The Witch and the Wildness
By Kevin Tucker
The mainstay of our global civilization is the energy that flows through outlets into our walls. The fact that our global civilization exists is primarily because we keep plugging in. So why do it? When we turn on a light switch do we think about leaks in nuclear power plants, mountains stripped of their peaks with nothing but steel tracks and dead canaries left inside, do we think about 6 million birds who die yearly in the U.S. alone because they flew into microwave towers high above the tree lines, do we think about the wildness that constantly tries to seep through cracks in the concrete? Do we think about the wildness within us that turns into boiling rage because we compromise life for survival? Of course not, because if we did, we would be out there bashing everything that stands in the way of autonomy. Spiritually speaking, we are dead.
Domestication is the destruction of the soul. It takes a wild being and turns it into a piece of the global machinery: we become a part of the machine, mentally and physically. It is no easy process, but it is one we are all familiar with. A process we all feel with deep agony when we say ‘thanks’ for being handed a paycheck. But in the eyes of the civilizers, it is a necessary process. It’s necessary because we aren’t born thinking that power is necessary or justified anymore now than we did ten thousand or a million years ago. We have to be tricked into believing in it.
The key to holding power is a good justification. A good justification doesn’t need to be true; it just needs to be believable. This is as true for chiefs on the Trobriand Islands as it is for Bush Jr. The best reason for having standing armies then seems to be the age old fear of ‘barbarians at the gate’: the fear of the chaos and wildness that lurks just beyond the walls, borders, fences, or clearing. Bush Juniors’ ‘terrorists’ are really just filling the slot of the ‘Other’. For McCarthy and Reagan it was ‘communists’, Nazis had ‘Jews’, Colonialists had ‘Savages’, and as Clyde Kluckhohn writes, the Navaho, like so many other (stateless and statist) societies had ‘witches’ (1944, 89-90).
The antagonistic split between the self and the ‘Other’ then lies at the heart of domestication. To defend ‘territory’ or to turn a wild plant or animal into your ‘property’ requires that you not only see it as different, but inferior (Duerr 1985, Tucker 2002). This isn’t to say that ‘true primitives’ don’t recognize that they aren’t plants or animals, but the relationship with the ‘Other’ isn’t antagonistic or necessarily important: that comes with domestication.
James Woodburn made the important observation that societies can be split into two primary groups: based either on immediate or delayed return/gratification (Woodburn 1982). Put simply, there are egalitarian (meaning all people have equal access to necessities) and non-egalitarian societies (where there is a ranked system of access) respectively. In immediate return societies, there are no barriers to getting what you need when you need it. There is no mediating system and all people have the skills necessary to meet their ‘needs’.
This is more than economics; it is about a way of living that is a constant reminder of the community of life. The separation with the other is contextual: humans are a part of life, not aside from it. There are neither barbarians nor gates; wildness is not feared, but relished. That these societies lack a belief in witchcraft should hardly be surprising, but is widely noted (Brain 2001: 211-2, Lee and DeVore 1968: 91-2, 341). As Colin Turnbull noticed among the BaMbuti: “[they] roam the forest at will, in small isolated bands or hunting groups. They have no fear, because for them there is no danger. For them there is little hardship, so they have no need for belief in evil spirits.” (Turnbull 1962: 14) But the absence of witches is not only lack of imagination. It is not uncommon for IR gatherer-hunters to acknowledge witchcraft among sedentary neighbors, but they take no interest in it for their own uses (Woodburn 1988: 40).
Delayed return societies are a different story. The loss of egalitarianism is directly linked to three primary factors; surplus, sedentism, and domestication. Some societies have one of these, while others may have all three. These can be gatherer-hunters, but in the case of all three are typically horticultural societies. However insignificant any of these things may seem to be, they are all very important. When a society becomes dependent on surplus, it is no longer an option for people to just take freely, because for the first time something is produced. The ‘fruits of labor’ are pooled together and positions emerge for people to distribute food. This is where positions of power emerge: in small steps, access to life is removed from our hands (something so engrained in our own lives that the thought of being truly self-sufficient can be shocking).
Sedentism, or settled societies, not only counter the anti-power tendencies of mobility and flexibility (Barnard and Woodburn 1988: 28, Brain 2001: 211-2), but also challenge the ecological relationship formed over millions of years. The ‘contraceptive on the hip’ has been a powerful way of keeping populations within the ‘carrying capacity’. But when people settle down, it becomes easier to raise multiple children at one time. This settling further allows for more elaborate domestic situations. Domestication in its literal sense (accustom to the household), becomes an issue. The erosion of egalitarian relations begins to be seen in village life and architecture (Wilson 1988). Furthermore, domestication of plants and animals solidifies the superiority of the self/Other split, not only between humans and non-humans, but between ‘tribes’ and kin.
