Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blog Forum 2: Witches, Warlocks, and Demons

I'll take moderator's privilege here for the 2nd post in our Blog Forum.

Please comment/ discuss below. Or send longer responses directly to me and I'll be happy to add to the ongoing forum.

Recently, there have been witch-hunts in rural Kenya. According to the article, about 100 people, armed with torches & machetes, stormed into a village and just started killing people suspected of practicing witchcraft. The local shaman (!!!)* explained that there probably weren't witches in that town and that old vendettas were most likely to blame. Belief in witchcraft, however, is apparently widespread, even beyond Kenya's borders.

The point I want to focus on, however, is the very 1st sentence of that initial CNN article.
"It may be difficult for modern-day Western cultures to fathom, but in Western Kenya, beliefs in ghosts and witches are very real."
No. Just no. This is a convenient fable that we tell ourselves sometimes -- a fable that makes (many of) us feel safe and secure, one that makes us feel like we have nothing in common with our past. But a fable isn't true.

So, let's talk about the West and its witches, warlocks, and demons. And let me, if I may, start with the Middle Ages, or more specifically with the Christianization of Europe.

Pagan antiquity is filled with examples of discussions of the supernatural intervening directly in this world and, in this sense, little changed once we entered the Middle Ages. The supernatural, on both sides, good and evil, were constantly present in the day-to-day events of this world. God's plan, made manifest in the shape of historical events, could only be actualized with the help of men and women working both for and against that plan, guided oftentimes by angelic or demonic beings. Often, this can be best/ easiest seen in monasticism. For example, think of the trials of St. Anthony or St. Guthlac or, as Michael Moore has written about, the battles St. Odilo and those of Cluny waged against Satan and his minions. But, I would argue, in the late 10th and early 11th century, these supernatural battles moved beyond the cloister and beyond the realm of the purely spiritual. God (through the Archangel Gabriel) succored Charlemagne in the ca. 1100 Oxford Song of Roland. On the 1st Crusade (1095-99), legions of the crusading dead returned to aid their brethren retake Jerusalem from a race influenced by demons. Earlier, demons and Satan himself wandered the 11th-century countryside whispering lies in heretics' ears. They continued to work their evil through the late Middle Ages, eventually inspiring/ conspiring with witches. The witch-craze, a more early modern than medieval phenomenon, only ended around 1700. The witch trials in Salem, MA (USA) were one of the last known episodes in the West.

The traditional narrative is that Enlightenment killed this kind of superstition. And that, I think, is what the CNN reporter above was alluding to. "We, in the civilized, enlightened West don't believe in such things anymore." Indeed, it would be comforting to believe such things. The Huffington Post article on witches I cited above says as much: "Just modernize the hell outta Africa and they'll leave those superstitions behind. Just like we have." But, as I've argued elsewhere (in a slightly different context), these ideas haven't gone away. They surround us, leaving us awkward gaps in polite conversation. They leave us, I think, wanting to bury our collective heads in the sand, pretending -- hoping -- these ideas will just go away.

Remember Seung Hui-Cho. His was a life tormented by demons, both metaphorical and (to him and many in the community of his upbringing) quite real. As I said then, Cho lived in
a world populated by God and the Devil, in which they are both still active forces in the world; a world where Cho could choose sides in this struggle and think that he was doing God's work; a world where violence in the name of religion is justified because the stakes, one's immortal soul, are so high.
But was Cho just an outlier? He was, of course, also tormented by mental illness. Unfortunately, no.

Many pentecostal evangelicals believe in the real presence of demons, at work in this world. Journalist Matt Taibbi has a new book, which, in part, details his time spent at Pastor John Hagee's (recently in the news) megachurch in Texas -- home to thousands of worshippers and reaching, via various media, likely millions more. Here, Taibbi found explicit and repeated references to the role that demons actively play in today's world. (Here's a good precis of what I'm talking about, available via Rolling Stone.) And there's more.

Bobby Jindal, the current Republican governor of Louisiana, and likely on John McCain's shortlist to be VP, is a convert to Catholicism. Gov. Jindal seems to be a supremely intelligent man -- a former Rhodes Scholar, and a graduate of Brown University. Moreover, he was accepted at, but declined to attend, both Harvard & Yale's Medieval & Law Schools. But, in 1994, Gov. Jindal also says that he assisted in an exorcism. (The image at the top of this post comes from pg. 17 of Gov. Jindal's article.) In an article entitled (aptly) "Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare," Jindal recounts how a good friend of his was tormented by a demon (that even caused, it seems, her skin cancer) and how he and his friends in a campus Christian fellowship aided in making the demon leave. Gov. Jindal meant this all literally. That demon was there, in that room, in his friend, tormenting her and her friends, causing her pain, forcing her into making poor decisions, ruining her life. That demon needed to be, and was, confronted both spiritually and physically.

These beliefs, shared by Kenyans and Americans, are not aberrant. A 2005 poll, taken by Harris Interactive, found that 73% of Americans believe in miracles, 68% believe in angels, 61% belive in the devil, and 28% believe in witches.

People in Kenya aren't dumb or "superstitious." Those horrific acts aren't "hard to understand." All you need to do is look in our society's mirror or, better yet, take a moment to talk to your local medievalist.

* I recently talked about all this to a friend who's an African historian and a specialist on Kenya. He said that the "shaman" referred to above was likely a "witch-smeller," who is responsible for finding out who the witches are in the community. These guys are almost always male and are always the "good" guys. Witches can be male or female but are always evil. My friend also mentioned that this part of the country is entirely Christian and so, as I guessed above, has no problem intellectually holding modern Christianity and such "superstitions" side-by-side.


theswain said...

