Witches and Demons

A Comparative Perspective on Witchcraft and Satanism

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Jean La Fontaine
Studies in Public and Applied Anthropolog
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , April
     2016.
     156 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781785331527.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Two lifelong research interests of Jean La Fontaine are brought together in this new collection of essays: Africa, and accusations of Satanism and witchcraft. The title of the book, Witches and Demons: A Comparative Perspective on Witchcraft and Satanism, raises expectations of a global investigation into occult matters, but in fact the scope of the work is much smaller. Two recent phenomena are discussed, namely the British Satanism scare of the 1990s and more recent accusations of witchcraft against children in African communities in London. Somehow, the demons promised in the title have gotten lost in the contents of the book. 

The book consists of eight short essays, some of which were written as early as 1992, framed by an introduction and a conclusion. The essays have been edited to fit the theme of the book, but they still form a loosely connected collection of interesting points rather than one argument. The first two chapters deal with an alleged conspiracy of Satanists in the 1990s. La Fontaine argues that this phenomenon had its roots in the cultural convictions that also inspired the European witch hunts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Moving from the local to the global, she states that Satanists who threaten the life and safety of children at the end of the millennium are evil Others, similar to the figure of the witch in other cultures. 

In the following two chapters, La Fontaine shows how the concepts used to discuss phenomena associated with the occult are ethnocentric and misleading. Chapter 3 suggests a distinction between human sacrifice as legitimate ritual action, muti murder as the non-ritualistic killing of a human being to obtain body parts for magical rather than religious use, and ritual murder as an act of utter evil ascribed to a conspiracy of imagined Others. Unfortunately, this distinction is not upheld when La Fontaine discusses a possible case of muti murder in chapter 4 using both ritual murder and human sacrifice as terms to refer to the case. 

The remaining chapters deal with accusations of witchcraft made against children in immigrant communities in London. Chapters 5 and 6 show how changing notions of the nature and status of children in Africa make it possible to accuse a child of witchcraft. Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the Pentecostal context in which these accusations are made. La Fontaine argues that pastors of African-initiated churches in the UK profit from these accusations and their subsequent deliverance as they gain status in the crowded religious marketplace. She traces the notion of the child witch in west and central Africa and concludes that child witches are not that common in east and southern Africa. However, from my own experience in Zambia and surrounding countries, I can attest that accusations of witchcraft against children are not at all uncommon in Malawi, while in Zambia and Zimbabwe, accused children are often labelled Satanists.

La Fontaine intends to give a comparative perspective on the topics she discusses. The introduction and conclusion of the book consider the method of comparison. The comparative method, according to La Fontaine, is a “long-accepted” way of drawing conclusions about societies—although her introduction also mentions the problems with this method, such as over-generalization and ethnocentrism. In the book, using a comparative method means giving examples from other cultures to show that neither the West nor Africa are special. Although I sympathize with this sentiment, I doubt whether the problems with the comparative method are avoided in this way. The sensitivities of comparing cultures seem to be dealt with in different ways in the different chapters of the book. In one chapter, La Fontaine criticizes attempts to compare contemporary African notions of witchcraft to early modern European witch beliefs, because the comparison implies an evolutionist perspective: this is the stage that Africa has now reached, one that Europe reached centuries ago. In another chapter, European corpse medicine—the pharmaceutical use of human body parts—is brought in to argue that the use of African muti is not an extraordinary practice. In both cases, La Fontaine wants to show that Africa is not strange or backward and that the West is not exalted. La Fontaine condemns ethnocentric theories that merely state what the public wants to hear, but her inconsistent use of the comparative method essentially betrays what it is that she herself wants to hear. 

In almost every chapter of the book, fundamentalist or Pentecostal Christianity is named as a common culprit responsible for the disturbing phenomena discussed in Witches and Demons. In the first part of the book, La Fontaine argues that the visibility of fundamentalist Christianity in social life weakened a worldview based on science and rationality enough to let age-old fears rear their heads again in the Satanism scare. Later, she shows how witchcraft accusations in African migrant communities are not a remnant of traditional beliefs but are encouraged by Pentecostal Christianity. It is a pity that La Fontaine makes little distinction between fundamentalist Christianity and Pentecostalism, and no distinction at all between different varieties of Pentecostalism and other African-initiated churches. This lack of detail almost makes it seem as if Christianity is another evil Other. 

The richness of ethnographic material and historical and anthropological theory makes Witches and Demons an interesting book not only for those who study the Satanism scare or the African diaspora, but for anyone who wants to know more about the background of accusations of Satanism and witchcraft, be it from their Western or African roots or a combination of both.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps is Research Associate in Religious Studies at the University of Pretoria.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jean La Fontaine is a Research Fellow of Inform and Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, where she taught for nearly twenty years. She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge and has chaired the Association of Social Anthropologists, and served as President of the Royal Anthropological Institute.

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