The picture here is the emergence of power and the degradation of egalitarianism. This is the context where witches, werewolves, sorcerers, and ‘things that go bump in the night’ emerge. Just as misery loves company, power mongers need a common enemy. The role of a chief is more fragile than the role of a king or president. While strict taboos can arise in their benefit, they are still accessible. When a king or president loses their credibility, they still have access to power (also, in our case, ludicrously high paid public relations experts). When a chief loses their credibility, they are often killed or exiled. So a scapegoat is needed. We have terrorists, many others have witches.
Domestication is dependency. A bad growing season, drought or plight means starvation to agriculturalists whereas gatherer-hunter mobility means they have to carry on and look for food elsewhere. For many agricultural states, droughts and floods have meant collapse (Fagan 1999), in others; it’s meant that witches and sorcerers are to blame. Not only are bad harvests and hunts at stake, but personal failures, ill health, and most often, death, are all caused by witches.
For agricultural societies, witchcraft is a common plight. Among the Azande, it’s recognized that the witches are always active, but they only become a problem when a person falls victim to witching. That doesn’t mean people aren’t always cautious, especially because a witch may not know they have bewitched you. As we stock up on canned foods and seal our windows with plastic and tape, we bear many similarities to witch fearers burying and securing possessions, excrement, nail clippings, hair, and so on, so they don’t become tools of the witches trade.
Witch accusations are a regular occurrence. Most often, a guilty witch can repay the damage of their malign substances without being killed, but this isn’t always the case. Needless to say, members of the princely class are very rarely accused of being witches, at least publicly (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 9). So are witches a catch all category for disorder? In many ways, apparently so, but it’s easy to see why. When things start to fall apart, it’s always more beneficial for those with power to keep people looking everywhere but the social system. Of all people, we should be rather familiar with this.
The witch, then, is the threat of decay and opposition to the social order. Among the Lele, sorcerers “turn their back on their own kind and run with the hunted, fight against the hunters, work against diviners to achieve death instead of healing.” (Douglas 2002: 207) Again this should sound familiar. Werewolves, vampires, and ‘wild men’ have long haunted civilized societies, lurking in the forests outside of the empire and creeping in at night (Duerr 1985, Anonymous 2003, Kennedy 2004). They steal or eat our children and souls, they threaten to carry us beyond the barriers between civilization and savagery and destroy us (turn us loose or kill us, the former seemingly being the more frightening to most).
Despite this, witches are not always used only to justify or strengthen power. The role of witchcraft is typically relative to the amount of egalitarianism that remains within a society. However, increased stress can always make it more dominant. European influence meant a surge in witchcraft accusations for the Yanomami (Ferguson 1995: 58) and the Navaho (Kluckhohn 1944), as it likely has for others. But among stateless societies, witchcraft accusations are used against further centralization of power.
Most often, the witch in stateless, non-chiefdom societies takes the role of the Trickster. It passes on justification for taboo and lays out ‘etiquette’ by exemplifying what is socially destructive behavior. Witches break taboo and take on the character of a ‘poor neighbor’ embodying such qualities as; “unsociability, isolation, stinginess, unfriendliness, and moroseness”. (Lehmann and Myers 2001: 205) Among the Navaho witches primarily take part in “all secret and malevolent activities against the health, property and lives of fellow tribesmen” (Kluckhohn: 110). While at the same time offering a means of expressing these thoughts/behaviors (ibid: 85).
The witch or trickster character then is an important aspect of social cohesion (something to keep in mind when thinking about anti-authoritarian social organization as well). As a society becomes more dependent upon a division of labor and predictable circumstances, it is vital that the health of the state is seen as the health of the individual. Even in microform, nationalism is the lifeblood of forced societies. Keeping social stratification to a minimum is an important task, one where witch accusations can come in handy.
In these societies, witch accusations can be a means of social leveling. When people become more and more powerful at the expense of others, social unrest shoots up. As Kluckhohn noticed among the Navaho: “the threat of an accusation of witchcraft acts as a brake upon the power and influence of ceremonial practitioners” to keep “their capacity for influencing the course of events supernatural techniques must be used only to accomplish socially desirable ends” (111). In keeping with the “anarchistic tendencies of Navaho society” (ibid: 113), the rise to power is extinguished early.
This usage can be further seen among Shawnee nativists, who, during their revolt against Christianity and colonization in the 1750-70s, would accuse the rich and powerful of being witches (Dowd 1992: 136).
Although we can clearly draw similarities between witches among the Navaho and the Azande and terrorists in the age of globalization, it is important to look at witches in our own ‘his-story’. It has often been easy for social Darwinist and apologists for Progress to point towards fear of witches as reasons why primitives were less evolved or childish and in need of civilizing (in the form of a rain of bullets or reign of colonization). But a look into our own closet shows the European Witchcraze taking place within the birth of our beloved scientific rationality from the early 14th century to the late 17th century.
