Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part III

(Note: I didn’t plan for this to be a Halloween post but it works as one … so Happy Halloween!)

(Part II discussed how language is action and how dangerous words may threaten others’ wellbeing and cause harm in the same way as do dangerous acts. Such “spells” work on a surprisingly simple and commonplace principle: the effectiveness of wielded language depends on the wielder’s knowledge of his/her target’s susceptibility to “verbal poisons.” Barbed language shot forth from the mouths of angry or frustrated children often flies wide of its mark, though some children do become skilled marksmen. [Part I of “The Working Language … ” may be found here.])

Not surprisingly, adult battles for control of resources and destiny–battles carried out with words–are more intense. Here, years of experience, seasoned fears, and rigid philosophies come into play. Where ambition and fear are, one finds arguments with barbed words. “Everywhere there is social conflict,” say Arthur Lehmann and James Meyers:

people become angry, get insulted, or perhaps become jealous of someone’s success; it is during such uncomfortable times that witches may be found at fault and sorcerers may be called upon for help (Lehmann and Myers 1985:150).

Most people would feel shocked or insulted if it were suggested that their schemes to “get to the top” in their jobs or to “get the best of” a disagreeable neighbor might employ black artistry. Many would be more likely to speak of their behaviors as practical courses for action.

A satanist would agree. “As defined by Satanists,” observes Edward Moody, who interviewed several satanists,

magic itself is a surprisingly commonsense kind of phenomenon: the change in situation or events in accordance with one’s will, which would, using normally accepted methods, be unchangeable. Magic can be divided into two categories: ritual (ceremonial) and non-ritual (manipulative) “¦ The “lesser magic,” non-ritual transactional manipulative magic … is a type of transactional manipulation based upon a heightened awareness of various processes of behavior operative in interaction with others, a Satanic “games people play.” The Satanist in ritual interaction is taught to analyze and utilize the behavioral Achilles’ heels of others for his own purposes (Moody:187).

Moody gives an example of such an interaction: in the case of a Satanist interacting with a masochist, the Satanist assumes the role of a sadist, establishing a dominant and even cruel stance over his “partner” to indulge the masochist’s addictions and thus achieve an objective (Moody:187).

Witchcraft in practice need not manifest in such an extreme manner. In many cultures, inconsiderate and unfriendly behavior is enough to warrant accusations of witchcraft. Among the Ibibio of Nigeria, not openly returning greetings, living alone in an isolated area, enjoying adultery or incest, fixing prices too high, not showing appropriate grief upon the death of a community or family member, or neglect of family members–including aged parents–may be considered symptomatic of witchcraft (Offiong:155). Other cultures not openly acknowledging witchcraft might consider these behaviors mere garden variety selfishness and greed, but in places where witchcraft is an openly acknowledged phemonemon, such acts signify evil intent.

Language invested with the task of carrying out the goals of individuals seeking to amplify their power and prestige must be highly directive. In ceremonies or in common conversation, a witch must act to seal off corridors through which the victim might escape and foil the plan. Since it’s commonly accepted that a witch somehow increases his own power by subsuming the life-force of those too weak to resist, cannibalism and other eating motifs turn up in the language of witchraft legends and folklore. But in order to “eat” his victim, a witch must first “catch” her. Telling an impressionable person a tale like “The Dead Princess” is one way to bring upon the victim the necessary paralysis of spirit. Conducting a ceremony to transfer the soul of the victim to the body of an animal which is then slaughtered and eaten is another way (Offiong:155), but the success of this kind of ritual depends upon the victim’s having first been isolated by the witch’s language. That is, the victim must have been signaled by recognizable words sent in his direction that he is under attack. Nearly all societies acknowledging the existence of witches have such signs. In France, certain sets of words followed by unaccountable misfortune are evidence that a spell has been cast. Likewise, the unwitcher and the bewitched make a display that sends to the witch suspected of casting a spell clear warning of a return attack (Favret-Saada: 1980).

3 thoughts on “Criticism: The Working Language of Good and Evil, Part III”

  1. I find it interesting that the victim must succesfully interpret a signal, a set of signs that he is under attack.

    That is, the victim must enter the discursive sphere of the magic practitioner.

    This reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful series of Discworld novels. Most of witch-practicing in Discworld is actually just “headology.” 

    Posted by William Morris

  2. I find it interesting that the victim must succesfully interpret a signal, a set of signs that he is under attack. 

    This is true of cultures where witchcraft is acknowledged. In cultures where it isn’t, victims of black artistry may suffer the effects of barbed language without quite understanding why they feel dis-ease or fear or a sense of being “caught” or spellbound. They may feel attacked but not understand why or where it’s coming from. They might think it’s just them. They may be vaguely conscious of a depressing lack of options, desperation, impotence–they might feel “not themselves.” They may feel disturbed to hear sacred words or images taken out of context and put into profane ones as the witch seeks to break the the victims’ ties to community, but they they won’t understand what’s happening. They may see images that have powerful associations for them coupled with products or ideas they might otherwise not pay attention to if those powerful images didn’t draw attention to them.

    Techniques of imprinting will be applied to bind the victim (adult or child) to his or her victimizer or a course of action or behavior that will benefit the witch.

    Bottom line: The language of witchcraft murders sacred and social contexts in subtle and not so subtle ways to get gain. (Witches also physically murder to get gain, but that’s an obvious social ill and we have laws that mark the behavior.) Such language attempts to kill off all possibilities except those that the witch wants the bewitched to see. The idea is to get the bewitched to perceive and then identify those possibilities as the only ones available. Cultures that acknowledge witchcraft raise up shamans, priests, or other people with “strong blood” to develop and preserve a reservoir of stories, rituals, and ceremonies–sacred language–that act to retrieve the bewitched from the trap that has ensnared him. Those that don’t acknowledge witchcraft have … what? I think cultures that don’t acknowledge witchcraft suffer more widely from its assaults, and that one of the effects of such attacks is a loss of “good stories,” the loss of narrative power. I’ll talk about the working language of good in the next two installments and touch upon (as far as a blog will permit) how important narrative power is to a culture.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  3. Oh, and I should add that in cultures where witchcraft isn’t acknowledged, people are more likely to practice its techniques upon one another without completely understanding that’s what they’re doing. As mentioned in the post, they might think of the kinds of manipulation or intimidation they’re applying as “practical” or even necessary means to a legitimate end.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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