Ritual Murder? Questions and Answers with the Author.

http://openanthcoop.net/press/2011/03/02/ritual-murder/

Many members will have noticed that Prof. Jean la Fontaine recently joined us at the OAC. Not only that, she has given us a paper to think about on an important topic. Click on the link above and you will find her Intervention for the OAC Press - Ritual Murder? - where she discusses a recent controversy centred on the belief (built up particularly in the British media) that certain kinds of killing in Africa have a special evil 'ritual' significance.

 

Jean la Fontaine is well used to controversy for the simple reason that she is one of relatively few anthropologists who have entered the public arena using anthropological facts and theories to solve problems of major civic concern. During the 1980s a media fed panic developed in Britain around the idea that vulnerable children were being subjected to 'Satanic abuse'. In her report for the British government, la Fontaine established that social workers involved in the cases in question had, in their keenness to find what they were looking for, actively helped to construct a myth. The paper she has published here with the OAC Press further explores the form taken by myths or narratives of this kind.

 

Jean la Fontaine is, then, for this, and for other work stretching over many years, as eminent a living ancestor as they come - one of the remaining vanguard of classic Social Anthropology. So, we are doubly pleased and honoured that she has agreed to answer questions on her paper here with us.

 

However, as convener, I am going to ask that we agree to some constraints in how we use this thread. Please feel free to ask Jean whatever you wish regarding her paper, but please be concise - it would benefit everyone if questions were (a) no more than five sentences in length (b) were framed with a question mark at the end rather than as a comment (c) were addressed to the paper giver not to other questioners.

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Thanks very much, Jean, for agreeing to this QandA session and here is a question to begin with. As I read it, the basis of the dubious connection between 'murder' and 'ritual' seems to lie in a human universal: people universally seek to order the deaths of human beings into sacred and profane forms and the force behind this is religious. The notion of 'Ritual murder' feeds off this religious capacity or tendency in a logically illegitimate way. Do I have that aspect of your argument right?
Allow me to add my thanks to Huon's. On first scan of the paper—and I must confess that I have not read it as carefully as I should have—it seems to me that a theme that might be further developed is the secrecy associated with ritual murder. I do, of course, realize that an opponent of capital punishment might regard a public execution as an example of ritual murder, where the function of the ritual is to reaffirm boundaries that the crime has violated. When I think, however, of accusations of ritual murder, be they rumors about early Christians, slanders directed at Jews, or accusations directed against witches in Europe, the scenario evoked is always one in which the sacrificial victim is kidnapped and murdered as part of secret ceremonies related to the powers of darkness. I wonder how widely spread the association of ritual murder and secrecy is.
Alan Thorold has recently joined the Catholic university in Malawi to help set up the first anthropology department there (three members so far). The government has in turn asked the department "to investigate the widespread problem of witchcraft accusations in schools and orphanages in the country. This problem is not confined to Malawi but it seems to have become particularly acute here just recently and there have been a series of witch hunts targeting mainly women in church guilds who are accused or training children in witchcraft. Some killings and arrests have resulted." What advice would give him, Jean, when it comes to planning and conducting this research?
You are quite right- secrecy is a characteristic of the idea of ritual murder. It contrasts with the normal public nature of ritual and associates it with the idea of  clandestine groups plotting the destruction of society
. According to one authority the 19th and early 20th centuries were chacterised by a middle-class obsession with the idea of such groups.
John McCreery said:
Allow me to add my thanks to Huon's. On first scan of the paper—and I must confess that I have not read it as carefully as I should have—it seems to me that a theme that might be further developed is the secrecy associated with ritual murder. I do, of course, realize that an opponent of capital punishment might regard a public execution as an example of ritual murder, where the function of the ritual is to reaffirm boundaries that the crime has violated. When I think, however, of accusations of ritual murder, be they rumors about early Christians, slanders directed at Jews, or accusations directed against witches in Europe, the scenario evoked is always one in which the sacrificial victim is kidnapped and murdered as part of secret ceremonies related to the powers of darkness. I wonder how widely spread the association of ritual murder and secrecy is.

Thanks very much for the correction - I suppose I was jumping from your use of legitimate/illegitimate to Durkheim's sacred/profane. There is the strand in your argument that says that in many contexts the most valuable live sacrifice is a human sacrifice - of which the most complicated example perhaps is the sacrifice of Christ repeated in the communion service. In these cases the death/sacrifice of a human would seem to be sacred and legitimate. The fact that ideas of 'ritual murder' are so compelling suggests that notions of legitimacy do very often have some kind of religious basis. So, let me put the question the other way round: how far do you see the legitimacy/illegitimacy distinction as being necessarily religious in character (only varying from setting to setting)?

 

I am not sure that I would agree that all deaths of human beings are ordered as you suggest. To some extent all deaths are profane as opposed to life that is sacred. But I am not happy with the sacred/profane dichotomy pace Durkheim - it has a limited application in the ordering of ritual and ritual sites but is a bit clumsy when it comes to making broader generalisations.

Apologies, in trying to clean up blanks on the thread, I deleted an answer by Jean to my question.

Jean La Fontaine:

I would advise anyone trying to conduct this sort of research to go extremely slowly. It is not something people want to talk about particularly to white people who are known not to believe in it. It frightens them. The snowball sample would be the only way to go- you know, start with one or two and slowly add to it - forget going to a village and, once known, starting to chat to people about witchcraft as one could do once.  Starting with the accusers and the cases that have already been talked about might be a way in. If there have been arrests then probably/maybe the police will talk about it. I have found total silence about it here in London and have only found any information in police files and scraps here and there. In Kinshasa Filip de Boeck talked to the accused children who had been rescued and were living in orphanages- but that way you only hear one side of it.  But it is a start.
The Malawi situation sounds different from elsewhere- interesting that there are accusations within the church. I look forward to reading more about it.

Keith Hart said:
Alan Thorold has recently joined the Catholic university in Malawi to help set up the first anthropology department there (three members so far). The government has in turn asked the department "to investigate the widespread problem of witchcraft accusations in schools and orphanages in the country. This problem is not confined to Malawi but it seems to have become particularly acute here just recently and there have been a series of witch hunts targeting mainly women in church guilds who are accused or training children in witchcraft. Some killings and arrests have resulted." What advice would give him, Jean, when it comes to planning and conducting this research?

Thanks, Huon.  What a wonderful paper, Jean!

 

I want to know if my assessment of both terms, "ritual murder" and "human sacrifice", is correct.  Using cases after cases of ritual murder in West Bengal Indian media call "tantric Hindu human sacrifice", which is done to appease Kali or to ask favor from the ferocious deity, I find it to be transactional and secretive a ritualistic endeavor of an individual.  It is, most of the time, the latter who decides and chooses a victim.  A common story is that a deity appears in someone's dream asking for a sacrifice in exchange for health or wealth.  The ritual participants are usually the person who murders his victim and the "tantrik" who advises him regarding "black magic".

 

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,322673,00.html

 

In contrast, Bagobos of Southern Philippines are known for their cultural history of human sacrifice that no longer exists but in oral history and literature they retell and pass on.  Landor (1904), in "The Gem of the East," wrote about the early Bagobos killing slaves in forests before planting rice, when parents died, during a bad weather, and when there was a need to appease spirits.  The human sacrifice of the Bagobos seems to me  an open and communal ritualistic act.  A "datu" (chieftain) together with his people decided and chose a slave they gained from war, a community effort, to sacrifice in a ritual.

 

http://books.google.com/books?id=gkU6dy1RsPUC&pg=PA362&lpg=...

 

I wonder if ritual murder is the evolution of human sacrifice that linearly follows the pattern of being communal and later, individual in a society that is restricted more by law than religion.  If so, maybe it is the case in the ritual murder phenomenon in West Bengal.  I'm not sure though if the human sacrifice for Kali was openly done a long time ago.  In the case of the Bagobos, pigs and white-feathered chicken have replaced humans.  I again wonder if the early Christianization of the Philippines had something to do with it.  Without the intervention of the Spanish and other Western missionaries, maybe the Bagobos, like the Kali devotees and tantric practitioners of West Bengal where Christianity has not really replaced Hinduism, would still be doing human sacrifice but in a new form, ritual murder, which is criminalized and restricted by authorities.

 

Is the ritual murder in some parts of Africa also the evolution of early communal human sacrifice?  Like India, Africa has not really fully embraced Christianity.  Animist and local beliefs are still practiced.  maybe this can explain why humans are secretly murdered for rituals in the region.  Ritual murderers are more scared to go to jail than to the hell of Christianity.  

