America, Haiti

Voodoo:The Truth Behind the Myth by M J Steel Collins

Voodoo is a very disquieting topic for some, conjuring up images of zombies, hexes and other types of nasties. However, there is quite a sizable gulf between the myth and reality. The fact is Voodoo is very much far removed from the notion of something that involves “sticking pins in dolls and killing people”. Much of what is ‘known’ about Voodoo comes from the stories pedalled by Hollywood and other purveyors of mass popular culture in the West. In many ways, Voodoo is the ultimate Exotic Other. Perhaps the most frightening thing about the reality of this religion is the racism that started its negative connotations, which continue to be perpetuated. The aim of this article is to get behind the negative image and explore the truths of Voodoo; hold on to your belief systems – it might be a bumpy ride.
To begin, we need to clear up some terminology. Voodoo is probably the most popular term, but it can change depending on the area. In Louisiana, Voodoo appears to be the norm, whilst in Haiti, the term Vodou is used. Vodun is the name of the African religion from which Voodoo/Vodou developed. Other terms include Voudon, Vudun, and Voudou. The complexities of the correct name are probably the simplest of all the details relating to Voodoo to get your head around. For the sake of ease, I’ll use Voodoo throughout, unless discussing Haitian Vodou. To clarify another linked term, Hoodoo is the folk belief system that arose out of Louisiana Voodoo, and seems to be another matter altogether.
Where did the misrepresentation of Voodoo come from in the first instance? There are a variety of causes, all of which have their roots in ignorance and prejudice. Historically, Voodoo has been portrayed as opposing the ‘true religion’, Christianity, which has a certain irony given that many followers of Voodoo are Christian. Karen McCarthy Brown, author of Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklynstates, “The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films and television, where images of sorcerers, zombi, snakes, blood and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil.” She adds that the racism used towards Voodoo wouldn’t be acceptable with regard to other religions.
An example of the origins of this can be seen in the reactions of other countries towards Haiti following the slave revolt of 1791 – 1803, after which Haiti declared a republic. But leaders in Europe and the US refused to recognise Haiti as a nation in its own right because of what they saw as the ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’ religion practiced by Haitian people – voodoo. As a result, Haiti was left politically isolated for several decades, which also had an interesting impact on the development of Haitian Vodou, which will be discussed in detail shortly. Some progress in theological terms appeared to be made in 1967 by Pope Paul VI in his document Africae Terrarum, which validated tradition African religion.
As for the origins of Voodoo, they can be traced back to the 1700s and that unpleasant historical artefact known as The Slave Trade. Many slaves being brought over were taken from their homes in modern day Togo and Benin. The religion of those areas (Vodun) was influenced by the Fun, Ewe and Yoruba ethnic groups.  The same religion is still practiced in Benin. Newly arrived slaves held on to their traditional beliefs, which they began to adapt to fit their perilous situation. At the same time, slave owners banned their slaves from practicing African religion, instead forcing them to convert to Christianity. In Louisiana and Haiti, the dominant form of Christianity was Catholicism. However, the slaves weren’t willing to give up on their own religious faith, and so continued to practice it under the guise of Catholicism. As time went on, the syncretic process occurred, wherein certain dominant facets of different religions combine into a new belief system, and Voodoo/Vodou came into being.
Voodoo is quite a fluid belief system. Nothing is set in stone. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that people interact with Voodoo in their own way. There are also other religions, Candomblé and Santeria, which at first glance appear to be other forms of Voodoo. But the similarity lies in the fact that they also have links in tradition African religions.  The variations in its practice in different parts of the world are notable, as can be seen in differences between Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo.
