Witchcraft and Psychosis: Perspectives from Psychopathology and Cultural Neuroscience


In his book Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust, the social anthropologist Peter Geschiere—who has worked among the Maka people of southwest Cameroon since the early 1970s—relates the story of Jean Eba. Eba was a successful fonctionnaire—a civil servant and political operative—who in the late 1960s returned to his village: "Eba felt ill, his complaints were quite mysterious (general fatigue), and no doctor succeeded in curing him. So people soon started whispering about witchcraft. Apparently Eba himself shared this view, despite his Western education: after some hesitation he told me that he had begun to frequent one nganga (healer) after another. Finally a nganga from Djem country (some sixty miles away) succeeded in helping him, but insisted that he had to leave the village and return to one of the urban centers of the East."1 Local people interpreted this as an "attack from inside the house" as a result of jealousy from relatives he had not sufficiently helped, although different suspects and specific motives were identified.

The local interpretation of Eba's difficulties is only one example of a wide range of beliefs and practices called "witchcraft" in different cultures and periods of history. What all these beliefs and practices share in common is the notion that affliction or misfortune can be intentionally caused by the special actions of a person, the witch. The story of Jean Eba also illustrates, however, how attributions of remote malefaction by ritual means are typically embedded in larger narratives that are characteristic of a society or social group. A narrative, as Esther Eidinow and Richard Gordon observe, is defined as "a spoken or written account of [End Page 86] connected events" in the Oxford English Dictionary.2 As such, witchcraft narratives locate attributions of malefaction within a broader imaginary or conception of the world; they "may link individual, concrete situations to wider cultural and cosmological beliefs; select and frame social knowledge; assert the coherence of patterns of action; and orchestrate both moral concepts and mortal power, in interaction with other social structures and dynamics."3

Locally distinctive features of these imaginaries resist the notion that there is a uniform phenomenon of witchcraft across cultures and periods of history. We can see this clearly in the articles in this volume. When analyzing narrations of magical power in ancient Egypt, for example, Svenja Nagel notes that while there was no indigenous concept of "witchcraft" in ancient Egypt,4 "there definitely are a number of powers and activities that closely resemble those labelled as 'witchcraft' in various other cultural and historical contexts."5 In the case of Mesopotamia, Greta Van Buylaere considers how the cuneiform records of a male elite show a growing perceived threat by female ritual specialists from the second to early first millennium BCE, leading to their demonization as "witches" in anti-witchcraft rituals.6 In the case of Classical Athens, Esther Eidinow shows how uncertainty about causes of misfortune under the adverse social conditions following defeat in the Peloponnesian War led to the formation of a "family of ideas" linking a notion of dangerous women with ritual activities that were mistaken as potentially harmful—an early prototype of witchcraft beliefs.7

But despite their locally distinctive features, one of the key "family resemblances" or points of intersection across these and similar imaginaries is the very notion that affliction or misfortune can be intentionally [End Page 87] caused by occult ritual means. Consequently, understanding what motivates or influences causal attributions of intended harm potentially provides insights into constraints on the formation of witchcraft belief and narratives. Psychiatrists and psychologists are also confronted with beliefs that misfortune has special types of personal causation, but the people who express those beliefs are considered to be suffering from paranoid delusions, that is, unfounded but abnormally salient beliefs that others intend harm. Paranoid delusions include beliefs in witchcraft, along with a wide range of other notions of how harm can occur through the intentions and remote actions of a malefactor. If both paranoid delusions and witchcraft involve attributions of harmful intent, this raises the question of how the phenomena are related, and...

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