15 July 2016


Jean La Fontaine. Witches and Demons: A Comparative Perspective on Witchcraft and Satanism. Berghahn, 2016. 

This book is not, as its title might suggest, a comparison between the modern 'Witchcraft' and 'Satanism' religions, rather it is a series of essays/articles which explore the roots of belief in magical evil and how these impact in different ways on contemporary British culture.
The first two of these articles reprise Professor La Fontaine’s study of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, noting how these arose from more general transcultural beliefs in a secret conspiracy of others who violate the most sacred taboos of humanity, or at least of their culture. The particular form that these beliefs took in this case was heavily influenced by images from fundamentalist and charismatic Christianity, but was also taken up by secular groups.

From these chapters La Fontaine moves on to a discussion of the role of witch beliefs in African immigrant communities in Britain. There is an article on the alleged murder of an African boy given the name Adam, whose headless torso was found in the Thames in 2001 and the claims that this was an example of human sacrifice. La Fontaine suggests that it might have been a case of murder for 'corpse medicine', a concept which she notes is by no means limited to Africa.

The second half of this book is given over to articles on 'child witches', those children who have been accused of witchcraft and as a result are beaten, maltreated, abandoned, or even murdered by their parents or carers. La Fontaine argues that though belief in witchcraft was part of many African traditional cultures, this did not include the belief that children could be witches, which was an idea imposed by Western charismatic churches that held the belief that children are born corrupted by original sin, which must then be beaten out them. These beliefs are given impetus by social collapse in the home countries, where there are large numbers of abandoned feral children, child soldiers and the like.

La Fontaine argues that for many immigrants western societies are seen as dangerous and ill disciplined, almost literally a wilderness, the wild spirits of which might corrupt their children. These influences are not necessarily traditional African beliefs but are beliefs imported by western missionaries who infected the societies they imposed upon. Ironically these immigrant communities and their home countries are haunted by the ghosts of old European fears and prejudices and are now coming to haunt us.

It is striking that in many ways the labelling of children as witches bares close similarity to the manner in which traditional European societies branded of children as changelings. Both of these labels seek to provide an alibi for the failure of parents to bond with children, particularly those with developmental, emotional or behavioural problems. Beyond these fears it is hard not see that they reflect more general fears of young people, often regarded as wild or hooligan, and were the subject of a number of moral panics back in the early 1970s. Our society today has very ambivalent views about young people aged 14-17, and now tends to defuse these fears by imagining childrea as being weak and vulnerable, with no will or mind of their own, unless we wish to either sanctify or demonise. In the latter case La Fontaine points out how society demonised the killers of James Bulger.

This book clearly shows how radical forms of Christianity can have the potential to become as dangerous as radical forms of Islam. In both cases it would appear that a significant source of problems is the existence of a kind of free market in religion in which anyone can set up as pastor or preacher of one sort or another and that this can be a real career option for those having difficulty finding employment. Exorcising witches can be one way that these people can compete with each other in the market place of religion. In mainstream western society that role now seems to be taken by a vast variety of so-called therapists of one kind or another, who perform very similar functions. The finding of witches by pastors and satanic abuse victims run parallel to each other.

The beliefs in witchcraft are not, as has sometimes been implied, confined to peasants in the bush; on the contrary most of those holding these beliefs are members of the international cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, fully linked to the internet world. The western bourgeoisie, though not overtly professing belief in witchcraft often professes beliefs that are only semantically different.

This is a dark and disturbing book on a dark and disturbing topic and definitely not one for the light read, but I would argue essential reading for police officers, social workers and others involved in child protection. -- Peter Rogerson

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