Spirits in Salem & Africa

Just the other day, I commented on the origin of ritual and noted that Jonathan Z. Smith sees “the thrill of coincidence” as at least a partial explanation.  Before rationalists dismiss this thrill as mere superstition, Smith also notes that the same kind of coincidence resides at the heart of scholarship:

The discovery that two events, symbols, thoughts or texts, while so utterly separated by time and space that they could not “really” be connected, seem, nevertheless, to be the same or to be speaking directly to one another raises the possibility of a secret interconnection of things that is the scholar’s most cherished article of faith.

I had just such a thrill this morning.  It began after reading Geoffrey MacDonald’s story about the thriving spiritualism market in Salem, Massachusetts, where — side by side and with remarkable comity — witches and evangelicals offer services for those who believe the world is populated by all manner of spirits that can be propitiated in one way or another:

Every October, an estimated half-million visitors flock to this city that hanged witches in 1692 and wholeheartedly accepts them in 2010. Amidst the costumed revelry, pagans and Christians say they sense genuine hunger for spiritual depth and strive to help tourists embrace their respective traditions. And in this festival atmosphere, both sides make a point not to vilify the other.

What appears to be a kind of Christian-Wicca syncretism may seem incongruous but it makes sense, given their shared assumptions about the myriad spirits that invisibly operate on everything:

Paying customers were lined up outside witch houses and psychic parlors when 20-year-old Casey Sholes of Willimantic, Conn., finally stumbled across a place offering dream interpretations for free.

Inside, two interpreters at “The Vault” assured the aspiring nurse that despite her weird dream, the Creator has blessed her with special talents and a heart for the elderly.

It wasn’t until she got up to leave that she learned she had just gotten a spiritual reading from Christian evangelists inside a church.

“I didn’t even notice that this is a church,” Stoles said, leaving the former bank building that’s now home to a congregation called “The Gathering.”

Founded 12 years ago, “The Gathering” has become so friendly with local witches that the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel cut its ties and funding, according to Pastor Phil Wyman.

The line between Christianity and witchcraft has always been thin (with many border transgressions), a fact which is on commercial display in Salem.  Though it might be easy for non-evangelical Christians to dismiss this connection as a product of the charismatic imagination, which sees good and evil spirits as real and pervasive forces working on every aspect of daily life, this would be a mistake.  Catholics — they of possessions, exorcisms, saints, rosaries, and transubstantiation — are much in evidence:

Visitors from near and far ask for disciplined direction in matters of love, health and money. Laurie “Lorelei” Stathopoulos, who describes herself as a high priestess of witchcraft, called advice-seeking Catholics “my best clients” at her store, Crowe Haven Corner.

“They come in, they get readings, and they still stay Catholic,” she said. “Their religion has had its ups and downs, so they’re quite confused. They’re not looking for a new religion, but they’re looking for a little more hope and stability … They don’t want to go the church (for advice), but they’ll come to me.”

While reading MacDonald’s article I was of course thinking about Africa, that vast continent where indigenous beliefs mingle so freely and easily with Islam, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity in particular.  Then — bam — the coincidence that brings so much thrill: I journey over to Slate, where Johann Hari reviews V.S. Naipaul’s new book The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.  Hari is quite up to his task:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation. It’s not hard to see why. The imperial rape and pillage of Africa was “justified” by claiming Africans were “primitive” and “backward” people sunk in a morass of voodoo, who had to be “civilized” in blood and Christianity.

This “civilizing process” was of course greatly aided by Christian missionaries working closely with European colonial governments.  While various forms of state sanctioned Christianity took considerable root, these efforts pale in comparison to the spiritual movement now sweeping the continent: charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity.

Those familiar with indigenous African beliefs on the one hand and evangelical Christianity on the other are hardly surprised by this.  Both bodies of belief have this in common: the world is heavily populated with spirits who affect everything in it.  People can use a variety of techniques to control and direct these spirits.

Africans themselves do not see much difference between the prayers, intercessions, and exorcisms that evangelicals use to control these spirits, and the rituals used by witch doctors to accomplish the same things.  Neither do I.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply