The Witches Invade Washington

They should have asked an anthropologist.

The political and military professionals ignored the warnings presaging last week’s Capitol invasion.  But many who conduct research in rural Africa, while untrained in cyber-espionage, could have predicted the attack.

From living in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire for nearly two years, here’s what I learned about the risks of the interregnum. 

African villagers know that any transfer of power is always fraught—sociopolitically, ritually, emotionally.  This liminal period–“betwixt-and-between,” as anthropologist Victor Turner described it–leaves the nation neither fully in one political space nor another.  Whether they last minutes or months, liminal moments beyond life’s normal categories invite creativity, artistic license—and danger.

In Ivory Coast, Beng practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management.  Spiritual peril precedes every king’s inauguration.  Before the installation, it is said that witches roam freely during the daylight hours, exploiting the temporary power vacuum.  Normally, witches reportedly wreak havoc only at night; their daytime boldness is taken as especially disquieting. 

Nevertheless, Beng witches are neighbors.  At night, they may transform into animal familiars or other abnormal forms, but by day, they revert to their normal human appearance.  One might not know that the ordinary-looking person next door, or even one’s cousin or uncle, is plotting evil using mystical means.

As the king’s ritual seating approaches—the Beng equivalent of hand-on-the-Bible-swearing—the witches’ work reaches a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments preceding the climactic ritual.  A Beng friend claimed that more people die from witchcraft during the interregnum than any other time.  Babies, children, and pregnant women never attend a king’s investiture: youth of all ages are considered especially vulnerable to the witches’ power.  

King Bonde Chomo of Bengland (photo: Alma Gottlieb)

One might dismiss such accounts as irrelevant to a modern democracy.  I suggest otherwise.

Let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for any illegitimate power unleashed by evil and spiritually powerful actors aimed at harming regular humans.  (That’s the Beng perception.)  Defined thus, the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates last week’s insurrection in Washington.  

The insurgents might as well have been witches.  Like Beng witches, they plotted their moves secretly, online.  The Internet served as the high-tech equivalent of the Beng witches’ night—complete with mysterious spaces known colloquially (with its undertone of racist imagery) as the “dark Web.”  

After stealthy planning, the insurgents accomplished acts of violence ranging from physical to moral to spiritual.  After all, the building they assailed was, as American schoolchildren learn, the quintessential symbol of America. 

In their rampage, the insurgents obeyed their outgoing, would-be god-emperor.  Crafting the persona of a religious cult leader, Trump has referred to himself as the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.”  He once re-Tweeted a follower’s Tweet that he was “heaven sent.”  Former Energy secretary Rick Perry praised Trump as “God’s chosen one,” and plenty of other self-described Christian devotees have referred to him, implicitly or explicitly, as “the Messiah.”  

Trump even attracts acolytes espousing outlier religious traditions.  One much-photographed participant in last week’s assault—a buffalo horn- and bearskin-toting QAnon follower–called himself a “QAnon shaman,” ostensibly impersonating the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes.  Such flashy devotees merely exaggerate the religious fervor Trump himself ignites; his toxic narcissism flaunts the charismatic charlatanism in which religious cult leaders often specialize.  

Last week, the energy of Trump’s mob erupted so intensely that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, might have termed it positively effervescent.  Over a century ago, Durkheim took the explosive bubbles of a champagne bottle as an apt metaphor for the religious excitement generated by large crowds of worshippers.  Durkheim had in mind large ceremonial gatherings of Aboriginal peoples of Australia convened to venerate ancestral spirits of the land.  Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital aimed at murder, not spiritual enlightenment.

Until January 6th, the genius of the American political system had managed to contain the potent energy of previous interregnums, accomplishing handovers peacefully.  Following last week’s attempted coup d’état, the relevance of Beng kings’ installation rituals becomes urgently clear: moments of political transition pose the most perilous times of civic life. 

Modern-day witches sport all manner of dress.  Most appear commonplace, while some appropriate intimidating regalia ranging from would-be garb of the military to pseudo-shamanic adornment of Mongolia.  Like their African counterparts, these American witches—unnervingly, our neighbors and relatives–simultaneously wield and mock potent symbols to perform sedition.

4 comments

  • Jeannine Bestoso

    Hi Alma, What a wonderful article. Maybe you can tell us what you expect could happen next. Watching the news tonight and hearing different Republicans try to get their two cents in I was amazed at how much they still want to push the lies. They feel so empowered by trying to attach themselves to one they see as powerful. Very classic. I sent you a card for Christmas but it came back 1) bc I forgot to put a stamp on it and 2) bc l failed to put the house number and I think I used my own ZIP code.
    Jeannine

    • Thanks for your comment, Jeanine. Well, the immediate danger of the liminal period is now, thankfully, over! That doesn’t mean the witches are gone–they’ll just be more cautious.

  • Kathleen Sheldon

    Interesting perspective, thank you!
    I have been trying to think about the takeover of spaces such as Nancy Pelosi’s desk as an affirmation of her power – that is, placing her strength and power at the center rather than centering the intruders vulgarity. They see their intrusion as a victory (of sorts), but it was very short-lived, and only had meaning, even for them, because of Pelosi’s position.

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