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The Demonological State Of Witchcraft In Historical Research

The hearings of the Joseph Raymond McCarthy era are often held up as modern “witch hunts.” More recently, scholars have also recognised certain dynamics akin to witch-hunting in major panic concerning the supposed satanic ritual abuse of children in the United States of America and to a lesser extent Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. In his book, David Frankfurter, whose previous work has focused on religion in late antiquity, considers these apparent connections at length. While he admits that any given incident will be contingent on immediate historical and cultural factors, he asserts the striking constancy, from antiquity to the present, of what he terms the “myth of evil,” that is, the belief that a widespread demonic conspiracy exists within society, the members of which are responsible for horrifically wicked acts. Such conspiracies have never existed, or at least there has never been any real evidence of their existence, but they have shaped the way societies have conceived of evil. From Roman depictions of immoral Christian orgies, to the medieval stereotype of ritual murders committed by Jews, to the early modern witch hunts, to modern satanic ritual abuse panic, societies have always been ready to believe in a clandestine minority driven by supernatural entities to commit monstrous evil that will, inevitably, subvert society if it is not exposed and extirpated.

David Frankfurter begins by asserting two worlds of “demonology” (that is, roughly, the “religious” belief in supernatural entities that either commit evil or inspire humans to evil). The first of these is the “local” world of small communities, in which demons or spirits are typically associated with aspects of the natural world, must frequently be interacted with, and, while often capricious or antagonistic, are not necessarily fully evil. A universal view of the demonic is then imposed on these local worlds by religious institutions. In order to assert their own power and authority, “ritual experts” (temple priests, prophets, official exorcists) set relatively unstructured local demonic beliefs into vast cosmic structures of good versus evil. The only way to oppose evil is to adhere to the official cult and the experts who represent and direct it. David Frankfurter’s main example here is the late-antique phenomenon of the early Christian holy man exercising power by his assertion of control over demons, presented not as ambivalent nature-spirits but as resolutely evil fallen angels. The model works equally well, however, for the intrusion of Christian missionaries into the “local” spiritual worlds of precolonial Africa and America, or the assertion of social workers or psychologists that they alone hold the key to understanding and opposing rampant satanic child abuse in the modern West.

Since such “religious” experts (David Frankfurter argues that even secular authorities who operate in this fashion draw on religious models of good versus evil and of the demonic) attain power by casting themselves as the opponents of and only hope against demons, it makes sense that they construct the demonic as the inverse of themselves. The perverted rituals and monstrous ceremonies attributed to agents of demonic conspiracies are, quite clearly, the inverse of established religious and social rituals. People then accept these inventions because they are such a clear and easy way of conceptualising the “Other.” People support the construction of these stereotypes by what David Frankfurter labels either direct or indirect mimesis. Direct mimesis entails individuals asserting that they have been participants in the supposed conspiracy — those who confess, either before or after judicial torture, that they are witches, or who claim to have been members of satanic ritual abuse cults, for example. Indirect mimesis entails people asserting that they have witnessed or otherwise experienced the supposed conspiracy — for example, cases of demonic possession or the recovered memories of supposed satanic ritual abuse victims.

This is a sweeping fact that provides numerous insights and inevitably raises numerous questions. The notion that ideas of demons and demonic conspiracies function in some way as depictions of societal and cultural otherness is relatively obvious. The particular ways in which David Frankfurter deems that otherness is constructed and operates, his most powerful insight and his fundamental argument being that the essence of the demonic originates in the collision of relatively unstructured local worlds of mutable belief with the fixed cosmologies of structured religions and their “ritual experts.” The initial fusion between these two worldviews took place in antiquity, but eruptions of the supposedly demonic continue to occur most frequently, he asserts, in any circumstance in which these two worlds come into particularly close interaction. In the case of modern satanic ritual abuse panic, for example, his argument is that Western culture has so completely internalized a universal cosmology of the demonic that many now feel compelled to explain the most private and “local” of evils — the sexual abuse of a child, which typically takes place inside a household — by reference to vast conspiracies.

David Frankfurter’s local versus universal dichotomy carries many overtones of the old popular versus elite dichotomy that most recent work on witchcraft argues against. As his attempt to fit modern satanic ritual abuse panic into his framework shows, David Frankfurter does not adhere to any simplistic or rigid conception of the ways local versus elite and expert concerns must manifest themselves. Inevitably, though, he has no opportunity in a single book covering such a broad span of time to carefully examine all the potential complications. To give just one example, he opens the book ‘Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy and Satanic Abuse in History’ with the case of local witch fears brewing in the Spanish Basque country in the early 1600s and erupting into a full witch hunt when experts from the Spanish Inquisition arrived to conduct official inquiries, thus introducing his basic pattern of local and elite interaction. He completely omits, however, that one of the judges dispatched to this region, Alonso de Salazar Frı́as, was deeply sceptical of the witch hunt and eventually succeeded in ending rather than promoting it. Across early modern Europe, expert authorities and institutions, particularly the centralised Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, worked as frequently to extinguish local anxieties as they did to exacerbate them, all the while holding a firm universalist view of evil demonic agency.

Another problem with the book is its firmly Western, Christian context. David Frankfurter asserts early on that the patterns he will discuss apply to all religions, but the vast majority of his evidence is drawn from the history of Christianity, from late antiquity to the early modern witch hunts. Examples from Africa, Asia, or the Americas typically refer to Christian missionary activity or the postcolonial era. Christianity is a notoriously centralised and authoritative religion. One wonders how David Frankfurter’s insights would apply to somewhat less structured systems such as Hinduism or Buddhism, or even the other great Western monotheisms. Islam, which conceives of jinn rather differently than Christianity does of demons, receives not a mention. Judaism is treated only as the object of Christian conspiracy theories (the myth of Jewish ritual murders) and never as an authoritative cult promoting ritual expertise in its own right. On occasion, David Frankfurter notes that other, indeed all, cultures have ritual experts. African tribal societies had and have temple priests and witch doctors who make claims to authority and power. Yet in the face of Christian missionary activity, all such figures seem to collapse immediately into an uncomplicatedly “local” belief structure.

There is, of course, no way to treat the full scope of demonic evil and its conceptualization across all cultures in a single book. Although grounded in the history of the Christian West, David Frankfurter’s ambitious study offers valuable structures for considering such seemingly universal ways of constructing evil.

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