June 2, 2017

Explaining Witchcraft: Response to ‘Witchcraft in Slovenia’

In her interview, Mirjam Mencej discusses her fascinating research into witchcraft in rural Slovenia. She conducted field work in Eastern Slovenia into people’s beliefs on witchcraft. Though restricted to rural areas in Eastern Slovenia, she claims belief in witchcraft is very much alive. She distinguishes traditional witchcraft sharply from modern neo-pagan witchcraft like you find in Wicca. In traditional witchcraft a witch is above all a person (usually a woman) who does harm by using supernatural forces.

According to Mencej, people believe that all witches to share malevolent agency. Nonetheless, various types of witches can be distinguished. A first type is the ‘neighborhood witch’. Neighborhood witches are believed to cause misfortune to their neighbors. They are often invoked to explain diseases or other misfortunes. A second kind is the ‘village witch’. These are witches who are recognized by certain physical characteristics like ugliness or limping. Someone can also be classified as village witch because of her reputation. Reputation can be inherited from one’s parents or result from having certain character traits. A third type is the ‘night witch’. These witches are believed to appear in the form of flickering lights and make people lose their orientation at night. Unlike neighborhood witches, they do not cause economic damage but are also responsible for misfortunes, namely leading people astray. People discuss different types of witches under different discourses yet they are often talked about as similar.

Mencej also discusses a fourth group, the ‘unwitchers’. These are not witches themselves but provide services to counteract witchcraft. They nihilate the witches’ malevolent forces by giving instructions. They also aid in the identification of witches. According to Mencej, they are no unwitchers anymore. They lost much of their clientele in the late 1970’s and have since died of old age.

Mencej suggestsbelief in witchcraft has a mainly explanatory function. For example, witchcraft can serve as an explanation for why misfortune befalls people or why they get lost at night. Belief in witchcraft is also a valuable source of justification. Mencej gives the example of a young man who was unable to get a job. Rather than attributing this to emotional malefunction, his unemployment was attributed to witchcraft. This allowed the young man to avoid the social stigma that often comes with being diagnosed with emotional dysfunction. For his parents an explanation in terms of witchcraft avoided blame for bad parenting. Witchcraft is also useful as an explanation for why workers refuse to work late at night or to instruct children to be careful.

At first glance Mencej’s explanatory account fits well with what she says about the evolution of witchcraft belief since the 1970’s. We already noted that unwitchers did not attract clientele anymore and disappeared. Mencej notes that since that 1970’s public discourse about witchcraft became more difficult (although private discourse survived). She connects this to societal evolution in Slovenia. Since the 1970’s, people in Slovenia got easier access to water, electricity, television and the like. Since then, belief in witchcraft appears to have lost much of its force. Although she does not make it explicit, Mencej suggests that societal evolution eroded the explanatory function of witchcraft. Witchcraft had to compete with new or alternative explanations. With technological advance came information about how misfortunes arise through natural means. This likely eroded belief in witchcraft.

Near the end of the interview, Mencej makes another suggestion that challenges her story of societal evolution. Rather than diminishing as a result of societal evolution, witchcraft may instead have simply changed She notes that although unwitchers have disappeared, people sometimes resort to new-age therapies to undo harm by witchcraft. In new-age therapies, the source of harm is often not located in an external witch but in the bewitched person herself. New-age therapists urge people to look for ‘the witch within themselves’ rather than undoing harm done by external witches. This suggests that witchcraft does not disappear because of societal change but evolves with it. Mencej attributes the change to a shift in focus from communal identity toward individual responsibility , which characterizes many contemporary neo-liberal societies.

Mencej’s explanatory account is certainly a useful paradigm for studying traditional witchcraft. Some points she touches on, however, suggest there is more going on at a deeper level, namely that of the human mind. In his landmark book ‘Religion Explained’[i] Pascal Boyer argued that explanatory accounts of religion put the cart before the horse. Often belief in God or gods is seen as an explanation for natural phenomena, for example for earthquakes or smaller misfortunes. Boyer argues that this account evades the question why gods are considered good explanations for these phenomena. To answer this question we need to look deeper, namely at the human cognitive apparatus. A closer look could reveal why people tend to refer to gods as explanations for natural phenomena.

Boyer’s insight can be applied to traditional witchcraft belief. The question can be asked why malevolent activity by witches is considered a good explanation for misfortune. Mencej’s suggestion near the end that witchcraft belief does not disappear but evolves also suggests that witchcraft belief goes deeper than its explanatory function. When people are confronted with rival explanations in contemporary times, their witchcraft beliefs do not seem to disappear but their beliefs are adapted. This strongly suggests that there is more to witchcraft belief than its apparent explanatory function.

Boyer made suggestions why belief in gods comes easily.[ii] To my knowledge, no suggestions have been made why belief in witchcraft comes easily. Underlying the belief might be a belief in continuity between human will and nature; that is a belief that humans can influence the natural world with their will. Famous experiments like the Heider-Simmel experiment suggest that humans tend to see artifacts as minded.[iii] There is also evidence that humans are inclined to see nature as a living organism.[iv] This does not get us to the continuity belief yet. For this more research is definitely needed.

Probing a deeper, cognitive level of witchcraft belief probably fell beyond Mencej’s scope of research. Given the recent explosion in cognitive theories of religious belief the lack of interest in witchcraft belief is remarkable. I suggested that some of the paradigms in the cognitive study of religion could be applied to the study of witchcraft. These will be additions to Mencej’s research rather than challenges.


[i] Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. No. 170. Basic books, 2001.

[ii] He argued that one reason why belief in gods comes easily is because they violate some ontological expectations and hence are more memorable.

[iii] Heider, Fritz, and Marianne Simmel. “An experimental study of apparent behavior.” The American Journal of Psychology 57.2 (1944): 243-259.

Heide rand Simmel showed a short video of two triangles moving around to subjects and asked the mto describe what they sawy afterwards. Many described the video by referring to the triangles as minded. For example, they said that the one triangle was trying to get the attention of the other or that they were in love.

[iv] Kelemen, Deborah, and Evelyn Rosset. “The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults.” Cognition 111.1 (2009): 138-143.




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