In America, the Salem witch trials stand strong in historical memory, but the 25 lives burned at the stake are little compared to other cases; in the Diocese of Como, 1,000 witches were burnt in 1523, 1585 left two villages reduced to one female inhabitant each, 1581-1591 saw 900 witches burnt in Lorraine (Griffin 1978: 15). The list goes on and on. Burnt remains are the legacy of fear. The witch as disorder and wildness was never so feared. Only now the disorder became a more obvious target.
As patriarchy became even more enmeshed in civilization, enemies became more obvious. For the first time, the witch became gendered and classed. The social deviants were the dispossessed, those whose very existence served as a constant reminder of the frailty of power. During this period, those being burnt were most likely women, the poor, homosexuals and radicals (Evans 1978, Griffin 1978, Merchant 1990). As women were further subjugated and increasingly seen as relics of nature, they would rise to 82% of supposed witches between 1562 and 1684 (Harris 1989: 238).
This period was a time of increasing unrest. As social stratification soared to new levels, the totalistic disempowerment was hardly an abstract concept. The established order was being threatened by the very backs it was built upon. Marvin Harris writes: “The principle result of the witch-hunt system (aside from charred bodies) was that the poor came to believe that they were being victimized by witches and devils instead of princes and popes.” (237) Burnt bodies gave validity to the state. Social ills had a source and, most importantly, the state was doing something about it.
Today whites fear non-whites because they are a tangible threat. Our chances of being killed in a car wreck make the chances of being killed by terrorists (Bush’s ‘evil people’ not governments of course) look ridiculous. Someone is more likely to die by having a vending machine fall on them than be attacked by sharks. But what are we afraid of? Anything but the entire system; the whole of civilization that stands before us daily, the anxiety of a machine paced world, the nagging urges to resist domestication, the microwaves that pierce our bodies in the lurking wildness. The wealth of production is our health: that is the message domestication puts into our minds. That is our burden, our crutch. Wildness, disorder, chaos, anarchy, these are the witches of civilization.
But the message here is not only a problem, but an option. By drawing on the Navaho heritage we can turn towards the persecuted witches during the Christian ritual purifications and take the cue that is being offered. Among the Navaho, Azande, Lele, Europe, and so on, when times got hard, where does one turn? If all your life, you hear of this power that lurks and exceeds the human body, why wouldn’t you try to use it? We know that this is what many did during the European Witchcraze (Duerr, Evans) and there seems little reason to doubt things were much different among ‘primitives’.
When the patriarchs of Puritanism began to preach of the evils of the lurking wildness of witches and beings that stride the fence between civilization and savagery, the dispossessed sought this out. In searching for a way out, they identified with the antithesis of state power. This is what we have to learn. In seeking to eliminate the threats of the state, those in power show their weaknesses. They unwittingly show what has always lied before us: underneath the veneer of absolute power lies a frail and fragile corpse maintained by the sweat and blood of those who are trained to see through its eyes, the vision of domestication.
Civilization becomes us; chains on the mind, scars on the body, piles of charred corpses, the yearning of an enslaved animal to smash the barrier between it and true freedom. The witches, shamans, and sorcerers brought themselves to the brink of death to remind themselves of the frailty of life and the joys of being. Drug induced trances were temporary breaks from the pain of survival sickness. They sought bewilderment, having “surrendered their individuality, renounced personal volition to the will-of-the-land, and merged individuated desire within the expansive needs of the wild.” (Moore 1988: 21)
This isn’t to say that delving into new age programs, drug induced escapes or forced rewilding will break our domestication; this is actually far from my point. Rewilding is a process and active resistance is a necessary part of that. What I am saying is that the key to the destruction of civilization lies in understanding its witches, its fears. Not only looking at the external system, but domestication itself, the internalized system: the cop, missionary, politician, economist, and worker in our heads. When we look within and outside, the target before us becomes most apparent. It becomes possible to see that the plug can be pulled on this technological civilization and it will all come crashing down before us. If only we would listen.
The witch is wildness. The witch is very much alive for the witch is life itself. It smashes machines at work. It burns construction equipment under the cover of night. It stirs within us and it seeks to overtake us if only we would let it.
The civilizers fear this wildness. They lock it up. They paint it as a brutish beast that would go on a violent rampage if released. They push it in our heads. They stand strong with an iron fist, but they are weak. They know they are weak. They know, in time, the wildness will eat their monuments and swallow their pride. The witch runs rampant. And when the lights go out, beyond the reach of the state, beyond the dependency, beyond the imposed system, we will be free to let the witching substance, the wildness, become us.
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Taken from Green Anarchy #16