 

Also, the evolution of Mesoamerican human sacrifice into animal sacrifice, based on historical records and writings of early Spanish Catholic missionaries, could also be the effect of the Christianization by the West like the case of the human sacrifice of the Bagobos.  Guatemala, for example, has a strong Catholic faith like the Philippines that influences every facet of its society and culture.  The Spanish succeeded in implanting Catholicism in both cultures, I think, because they allowed synchretization of local and western beliefs.  I wonder if the image of Christ bloodied, crucified, and understood to be a sacrifice substituted human victims.                   

Thanks m.,

The Time article you have linked to does seem to be an interesting (counter)example - people reportedly killing a girl so that they can gain powers from the goddess Kali. It goes on to suggest that these practices are secret and perhaps widespread. What do you think, Jean?


http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,322673,00.html


Just a reminder that the rubric for this thread is a short question not more than five sentences. I hope that conforming to that isn't too much to ask - anyone can, of course, broaden their scope in another thread or group. Thanks.


I didn't repond to the second point in your comment:  yes, for Christians human sacrifice becomes illegitimate after the "full, perfect and sufficient" sacrifice of Christ.  But remember that the death of Christ was, for the Romans, not a sacrifice but a death penalty,crucifixion, for treason. The word legitimate itself comes from lex, law, so there is also legitimacy that comes from law as well as religion. 

Thanks very much for the correction - I suppose I was jumping from your use of legitimate/illegitimate to Durkheim's sacred/profane. There is the strand in your argument that says that in many contexts the most valuable live sacrifice is a human sacrifice - of which the most complicated example perhaps is the sacrifice of Christ repeated in the communion service. In these cases the death/sacrifice of a human would seem to be sacred and legitimate. The fact that ideas of 'ritual murder' are so compelling suggests that notions of legitimacy do very often have some kind of religious basis. So, let me put the question the other way round: how far do you see the legitimacy/illegitimacy distinction as being necessarily religious in character (only varying from setting to setting)?

 

I am not sure that I would agree that all deaths of human beings are ordered as you suggest. To some extent all deaths are profane as opposed to life that is sacred. But I am not happy with the sacred/profane dichotomy pace Durkheim - it has a limited application in the ordering of ritual and ritual sites but is a bit clumsy when it comes to making broader generalisations.



M Izabel said:

Very nice of you M. Izabel and what interesting material. It seems clear that for the West Bengalis these killings are not murders but human sacrifices, offerings to Kali.  But I am not clear where the black magic comes i, though presumably the secrecy is because such killings are illegal in modern India. What evidence is there for the fact of the sacrifices as these seem to be stories in newspapers and I always view these, in whatever part of the world with suspicion.   Is this something like  the killings of albinos in Tanzania so that their body parts can be used in black magic? But they are offerings to a goddess. I am somewhat confused here.

It is  true that Christian and Muslim missionaries and European colonial powers put an end to human sacrifice in the parts of Africa where it was practised (not so many actually). But what is referred to as ritual murder nowadays is not the successor to former human sacrifices, being sometimes entirely fantasies and sometimes the murder of human beings for the purposes of black magic - not ritual at all. So although it seems a good idea to see ritual murder as the reflection of individualisation under modern conditions, I don't think the evidence would support it. Africa is much more Christianised than you think, very little of the traditional religious practice survives and in most of Africa it did not include human sacrifice.  Certainly the Bagobos seem to have substituted something else for slaves under the influence of missionaries. Christians do not approve of human, or any other blood sacrifice because Christ made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices- they have not succeeded in eliminating all blood sacrifices though.

 

 

Thanks, Huon.  What a wonderful paper, Jean!

 

I want to know if my assessment of both terms, "ritual murder" and "human sacrifice", is correct.  Using cases after cases of ritual murder in West Bengal Indian media call "tantric Hindu human sacrifice", which is done to appease Kali or to ask favor from the ferocious deity, I find it to be transactional and secretive a ritualistic endeavor of an individual.  It is, most of the time, the latter who decides and chooses a victim.  A common story is that a deity appears in someone's dream asking for a sacrifice in exchange for health or wealth.  The ritual participants are usually the person who murders his victim and the "tantrik" who advises him regarding "black magic".

