Comment on Favret-Saada’s The Anti-Witch

I was utterly delighted to read Jeanne Favret-Saada’s account of the tarot cards used by dewitchers like Madame Flora to understand her clients more deeply and to give them good advice. I, too, in my early work with British witches and magicians, watched many tarot card readings. I learned to read tarot cards myself and did so, not only for others, but to gain insight into my life. My experience with the cards is very close to what Favret-Saada describes, even though in her case the cards are read for different purposes and even the cards themselves—to judge by the pictures—seem to be distinct.

For both Favret-Saada and myself, the cards are both internal and external to the reader. On the one hand, the cards are like a private language of drenched symbols. Each reader develops his or her own sense of the significance of individual cards. Each card “speaks” to the reader and conveys one of a range of possible meanings, far broader than the picture on the card would seem to suggest. The “tower” card of the standard tarot deck can mean destruction (there’s an image of a tower struck by lightning, imploding) but it can also mean new beginnings. And yet the meaning cannot be arbitrary, freely chosen by the reader. The lightning struck tower can’t mean wisdom. It has to have something to do with change. That is the card’s externality. The card is external also because the reader does not pick it. The card is chosen by the one being read for, and that person believes the reading (if he or she believes) precisely because the reader does not control which cards are read.

It is this duality, as Favret-Saada suggests, that makes the cards so therapeutic. They are, indeed, therapeutic. The cards stand at the center of the therapeutic action Favret-Saada describes in the Bocage, and they were understood to be therapeutic for the magicians I knew.

Therapy is a process in which a suffering individual uses an external structure of symbols to reorganize a pattern of emotion response (broadly conceived). The standard anthropological model of symbolic healing, spelled out by Claude Levi-Strauss in “The efficacy of symbols” and later, in American Anthropologist, by James Dow (1986: 56), is this:

  1. the experiences of the healer and healed are generalized with culture-specific symbols in cultural myth;
  1. a suffering patient comes to a healer who persuades the patient that the problem can be defined in terms of the myth;
  1. the healer attaches the patient’s emotions to transactional symbols particularized from the general myth;
  1. the healer manipulates the transactional symbols to help the patient transact his or her own emotions.

The primary intervention is to make an externally given symbol feel emotionally real to the patient—and then to manipulate the symbol, to alter the patient’s emotions.

What I want to suggest here is that what makes a tarot card reading compelling, and makes symbolic healing possible, is the vividness of the attachment of the external symbol to the internal experience. I’ve spent my career exploring the ways in which an external symbol becomes more internally meaningful and present. But it is also true that humans are able to manage their emotional lives because they already presume a mapping relationship between mind and world, whether they think it is supernatural, whether they acknowledge it exists. A magician maps outward. The magician focuses his or her mind to alter the external world. A therapeutic subject maps inward. The subject goes to a therapist to use the therapist’s words to shift the responses of her inner life.

What mediates this relationship? The way we learn to think about minds: as bounded from the world or open to it, as intrinsically important or as ignorable, with an imagination which is an escape from this world below, or one that opens into the real.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Her books include Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989); The Good Parsi (Harvard 1996); Of Two Minds (Knopf 2000); and When God Talks Back (Knopf 2012). In general, her work focuses on the way that ideas held in the mind come to seem externally real to people, and the way that ideas about the mind affect mental experience. One of her recent project compares the experience of hearing distressing voices in India and in the United States.

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