Witches and Markets

When I talked about the world as a marketplace, I was leaning heavily on a Yoruba conception. I want to keep leaning on that and start talking about an important aspect of the spiritual world in the marketplace: witches. The Yoruba imaginary associates witches with the marketplace and moreover with the women who circulate through it. The more esteem and authority a woman possesses within the market, the more likely it is that she will accrue a reputation for witchcraft. Some of this has to do with a simple distrust of excessive accumulation–they who have much are suspected of having supernatural power that makes their success possible (compare this with the Kongo conception of ndoki). I don’t think this exhausts the issue, though.

The aura of the danger derives also from the liminal place of the market. The market is where possessions become goods, subject to exchange. Here objects lose their ties to home. When we go back to the Yoruba phrase, the otherworld is home, we can tease out a corollary: our ‘home’ in the world overlaps with our home in the otherworld. The more common usage of ‘home’ demarcates a place in which the spirit world becomes manifest (e.g., shrines and their attendants).

This material home is not hermetically sealed. Its existence depends on the influx of wealth from the market and often incorporates actual and symbolic wealth into its construction and maintenance.The marketwomen are essential for without her goods, ritual life is greatly diminished. Those goods have to purified, though, and there is a lingering fear that even with purification they might contain something either too much of the market or the foreign (the home of another) and so threaten the sanctity of the home and its proper sacredness.

From this perspective, the marketwoman’s aura of witchiness rests in what she makes manifest: the dependence of Orun upon Aye. The shrines cannot be made, priest and priestess consecrated, the spirits pleased and welcomed, without the stuff of Aye. Without the support of Aye, Orun becomes increasingly distant, in danger of being forgotten or lost.

This insight applies to all spiritual work. The memories we have of an otherworld are always constituted within the stuff of this material world. Whether it be stone or song, we make the otherworld manifest through careful manipulation of material stuff. Even our thoughts are framed in the flashing of our neurons. Over at Runesoup, Gordon encourages us to distinguish between the rescue and the salvage mission, but what the Yoruba show us is that while we can distinguish the two, we cannot separate them. The salvage mission conditions the rescue mission.

Whatever we use to ‘fund’ the rescue mission, leaves an indelible spiritual trace upon it. We return from this life changed and anything that accompanies us into this life will change, too. We come here to visit, but discover that we cannot undo the consequences of the visits. We might find ourselves returning again and again in the hopes of undoing the entanglement, but this process only intensifies the points of entanglement.

All of this is what we might call passive, structural, or accidental witchcraft. There is also intentional witchcraft. Here we find individuals seeking to exploit this underlying entanglement in order to deliberately damage someone’s spiritual being. As that being is tied to the spiritual home from which it arises, this witchcraft is also a kind of assault on the spiritual world of its target. If done well, it can end up carried back to the spirit world. There are limits to witchcraft and even terrible work tends to have more consequences in Aye than Orun. Nonetheless, it has a real effect on Orun.

The ambivalence has its positive consequences, too. The ‘poisons’ of this world may be precisely the tool a spirit needs to transform itself. Even a deliberately malefic working might provide the catalyst for this. The deformity produced by Aye may become the basis for a new form, a new way of being in Orun. The consequences that characterize Aye, of which witchcraft are simply the most acute, are the hammer and anvil that make it possible for an unformed spiritual essence to become a well-defined spiritual force.

Below I have appended a couple of brief notes of a decidedly more academic bent. I almost left them out, but the concerns they answer are ones I couldn’t quite ignore. If the academic-ish asides aren’t your thing, I don’t think you lose much by ignoring them.

Methodological Note #1: Witches, really?

The term witch is contentious, I know. I am not referring to the broad network of religious movements like Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft that have self-consciously adopted the term but to a broader anthropological and folkloric usage that identifies witchcraft with intentional malefic magical practices. That isn’t without ambiguity, but the ambiguity seems like a proper match for the ambiguity of the people to whom it is often applied. Where witchcraft becomes a concern, we are sure to find issues of scarcity, dependency, intimacy, and justice thrown into relief.

Methodological Note #2: Yoruba? What in the world do these people have to say about modern capitalism anyway?

While Yoruba proverbs sound quite provincial, the insights they contain often have broad application. I don’t think this is because they contain eternal and timeless wisdom so much as they distill the insights of a people who have been actively engaged in confronting their position in a global world. While I don’t want to get off on yet another tangent, the very notion of ‘Yoruba’ as a coherent group is a modern one, resulting from the dynamic self-positioning of those who would come to be the Yoruba. Their knowledge indexes this global awareness even as it masks itself in provincial sounding proverbs.

The Yoruba are exemplary but not necessarily exceptional in this regard. This is a feature of the hybrid traditional-imperial responses that define the contemporary capitalist situation. This has implications for how we understand ‘traditional’ spiritualities. They are not holdovers of a bygone age that need to be carefully adapted to (or protected from) the modern era, but modern techniques for dealing with its spiritual consequences. If we find an increasing concern with taboos among spiritual practitioners in Africa, for example, it is more likely to be a protective response to the increasingly dangerous market-world in which they have become entangled rather than a simple superstitious holdover. (I am not the first to say this sort of thing, by a longshot, but it bears repeating.)

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6 thoughts on “Witches and Markets

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