Rant Number 325 30 October 2008
I would not wish to be in Fawza Falih’s shoes. The unfortunate woman on death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Sentenced for ‘witchcraft, consorting with jinns and slaughter of animals’. Being a witch is not, I believe, a crime in the Saudi penal code but it is under Sharia law. It is good that the UK Islamic Human Right Commission (IHRC) has urged campaigners to write to the Saudi authorities, so the lady may receive a fair trial. I do hope and pray that she will receive mercy.
Matters of Islamic law are for the ulama’, Islamic scholars, to debate. Ditto for jinns and animal slaughter. (Confession: I myself happen to have dabbled in jinns while in Qatar – guess that was a close shave…) Still, the belief in malevolent exercise of unspecified ‘powers’ to harm others, known as witchcraft, raises many questions for thoughtful Christians.
Those in favour of the existence of witches have invoked the witness of Holy Writ. The Old Testament relates of King Saul making use of the services of one at Endor, in order to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Also, in his letter to the Galatians St Paul fulminates against ‘sorcerers’. Contrariwise, theologians as eminent as St John Chrysostom had no time for it. Emperor Charlemagne actually punished persecutors of witches and Pope Gregory VII also forbade the killing of women accused of magical misdeeds, such as turning into animals and casting evil spells. Unfortunately other pontiffs were less enlightened. A 15th century manual for witch-hunters, the grotesque Malleus Maleficarum, testifies to increased fanaticism about the subject. Protestants joined in – witches hung in England under Cromwell. But soon history relegated the poor wretches to the realm of make-believe: the 1735 Witchcraft Act made it an offence to pretend to be a witch, rather than actually being one. Popular superstition did not abate, however. E.g. Halloween – does it ring a bell?
Over the top! Crazy cleric! Only kids’ harmless fun! Wot! The new Inquisition? I can hear the howls of protest. Maybe I am guilty. Yet yesterday morning I noticed a bizarre shop on a smart Kensington street. (Former parish of mine: yep, the priest feels the occasional call of the wild.) Here is a random list of what my eyes saw: cannibal’s meat; blood spattered walls; Jack the Ripper’s daggers; devil’s horns; cursing mouths; zombie doctor; torture chair; dark angel; monster bolts; vampire pimps; grisly hands; dead dread mask; love potions; witches’ hats; glittering devil’s tridents; spooks’ convention; skull chalices; scary skeletons and so on. ‘Cool! That’s sweet!’ I overheard a pair of young girls coo before some Dracula’s fangs. Huh!
Much ado about nothing? We have all been children. We remember enjoying being scared. The dark side and its lure. Weren’t vampire movies all the rage through the 50’s and 60’s? Nothing new there. Something’s odd, though. Our society rigorously enforces a strict system of repressive (and necessary) laws guarding minors from sexual contacts with adults. We rightly warn the young from weirdoes and strangers. But we completely drop our guard when it comes to kids playing around with the creepiest supernatural rubbish. Why?
The priest’s theory: we do because we officially no longer believe in it. The non-existent cannot hurt us. Witches et al. are a silly medieval superstition and that’s that. But, to paraphrase Horace’s tag, if you violently eject supernature from your consciousness, it will come back with a vengeance. The monsters of the unconscious are lurking near, waiting for a door to be left ajar. Given the chance, they will rush in. The consequences are never nice. Parents allow children to trifle with the dark side at their peril. Despite Harry Potter’s phenomenal, deplorable popularity, the stuff should be kept at arm’s length.
I wonder whether I might once have met a witch. A male one. A young man called Tarquin. From time to time he would come to church and tell me his of his condition. Amongst other things, he claimed to have the evil eye. Listening to him gave me gooseflesh. Maybe he was just mentally ill. However, one day I saw the young daughter of a parishioner in tears. ‘What’s wrong, Daisy?’ I asked. ‘That boy…’ and she pointed to Tarquin skulking nearby, whom she did not know, ‘his eyes…the way he looked at me. It was horrible!’ Mercifully, we saw Tarquin no more after that.
It seems practitioners of the black arts have one thing in common. They all crave power. Probably striving to compensate some form of inferiority complex. A thought-provoking view which Alfred Adler built into a system of psychoanalysis, in contrast to Freud and Jung. But when it comes to suckers for the occult, Satanism, witchcraft, the whole caboodle, we usually see the opposite happen. Their votaries soon lose any power and become very weak, enslaved to either rip-off gurus or their own mental delusions. Serves them right.
However, an interesting defence of magic from the point of view of cultural anthropology comes from Wittgenstein. In Reflections on Frazer’s Golden Bough the Austrian philosopher attacks the crude positivist notion that magic equals ignorance. Frazer had argued that ‘savage man’ is ignorant of causal relations. Someone who simply fails to comprehend that there is no causal connection between sticking a pin into a wax image and the human bearer of that image falling ill. Wittgenstein points out how ‘the savage’ whom Frazer patronised actually understands causality well enough to make sturdy huts and sharp arrows. In failing to grasp that, ‘Frazer is much more of a savage than his savage’, Wittgenstein mocks. But why then when a certain witch-doctor recites a magic formula and performs a particular ceremony another person may gets sick and die? Sensibly, we postulate no causal relation there. Magic isn’t the analogue of electrical or chemical actions, is it? Wittgenstein’s answer is subtle. (Read the book!) He reminds us of what happens when a lover loses his beloved. He may well want to lie down and die. It all has to do with forms of life…
Halloween? No, thanks. November the 2nd, the Feast All Souls is what I like best. All about the glorious Christian assertion of immortality, of life beyond the grave. Now, that is something to live for.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli