Is Witchcraft Rational?
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Is Witchcraft Rational?
Human nature has always instigated us to try and look for explanations for what happens around us. Psychology looks for the explanations for human behavior, meteorology looks for explanations for weather and the police now look for scientific explanations to solve a crime. The means we have today to investigate cause and effect are different from how they were even a decade ago let alone in the ancient civilizations when witchcraft and magic supposedly originated, not to mention that there are still tribes and peoples who live by the old traditions.
People who strongly believe in witchcraft will explain any negative events saying that witchcraft was at play, that someone was bewitched or cursed. Such is the case of the Azande tribe in north central Africa although their idea of what witchcraft is is somewhat different from what we understand by the word. For the Azande witchcraft is a substance that is inherited in ones belly that is fairly autonomous that performs bad magic on the persons enemies without the carriers knowledge (1). Due to our skepticism of such beliefs we might be compelled to challenges such them by asking questions such as “what if someone does not have enemies but bad things still happened to him?” and an answer to that question would have to be a tricky one if you try to answer it with todays scientific knowledge or with our societys beliefs. The point is that ultimately most of the bad things that happen to us really are caused by other people. Buildings do occasionally collapse and kill people in them due to human error in construction or maintenance. People do get sick if they are in contact with other sick people. People do sometimes intentionally cause harm to others too. So is it really such a huge leap to think someone elses bad intentions are at play? In our culture we have all sorts of fancy equipment to investigate these events and tell us what really caused them. Then again, science is not infallible because otherwise buildings would not collapse in the first place. That doesnt stop us from using it and practicing it and believing it can do good, just like the Azande keep on believing and practicing magic despite its occasional failures (1).
We may at first glance dismiss the idea of witchcraft to be irrational, but what does rational mean anyways? To me rational is what I can explain with what I know and irrational is what I cant explain with what I know. I know through some physics I studied that sound waves have a long wavelength and can therefore bend around corners and light cant for the opposite reason. That is science and I knew it yesterday and today and it wont change tomorrow. My knowledge about other things though will change as I learn new things every day. I can now understand someones behavior a year ago, which at the time I thought to be irrational, because now Ive been told their reasons for it. So what is rational to each and every one of use is likely to change as we gather new knowledge of the world around us. Furthermore, since we do not all possess the same knowledge, what is rational is likely to be different for every person. So a more general definition would have to account for all these different variables. When I asked a friend to help me come up with a general definition she said “rational is reasonable within its own context”. I stopped looking for a better definition after that because it pretty much covers every loophole I could think of. When I was a child I used to think that little rats in the wheels of a car were running to make the car move and to me that was a rational explanation. Then I grew, I started learning how a car works so the context, for me, changed. What Im saying is that when these tribes came together, a long time ago, no one had any other plausible explanations to events and no others way to find out than to consult the oracle or the spirit world.
Different cultures who believed in or practices witchcraft or magic had different ways of doing it. The Azande consulted the oracle to find out if witchcraft was at play in some negative event and according to what the oracle says they would know whether or not to use magic to solve the problem (1). In ancient civilizations such as in Egypt they had a system of deities each associated with something and each deity had a set of amulets to represent their powers (3). If I was a farmer in Ancient Egypt I would make sure that the deity responsible for the harvest is in my favor and obviously they had their ways of assuring that such as offerings. If there was pestilence they could have appealed to the goddess Bast or Sekhmet to run in their aid (4). Of course Bast and Sekhmet were associated with others things such as protection against demons and so the amulets representing them would also be worn to ward off demons and evil spirits. She was associated with sensuality, sexuality and motherhood so her amulets were also used as a sexual and fertility aid. There truly was a deity for anything you could think of: bowel disorders, digestive discomfort, wealth, smell etc. One might say that those were ancient beliefs that are now extinct in the educated world due to the irrational motives behind them. All you have to do is look around you closer than you usually do to notice that thats not at all true. These beliefs arent entirely extinct if at all really. All you have to do is go to the closest costume jewelry shop and look for the tribal section. There you have a pretty good chance of finding necklaces with runes, hieroglyphic inscriptions, scarabs, pentagrams and so on, and they come with a paper usually telling you what its supposed to protect you against. I myself have quite a collection of them which I got from various places. I got two of them from a market in Camden Town in England from a guy who had a variety of some two hundred such ancient amulets. Ancient amulets and talismans set aside just go to the church souvenir shop and youll find a few amulets of the modern day: medals. Believers carry them around for protection and since my mother is quite a believer Ive been told of their different protective powers. The most common being the oval one with the Virgin Mary on it that helps you in many ways, theres a small round one with Mary on one side and a Cross and small writing on the others side that supposedly protects you from the bad influences in todays society. These medals supposedly gain more power if they are blessed by a priest and even more if its by a high ranking one and even more if they are blessed by the pope. So theres a ritual involved too. How is that any more rational than the ancient practices in Egypt or the “primitive” beliefs in tribes such as