Magic, Explanations, and Evil: The origins and design of witches and sorcerers

Manvir Singh


In nearly every documented society, people believe that some misfortunes are caused by malicious group mates using magic or supernatural powers. Here I report cross-cultural patterns in these beliefs and propose a theory to explain them. Using the newly created Mystical Harm Survey, I show that several conceptions of malicious mystical practitioners, including sorcerers (who use learned spells), possessors of the evil eye (who transmit injury through their stares and words), and witches (who possess superpowers, pose existential threats, and engage in morally abhorrent acts), recur around the world. I argue that these beliefs develop from three cultural selective processes: a selection for intuitive magic, a selection for plausible explanations of impactful misfortune, and a selection for demonizing myths that justify mistreatment. Separately, these selective schemes produce traditions as diverse as shamanism, conspiracy theories, and campaigns against heretics—but around the world, they jointly give rise to the odious and feared witch. I use the tripartite theory to explain the forms of beliefs in mystical harm and outline 10 predictions for how shifting conditions should affect those conceptions. Societally corrosive beliefs can persist when they are intuitively appealing or they serve some believers’ agendas.

Voir aussi

Publié dans

Current Anthropology, vol. 62, n° 1, février 2021