Haitian Vodou is regarded as being the closest to its Haitian roots. This is due to the isolation of the fledgling republic in its early years. It is a religion shaped by the oppression and poverty that have been a constant in Haitian life for the last two centuries. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, its history a harsh tale of military and political corruption. Vodou is a way for the average Haitian to get through life. This is emphasised frequently by Karen McCarthy Brown in Mama Lola, which is an ethnographic account of the life of a Haitian immigrant vodou priestess Alourdes, the eponymous Mama Lola. It is an intriguing and beguiling book, weaving the standard anthropological explanation of Vodou with Alourdes’ family legends. Sadly, in recent years both Alourdes and Karen McCarthy Brown have fallen into poor health, but their book has come to be very highly regarded.
The inconsistent nature of Voodoo as a whole means it’s probably next to impossible to get a definitive account of any of its forms: Jerry Gandolfino of the Voodoo Museum in New Orleans stated in an email that a book on the subject will only be able to provide “a snapshot” of Voodoo in a certain place and time, as any changes will also change Voodoo. Certainly, you can see this in Mama Lola when Alourdes absorbs a belief associated with another religion into her personal practice of Vodou. Alourdes makes it less obvious that she is priestess over the years that Karen knows her because of the aloof attitudes she encounters, switching to keeping her altars hidden away in cabinets, whereas before, they were laid out on tables.
Nevertheless, Mama Lola gives an excellent break down of how Haitian Vodou operates in general. There is a strong emphasis on family and community ties. These can be difficult for Haitian immigrants to maintain in the United States, as they lack the network they had back in Haiti. Alourdes comments that in Port-Au-Prince, she would have no problem getting a big gathering together for a ritual or birthday party for one of the spirits. In Brooklyn, she scrabbles around a small group of relatives and friends, bringing in new people such as Karen who become a surrogate family. There is a marked difference between the rituals held in Haiti, where temples have earthen floors that can have offerings of wine, rum and blood poured directly on them. In New York, offerings are poured into them. Clapping at Alourdes’ ceremonies is quiet enough not to disturb the neighbours. In Haiti she would have used drums. Gathering food and other items to honour the spirits is a more difficult and expensive endeavour. One issue is the use of live fowl such as chickens as sacrifices results in a long drive across town in New York. In Haiti, it’s just a case of going to the market. Vodou priests and priestesses carry a lot of respect; priests are known as Ougan, and tend to be more powerful than the priestess, known as Manbo.
In Haitian Vodou, God, known as Bondye, is unlike the Christian counterpart in that He doesn’t get involved in human life. Instead there is a pantheon of spirits, known as Iwa or Loa, who interact on Bondye’s behalf. The Loa, of which there is a sizeable group, are associated with Saints. Unlike Saints, they aren’t exemplars of virtuosity. They can be fickle, caring, angry and loving, their actions at ceremonies showing the various outcomes of a given situation in life as an example to their faithful. Karen McCarthy Brown writes that vodou is tied up in the dramas of life, and are acted out during rituals, where the spirits are asked to intervene in a given situation. Serving the Loa has a considerable impact on the life of Vodou practitioners. Much of Vodou is about healing.
When interacting with the Loa, Legba, has to be honoured first as he is the gatekeeper of the links between the spirit and human worlds. His saintly counterpart is St Peter. Damballah, associated with Saint Patrick, is the ‘snake god’, and father of all the Loa. The Ezilli Loa, ranging in several from Freda to Dante, relates to affairs of the heart and are female spirits. They are tied to the Virgin Mary. Gede or Mr Bones – to name just a few of his titles – rules the cemetery, and is associated with St Gerard. The Ogou spirits represent various forms of power and react to it in a number of ways. Ogou in his original form is an African spirit. In Vodou, he carries such responsibility; he has broken into a number of different spirits. Generally, they are warriors or soldiers, linked with St James. Reflecting the way in which Vodou and Haitian life intertwine, Ogou has close associations with Haiti’s turbulent military history.
