(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).