Cursed Feelings

I have been thinking about what it feels like to feel cursed.

It’s so easy when writing about cases of witchcraft to emphasize the external phenomena of bewitchment: butter that won’t churn, animals that don’t thrive, tools that can’t be found. It’s a lot harder to give a picture of what this felt like to people who suspected themselves victims of harmful magic.

One thinker who has proved essential is the Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, whose Magic: A Theory from the South was finally translated into English by Dorothy Zinn in 2015.

Martino described the experience of bewitchment in Lucania (or Basilicata) in southern Italy from precisely the kind of interior, experiential, and even psychological perspective* that interests me. Feeling cursed, he argued, was an expression of existential dread. In the face of the ‘extraordinary power of the negative in daily life’, to feel bewitched was:

a psychic condition of impediment or inhibition, and at the same time a sense of domination, a being acted upon by a force that is as strong as it is mysterious, one that totally removes a person’s autonomy as well as his capacity for decision-making and choice.


This ‘binding’ was a metaphor made real, given form in ‘headaches, sleepiness, weakness, slackened muscles, and hypochondria’.

Why does this experiential view matter?

Martino himself makes one answer clear: because magic is about this internal sense of threat, magical means never fail. The mistake that other anthropologists made in assessing magic as – in Frazer’s term -‘the bastard sister of science’, was in measuring its successes and failures by external effects. Does the charm heal the cow? Do the bells stop the hail?

Martino points out that the answer to these questions is irrelevant. Magic repairs the existential vulnerability of the individual. All magic is successful from this point of view because it fundamentally ‘satisfies the need for psychological reintegration’. Like all ritual, it relies on repetition to ensure stability. This action, performed now, belongs in a series, the predictable and manageable course of history over which people have control.

As an experience, this transcends the rural populations that are often associated with fears of witchcraft in modernity.

Martino himself was somewhat ambivalent on this point. Like other twentieth-century anthropologists, he specifically associates witchcraft with a world of what George Foster called ‘limited good’. The overwhelming power of the negative that Martino referred to stemmed from material scarcity, hunger, back-breaking work and a constant sense that you were in competition with everyone around you for food, land, even love and respect.

And yet, as Martino notes later in Magic, suspicions of witchcraft were spread much more broadly through the society of eighteenth and nineteenth century southern Italy than the theory of limited good would suggest. As late as 1787, an elite writer such as Nicola Valetta could take ‘fascination’ at least half seriously, poking fun at it in his Cicalata sun fascino as a way ‘to not give up completely on an ideology and a behavior in which, “deep down” one still believes’ (p.147).

The point goes even further.

These kinds of existential dread are universal. The fear of negation, the fear of being acted upon, the fear of a world and a future beyond our control: these are common to all times and places, although the forms they take may be different.

Seen from this point of view, no-one lives in a post-witchcraft world. These anxieties are our own anxieties, too.

The question is simply under what conditions do we come to think of this existential dread as malevolent magic, rather than just psychological distress?

*There’s a whole other set of things to be said about how Martino’s ideas were inspired by psychiatric theories of the 19th-20th centuries, and especially Pierre Janet.

What makes those connections especially fascinating is that many of those theorists engaged directly with ‘bewitchment’ or spirit possession and related phenomena in the development of foundational ideas of ‘split personality’, ‘hysteria’, ‘dissociation’, etc. See the incredible range of original materials Michel Collée has uploaded on his website


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