Each person has their own personal grouping of spirits whom they consult and honour the most. The main spirit, who manages a person, is called the met tet. A manbo or ougan can see who is a person’s met tet – for instance, Alourdes notices that she and Karen share the same met tet, Ogou Badgari. Individuals share similar personality traits with their met tet. This may predispose them to a certain way of acting, but the presence of the other spirits balances this out. To form a closer bond with personal spirits, people can marry certain Loa, as Alourdes did with some of hers. Whilst all the spirits are honoured on special days and in ceremony, birthday parties are held especially for personal spirits. Alourdes during the time covered in Mama Lola, held six annually for her favoured spirits.
During rituals, offerings are laid out to honour the Loa. Dance, singing and clapping or drumming are used to draw the Loa forward. The Loa possess the manbo or priestess (or indeed certain of the others present). In Vodou, this is called being ridden by the spirits as the spirit mounts and rides an individual much in the same way a person can mount and ride a horse. Generally, the person being ridden has no memory of what happens. The spirit takes over their body to conduct business, give out food and interact with the practioners. They also require the person they are riding to wear the associated clothing of the spirit; in the case of Ogou, this may be a military style jacket and he also requires his sword. During the rituals, those present can ask the spirit to help them out with any problem in their life. Alourdes and her family consult the spirits on just about every aspect of their lives. Family spirits also play an important part for Alourdes, her family legends bearing particular significance. Alourdes often uses the words of her great grandfather and grandfather in her rituals.
In Louisiana Voodoo, many things, such as serving the Loa, are similar to Haitian Vodou. The main differences are that in Louisiana Voodoo, there are Voodoo Queens, the utilisation of Hoodoo material and gris gris. There is also a stronger emphasis on the worship of the snake deity, Li Grande Zombi. Unlike in Christianity, where the serpent is equated to Satan, the snake is a positive thing in Louisiana Voodoo, having a key role in rituals. During the 18th century, when slaves were brought into Louisiana, African based culture gained a strong foothold owing to the unstable nature of the new Louisiana society. The number of slave owners was relatively small, allowing the diffusion of African cultural traits; also there was a strong bond amongst slaves as they had a high mortality rate. This was a fertile ground for a syncretic religion like Voodoo to develop and take hold. The use of amulets and charms in these early days, either for protection or to curse others was essential for survival. The African trait of ancestor worship also resulted in the emphasis on respect for elders, which meant old slaves were well looked after.
Voodoo thrived and developed the most in the era of the 1830s and 1930s; it saw the emergence of the Voodoo Queen, the growing use of gris gris, and the introduction of African language to Creole culture. Voodoo grew, fusing with the Catholic saints and developing the sounds and rhythms that eventually developed Jazz. The Mardi Gras also became associated with Voodoo and ritual moved into the processional. The 19th century also saw the reign of Marie Laveau, famous as the most powerful Voodoo Queen in all of New Orleans. Her powers were formidable and respected. She held rituals at her home, also carrying out healing and helping the poor. She was also a devout Catholic and encouraged her followers to do the same.  From the 1930s, Voodoo became commercialised thanks to Hollywood, but the negative portrayal of the religion sent its traditional practitioners into obscurity. Voodoo became a tourist attraction to visitors in New Orleans, who were rebuffed by priests and priestesses for requesting favours. As traditional practioners fell into the shadows, people spotting a quick buck soon set themselves up in business selling gris gris and related material to the tourists. Traditionally, Voodoo practioners didn’t charge for this. The result was that a set of folk beliefs known as Hoodoo grew up, servicing the tourist market.

