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Image of Mask

Magic and witchcraft

Magic can be seen to be good or bad depending upon its perceived impact on individuals and the community.

Witches appear in popular and traditional cultures around the world. Sometimes the witch is perceived to be harmless or even benevolent, but more often the witch is malevolent and destructive, practicing magic and casting spells that harm others. Many masks reflect the danger of evil magic and witchcraft.

Witches, ghosts, devils and other frightening beings link the natural and supernatural worlds as important elements in festivals and masquerades. Halloween is an example in popular culture.

Powers can be misunderstood. The Western notion of the ‘witchdoctor’ is a poor interpretation of the complex role of traditional healers and shamans. These healers are seen to channel natural and spiritual energy in healing ceremonies.

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     The Evil Queen from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs;
    DVD Capture from Wikimedia Commons

The archetypical visualization of a witch in western eyes may be the Evil Queen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Director David Hand, Producer Walt Disney, RKO Radio Pictures, 1937) an animated adaptation of the Brothers Grimm story. The witch as cackling crone has an early history, often expressed in literature as we see in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In other cultures, witches can be differently visualized. In Africa, there remains a very strong belief in witchcraft over most of the Sub-Saharan region. Witches can personify the worst in human behavior, where the individual - female or male - has moved too far along the trail of antisocial behavior. Members of villages and even one’s own family can use witchcraft to advance themselves. There have been many practices for identifying witches and either curing them, or executing them. In traditional rituals and performances, witches will often be depicted by masked characters. The masks will capture various dimensions of what it is to be a witch. It is frequent for witches to be shown with features derived from animals.

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     Fetish Magician 1904 photograph from Robert Hamill Nassau’s book,
     “Fetishism in West Africa: Forty Years’ Observations of Native Customs
    and Superstitions; photograph from Wikimedia Commons

Asia has many variations of witches, and some are represented in drama and dance by masked performers. Rangda is typical of Asian witches, or witch-like demons. Rangda of Bali is a Hindu witch or demon queen who battles with Barong, the king of good spirits. She is appropriately gruesome and horrifying in appearance, with bulging eyes, long sharp teeth and an exaggerated tongue. In contrast, Durga, the warrior wife of the Hindu god Shiva, is a powerful sorceress, but on the side of good.

Often associated with witchcraft is the practice of traditional healers or shamans (sometimes inaccurately called ‘witch doctors’), people with strong powers of divination or healing that may avail of traditional substances like herbs and animal parts, innate powers within the individual, and by drawing upon the powers of the spirit world. These healers are often highly regarded – and sometimes feared – within societies, for power is a useful but dangerous commodity. Shamans or spirit-doctors in some societies will wear masks. The mask will express the power of the individual, reinforcing that this power is more than merely human. The wearing of Shaman masks is traditional amongst some Native American groups, notably the Inuit of Canada and peoples of the North West Pacific Coast.

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     Halloween trick-or-treater, Redford, MI 1979;
     photograph by Don Scarborough from Wikimedia Commons

Halloween may today be the most famous occasion for association with witches, ghosts and things supernatural. Observed on October 31, its origins are linked to both pre-Christian Celtic beliefs and Christianity’s All Saints Day. European Celtic traditions recognized this as the end of summer, and the transition from light days to dark, when the boundary between the world of the living and the world of spirits is at its thinnest … and cross-overs can occur. The name Halloween probably stems from All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (=All Saints) Day. Halloween has become represented by carved faces in vegetables, such as turnips and pumpkins. Today, it is a popular time in America for children – and others – to wear costumes and masks, to ‘trick or treat’ for sweets and small gifts. The wearing of masks is now associated as much with Halloween as it is with other popular festivities such as Carnival.

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