important critical and intellectual analysis, witchcraft will never be interpreted by the Zande with anything more than fear, suspicion and loathing, even if a Western practitioner of Witchcraft attempted to show the perceived benefit of their religion.

Interestingly, what both the Zande idea of witchcraft and Luhrmann’s witchcraft seem to have in common is this idea of the “invention of tradition” (Luhrmann 1989, 44). Whereas the Zande invent witches to explain away the negative aspects of their lives, Lurhmann’s witches invent their history to support their tradition. While these may be differing concepts, both rely on this inventiveness to inform their respective temporal realities. It could be argued then, that this is basically a case of belief versus religion, but then that is perhaps too simplistic as it is clear that for Luhrmann’s witches it is a matter of one begets the other. Alternatively, as religion can be perceived as a construct or a concept built upon a suspension of disbelief that faith in one’s particular belief structure is valid and has a positive or negative impact upon one’s lives, it could then be argued that as a metaphor or analogue for the Zande, their belief in the negativity and existence of witchcraft transforms into a form of religion in itself.

Luhrmann makes the point that she suspects “that for practitioners there is a natural slippage from metaphor to extant being, that it is difficult – particularly in a Judaeo-Christian society – genuinely to treat a deity-figure as only a metaphor, regardless of how the religion is rationalised. The figure becomes a deity, who cares for you” (Luhrmann 1989, 47). It can be argued that this is born out of a Western need to give form and substance to belief to make it more tangible for those who interact with it or attempt to quantify it for others. Throughout our history, we have consistently constructed mythologies about the world around us and the how and why things happen. So in that context, Luhrmann’s witchcraft is made no less genuine by the fact it is perceived to be the invention of tradition.


Evans-Pritchard, E. 1976. The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. 63 – 83. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Luhrmann, T.M. 1989. The Goat and the Gazelle: Witchcraft. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic and Witchcraft in Present-day England. 42 – 54. Oxford: Basil Blackwell


About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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