War Magic

Religion, Sorcery, and Performance

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Douglas Farrer
  • New York, NY: 
    Berghahn Books
    , September
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


War magic is a magic of violence, to either attack or protect against attack. It is anathema (a formal curse excommunicating a person or denouncing a doctrine), geas (an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person), curse and protective charm. Its rites often but not always, involve pain, blood, sacrifice, trance and possession. It is frequently cited as differentiating religion from sorcery, conveniently ignoring the priests blessing the cannons and the other tools of war. It is a tool of resistance; the peasants curse the landlords, the slaves rise up when possessed by the gods of war, and its rites bring secret societies of the underclasses together to plan strikes and resistance.

Vernacular religion relies a great deal on aggressive magic, viewing persons as constantly under attack, as permeable bodies open to influence, in danger. It is double sided: there is the magical maxim that “you cannot cure unless you can curse” and so the healing magician and root doctor is also the sorcerer who inflicts pain and punishment, and in traditional cultures they are abrasive characters both feared and respected.

D. S. Farrer’s edited volume War Magic is an interesting collection of case studies of this magic of violence in seven different cultures, ranging from Venezuela to Guam, and in the contexts of resistance to colonialism (Guam and Sri Lanka), conventional war (Indian tantric Buddhism), and personal empowerment. The separate chapters deal with the intersection of this magic with nationalism, in community conflict, and with religious change.

Michael Roberts’ chapter on the Tamil Tigers and Iain Sinclair on Indian tantric Buddhism discuss adaptation of religious beliefs and customs to incorporate war magic. In the first case the Tigers adapted Hindu funeral customs and ideas to incorporate martyrolatry and magical talismans and in the second the yogic Buddhist notion of the enlightened master who has transcended duality and is therefore not bound by conventional norms (including the Buddhist norm of non-violence) is stretched to allow for a “just war” performed without attachment by such masters.

Zeljko Jokic’s chapter on the Yanomamo people in Venezuela and their unending intercommunal magical warfare chronicles, as well, the developing sense of Yanomamo nationhood. The nation-building efforts by some shamans, led by Davi Kopenawa, include redirecting magical aggression outward to resist the Brazilian and Venezuelan nation-states’ pressure on the lands of the Yanomamo. Farrer and James D. Sellmann briefly deal with the re-emergence of Chamorro traditional chants and dances on the island of Guam as part of an anti-colonial liberation movement inside that American colony. The Chamorro resurgence includes the mystical personal gnosis of some leaders of the community as well as creative reworking of fragmentary cultural materials passed along in private.

In Singapore, the Southern Min Chinese diaspora supports Tangki traditional war magic adapted for personal empowerment rituals and ritual theatre. The spirit mediums possessed by war gods that Margaret Chan documents are exorcists and magicians, with no ecclesiology, drawing from ancient war rituals, commanders of armies of spirits, whose processions purify as they themselves engage in extremes of self-mortification. These piercings and mortification make explicit the permeability and vulnerability of the body, but also the practitioners’ power to overcome these violations and reinforce the boundaries of both body and community.

In Sumatra, the conflict between traditional dukun magic, such as the acquisition of invulnerability, superhuman strength and various curses, and conservative Islam, is leading to a decline in the practice of, although not the belief in, traditional magic. J. David Neidel describes both the practices and beliefs and the growth of a “discourse of decline” of magical potency, frequency of practice, and relevance.  Islamic belief and practice are a secularizing, or a disenchanting, influence in the region Neidel studied.

In Java, another region of Indonesia, a similar cluster of magical ideas and practices, particularly concerning increased strength and endurance and invulnerability, persists. Jean-Marc de Grave’s participant observation study of kanuragan (war magic initiation rituals) shows similar pressures on it as Neidel. In Java the military officially frowns on war magic and the associated martial arts, but frequently practices them, and the Islamist pressure is balanced by the incorporation of Sufi elements in the magical orders.

Vernacular aggressive magic is naturally reduced with the consolidation of larger-than-village-scale civil society and social safety nets. The self is seen as less under attack, the tensions in local communities are less intense.

Each of the chapters in this collection begs for a more thorough treatment. As it stands this will be a useful lower-level anthropology text, to introduce students to the dynamics of culture and to the understanding that magic is not far away but here and now in modern contexts like Singapore (Margaret Chan’s chapter) and Guam, and that magic of violence has a polyvalent set of qualities, both protective and offensive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Wagar is a doctoral candidate at St. Stephen’s College in Edmonton (practical theology of Wiccan temples).

Date of Review: 
February 17, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Farrer is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Guam. He is the author of Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism (Springer), and co-author of Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY).


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