Today, Voodoo still thrives in Louisiana, but is carried out away from the prying eyes of the eager tourist. Rituals are carried out privately, as doing them in public is disrespectful to the spirits. Witch doctors, who probably have more in common with the negative stereotype of Voodoo, are shunned in New Orleans. Voodoo is a force for good. Queens and gris gris are also to be found. With gris gris, it’s the intent of the magic that counts. The word gris gris is an African term, originating in Senegal and Mali. Gris gris  is used for a number of things, from love and power to luck and breaking hexes. As for Voodoo dolls, their purpose is not to kill or curse, but also to heal – sticking a pin in the doll represents releasing a positive force into a person’s life. Modern Voodoo has a strong emphasis on helping and healing. It is used to treat a number of things including anxiety and addiction. The spirits still play a prominent role. Marie Laveau is seen as an important ancestor spirit. Both Voodoo and Hoodoo practitioners petition her to interact on their behalf. Her grave in St Louis Cemetery receives more visitors than Elvis Presley’s tomb in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee.

Other Sources of information:

Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

The Voodoo Museum, New Orleans


The Scariest Tales in the World? Japanese Ghost and Folk Stories Part 1 – by M J Steel

Japan has cornered a special market in the genre of horror. Films, novels and comics of this ilk are not for the faint hearted. I still shudder at the thought of Samara/Sadako crawling around in The Ring and Ringu films. The Grudge also has the propensity to keep me up trembling into the wee small hours. Japanese folk stories and urban myths of the supernatural are no less scary. In fact, they’re probably the most terrifying I’ve come across in about twenty years of being interested in the paranormal. Hence this being the first in a series exploring the nature of Japanese ghost lore.

In Japan, belief in ghosts is stronger than in the West. Ghosts are mostly associated with summer, mainly due to the Bon or Obon festival, a Buddhist tradition that celebrates ancestral spirits. Families visit the graves of their departed at this time to clean them. The family spirits are believed to visit family alters at the same time. Ghosts are seen as spirits of the dead existing between two worlds. The soul is thought to travel to the next world upon death, but some don’t quite make it. Those who pass in pain or with strong feelings of bitterness and regret tend to hang back, unable to move on. Appearance wise, they have weak wrists, messy hair and a blur from the knee down. They haunt the places and people that were known to them whilst alive. Children believe ghosts haunt damp places such as a bath or toilet, as seen in the tale of Hanako-San below, whilst adults believe ghosts only come in times of unease.

There are two types of ghost in Japanese culture: the yurei is a spirit in human form, which can be capricious or angry. They may be human entities who souls were unappeased before leaving the living realm, returning to wreak vengeance. Yokai are the second type, playful half-human, half-animal beings associated with place. Japanese ghost stories have a common theme of spirits returning to our world in order to deal with unfinished business or look for the repayment for immorality. On, or obligation is at the core of many stories – failing to meet this can be rather harrowing if it involves dead souls.

One of the most famous ghost stories in Japan is that of Hanako-San, mainly an urban legend spread by schoolchildren. It became very popular during the 1980s. The main thread of the legend goes that if you enter the third floor girls’ lavatory in a school, and go to the third cubicle in the room, knocking on it three times before asking, “Are you there, Hanako-San?” a voice will reply, “Yes, I am.” If you then go into the cubicle, you will find the ghost of a small girl in a red skirt. There are regional variations to the story across Japan. One version has it that Hanako will pull the protagonist into the toilet if they go into the cubicle to see her. In the Yamagata prefecture, the story goes that if Hanako talks in a nasty voice, something bad will happen. Another in the same region has it that the ghost is a three-metre long lizard with three heads using a young girl’s voice to lure unsuspecting humans in for its dinner. Other variations have a huge hand coming out of the toilet, perhaps covered in blood. Enough to fire any lively imagination!

Hanako is thought to lurk in the cubicle until sought out by an enterprising (or foolish) student. She can be avoided if you keep away from her hiding spot. Overall, despite the above grisly versions, she is seen as harmless. The best way to get rid of her if she is encountered is to show her schoolwork with top grades, as good scores tend to make her vanish. There are a number of origins for Hanako depending on where the story is told. Primarily, she is thought to be the ghost of a young girl killed during the Second World War, perhaps during an air raid that occurred while she played hide and seek. Another thread is that she was a child murdered by an abusive adult, either a stranger or parent, who found her hiding in the toilets. Some schools portray her as an ex-student who died in an accident at the school. The story tends to be used by Japanese schoolchildren as a rite of passage, with many having a tale to tell of their own encounter with Hanako.

There is quite a grisly spin off to Hanako-San’s story. In this one, it is a male ghost called Aoi or Aka Manto, who hides in the last cubicle of the girls’ toilets. Upon entering the toilet, you may hear a male voice calling out, “What do you prefer? The red paper or the blue paper?” Neither have a good outcome. Picking the red paper will earn you being slit on the throat several times, spilling enough blood to make you look as though you’re wearing a red cape. The blue paper means death by hanging. And I thought the tale of the haunted toilet in my primary school were bad!

Another and the final tale to be examined in this instalment of Japanese ghost stories is that of the Nopperabou, or No Face. This isn’t so much a ghost as a supernatural entity that has the ability to fool people into thinking it has a face. It is usually encountered at night in isolated rural places, although generally speaking, it can be met anywhere that is lonely. The sole aim of the Nopperabou seems to be to cause fear. It will enter into conversation with its unsuspecting victim, giving the illusion that it has a face. Then it waits for the opportune moment to drop its mirage, presenting its companion with a visage of smooth skin, lacking the normal facial features of eyes, nose and mouth. The most famous Nopperabou tale is of Lafcadio Hearn’s Mujina, as follows:

On the Akasaka Road, in Tôkyô, there is a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka, — which means the Slope of the Province of Kii. I do not know why it is called the Slope of the province of Kii. On one side of this slope you see an ancient moat, deep and very wide, with high green banks rising up to some place of gardens; — and on the other side of the road extend the long and lofty walls of an imperial palace. Before the era of street-lamps and jinrikishas, this neighborhood was very lonesome after dark; and belated pedestrians would go miles out of their way rather than mount the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, alone, after sunset.

All because of a Mujina that used to walk there.

The last man who saw the Mujina was an old merchant of the Kyôbashi quarter, who died about thirty years ago. This is the story, as he told it :—

One night, at a late hour, he was hurrying up the Kii-no-kuni-zaka, when he perceived a woman crouching by the moat, all alone, and weeping bitterly. Fearing that she intended to drown herself, he stopped to offer her any assistance or consolation in his power. She appeared to be a slight and graceful person, handsomely dressed; and her hair was arranged like that of a young girl of good family. “O-jochû,” he exclaimed, approaching her,— “O-jochû, do not cry like that!… Tell me what the trouble is; and if there be any way to help you, I shall be glad to help you.” (He really meant what he said; for he was a very kind man.) But she continued to weep,— hiding her face from him with one of her long sleeves. “O-jochû,” he said again, as gently as he could,— “please, please listen to me! … This is no place for a young lady at night! Do not cry, I implore you!— only tell me how I may be of some help to you!” Slowly she rose up, but turned her back to him, and continued to moan and sob behind her sleeve. He laid his hand lightly upon her shoulder, and pleaded:— “O-jochû!— O-jochû!— O-jochû!… Listen to me, just for one little moment!… O-jochû!— O-jochû!”… Then that O-jochû turned round, and dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand;— and the man saw that she had no eyes or nose or mouth,— and he screamed and ran away.

Up Kii-no-kuni-zaka he ran and ran; and all was black and empty before him. On and on he ran, never daring to look back; and at last he saw a lantern, so far away that it looked like the gleam of a firefly; and he made for it. It proved to be only the lantern of an itinerant soba-seller, who had set down his stand by the road-side; but any light and any human companionship was good after that experience; and he flung himself down at the feet of the old soba-seller, crying out, “Aa!— aa!!— aa!!!”…

“Kore! Kore!” roughly exclaimed the soba-man. “Here! what is the matter with you? Anybody hurt you?”

“No— nobody hurt me,” panted the other,— “only… Aa!— aa!”…

“— Only scared you?” queried the peddler, unsympathetically. “Robbers?”

“Not robbers,— not robbers,” gasped the terrified man… “I saw… I saw a woman— by the moat;— and she showed me… Aa! I cannot tell you what she showed me!”…

“He! Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face— which therewith became like unto an Egg… And, simultaneously, the light went out.


This particular story causes some confusion though, particularly for Westerners. The entities involved are Nopperabous, but Mujina is the name of a different supernatural creature altogether…


Azande Witchcraft – by MJ Steel

Witchcraft might be a slight variation on ghosts and hauntings, but in this case, it offers a delicious introduction to how supernatural beliefs in other cultures can be at great variance with their counterparts in the West. So witchcraft it is!

E E Evans Pritchard
To begin with, a little background information on the Azande: they are an ethnic group found in Central Africa, primarily in what we could now call the Sudans, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (thanks wikipedia – the textbooks are out of date!). Prior to colonisation by the Brits, they had a huge kingdom, which expanded via the conquest of smaller tribes. The society had a complex social structure, with regional chiefs who answered to a king. Much of this was wiped out by the impact of colonialism, although it suited the colonial Powers-that-be to maintain the chiefs in order to assert their authority, somewhere along the lines of puppet rulers. Another thing that the British colonists, try as they might, failed to wipe out, was the Zande belief in witchcraft.
The major anthropological work on the Azande was carried out by E.E Evans-Pritchard, who went out to study the group during the 1920’s. Among many of the significant areas arising from his work was the nature of witchcraft and magic beliefs among the Azande. His book on this area, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande was ground breaking in that it challenged how we viewed witchcraft in the West.
Traditional view of a witch in the West
Azande witch – ummm?
Now, when we think of witches, we generally think of old hags zipping about on broomsticks, or if we’re being a bit more enlightened, perhaps a Wiccan worshipping the Mother Earth. This isn’t quite the case amongst the Zande, as anyone could be a witch! Also, we might not see much difference between magic and witchcraft in the West, but there is a whole world of difference amongst the Azande. Witchcraft from the Azande perspective is unconscious – anyone can do it without realising. But magic has to be learned, and it can be used for nefarious deeds. During his fieldwork, Evans-Pritchard, lived among the Azande  and he sent out one of his servants, a local, to learn magic. Evans-Pritchard as a white European probably wouldn’t have been taught the ins and outs of Zande magic, whilst it wouldn’t be a problem for his servant. The servant reported back to Evans-Pritchard, allowing him to see how it all worked. Nowadays, this isn’t so much of a problem as anthropologists have since been initiated as Shamans, etc, by their host society or group. Zande witchcraft is a little more complex…
Witchcraft to the Azande is literally a substance found in the stomach. This is passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Basically, if a man has a reputation for being a witch, then there is a chance his son might also be a witch, but not his daughter. And vice versa for women.  This substance can lie dormant in the belly, but can be ‘awoken’ by jealousy. And the ‘witch’ can be none the wiser to any of this because they don’t realise it’s them that’s causing it. It isn’t possible to simply point the finger and accuse someone of witchcraft because of this, you need to be sure. It takes a bit of investigation. And to do this, the Azande have at their disposal a series of three oracles.
Termite mound in a Zande garden
Let’s take the example of an Azande man who has two wives (the Azande are polygamous).  The wives are ranked by seniority in order of when they married their husband. Suddenly, the older wife becomes unwell. The husband immediately suspects witchcraft as being the cause of this, and he accuses the younger wife as being the cause of this because she is jealous. She will deny it – she isn’t even jealous of the older woman. So now the husband has to find out for definite if it is his younger wife. Time to bring in oracle one, the termite sticks. This is one the husband can do himself.
The husband takes two sticks, asks them if his younger wife is the cause of his first wife’s sickness. Each stick indicates yes or no. Both are placed inside the termite mound and left for a period of time while the termites eat them. Later on, he removes the sticks. The one which the termites have eaten the most give his answer – i.e. it might be the stick indicating no that is the shortest. But this oracle isn’t seen as reliable, so it’s time to bring in oracle number two, the rubbing board, or iwa. This isn’t something the husband can’t do himself and he needs to pay someone to do it for him.
Consulting the Iwa oracle
The rubbing board
The rubbing board basically consists of two boards which are rubbed together. If the board sticks at being asked if the younger wife is the witch, it gives the answer. Like the termite sticks, this is a simple yes and no question.  However! Although the iwa  is seen as more reliable than the termite sticks, it’s still not that reliable. The husband needs to know for sure and get a definite answer. So it’s time to move onto the third and most potent oracle, Benge, or the poison oracle. For this, a witchdoctor is required. And he needs to be paid – he doesn’t come cheap.
Consulting the Benge oracle
Put simply, Benge consists of strychnine being poured down a chicken’s throat, using more than one chicken. To give an idea of how important this oracle is, it can be used in front of a chief to establish a point of law, although it’s use has been decreasing since colonisation. Whether the chicken lives or dies gives the answer to a yes and no question. In this instance, is the second wife a witch? The oracle is asked a more specific question as more chickens get used (about three chickens), for example, is the second wife causing the first wife to be ill? The more the answers swing to a certain the response, the more definite that answer is. So let’s say that this oracle says the second wife is a witch and is causing the first wife to be ill. The younger wife is confronted by the evidence, which she can’t deny. Now she has to cool her witchcraft. She does this by drinking water and spitting it out. The first wife should now get better.
Now, you might be reading this thinking, what a load of nonsense! But think again. Azande witchcraft is significant in anthropology as another system of knowledge and understanding. Primarily it is seen as a way of explaining misfortune. The famous example given in anthropology is the group of Azande men sitting in the shelter of a granary on a hot day to eat their lunch. The granary collapses on top of them. If this happened to a group of men in the West, say the US, they would probably say it was termites in the ground which ate the granary supports, causing it to collapse. Not so the Azande men. They will blame it on witchcraft and not see it any other way.
Collapsed granary – termites or witchcraft – you decide!
In this sense, witchcraft acts as a form of social control. People in an Azande neighbourhood will act in a certain way which won’t cause another person to be jealous of them and attract witchcraft. Conversely, people will also behave so as not to appear jealous and be accused of witchcraft. It has been found to be very pervasive in Azande culture. In fact, witchcraft as a whole plays a major role in general in African societies today.
Other sources to check out for more information:
Ethnographic film (anthropology film) Witchcraft Among The Azande (1982) – it is very good, I saw it at university. Though you’d need to be an academic, or extremely well off to get a copy! This just details the Royal Anthropological Institute record of it.
Middle East

Tales of the Jinn – by Amy Van De Casteele

Most people – if not all – will be familiar with the concept of jinn, or genies, as they are known in the West. Our knowledge of them comes predominantly from the colourful tales of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (Alf Layla wa Layla in Arabic) or the larger-than-life portrayal by Robin Williams of the famous genie in the Disney movie “Aladdin”. However stories of genies – or jinn, to give the Arabic term – have been around for a lot longer than we might think and these haunting, enigmatic beings are still as feared by the inhabitants of modern-day Arabia as they were by the Arab tribes who lived hundreds of years ago.

The Qur’an itself mentions jinn on many occasions, even devoting a whole chapter (Surat al-Jinn) to this frightening creature, which the holy book cites as being composed of “the smokeless flame of fire”. The jinn of the Qur’an are similar to humans in that they have religions, marry and reproduce; they also have powers of intellect and reasoning and are conscious of right and wrong. Some of these jinn are evil (such as the powerful afreet and the shayatin, of which the Devil is one) some are good, and others merely benign. According to the Prophet Muhammed himself, they can manifest themselves as spirits which fly through the sky, as dogs or snakes, or as an earthly creature which resides in one locale or wanders from place to place. These jinn are said to inhabit the wild open spaces of the desert but also choose residences close to people, even inhabiting bathrooms, graveyards and dunghills. Believers should invoke the name of Allah before entering their home, so that the jinn will not follow them in, and evil eye amulets can be worn to protect against the hexing glare of this supernatural creature.

As I have already mentioned, there is still a healthy – and perhaps unsurprising – fear for the jinn among modern-day Arabs, even the young trendy adults of cosmopolitan cities like Dubai. An example of this apprehension springs to mind – an Emirati friend of mine took me ‘dune-bashing’ in the Arabian desert late one night. There were plenty of other young people there as this is a popular Dubai pastime; young dark-skinned men in jeans and t-shirts or crisp white kanduras were gunning their motors as their Hummers and Jeeps slid and slewed down the massive face of the dunes, and we laughed and pretended to scream as my friend’s little black Wrangler competed with their vehicles. After a while, however, we decided to drive away from the others, deeper into the desert to explore under the benevolent gaze of the moon. The Jeep bumped and skipped over the dunes, startling some camels which switched their tails in irritation as they lumbered away into the darkness.

Eventually we came to a stand-still in a picturesque little valley between some dunes and sat there quietly, gazing around us at the quiet beauty of the desert at night. It was absolutely silent and eerily lovely, and yet I didn’t feel at all afraid. But my Emirati companion – a brave and ebullient member of the UAE military – suddenly became restless and uneasy, muttering that he was frightened and we must leave. Before I could respond he was already gunning the engine and setting his sights on the massive dune where the other young people were still racing. I was surprised and confused at his sudden panic; only later did I realize what it was that he was so afraid of – the jinn, which are said to roam out there in the windswept expanses of the desert.

Several months later, remembering this incident, I asked my Syrian boyfriend to tell me more about the jinn. He described how he and his friends had been driving out in the desert one night when one of their cars broke down. They all jumped out to fix it, but saw a strange light approaching across the desert, like a will-o-the-wisp. Panicked, they all piled into the remaining car and drove away as fast as they could, abandoning the broken down vehicle by the side of the road.

My Syrian partner had another interesting tale to tell, this one even more disturbing. His aunt, so he said, was a well-known fortune teller and healer; she could use Turkish coffee grounds to tell your future, and knew all sorts of inscriptions and prayers for curing illnesses and even finding love. One of the reasons she could do all this was that, supposedly, she had a jinn helper, which sat on her shoulder and whispered predictions into her ear. While this might sound strange to us, in the Arab world it is not such an uncommon thing. Throughout Muslim history there have been instances of fortune-tellers using jinn to help them foresee events and make prophecies about people’s lives. Supposedly the jinni confers with the ‘qareen’, the jinn companion assigned to each individual, and whispers the information to the fortune-teller, who then relates it to the person consulting him. Besides this, the fortune-tellers’ jinn can travel great distances almost at once, recovering hidden artefacts, stories and scraps of information.

Islam condemns the use of jinn and the practise of fortune telling in general but it seems that modern-day Arab mystics and soothsayers still turn to these mystical creatures for help, although they do so at their own risk, as to associate with such creatures could mean accusations of being in league with the Devil himself. In the case of my partner’s aunt, however, there were no such accusations and people who know of her skills come to visit her, sometimes from many miles away, asking for help and predictions of the future.

This example demonstrates how inextricably jinn are woven into the fabric of Arab and Muslim life. While to most Westerners they remain mere figments of the imagination, garish genies that spring from tarnished old lamps and grant wishes, to the people who live in the vast arid loneliness of the Middle Eastern countryside jinn are still something to be whispered about with fear, and guarded against. There are many reports of jinn possession, even now, and sheikhs are called to the homes of the possessed to read from the Qur’an and expel the devilish spirit. Believing Muslims speak the name of Allah before they eat or drink, so that the jinn cannot partake from their table, and before they undress, so the jinn will not be able to witness their nakedness.

In short, jinn are much more than Disney sprites and monstrous entities from the Arabian Nights. So the next time you journey to the Middle East, think twice before venturing into the desert late at night, and purchase an evil eye amulet from one of the jewellery souks, because you never know how close you might be to one of the jinn, the creatures of “smokeless fire” which live among the dunes and in the dark or unclean areas of villages, towns and cities.