Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World

Course Info

Course Number/Code: 21A.211 (Fall 2003)
Course Title: Magic, Witchcraft, and the Spirit World
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Department: Anthropology
Course Instructor(s): Prof. James Howe
Course Introduction:
Syllabus Overview

This class is concerned with the boundaries between everyday life and another order of reality, the world of spirits, powers, and mystical dangers, and with what happens when those barriers ease or break apart. Examples are drawn primarily from Europe and North America, in part to counter the assumption that belief in witchcraft and spirits is particularly associated with the non-western world. Throughout, our goal will be, not to promote or debunk belief and practice, but rather to understand them using approaches from anthropology and history, seeing them in social and political context and considering their place in people's lives.

Roughly half the semester will be devoted to spirit possession and visitation, trance, and altered states of consciousness, in particular to: snake handling and trance in Appalachia; spiritualism and mediumship in 19th century America; visitations by the Virgin Mary during 1931 in northern Spain; claims of abduction by space aliens in late 20th century America.

The other half of the semester will be devoted to fears that other people are causing harm through hidden or mystical means, and the consequences of such fears, especially moral panics. The primary examples will be great European witch hunt of the 15th-17th centuries; the Salem Village witchcraft trials of 1692; fears of satanic abuse and the daycare trials of the late 20th century, we will also look much more briefly at the practice of magic.

Historical and anthropological research on these topics has grown rapidly in recent decades, changing understandings of witchcraft and spirit possession. We will be concerned not so much with coming to absolute conclusions as with learning how to analyze belief and practice; appreciating the complexity and ambiguity of the historical record; and with weighing alternative interpretations.

There is no final exam. Students will write several essays and small research assignments over the course of the semester. We will see a number of films, as a way to consider the difficulties of dramatizing and analyzing historical events on film, as well as a source of information. There will be one afternoon field trip to the town of Danvers, the original Salem Village.