Watching Horror Hotel

I had nothing to do last night and wasn’t in the mood to read, so I killed a little time watching a movie I discovered on Horror Hotel, aka The City of the Dead (1960).

Poster for City of the Dead (Horror Hotel), 1960
Source: IMDb

This could be considered the first film from what would become Amicus Productions, the “not Hammer” British horror house, famous for their series of quite fun horror anthology films in the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not a bad first offering, at all.

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Witches vs. Sorcerers: What’s the Difference?

For my Mexican Monstresses series, I’ve been reading a fascinating (but quite academic) book called Bloodsucking Witchcraft (Nutini and Roberts, 1993), about a type of Mexican “vampire” in central Mexico. I put vampire in quotes, because even though this creature sucks blood, both Nutini and Roberts, as well as sources on early Mexican folk belief all the way back to the sixteenth century, refer to it (“her” mostly) as a witch (brujo/a).

A bloodsucking shapeshifter is not what I think of as a witch.

Source: Wikipedia

And the European conception of a vampire (which is by definition a revenant — that is, the dead revived) isn’t a witch. But the definition that Nutini and Roberts use, and how they distinguish witch (brujo/a) from sorcerer (hechicero/a) calls out some differences I’d never thought about. Before, I’d always considered the terms somewhat interchangeable, and I think in common usage most people do. But the distinction is interesting, and useful.

Note that in the following discussion, I’m referring to witchcraft and sorcery in the folk belief sense of anthropomorphic supernatural beings, not in reference to Wicca or other modern Neopagan religions.

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Hamlet in Nigeria

Just before I left Oxford for West Africa [to the Tiv tribe of southeastern Nigeria], conversation turned to the season at Stratford. “You Americans,” said a friend, “often have difficulty with Shakespeare. He was, after all, a very English poet, and one can easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular.”

That’s the opening of an piece called “Miching Mallecho, That Means Witchcraft,” by Laura Bohannan. It is in my musty old anthropology anthology, the one that inspired yesterday’s post. Fortunately it (or a very close 1961 version of it) is also available online under its better known name “Shakespeare in the Bush.” I’ll tell you about it, because it’s wonderful, but for the full effect, you also ought to read the original for yourself.

Bohannan takes offense at the idea that she might not get Shakespeare. After all, the plots and motivations of Shakespeare’s plays are universal. Oh, some of the cultural details might need explanation, or present subtle difficulties in translation, but the ideas should be clear, she argues. In the end, she and her friend agree to disagree, and he gives her a copy of Hamlet to take with her.

NewImageHamlet and his Father’s Ghost. Henry Fuseli (1798)
Image: Wikipedia

Bohannan goes out to live with the Tiv (her second trip) in a more remote area than her last visit. She stays at the homestead of a clan whose head I will call The Old Man. Her visit is in the three month period just after the harvest, from when the swamps rise, until the swamps recede again, and planting season begins. There isn’t a lot to do during this time, except brew beer — so they brew, and they drink. The drinking begins at dawn, and the people spend the entire day singing, dancing, and drumming. They also tell each other stories, which was apparently considered a high art form.

One day Bohannan sits to drink with the Old Man and the other tribal elders, and the Old Man invites her to tell them a story from her people. She decides that this is the perfect time to prove the universality of Hamlet.

And then the fun begins.

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Letter 2: Witchcraft in the Bible

Saul and the Witch of Endor
Frontispiece to Saducismus Triumphatus, by Joseph Glanvill

On to Letter 2 from Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, by Sir Walter Scott.

One of the motivations for writing The Letters was the success of a series of publications called Criminal Trials of Scotland, by Robert Pitcairn. The text covers a selection of criminal proceedings from 1487 to 1624, a period that included many witchcraft trials. Pitcairn actually sent Scott transcripts of trials that were still unpublished, as Scott was writing The Letters; unfortunately, none of them appear in Letter 2, though I’m hoping they might appear in a later letter.

Instead, Letter 2 addresses the Scriptural treatment of witchcraft. Scott’s primary point is that what the Bible calls “witchcraft” and the contemporary understanding of “witchcraft” are two different things. The justification for the execution of witches in Scotland, and in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, was Exodus 22:18 — “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Many learned men have affirmed that in this remarkable passage the Hebrew word CHASAPH means nothing more than poisoner, although, like the word veneficus, by which it is rendered in the Latin version of the Septuagint, other learned men contend that it hath the meaning of a witch also, and may be understood as denoting a person who pretended to hurt his or her neighbours in life, limb, or goods, either by noxious potions, by charms, or similar mystical means. In this particular the witches of Scripture had probably some resemblance to those of ancient Europe, who, although their skill and power might be safely despised, as long as they confined themselves to their charms and spells, were very apt to eke out their capacity of mischief by the use of actual poison, so that the epithet of sorceress and poisoner were almost synonymous.

He goes on to say (with the appropriate citations) that the Old Testament deems witchcraft a capital crime because it is idolatry — worshipping or asking counsel of false deities — not because witches practice magic, per se.

To understand the texts otherwise seems to confound the modern system of witchcraft, with all its unnatural and improbable outrages on common sense, with the crime of the person who, in classical days, consulted the oracle of Apollo — a capital offence in a Jew, but surely a venial sin in an ignorant and deluded pagan.

The emphasis is mine. Clearly, Sir Walter didn’t put much credence in the accounts of witchy behavior that he read in the trial transcripts. He refers to the accusations later as “disgustingly improbable.” And he was very much against applying the biblical law “against a different class of persons, accused of a very different species of crime.”

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Accidental Witchcraft

Cebuano Sorcery: Malign Magic in the Philippines by Richard W. Lieban (1967)
Photo: Amazon

I rediscovered this on my bookshelf yesterday. The author spent a year in Cebu City, and a year in a rural area of Negros island, recording local beliefs about sorcery, and observing folk medicine practices. The two are related, since folk healers often attribute their patients’ maladies to curses, or other occult sources.

The chapter on aswang is interesting, but I’ve already written a post about that. The Cebuanos also believe in another kind of witchcraft — a curse, really — that they call buyag. The one who curses the victim is called a buyagan.

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