This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Questions & Answers

Published: October 28, 2004

Phillips Stevens, Jr., associate professor of anthropology, College of Arts and Sciences, has spent three decades studying and teaching about cultural anthropology, social organization, religion and cultural change. He currently is working on a book on magic, sorcery and witchcraft.


What is the origin of the witch?
First, we've got to define the term. "Witch" and "witchcraft" are among the most semantically loaded words in our language. There are a half-dozen popular meanings. Anthropologists mean a belief in an evil, flying, transforming, disease-spreading, child-stealing, sexually deviant, murderous, cannibalistic/vampiristic power that vests itself in and works through certain people, women or men. The witch appears like any normal person and may be difficult to detect. This is the medieval European witch and the witch of 17th-century New England, and a similar horrible being is conceived by people in nearly all regions of the world. The historian George Lyman Kittredge in his "Witchcraft in Old and New England" (1929) said, "Witchcraft is the common heritage of humanity. It is not chargeable to any time, or race, or form of religion." He was right. The witch embodies all that is abhorred in society. The awful traits that are combined in the concept of the witch constitute people's deepest fears, many of which seem rooted in the evolutionary biology of our species. People who seek orgins of witchcraft in ideas of early matriarchal societies, goddess-worship or esoteric feminine knowledge are pursuing different meanings of the term.

Why has the witch become the most enduring of the symbols of Halloween?
All Hallows Eve has always been a special time for evil creatures of the night, including witches. The image of the Halloween witch derives from the late Middle Ages. She is a mean-tempered and ugly old crone, wearing black—probably modeled after an elderly widow, alone, lonely and embittered toward society, and suspected by others of practicing evil magic and, by the 15th century, witchcraft. Her conical peaked hat is inspired by the hats accused heretics were forced to wear; the witch, the direct agent of Satan, was the arch heretic. And she endures because she embodies the most reprehensible behavior we can imagine. People regard her with a dark fascination, a delicious, titillating horror.

Where did the term "witch hunt" originate?
When misfortune of unclear origin seems to be spreading, the safest and most logical agent to blame is a group of people somehow different from the mainstream, about whose subversive intent a public case can be made. The primary aim of the witch is the subversion of decent society. The first great, organized searches for the human source of a social cancer were what historians have called the Great Witch Hunts of the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, when the target was the witch. First persecuted were Jews, Western civilization's favorite scapegoats; then Gypsies; homosexuals; single, elderly or immoral women; on up the social ladder. Subsequently, the term came to refer to any collective scapegoating efforts.

Tell me a little about Wicca.
"A little" is all I am qualified to tell! Wicca is the most popular of several forms of "neopagan" religions, but there is great variability in form and style of ritual among different individuals and groups, called covens. In general, adherents believe that they are returning to a pristine time of peace and goodness, harmony with nature and equality of the sexes. The focus is on an androgynous god, who has no evil counterpart. Major ceremonies take place at interstices in the annual cycle. Individuals learn techniques of good "magick," and tend to adopt a range of New Age beliefs and practices. The name was believed by its adherents to be derived from an early English word for esoteric wisdom, and through the 1970s Wicca was purported to be a resurrection of a nature religion practiced by the medieval peasantry, forced underground by the Inquisition. It has incorporated some Celtic and other pre-Christian elements, but in fact the religion developed in the second and third quarters of the 20th century. Early adherents called themselves "witches" and experienced some adverse social reaction; today, most call themselves Wiccans.

What's the difference between a "curse" and a "jinx," and which applies to the Cubs and the Red Sox?
In popular usage, "curse" can mean both—so both the Cubs and the Red Sox claim to be cursed. Actually, a curse involves words, spoken or written, intentionally conveying an intention for a negative outcome. All peoples regard words as powerful. Blessing is good and desirable; curse is the opposite. The curse will go where it is directed and attach itself there, and it can be counteracted only by stronger words or by voluntary withdrawal by its maker—or by convincing the believer that some action will nullify it. The Cubs were cursed by tavern-owner Billy Sianis in 1945 after he and his foul-smelling billy goat were ejected from a World Series game with Detroit in Wrigley Field. Detroit came from behind to win the Series, and since then.... And, all peoples believe that everything in the cosmos is potentially interconnected with everything else, past, present and future; and that things happen by the systemic operation of a vast natural program. For various reasons, the cosmic interconnections can slip out of whack. Red Sox fans came to believe that the sale of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1920 was an act contrary to providence—and that because of it, the team was under a jinx, later called "the curse of the Bambino."