Apr 23, 2012

To Suffer a Witch

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Put this in the broad category of things I really don't want to write about. But I'm afraid I have to. In a curious synchronicity I noticed the latest drivel from Rob Kerby on my start page. One of these days I will remove the Beliefnet feed, but a combination of morbid curiosity and laziness has prevented it thus far. (For the back story on the Beliefnet news feed's devolution into a reactionary, bigoted, wingnut megaphone for the Christianist Kerby, see here and here.) Kerby's latest bit of wrongheadedness is a diatribe on the dangers of witchcraft. Why is this synchronous? This may be a little hard to follow but bear with me.

Let me start by saying that Kerby's biggest mistake is in conflating certain third world, tribal fears of witchcraft with Pagan faiths. He expresses dismay at Harry Potter for trivializing the dangers of witchery and at the Cornwall schools' inclusion of Paganism in its religion curriculum. This is the first synchronicity. But even more curious is that I was watching this fascinating video last night which had me thinking about a very particular usage of the term "witchcraft." It's a documentary on shaman and "vegetalista" Don Emilio Andrade Gomez who more than once uses the term witchcraft to describe the dark practice of sorcery. A lot of this could be written off to semantic differences but the distinction is too important to leave to the Rob Kerbys of the world... because that kind of thinking gets people killed.

There are several admonitions in the Bible against various supernatural practices. It all gets very confusing because the Bible also extols those same practices in other contexts -- the Book of Daniel, chapter 5 comes to mind but there are other references. The specific use of the word witch which has caused innumerable deaths through the centuries comes from Exodus 22:18 and reads, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," in the King James version.

The word witch is a poor translation from the Hebrew word m'khashepah which is more fairly translated as "poisoner." It stems from ancient beliefs in the ability of some people to harm or even kill people through various forms of spell-casting.

When a shaman like the one in the video uses the term witchcraft, he is, somewhat ironically, closer to the actual meaning of the original term. It's clear from his comments that he is referring to malicious sorcery.

The hybridization of Christianity and indigenous shamanism is one of the most fascinating aspects of this documentary, which was made as part of Luis Eduardo Luna's field work in the Peruvian Amazon. It is also somewhat jarring, as is apparent in some of the comments posted on YouTube. It is an apparently benign religious drift. The merging of Christianity and tribal beliefs, though, isn't always harmless and has led to numerous witch persecutions in third world countries. I touched on this here in a discussion of Sarah Palin's mentor, Kenyan witch-hunter Thomas Muthee. I also posted recently about the disappearances of a number of Peruvian shamans which have been tied to fundamentalist Christian officials in the region.

What I find singularly horrifying about Kerby's post is that he seems to believe that these murderous witch hunters have something to teach us about the dangers of everything from Harry Potter (which is actually based in Western alchemy) to modern-day Wiccans, Druids, and other Pagans. He also touches on Arab persecutions of sorcerers and those who consort with the djinn. Here's a lovely example from Saudi Arabia. Yet, somehow, what Kerby seems to find disturbing is all the witchery that goes on, not the fact that innocent people are being killed for it.

The problem with some of this Christian outreach and missionary zeal is that it simultaneously feeds the fear of sorcery and disavows shamanism as a healing practice, viewing it all as "witchcraft." Don Emilio repeatedly refers to his own work as aligned with Christ and as a tool to use against sorcery. It is the distinction between the shaman as healer, or curandero, and the sorcerer. Sorcery, again, is a term that is subject to semantic variation and isn't negative in every context but to a Latin American shaman it's a very negative term. Shaman Christina Pratt draws the distinction thusly: A sorcerer is someone who uses the same tools as a shaman but for the highest bidder. (I'm paraphrasing from memory.) It's the difference between having a moral compass and not.

In a recent show, Christina waded into the sorcery issue again and dealt specifically with the subject of curses. I'll be very honest and say that this subject is way over my head. Psychic attacks and the like are just so far outside my paradigm, I don't feel able to speak to them. From my perspective, as a mystical thinker, I consider it impossible to attack someone else without tearing yourself apart in the process. Because my beliefs and practices are mystical, I don't actually think it's possible to "put a spell" on anyone but myself because I am the source of my reality. To put it another way, I can't bend the spoon without bending myself, so I couldn't damage the spoon without damaging myself. In any event, to any Pagan or shaman, dark sorcery is frowned upon. It also subjects the practitioner to painful blow-back -- the three-fold law and all that.

So, in sum, I highly recommend the video above as a small window into the world of ayahuasca using shamans. I also recommend Christina's show on curses as well as interviews she did with Steven Beyer on working with plant teachers. Both, I think, lend some context to the documentary. Beyer explains the "diet" of the initiate into plant medicine, for example.

And, I think Rob Kerby is a menace and an embarrassment to a site that still at least gives lip service to ecumenicism and support for the Pagan community.

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