Biology Magazine

Fear & Spirit Loathing in Melanesia

By Cris

Few books in the history of anthropology have had a larger or more lasting impact than Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Published in 1922, Argonauts established methods for fieldwork, data, and publication that continue to make it required reading for anthropologists, and painted such a rich (and unfamiliar) picture of life in the Trobriand Islands that it reached a much wider audience. Malinowski’s analysis of gift exchange, in the form of the famous kula ring or circle, remains a classic in economic anthropology. With so much attention paid to methodology and economy, it can be easy to overlook another key aspect of the book: Malinowski’s assessment of what he unfortunately called “magic.”

As this passage makes clear, Malinowski was actually describing a kind of animism (a term he may have deliberately avoided because of its association with early cultural evolutionism):

It can be said without exaggeration that magic, according to their ideas, governs human destinies; that it supplies man with the power of mastering the forces of nature; and that it is his weapon and armor against the many dangers which crowd in upon him on every side. Thus, in what is most essential to man, that in his health and bodily welfare, he is but a plaything of the powers of sorcery, of evil spirits and of certain beings, controlled by black magic. Death in almost all its forms is the result of one of these agencies. Permanent ill health and all forms of acute sickness, in fact everything, except such easily explainable ailments as physical overstrain or slight colds, are attributed to magic.

Fear & Spirit Loathing in Melanesia

Malinowski with Trobriand Islanders

This is obviously not magic in any Western or modern sense — it describes a pervasive power or supernatural agency that is everywhere, invisible, and which must be dealt with in one way or another to accomplish that which is desired and prevent that which is not. “Magic” was, Malinowski observed, paramount in social relationships, economic matters, physical health, and psychological well-being. This is not to say that the islanders thought everything was animated and lived in fear of a world they couldn’t see or control. When they could avail themselves of human or natural explanations, they did so. When these explanations failed or were insufficient, as in the case of the unexpected or mysterious, “magic” filled the gaps.

As portrayed by Malinowski, “magic” was not something that was intrinsically terrifying, harmful, malevolent, or wicked. Though the supernatural could be used in this way, it was thought deleterious to the ill-intended practitioner and those who used it in this manner were ostracized. For those familiar with the ethnographic record, what Malinowski described was fairly standard animism despite having much local or Trobriand color. Evans-Pritchard described something similar in Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937), another ethnographic classic which linked mysterious effects to supernatural causes. In both societies, Trobriand and Azande, these things were taken for granted and woven deeply into the warp and woof of everyday life. There was nothing debilitating about “magic” in either society, and it all made a functional kind of sense.

Fear & Spirit Loathing in Melanesia

Azande Sorcerer or Shaman

Yet in the years between the publication of Argonauts (1922) and Azande (1937), another classic appeared which painted a much different picture of what ethnographers of the day were variously (and wrongly) calling “witchcraft, sorcery, spells, and magic.” In Sorcerers of Dobu (1932), Reo Fortune (a Malinowski student and Margaret Mead’s husband) described a small Melanesian society riven by conflict, competition, jealousy, and mistrust. At the center of it all was a robust and often malevolent animism that Fortune called “witchcraft” (female) and “sorcery” (male). Galvanized by Fortune’s Dobu data, Ruth Benedict made it doubly famous by personalizing Dobuan society, in Patterns of Culture (1934), as “paranoid.” This did not mean that the Dobuans were mentally ill but that suspicion and mistrust were rampant in Dobuan society. It amounted to a paranoid ethos.

While all of these books remain classics, their methods, characterizations, and conclusions have been called into question. Malinowski’s functionalism is viewed with suspicion by many, Evans-Pritchard’s structural-functionalism is passe, Fortune’s personal dislike of Dobuans probably distorted his data, and Benedict’s view of cultures as personalities writ large is no longer taken seriously. A Freudian variant of the latter flourished during the 1940s and 50s, but was eventually abandoned by all but the most stalwart devotees of psychoanalysis.

I have provided all this by way of background to an astonishing article I recently read, “Cult and Context: The Paranoid Ethos in Melanesia” (Ethos 1973), by Theodore Schwartz. It paints an incredibly dysfunctional picture of Melanesian animism and stands as a challenge to those who romantically (or metaphysically) see “religion” as an evolved adaptation targeted by natural selection because it enhances cooperation, trust, sociality, and altruism. In the next post, I’ll cover and contextualize the article in detail. Stay tuned.

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