Thanks Matt! I remember reading that article and recalling that the supposed "medieval" witch hunts that the author was using as an analogy didn't start taking place in Europe until the late in the 15th century...."medieval" by the skin of the teeth if we use a hard and fast 1500....but the vast majority of witch hunts in the West took place well into MODERN period, including the famous Salem trials in Mass., as you rightly point out.

So I like the direction of this. I have to wonder, though, because I'm ignorant of the answer, of whether we have similar examples in the Middle Ages: i. e. people "possessed" by demons in medieval villages hunted out and killed. I don't mean the demonizing of the "other", Vikings, Muslims, Jews etc, I mean the "demonizing" of one's neighbor.

Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

I see what you're trying to do here but I'm not sure that you've finished the argument. If the force of what you're saying is that there was (belief in) magic and superstition in the Middle Ages, and there still is now and that they are still important, then yes. But what's missing is the link that leads back from the now to the then, because there's so many other ways it could lead. Magic and superstition are pretty universal, which is of course how come you can talk about this stuff going on in Kenya as if it was in the same spectrum; it is, viewed broadly enough, and so is most of world human history. So we still need to show that there is something specifically in the medieval experience that tells us something about what's happening now, or else we need to get out of the teleological frame altogether.

So, is `this is not new or strange' enough of a tie-in? Does Guthlac's struggle in the marshes allow us to understand the exorcism carried out by Gov. Jindal any better? I'm not sure it does, and it also tempts us to try and understand Guthlac by reference to the Jindal episode, which is unlikely to be germane. I'm not saying there is no connection, or even that the connection is unhelpful; but I think we have to work further into it before that's more than a soundbite.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks for the comments, Jonathan. I think you're spot on that this connection needs to be developed more. Part of that has to do with the fact that I simply began to run out of steam as I was writing this. The other part, perhaps, is that I myself am not 100% sure of the connections I'm trying to demonstrate. Call this then a "thinkpiece." :-)

Anyway, I don't think I'm trying to say that magic & superstition are common to both the Middle Ages and the modern world. I certainly believe that, but I think I was trying to get at the fact that much of what we, today, call "magic & superstition" are very similar to what others call "belief" or "religion." That there are forms of Christianity (for example) which belive in the very real presence and activity of supernatural beings in our world, acting in ways that can directly affect what people do and how they do them. In that, the villagers in Kenya, Guthlac, and Gov. Jindal share something in common.

That's all well and good but the point I'd try to push is that we in the US (and allow me to confine myself to talking about American society for now) should stop portraying such beliefs, when found elsewhere in time (medieval) or place (Africa), as somehow aberrant or difficult to understand. No, they're not. They might not be "common" but they're certainly not "uncommon."

So, let's deal with them. When Seung Hui-Cho says that he's an avenger for Christ, let's not just say "he's mentally ill" and refuse to investigate why he translated that particular understanding of Christianity into a massacre. Instead, let's look at those religious roots, with an eye to making sure that doesn't happen again. Last example. If Gov. Jindal still believes that demons are here and at work in the world and that they can fully inhabit and influence people, and if he becomes the Vice-President of the USA, well, what does that mean if he belives he's a participant in a cosmic, manichaean battle between good and evil?

Let's ask these questions, as scary as they might be.

Anonymous said...

I agree that they need asking; the idea of born-again evangelicals running the most powerful country in the world, I can't help think that the past few years have shown, bodes ill for international cooperation, environmental success and generally getting on. But are the answers coming from the Middle Ages just because they had magic and religion too? I kind of hope not, because as you know I distrust putting history to uses.

FWIW though, and you obviously know this but it's worth drawing out, the Middle Ages had both the group `superstition and magic' and the group `religion and belief', the question of which was which being solely one of perspective. Julia Smith's book says baldly that superstition is what the Church called religious belief it didn't control. Glib, but hard to immediately refute... So are we being more or less medieval by siding with Hincmar and the theologians rather than the grass-roots believers?

Matthew Gabriele said...

That's a really interesting question at the end, Jonathan. I would tend to answer "yes," I guess -- although I'd guess that Hincmar was more like the grassroots than he'd care to admit. (I'm no strong believer in a big difference between "high" and "low" cultures.) We put on air that there are differences between "us" and "them" but I wonder how real those differences are -- either now or then?

Anonymous said...

Hello, not sure if this is the right site or not... Yet… I've been searching all over the Internet for a story I heard about twelve years ago.

There was a princess in Europe who said she had a dream about a demon. The "dream" was so vivid she was able to have a sketch drawn of that demon. I believe the story goes, the princess was from the eleventh century. Do you guys know of this story or where I can learn more? I realize there isn't much information here, but how many stories exist about a princess being visited by a demon in her sleep?

Thank you very much for your time... I will check back every couple of days to see if you guys know of this story. BTW, I believe I saw this on one of those learning channels on TV in the late 90's... They said that story is in a book, but I can't remember the name. I'm more interested in the sketch then anything else.

Thanks for your help

Matthew Gabriele said...

@Anonymous thanks for stopping by. I'm not familiar with the story you're talking about but, actually, nocturnal visitations by demons are a staple of demonology -- so it would actually be kind of common.

I'd suggest taking a look at Michael Bailey's Magic and Superstition in Europe or Edward Peters' Witchcraft in Europe for more information (and suggestions for further reading).

Good luck!