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Sorcery, Revenge, and Anti-Revenge

Relational Excess and Individuation in the Gran Chaco

Florencia Tola

This article focuses on sorcery, revenge, and anti-revenge among the Qom people in Argentina. For them, death is the result of sorcery or a shamanic attack. When a relative dies, the family may decide to avenge him through practices performed on his body. Nonetheless, under specific circumstances relatives decide not to take revenge, performing what I refer to as ‘anti-revenge’. Ethnographic analysis of relations among victims, aggressors, and avengers reveals how alternation between relational excess and fissures makes individuation possible. The processes responsible for the composite character of personhood lead to a relational excess that needs to be restrained. The relation between revenge and anti-revenge is a key aspect of a Qom understanding of personhood, in which individuation needs to be achieved to avoid indifferentiation.

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Bruce Kapferer

The cosmologies implicated in sorcery practice are human-centric. Within them, human beings are at the heart of processes that are integral in the formation of their psychical, social and political universes. Sorcery fetishises human agency, often one which it magically enhances, as the key mediating factor affecting the course or direction of human life-chances. The fabulous character of so much sorcery practice, its transgressive and unbounded dimensions, a rich symbolism that appears to press towards and beyond the limits of the human imagination, is surely connected to the overpowering and totalising impetus that sorcery recognises in human agency and capacities. Sorcery is that magical additional force that unites with the intentional direction of human beings into their realities – a creative and destructive directionality. Such sorcery must needs affect the lives of others because of their co-presence, their ongoing involvement in each other’s life circumstances.

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Discourse of Decline

Local Perspectives on Magic in Highland Jambi, Indonesia

J. David Neidel

Scholarly studies of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft have differed in their conclusions about the empirical efficacy of such practices and the persistence of related concepts. Often marginalized in these accounts, however, are local commentaries that address those same issues. Drawing on two years of ethnographic research in the highland Jambi region of central Sumatra, this article examines magical practices found in the region, the modes through which they are acquired, and connections to a set of ethereal beings that lie at the source of those supernatural abilities. While the belief in and practice of magical powers remain widespread, there exists a general 'discourse of decline'. This article analyzes several elements of that discourse, particularly declining potency, practice, relevance, and believability, showing where local perspectives converge and diverge with those that underlie alternative scholarly frameworks.

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Laki Charms

'Luck' and Personal Agency in North Mekeo Social Change

Mark S. Mosko

Notions and practices known by the Tok Pisin term laki ('lucky' or 'luck') have for long been widespread across Melanesia. Previous studies have tended to concentrate on laki as 'probabilistic chance' and on its secular (i.e., economic, political, recreational) expressions, most notably in card gambling. Drawing on the perspective of the New Melanesian Ethnography, I focus instead upon the magico-ritual dimensions of laki in a single Papua New Guinean society, North Mekeo, where laki has been adapted to indigenous notions of 'dividual' personal agency that differ radically from exogenous ideas of success through 'pure chance'. On this evidence, I argue that the different perceptions of laki and 'luck' or 'lucky' by North Mekeo and Westerners are indicative of the divergent sorts of agency and sociality that are culturally compatible, respectively, with dividual and individual personhood.

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Roger Sansi and Luis Nicolau Parés

The debates on identity politics and the invention of tradition led the study of Afro-Brazilian religions to a certain impasse in the 1990s. However, in the last several years, the field has been totally renewed, although in different directions. In this article we will consider some of these new trends, from a wider historical engagement with the Atlantic world, through the religious field and the public sphere, to new approaches to spirit possession and cosmology. Our objective is to assess the extent to which these new debates have managed to overcome this impasse.

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Introduction

Cross-Cultural Articulations of War Magic and Warrior Religion

D. S. Farrer

Previous anthropology emphasized symbolic incantations at the expense of the embodied practice of magic. Foregrounding embodiment and performance in war magic and warrior religion collapses the mind-body dualism of magic versus rationality, instead highlighting social action, innovation, and the revitalization of tradition, as tempered historically by colonial and post-colonial trajectories in societies undergoing rapid social transformation. Religion and magic are re-evaluated from the perspective of the practitioner's and the victim's embodiment in their experiential life-worlds via articles discussing Chinese exorcists, Javanese spirit siblings, Sumatran black magic, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers, Chamorro spiritual re-enchantment, tantric Buddhist war magic, and Yanomami dark shamans. Central themes include violence and healing, accomplished through ritual and performance, to unleash and/or control the power of gods, demons, ghosts and the dead.

