Magic Realism / SERIES

Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms #3


The ‘magic’ in magic realism is brought about by the narrator shifting his here-and-now perspective to represent the unconscious. In doing so, he effortlessly morphs the story to depict bizarre phenomena or supernatural influences such as divine interventions, interactions with ancestors, ghostly manifestations, the presence of animal or weather spirits or any blend of inexplicable happenings in fantastical settings. A literary device that distinguishes magic realism from other genres is the omniscient voice; another is the vague nature of the magical story elements, which makes it difficult to tell if the narrator is of sound mind or non compos mentis. You could expect to find any, or a fusion, of the following characteristics in a magic realist text:

  • Fantastical elements (dreamlike landscapes; mystical powers)
  • Plenitude (an extraordinary abundance of disorienting detail)
  • Hybridity (mixing multiple planes of reality or opposite arenas like urban and rural)
  • Metafiction (a condition that makes readers aware of their status as readers)
  • Authorial reticence (lack of accuracy of events or credibility of world views)
  • Sense of mystery (a shift from the conventional to focus on hidden meanings)
  • Collective consciousness (a shared attitude toward the world or nature)
  • Political critique (implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite)

Links galore for anything you want to know about magic realism
thanks to Margin, an online literary magazine.

While novelists exploring magic realism enter the spirit world via their stories, in many cultures across the globe there are intermediaries like shamans and sorcerers who use special abilities or powerful drugs to journey from the mundane into other worlds. In previous posts you’ve learned about author Ian Mathie and his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions: Sorcerers and Orange Peel. Below follows his second installment of a four-part series about African sorcerers:

Sorcerers #2

The world of Harry Potter is pure make-believe and the witches and wizards it features are entertaining enough, but no more than fantasy. Not so African sorcerers and the shamans, witch-doctors and fetishists of many other cultures around the world. My African memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel tells of a number of different sorcerers, the second of whom lived in a forest village in southern Dahomey, close to where the cult of Voodoo originated.

Agbegbeyan was a working villager who also served the community of Dogbo-Itémé as their fetish priest. He was not the only sorcerer in the village as there was also a woman who reputedly spoke to the water spirits and the creatures of the river. She gave the appearance of being completely mad and harangued me because I was there to deal with a water-based project. Anyone who messed around with the water ran the risk of upsetting the ecology of the spirit world to which she was attuned and, therefore, became the target of her attention.

The fetish priest was much more significant to my story as, besides purifying the bride and groom at a village wedding before their marriage by a Pentecostal pastor, he was also responsible for conducting an initiation ceremony in which I played a central part. Using drugs and potions, incantations, razor blades and thorns, he gave me some spectacular experiences as he opened my mind to let the spirits have a look at me. That they did this, I have no doubt, and the experience was far from pleasant. But I survived and found new understanding in things I encountered in that village and elsewhere. A window had been opened in my mind and it persists to this day.

Some would call what he did magic, others might attribute it to drug induced hallucination. I don’t know what it was, but I do know that it gave very real experience, some of it quite terrifying, some very reassuring. Considering those events afterwards, if initiation at that low level can be like that, it makes one wonder what might be done for more advanced candidates. It also explains why so much of African sorcery is shrouded in secrecy. Not only must the practitioners maintain some mystique about their art, but too much open exposure, such as seems to be demanded in many western societies today, would completely undermine and destabilise a cultural balance that has served its people well for thousands of generations. Part of the effectiveness of sorcery lies in its secrecy, and as part of the promises I made when initiated even I must be bound by this code, so don’t expect me to spill too many secrets, only a few.

Magic Realism

A votive alter under a tree, where people placed offerings to the spirits inhabiting the tree when making requests.

Along with their functions as spirit whisperers, herbalists, counsellors (at times of dispute) and interpreters (of the secret signs of life), sorcerers also maintain an element of the balance in traditional societies. Because they have had such intensive training and can see behind the veil, their wisdom is respected and for arbitration they represent a mediator whose verdict cannot be contested. Whilst their verdicts can often be unclear, they usually result in disputes being settled and social order maintained. So it has been with most of the witch-doctors, sorcerers, fetish priests and shamans I have encountered, although one or two were not so benign. There is a trend in some places for people to set up in business claiming special powers and abilities, and then exploiting the gullible for their own personal profit and aggrandisement. This is particularly common in major cities, where naive migrants from the countryside arrive in an alien environment in search of work and money only to feel lost and lonely. They often turn to a sorcerer for advice, support or succour only to be terribly abused, their fears ruthlessly exploited to serve the sorcerer’s personal gain. It is comparable to people in western society turning to Pay-day Loan companies to get over a short term financial crisis only to find they are in hock for life at parasitic rates of interest.

