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Anti-Witchcraft Cults in Asante: An Essay in the Social History of an African People*

  • T.C. McCaskie (a1)
Abstract

There is a considerable literature dealing with the phemenon of twentieth-century anti-witchcraft cults among the Akan peoples of Ghana, and notably the Asante. This literature is written from the disciplinary perspective of social anthropology and it may be divided into two interpretative views of the matter. The first espouses the theory that such cults are ‘new’--creations of the twentieth century--in that they represent a reflexive response to the social disorientation assumed to have been engendered by colonial overrule. The second questions the causative link between the twentieth century and increased anomie, and suggests the location of such cults in a time perspective reaching back into the distant--but undefined--pre-colonial past. For a social historian interested in the problem of witchcraft and its suppression this literature presents a resistant difficulty. It concerns itself with the material appurtenances and the impressionistic ‘psychohistory’ of cult practices, but it is almost entirely bereft of historical data and it indulges in generalizations erected upon the flimsiest of factual considerations. McLeod, who has ably reviewed this literature, has commented upon this deficiency with regret, but--at least so far--has done little to rectify it.

In this paper I am concerned with the discrete history--social, economic and political--of three important anti-witchcraft cults that flourished in Asante between the late 1870s adn the late 1920s; in chronological order these were, domankama (‘The Creator’), aberewa (‘The Old Woman’) and hwe me so (‘Watch Over Me’). In discussing these cults as historical phenomena I seek to explicate or otherwise to dissolve some of the generalizations evident in the existing literature. I seek too to say something concerning the construction of a valid Asante (and African) social history, the relationship between social history and social anthropology in the African context, and the significance for the historian of Africa of socio-cultural phenomena such as witchcraft.

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A very preliminary draft of part of this paper was circulated at the first Workshop on the Akan Peoples, Northwestern University, April 1978. I am grateful to all those who commented at that time. The present paper is dedicated with gratitude to Meyer Fortes and Ivor Wilks, both of whom by their writing and in conversation profoundly influenced my thinking on the matters discussed here. Neither of course is to be held in any way accountable for the views which I have advanced here.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J.R. Goody , “Anomie in Ashanti?,” Africa, 27(1957).

Office, Land and Subjects in the History of the Manwere fekuo of Kumase: An Essay in the Political Economy of the Asante State,” JAH, 21(1980), 189208.

T. Judt , “A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians,” History Workshop 7(1979), 6693.

T.C. McCaskie , “Time and the Calendar in Nineteenth Century Asante: an Exploratory Essay,” History in Africa, 7(1980), 179200.

M. Owusu , “The Ethnography of Africa: the Usefulness of the Useless,” American Anthropologist 80(1978), 310–34.

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History in Africa
  • ISSN: 0361-5413
  • EISSN: 1558-2744
  • URL: /core/journals/history-in-africa
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