"THE WITCH-HUNT: Or, the Triumph of Morality" by F.G. Bailey

"THE WITCH-HUNT: Or, the Triumph of Morality"

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This mature ethnography of the rural east Indian village of Bisipara in the 1950s captures the spirit of life in a small community isolated from the outside world. Bailey (Anthropology/Univ. of California, San Diego; The Kingdom of Individuals, not reviewed) employs a ""cultural event"" as an entry point into the ""complex web"" of the society that he describes. When a young woman dies of cerebral malaria during the off-season, the local village council interprets her death as being the result of a malevolent devata, or godlike spirit that can be kept for good luck. The council hires a diviner to determine who in the village has been keeping a devata, and five men are fined for possibly causing the girl's death. Working both from notes taken in the 1950s and from recollection, Bailey presents a tremendous amount of information about the culture while also drafting a deft analysis of how tradition and political power converge to create a moral code. While five individuals are punished by the council, Tuta the Washerman becomes the focus of the investigation, and his reputation is consequently ruined. What on the surface appears to be a rather random witch hunt can be interpreted as a manipulation of traditional values designed to put this member of the Washermen caste back into his ""proper"" position even though he has acquired significant financial independence. Bailey's interpretation of the events is well-tempered by the 40-year hiatus between field work and ethnography -- he had originally dismissed discrepancies between religious beliefs and behavior as annoying hypocrisies only to realize later that it is precisely the tension between belief and action that forges the structures of cultural life. Quite readable on the academic scale, but does not push any of the thematic buttons that would indicate a potential for crossing over into a mass market audience.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1994
Page count: 232pp
Publisher: Cornell Univ.