Such features have even transferred to western countries. Migrants feeling homesick tend to band together, usually through the common base of a church organisation. Here, quack religion and rampant superstition are blended into new cults, locking in the gullible and frequently using cruel practices to expel demons and drive out evil spirits. This is always at a significant financial and emotional cost to the supplicant and often embroils their family back home where other voracious parasites ensnare them through their commitment to family loyalty. In London there has been a spate of such practices, most involving Congolese evangelical churches. The Congolese people have long traditions of superstitious belief and witchcraft is considered a normal everyday part of their lives. Almost any ordinary experience can be interpreted as ‘kindoki’, a form of witchcraft which, in its modern idiom, requires violent exorcism and sacrifice. That this is perversion of a long established traditional belief is not in doubt as kindoki has been well understood by anthropologists form many years and it holds none of the evil components this new form shows. In its original form it is more like the eastern concept of karma.

Magic Realism

An initiation knife – a wooden version of the real thing used in the forest for harvesting oil palm fruits – is given to every man after his adult initiation ceremony.

There are many magical cults in Africa, particularly in West and Central Africa, that involve sacrifice. Sometimes this involves slaughtering a chicken or goat whose entrails are then examined, like reading tea leaves in a cup. Others require a few drops of human blood, usually from the supplicant to identify him or her to the spirits. In a few cults, notably the Poro cult of Liberia, full human sacrifice is required and unexplained disappearances, particularly among infants, are not uncommon yet secrecy is tight and nobody will willingly tell you about them.

The drawing of blood is common and the methods and occasions when it may be required are very varied. I have seen the results of human sacrifice among the Tiv people of the Nigerian plateau and in Dahomey, Agbegbeyan, the village fetish priest branded me and cut a hole in my chest releasing blood to show the spirits during my initiation at Dogbo-Itémé. He also used drugs, chanted prayers and cast revelatory and protective spells, and he left me defenseless against the pleasurable exploitation by a needy female member of the community.

Author’s bio

Ian Mathie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Africa and the Far East. He has worked as a Royal Air Force pilot, rural development officer in Africa, high-tech irrigation project manager in the Middle East and industrial psychologist in the UK. Today, Ian is known as a prolific author of stories about his experiences in Africa. His contact with the dark continent began whilst still a baby, and although he has lived in Warwickshire for the past 16 years, Ian has never been able to shake off his fascination with Africa. He can be contacted at website / Facebook /

Ian Mathie’s books are out as paperbacks and e-books—I suggest you go to his website to see ‘how to buy’ this remarkable series of African stories. His fifth memoir, Sorcerers and Orange Peel, will be published by Mosaïque Press in October 2013.

Magic Realism

Please join Ian and me over the next few weeks as I explore magic realism as a literary genre and he talks about his upcoming book featuring his experiences in the magical realms of African traditions. Bruce Nicoll will conclude the series with a post about his interest and training in shamanism and the YA novel he’s writing on the concept of adolescent rite-of-passage.

14 thoughts on “Magic Realism vs. Magical Realms #3

  1. Thanks for this Belinda. May I offer one small correction: Initiations were not carried out at the altar beneath the fetish tree shown in the phto. That was a votive alter, where people placed offerings to the spirits inhabiting the tree when making requests. Any initiation ceremony done at that spot woul;d have deespoiled the place, and upset the spirits. Nobody wants to upset the spirits.
    Instead it was done in the centre of the village, at a spot used for almost all comunal gatherings, where the whole community could gather as witnesses. The centre of the village was also known territory for the ancestors, who would ceetainly be in attendance for any initiation. Some special ceremonies took place in the forest, away from public view, with only selected people in attendance, but these were less common and generally did not concern the community as a whole.

  2. Ah, that’s such an interesting distinction, almost like the spirits act like hosts in certain spots, like at the votive altar, but would attend ceremonies as ‘VIP guests’ elsewhere. Okay, I’ll correct the photo inscription but leave your comment in place because it’s fascinating to know all this protocol.

    • You have it in one! The tree is the spirits’ home – in this case several spirits were known to reside there. The altar is a votive point where peole come to make their petitions and leave gifts for the spirit they are appealing to. These may be food, scrifices (dead fowls and the like), special trinkets or simply tokens. The item left is directly related to the known likes ofthe spirit and the natiure of the plea.
      Spirits’ participation at other events is sntilrely at their discretion, but mostly they need to be invited, and this requoires the intercession of the fetish priest, who is the people’s link to the spirit world. He may invite specific spirits for particular rituals, or, as in the case of my initiation, a whole gang of them – basically all those relevant to some aspoect of the community’s life – so that they could have a look at and get to know me. It’s quite an invasive process, and not at all comfortable. You really know something is poking around in your soul when it happens.

