Ritual Murder? Questions and Answers with the Author.


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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      This link led me to what looks very like the advertisements in Africa for particular witchcraft cures. Of course it is not evidence that any of what it describes is happening but it encourages people to think that it is. I have asked a colleague sho is working on this now and will send you his answer when I get it.


M Izabel said:

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.   

Thanks again. The plot thickens and we look forward to hearing more about that - a clear advantage over the seminar where we are all sitting in the same room for two hours.


What comes up in the first case M raised is the possibility that in any given social setting there may be several kinds of legitimacy in play - local ideas about Kali may be legitimate in one way, legal notions clearly differ. It is an old problem in anthropology, but I wondered what ramifications you think it may have for the idea of 'ritual murder'?

I read a piece not long ago complaining than in the western media Africa doesn't have civil wars, it has genocides. The preoccupation with witchcraft in discussions of African politics (Geschiere, Bayart, Eckholm etc) has always struck me as being very partial. Something similar is a major theme of your paper. My thesis is that Europeans cling to these exaggerations as a way of denying their own decline. At least Africa is still a hopeless case. My question, to which you need not provide an answer, is what kind of anthropological research might throw light on such attitudes one way or another?

Jean, you said that greed is the usual bottomline of the ritual murders in Africa like the case of child and albino ritualistic killings.  I read somewhere that both are new phenomena in the region.  Do you think the new phenomena have something to do with the surge of globalism/globalization in Africa?  I also read somewhere that there are African businessmen who use children's body parts for luck and business success and fishermen in Lake Victoria who use albino hairs woven in their fishing nets to increase their catch.


Again, most of the available materials are media write-ups:





In relation to Keith's question on anthropological research, do you think these phenomena urgently call for business, economic, and development anthropologists to introduce Western management concepts to Africa and counter the effects of globalism/globalization, which is Western in the first place?  Maybe instead of relying on lucky charm and business talisman, businessmen in Africa who engage in these ritual killings will get to know effective management systems and efficient business strategies used and employed in the West. 

Dear all,


Jean has been extremely patient with our various questions. The nature of these threads is that you can never tell when there will be a surge of activity or a long lull. However, by way of forewarning his thread will officially close tomorrow (Friday) afternoon.

Huon,  this should  be a seminar.  The topic is pressing, wide, and interesting.  I want to thank  Jean for stirring  minds here even for just a couple of days.
Thanks for that M; I think you are quite right. I hope we can have a longer discussion of these, and related issues, further down the line. I would also like to thank Jean very much - I think she has been not only very patient but also very helpful in allowing us this opportunity.


A fascinating paper, Jean.


If I read your argument correctly, the shocking notion of 'ritual murder' is the evocation of our 'standardised nightmares' (as Monica Wilson famously described witchcraft), of a similar order as the fantastical imagery of Satanic abuse that you so brilliantly analysed in Speak of the Devil.   


From lessons learned long ago during a degree in ancient history, I recall that Roman historians drew compelling connections between ritual murder, oath-taking, and conspiracies against the Roman state (a recurrent theme in the description of the Bacchic suppressions, and in the later Catiline Conspiracy, for instance). Hence, ritual murder, as a kind of anti-sacrifice, was explicitly associated with seditious political action; a powerful, conceptual cocktail of ritual murder and conspiracy that was later applied to the Jews, as well as the early Christians, as you have said. I wondered, more generally, whether you might possibly elaborate on the relation between ritual murder and politics? 

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