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Rohan Bastin

This essay examines the importance of sorcery in the dynamics of religious innovation in contemporary Hindu and Buddhist Sri Lanka.1 My interest stems from two observations. First, in almost stark contrast to other Hindu ritual forms that emphasise unchanging text-based rites, the sorcery practices I describe display an almost modernist preoccupation with innovation. Second, much of this innovation originates, or is seen to originate, from outside the cosmic order both of the pantheon and of society. Consequently, sorcery practices manifest a dynamism that often results in the appearance of sorcery having sprung up from nowhere or of being on the sharp increase. However, such an appearance of growth is less of an increase by degree than a shift in visibility. Moreover, it is a characteristic Sri Lankan sorcery practices share with practices elsewhere. When social scientists whose gaze has been primed for spotting anomalies light upon these shifts in visibility, the reaction is usually one of alarm. Scholars whose basic orientation is to the problem of social order and stability tend to judge these apparent aberrations in terms of social breakdown and anomie. Instead of considering what sorcery reveals anthropologically, they instead analyse sorcery as a symptom of a social pathology. The restless dynamism of sorcery and its role in religious innovation remain unaddressed, and this contributes to a conservative view of both the phenomenon of sorcery and the study of religion in general.

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The Sorcerer as an Absented Third Person

Formations of Fear and Anger in Vanuatu

Knut Rio

This essay revolves around a recent intensification of homicidal sorcery on Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, central Melanesia. During my periods of fieldwork on the island, spanning from 1995 to 2000, the situation in my region changed dramatically. Even though Ambrym social life has always been imbued with sorcery, the circumstances around the turn of the millennium represented a complete loss of control and an existential crisis.

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The Discourse of 'Ritual Murder'

Popular Reaction to Political Leaders in Botswana

Ørnulf Gulbrandsen

In re-engaging the classic theme of sorcery and witchcraft in African anthropology, it is asserted that something new is happening in terms of the manifestation and magnitude of the phenomena that are commonly included in these notions.1 Geschiere, for one, claims that ‘nearly everywhere on the continent the state and politics seem to be true breeding grounds for modern transformations of witchcraft and sorcery’ (1999: 6). And Jean and John Comaroff (1999) speak of escalations of what they label ‘occult economies’ in postapartheid South Africa, escalations they also trace in other parts of the world, including the West and the post-communist East.

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René Devisch

Diversely echoing Gail Weiss (1999) and Paul Stoller and Cheryll Olkes (1987), I hold that maleficent fetishes that sustain lethal sorcery shape and enact, yet pervert, their proper contours of embodied interactions and transactions. These interactions are being absorbed and consumed, if not devoured, by the sensual order of the uncanny and by forces of abjection. From my immersion in the life of the Yaka people in Kinshasa and south-west Congo, I am aiming at some endogenous understanding of how interacting bodies – or more precisely, intercorporeal awareness – can conform to (attune to) and become subordinated to (and implicated by) the frenzy of the transgressive and annihilating ‘forces’ mobilised by maleficent fetishes and lethal sorcerous violence. I contend that the mysterious field of sorcery and maleficent fetishes among the Yaka seems to foster among complicitous pairs some pre-reflective and interpersonal awareness of their body in the fold of (embracing) images, fantasies, experiential gestalts and desire of sorts. This primary entwinement of (inter)corporeal capacities, ‘forces’, cultural expectations and horizons of significance may help us to comprehend innovatively the sensual articulation of a genuine epistemology and a groping for moral economy in the very mood of transgression and perversion. This merging of desire, intercorporeality and sensing out of things paradoxically ties in with the pursuit as well as the obliteration of ethics. Such intermingling shows up in people’s manifold search to tame or, for other purposes, to stir up forms of unsettling, rupture, paradoxes, indeterminacy, categorial and ontological aporias, perversion or even destructive violence.