  3. Ooh yes, I can imagine that it must be eerie to have your soul ‘exposed’ – Halloween is creepy enough for me, and I remember how I felt when I walked in on my mother’s seance when I was little (remember that from my book?). I had three other experiences when I knew for sure something ‘our of the ordinary’ was happening to me: two were aural and one was kind of a mind-body separation. In one way, it puts you on your guard and in another you feel quite honored when these things occur in your life.

  4. Having experiences like you describe when you have not been prepared for them can be unnerving and even disturbing. I’m not surprised you found this. It is one of the reasons so many traditional African societies employ a sequence of gradual initiations. Each one prepares the individual for a new stage of spiritual self-awareness, so that when the real tials occur on the brink of adulthood, there is not a backlash. After all, the purpose is to enable, not deter, and even if people’s actual ability to cotact and commune with tghe spiritual dimensions is strictly limited, and rrequires intermediaries, the level of awarenss they achieve offers a measure of protection and the ability to defend against many hostile intrusions.

    Feeling honoured that you have been made privvy to something private is a normal juvenile reaction. Just because it’s called juvenile, doesn’t mean it’s confinced to childhood events. This refers to inexperience, rather than age or maturity. Later on it brings with it a sense of responsibility – because one now knows somethoing others don’t and the understanding this carries is, in a way, a form of privilage. Privilage has to be paid for with responsibility, both in keeoping the knowldge pure and it not abusing it. Understanding this brings spiritual maturity.

    It is clear you have (subconsciously) taken great strides along this road.

    • The subconscious works all the time. Awareness of this only comes when the mind opens up channels twhich permit one to be aware of the hidden processes. So it is with the spiritual side of life. Most of it is hidden by our conscious clutter and it takes a disciplined and trained mind to be able to reach into the recesses at will.Either that, or moments when the inhibitors are turned off by drugs, alcohol or altered mind states like trance. Why do you think sorcerers and witch-doctors have to undergo such long and detailed training?
      It’s the same with buddhiist monks who spend years learning to control their minds. Meditation is one route to wards this that is most commonly recognised in he west, but it’s the same basic process in psychological terms.

  5. Yip, I need to get back into meditation … one way of clearing the mental clutter to allow spiritual growth. For now, though, I’m trying to keep the body healthy and fit, not because of vanity, but to restore some of the damage done by stress and to guard against depression.

    • It’s not just the body you need to consern yourself with, Belinda. You need to attend to the spiritual at the same time or all the effort you are making will be wasted. The two go together. Mens sana in corpore sana has a lot more to it when you give it full consideration. The body also depends partly on the hea;lth of the spirit, so include some mental and spiritual exercises in your routine..

  6. Ian, here’s a thought about the ‘cult’ aspect you’re describing here: isn’t it ironic that missionaries – aka evangelists – have over the years believed they were converting the people of Africa to ‘real’ religion when, in fact, it’s been nothing more than one cult preaching to another cult?

    • Tjhere is an element of cult in all religions. I Africa it was,as you suggest, merely one cult preaching to another religion. the difference being that Christianity was relatively recent in its origins and mewrely covered a part of what the older, traditional belief syetem encompasses. That’s why the two can live side by side in tha African mind. Their beliefs do not deny Christianity and in some cultures, like the Kimbanguists of the Congo, they even have their own home grown messiah. But the old spirits are still there and involved, nonetheless. They don’t evaporate just because there’s a new man on the block (or the cross).
      So, when the missionary is there, they;ll be christoians. When he’s not they are perfectly happy to be animists. What’s wrong with that?

  7. In fact, there’s a cult quality to every aspect of life. In her book, Cults In Our Midst, author Singer says, “In sum, the term cult is merely descriptive, not pejorative. It refers to the origins, social structure, and power structure of a group. The conduct of certain cults, however – especially groups that tend to overly exploit and abuse people and engage in deceptive, unethical, and illegal conduct – does provoke the surrounding society into a critical stance.”

    I’m studying her book for one of my story characters: she has to disappear, so the notion that she might’ve joined a cult will make sense to her family, though it’s actually just a cover up for what really happens to her.

  8. Pingback: Blogdom Nov. 20-Dec. 18 ’13 | Welcome to the ToiBox

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