 

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,322673,00.html

 

In contrast, Bagobos of Southern Philippines are known for their cultural history of human sacrifice that no longer exists but in oral history and literature they retell and pass on.  Landor (1904), in "The Gem of the East," wrote about the early Bagobos killing slaves in forests before planting rice, when parents died, during a bad weather, and when there was a need to appease spirits.  The human sacrifice of the Bagobos seems to me  an open and communal ritualistic act.  A "datu" (chieftain) together with his people decided and chose a slave they gained from war, a community effort, to sacrifice in a ritual.

 

http://books.google.com/books?id=gkU6dy1RsPUC&pg=PA362&lpg=...

 

I wonder if ritual murder is the evolution of human sacrifice that linearly follows the pattern of being communal and later, individual in a society that is restricted more by law than religion.  If so, maybe it is the case in the ritual murder phenomenon in West Bengal.  I'm not sure though if the human sacrifice for Kali was openly done a long time ago.  In the case of the Bagobos, pigs and white-feathered chicken have replaced humans.  I again wonder if the early Christianization of the Philippines had something to do with it.  Without the intervention of the Spanish and other Western missionaries, maybe the Bagobos, like the Kali devotees and tantric practitioners of West Bengal where Christianity has not really replaced Hinduism, would still be doing human sacrifice but in a new form, ritual murder, which is criminalized and restricted by authorities.

 

Is the ritual murder in some parts of Africa also the evolution of early communal human sacrifice?  Like India, Africa has not really fully embraced Christianity.  Animist and local beliefs are still practiced.  maybe this can explain why humans are secretly murdered for rituals in the region.  Ritual murderers are more scared to go to jail than to the hell of Christianity.  

 

Also, the evolution of Mesoamerican human sacrifice into animal sacrifice, based on historical records and writings of early Spanish Catholic missionaries, could also be the effect of the Christianization by the West like the case of the human sacrifice of the Bagobos.  Guatemala, for example, has a strong Catholic faith like the Philippines that influences every facet of its society and culture.  The Spanish succeeded in implanting Catholicism in both cultures, I think, because they allowed synchretization of local and western beliefs.  I wonder if the image of Christ bloodied, crucified, and understood to be a sacrifice substituted human victims.                   

I have now read the article and it seems to me that these killings are do-it-yourself sacrifices to Kali for personal gain rather than part of a public ritual. Since the police had the details of most of the cases they were clearly considered murder. Notice that the traditional human sacrifices to Kali were done at the temple, part of a ritual prsumably. The explanation offered for these killings at home are very similar to those that explain the killings of albinos in Tanzania - greed and human problems- although here there  seem to be fewer 'middlemen' offeringto make magic potions out ofthe remains.

But the last para still seems to me important -

There are no human sacrifices at the temple these days. But the mystique of ritual killing is so powerful that even those who actually don't perform it claim to do so. In their camp in the cremation grounds beside the temple, a throng of tantrics tout for business by competing to be as spooky as possible, lining their mud-walled temples with human skulls and telling tall tales of human sacrifice. "I cut off her head," says 64-year-old Baba Swami Vivekanand of a girl he says he raised from birth. "We buried the body and brought the head back, cooked it and ate it." He pauses to demand a $2 donation. "Good story, no?" While most of this is innocent, some followers, like Karmakar, are inevitably emboldened to take their quest for power to the extreme. Karmakar, like many others, was caught. But in the dust-bowl villages of India, where superstition reigns and blood has a dark authority, the question is how many other "holy men" have found that ultimate power still rests in the murderous magic of a virgin sacrifice.

 

'Good story NO? And when you come to think of it- one killing a month among the teeming millions of India is not exactly a high rate. But it is very sad, nonetheless.

Jean



Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,322673,00.html#ixz...

Huon Wardle said:

Thanks m.,

The Time article you have linked to does seem to be an interesting (counter)example - people reportedly killing a girl so that they can gain powers from the goddess Kali. It goes on to suggest that these practices are secret and perhaps widespread. What do you think, Jean?


http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,322673,00.html


Just a reminder that the rubric for this thread is a short question not more than five sentences. I hope that conforming to that isn't too much to ask - anyone can, of course, broaden their scope in another thread or group. Thanks.

Thanks, Jean. I have been looking for some ethnographic papers about human sacrifice/ritual murder, black magic, and tantra, but it seems anthropologists in India have not written extensively about them yet.  What have been coming out are mostly media articles I do not fully trust.  What I know about them are based on what are available Online.   http://www.siddhashram.org/blackmagic.shtml   The people behind the site are based in Jodhpur.   

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