Halloween Shines Light on Witchcraft Today

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 28, 2002

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake:
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble;
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

From William Shakespeare's
Macbeth Act IV, Scene I

In William Shakespeare's England, the practice of witchcraft was already ancient. The celebration of nature—the worship of earth, sky, and the changing seasons—is humankind's oldest faith.

In the modern world witchcraft can seem outdated, a taboo practice with little relevance in a society of science. That is, until Halloween arrives.

Filmmakers for the National Geographic Channel set out to find modern witches for Taboo: Witchcraft, which airs Monday, October 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

There is no question that witchcraft exists. The rites, probably best known in the United States in regard to a non-traditional religion known as Wicca, are practiced in societies all around the world. Many objects associated with witchcraft are commercially available; charms and spells are invoked for both good and ill.

For believers, witchcraft is clearly as relevant as ever before. Yet for the millions of non-believers, the effectiveness of magic and its alleged powers is the bottom line—does it really work?

From Magic or the Mind?

Alan Fiske, an anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, says the power of witchcraft is rooted in the minds of believers.

"Human physiology is not independent of human psychology," he says. "We know that people who believe that they have been cursed by some powerful magicians and sorcerers sometimes do die from the fear, and people who believe that somebody has worked black magic on them sometimes do get sick. Because they believe that, they will get sick."

Similarly, those who believe in the healing power of witchcraft could feel their physical health has improved as a result of "white magic."

Fiske says witchcraft is popular in part because it offers a way for people to explain suffering and misfortune in their lives. "Everybody would like to understand the world a little better than they really can," he says, "and witchcraft and magic beliefs can make you believe that the world is controllable and understandable in a way that it is not for people who don't believe."

Continued on Next Page >>




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