Course explores ‘Magic, Witchcraft and Healing’
In the course “Magic, Witchcraft and Healing,” students explore historical and geographical aspects of mystical arts, including Voudo rituals like the one depicted in this Gerard Valcin painting. (Painting: Gerard Valcin/Haitian Art Society.)

Course explores ‘Magic, Witchcraft and Healing’

USC Dornsife’s Thomas Ward of anthropology covers Vodou, witchcraft and shamanism, while focusing on “white magic” used for holistic healing. [5¼ min read]
BySusan Bell

Perched on a shelf in Thomas Ward’s home office is a set of Vodou dolls.

Curiously, they’re not in the shape of human beings but are little round balls topped with conical “hats.” Filled with dense soil and wrapped tightly with black and red ribbon, they’re as heavy as paperweights.

Ward, associate professor (teaching) of anthropology at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, shows the Vodou artifacts to students in his spring semester course “Magic, Witchcraft and Healing” (ANTH 373).

“They’re beautiful objects,” he says of the Vodou dolls, which he brought back from a trip to Haiti in 1983.

“They can be used for healing and they can also be used for the dark arts.”

But Ward is no Severus Snape.

“Our class explores the magical components of healing, and while witchcraft can be used for healing or harm, our class focuses only on ‘white magic,’ rather than black magic, which is believed to cause harm.”

That doesn’t stop some of his students expressing curiosity about the dark side.

“They ask me, ‘Are curses real?’ ‘Can a witch put a curse on you?’” Ward says. “From the indigenous perspective, absolutely. Most non-Western cultures believe that curses can be used for harm.”

But anthropologists and Western scientists would argue that it’s the power of belief that causes people who know they’ve been cursed to have accidents.

“It depends on who you are, where you are, what culture you’re in, your own belief system,” Ward says.

Magic and healing

Ward’s course explores the cross-cultural aspects of healing in non-Western traditions.

In the anthropological, cross-cultural context, the term ‘magic’ is used for non-Western methods of healing or other ritual practices. Ward defines magic in the context of this course as unexplained causality.

“Something happens and it causes something else to happen and we see the result, but we don’t know exactly how it works,” he says, noting that the term is used even in quantum physics to explain causal relationships that we don’t completely understand.

Two spheres wrapped in black and red with protrusions on the top wrapped in gold wire.
Haitian Voudo dolls are often used for healing, according to anthropologist Thomas Ward. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Ward.)

“I put a spell on you”

What’s fascinating about witchcraft, Ward says, is just how complex and pervasive the idea is, cross-culturally, from Asia to the Americas and Africa. Why have humans for so many thousands of years and from so many different cultures and locations held these beliefs? Is it possible that there’s something more to it that we’re not seeing?

The course explores a number of different historical and geographical aspects of witchcraft: the Salem Witch Trials in New England; the Azande, an ethnic group in Southern Sudan; Vodou tradition and practices in Haiti and Brooklyn, New York; curanderismo — traditional healing of the body, mind or soul by shamans or spiritual healers — in the Southwest United States; and the genesis of the Wiccan religion in the United Kingdom and its spread to the U.S.

Students read E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, which explores how witchcraft is used to explain causality. Evans-Pritchard was one of the first anthropologists to point out the logic of witchcraft beliefs and to argue that witchcraft explains unfortunate circumstance in situations that Western science would simply put down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For instance, if you are sitting on a verandah and one of the columns breaks and the roof falls and hits you on the head, Western scientists might tell you that termites were eating the wood, causing the column to fall. The questions that Western science doesn’t answer is why at that particular moment in time did the roof fall and “why me”?

“Western science would just chalk it up to unfortunate circumstance,” Ward says. With its mystical aspect, witchcraft fills that gap, providing the causal link and explaining why it happened at that particular place and time and to that particular individual.

Ward says one of the most fascinating aspects of non-Western healing practices is its focus on the holistic aspect. These ideas are starting to gain traction in the U.S. with more emphasis on social relationships, community and spirituality.

In Vodou, for instance, practitioners look not only at physical and mental health, but also spiritual health and a person’s relationship to the ‘lwa,’ or spirits. The role of Vodou practitioners, known as “servants of the spirits,” is to communicate with the lwa, make them offerings and ask for intercession.

Ward’s course also explores the Wiccan religion, founded by Gerald Gardner in 1929. Gardner did a popular BBC interview that stirred up a great deal of controversy and interest in modern witchcraft.

The Wiccan movement spread from the U.K. to the U.S., where it experienced its greatest growth in the 1960s and ’70s, with the civil rights and women’s movements and a greater willingness to experiment and explore non-Western or ancient ways of being and healing.

“Wicca’s emphasis on nature and the sacred feminine made it, in some ways, the response to, and maybe rebellion against, the patriarchal elements of Christianity,” Ward says.

The three big takeaways

The focus of the course, he says, is on expanding our horizons while remaining respectful and humble about other people’s traditions. Ward wants students to think about what healing means from a holistic perspective.

“We tend to think of healing in the West as mainly physical, emotional and psychological, whereas in the non-Western context, healing means to restore a balance or a sense of wholeness in an individual and his or her environment, including family, friends, nature, spirits and ancestors. So, healing is much more comprehensive — it restores a person’s health, happiness and wholeness.”

Ward hopes students will take away from the course a greater sense of open-mindedness and curiosity, but also humility. “Magic is the word that we use to keep us humble, by saying that things are happening that we don’t fully understand. We need to respect other people’s views of causality and the etiology of illness and broaden our perspective about what is possibly causing various illnesses.”

Ward says the course also peels back the layers of contemporary celebrations like Halloween that depict witches in a stereotypical and sometimes humorous way.

“There’s a huge, very complicated worldwide history of what witches are and what they do,” Ward says. “There should be respect for these traditions, but also understanding.”