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War Magic & Warrior Religion: Sorcery, Cognition & Embodiment

This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between D. S. Farrer and Berghahn blog editor Lorna Field.

D. S. Farrer is the co-author of the article Chants of Re-enchantment: Chamorro Spiritual Resistance to Colonial Domination and special issue editor of Social Analysis Volume 58, Issue 1: War Magic and Warrior Religion: Sorcery, Cognition, and Embodiment



What drew you to the study of War Magic & Warrior Religion?

Initially I was drawn to the study of war magic through my doctoral research into a Sufi warrior cult, where the Malay martial art (silat) was employed as a means to attract and secure local and international followers and converts. A wise informant, Dato Penggawa Tua Zaharah Mokhtar, recommended that I start with Winstedt [1925] (1993), Shaw (1976), and Skeat’s [1900] (1993) books on Malay magic to begin my research on silat. At the time I was lecturing on Weber at the National University of Singapore, so the chiasmus between warrior religion and war magic came naturally: of course, the connection also appears in Deleuze and Guattari’s [1987] (2004) Treatise on NomadologyThe War Machine, among other sources.

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research/compiled the contributions to the time you completed the volume?

In 2003 I put out a call for papers on War Magic as a kind of field experiment to see if other scholars working in similar fields would generate findings similar or different from my own. Then I read Neil Whitehead’s book Dark Shamans, which changed my view of the type of work anthropologists were capable of. By the new millennium a grittier, more realistic anthropology emerged where anthropologists are no longer expected to play the paternalistic hero to save their own tribe. My perspective became more personal still during follow up research in Kuala Lumpur, when a sorcerer (bomoh silat) attempted to capture my sevenfold soul by attaching seven limes to my mosquito net. Was the sorcerer trying to harm me? Or was this part of an effort to heal me? A reflection on the ambiguous ‘to heal or to harm’ problem appears in my discussion of the pharmakon in the volume’s introduction.

What aspect of compiling an edited collection did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

Probably the most difficult task was to write the introduction because it involved wading through a century of definitions of religion and magic. Another challenge was the initial edit of the author’s individual contributions when the peer reviews came in. To sharpen the common thread running through the papers required a touch that was firm and insistent, yet also patient and gentle. Finishing the co-authored article Chants of Re-enchantment: Chamorro Spiritual Resistance to Colonial Domination was a tricky enterprise, as I had to complete a short essay on the philosophy of the Ancient Chamorro submitted to me by my boss, Dr. James Sellmann. To complete the essay I conducted ethnographic fieldwork over a 30-month period on Guam, and then substituted an anthropological/sociological theoretical architecture summarized from Shadows of the Prophet. A barely literate outsourced copyeditor in Mumbai almost butchered this book, so, for my part one of the most pleasing aspects of War Magic was the opportunity to work with Shawn Kendrick from Social Analysis. Having a professional copyeditor makes a world of difference to the final outcome.

02 Figure 4.color

A female Tangki in Singapore with a Bicycle Pierced through Her Face. Photo courtesy of Margaret Chan.

To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

To attain its full impact and gain peer reviews I hope Berghahn will publish the special issue as a book. No doubt the War Magic special issue will encourage follow-up articles, and perhaps even volumes, in folklore, sociology, critical theory, performance studies, anthropology and other disciplines. There may also be some misplaced criticism from fields outside of anthropology from religious fanatics. Previous experience has taught me that some academic reviewers fail to comprehend the basic principles of the ethnographic method. Meanwhile, for better or worse, I suspect the volume will attain ‘cult status’ to eventually become a classic among practitioners of magick and witchcraft.

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

No doubt the revitalization of Weber’s concept of ‘warrior religion’ is controversial in the ongoing ‘war on terror,’ that some claim has become a ‘war on Islam.’ Religious incumbents everywhere assert that religion is premised upon ‘peace’ and therefore has nothing to do with violence. Karen Armstrong, herself a former nun, has recently written upon the supposed “myth of religious violence.” In War Magic I wanted to eclipse the crude atheist model that religion is merely a form of false consciousness, opiate, or illusory sun, to demonstrate that magic and religion, violence and warfare are rhizomic, where violence—or perhaps the prevention of violence—may be the dependent or independent variable to magic and religion.

If you weren’t an anthropologist, what would you have done instead?

I may have become a full-time martial arts instructor.

What’s a talent or hobby you have that your colleagues would be surprised to learn about?

I have learned the basics of 21 martial arts and have earned three black belts in kung fu.

What inspired your love of the subject of War Magic? When?

Before I was thirteen years old my mother’s younger sister, Auntie Sheila, took me aside to tell me that the fearsome power of witches does not come through books or covens, but is passed down through the centuries as a birthright. She said: “One person, and one person alone, inherits the power in each generation of our family….”

What inspired you to research and write?

My inspiration to research and write comes from martial arts training.

Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?

Neil Whitehead. He had the guts to switch from archaeology to social anthropology, and to soldier on with his studies of dark shamans even whilst they attempted to murder him.

What are the greatest challenges you have faced professionally, and how did you find it best to address them — as a writer, researcher, academic?

The greatest challenge for the professional anthropologist who employs the ethnographic method is to guard the interests of the informants whilst simultaneously telling the truth.

What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?




Follow D.S. Farrer on Twitter. Follow Berghahn Anthropology on Twitter.


Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. [1987] 2004. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Continuum. Originally published in 1980 as Mille plateaux, vol. 2 of Capitalisme et schizophrénie.
Farrer, D. S. 2009. Shadows of the Prophet: Martial Arts and Sufi Mysticism. Dordrecht: Springer. Shaw, William. 1976. Aspects of Malayan Magic. Kuala Lumpur: Yau Seng Press. Skeat, Walter William. [1900] 1984. Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
Winstedt, Richard. [1925] 1993. The Malay Magician: Being Shaman, Saiva and Sufi. Kuala Lumpur. Oxford: Oxford University Press.