Stories of Witches

A Santhal Pargana Tales

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

The belief in witchcraft is very real to the present day among the Santals. All untimely deaths and illness which does not yield to treatment are attributed to the machinations of witches, and women are not unfrequently murdered in revenge for deaths which they are supposed to have caused, or to prevent the continuance of illness for which they are believed to be responsible.

The Santal writer in spite of his education is a firm believer in witchcraft, and details his own experiences. He has justification for his belief, for as was the case in Mediaeval Europe, women sometimes plead guilty to having caused death by witchcraft when there appears to be no adequate motive for a confession, which must involve them in the severest penalties.

Mr. Bodding is aware that Santal women do actually hold meetings at night at which mantras and songs are repeated, and at which they may believe they acquire uncanny powers; the exercise of such powers may also on occasion be assisted by the knowledge of vegetable poisons.

The witch may either herself cause death by eating, or eating the liver of, her victim, or may cause her familiar “bonga” to attack the unfortunate. That witches eat the liver is an old idea in India mentioned by the Mughal historians.

The Jan guru is employed to detect who is the woman responsible for any particular misfortune. His usual method is to gaze on a leaf smeared with oil, in which as in a crystal he can doubtless imagine that shapes present themselves. The witch having been detected, she is liable to be beaten and maltreated until she withdraws her spells, and if this does not lead to the desired result she may be put to death.

Witchcraft.

The higher castes do not believe in witchcraft. If a man is ill they give him medicines and if he dies in spite of the medicine they do nothing further. But all the lower castes believe in witchcraft and know that it is a reality. The Santal women learnt the craft first from Marang Burn by playing a trick on him when he meant to teach their husbands. And now they take quite little girls out by night and teach them so that the craft may not die out.

We know of many cases to prove that witchcraft is a reality. Pirthi who lives in Pankha’s house was once ill: and it was an aunt of his who was “eating” him. One night as he lay ill the witch came and bent over him to take out his liver: but he woke up just in time and saw her and catching her by the hair he shouted for the people in the house. They and the villagers came and took the woman into custody. When the Pargana questioned her she confessed everything and was punished.

Another time a boy lay ill and senseless. A cowherd who was driving cattle home at evening ran to the back of the house where the sick boy lay, after a cow which strayed there. There he found a woman in a state of possession (rūm) he told the villagers what he had seen and they caught the woman and gave her a severe beating: whereupon the sick boy recovered. But about two months afterwards the cowherd suddenly fell down dead: and when they consulted a jān as to the reason he said that it was the witch who had been beaten who had done it.

 

 

Witchcraft.

Girls are taught witchcraft when they are young and are married to a bonga husband. Afterwards when they marry a man they still go away and visit the bonga and when they do so they send in their place a bonga woman exactly like them in appearance and voice; so that the husband cannot tell that it is not his real wife. There is however a way of discovering the substitution; for if the man takes a brand from the fire and burns the woman with it, then if it is really a bonga and not his wife she will fly away in a flame of fire.

Witch Stories.

I will now tell you something I have seen with my own eyes. In the village of Dhubia next to mine the only son of the Paranik lay ill for a whole year. One day I went out to look at my rahar crop which was nearly ripe and as I stood under a mowah tree I heard a voice whispering. I stooped down to try and see through the rahar who was there but the crop was so thick that I could see nothing; so I climbed up the mowah tree to look. Glancing towards Dhubia village I saw the third daughter of the Paranik come out of her house and walk towards me. When about fifty yards from me she climbed a big rock and waited. Presently an old aunt of hers came out of the village and joined her. Then the old woman went back to her house and returned with a lota of water. Meanwhile the girl had come down from the rock and sat at its foot near a thicket of dhela trees. The old woman caused the girl to become possessed (rūm) and they had some conversation which I could not hear, Then they poured out the water from the lota and went home.

On my way home I met a young fellow of the village and found that he had also seen what the two women did. We went together to the place and found the mark of the water spilled on the ground and two leaves which had been used as wrappers and one of which was smeared with vermilion and adwa rice had been scattered about. We decided to tell no one till we saw whether what had been done was meant to benefit or injure the sick boy. Fifteen days later the boy died: and when his parents consulted a jān he named a young woman of the village as the cause of the boy’s death and she was taken and punished severely by the villagers.

It is plain that the boy’s sister and aunt in order to save themselves caused the jān to see an innocent woman. I could not bring the boy back to life so it was useless for me to say anything, especially as the guilty women were of the Paranik’s own family. This I saw myself in broad daylight.

Another thing that happened to me was this. I had been with the Headman to pay in the village rent. It was night when we returned and after leaving him I was going home alone. As I passed in front of a house a bright light suddenly shone from the cowshed; I looked round and saw a great crowd of women-witches standing there. I ran away by the garden at the back of the house until I reached a high road; then I stopped and looked round and saw that the witches were coming after me; and looking towards the hamlet where my house was I saw that witches were coming with a bright light from that direction also. When I found myself thus hemmed in I felt that my last hour had come but I ran on till I came to some jungle.

Looking back from there I saw that the two bands had joined together and were coming after me. I did not feel safe there for I knew that there were bongas in the jungle who might tell the witches where I was. So I ran on to the tola where an uncle and aunt of mine lived. As I ran down the street I saw two witches at the back of one of the houses. They were sitting down; one was in a state of possession (rūm) and the other was opposite her holding a lamp. So I left the street and made my way through the fields till I Came to my uncle’s house. I knocked and was admitted panting and breathless; my uncle and aunt went outside to see what it was that had scared me and they saw the witches with the two lights flashing and made haste to bolt the door. None of us slept for the rest of the night and in the morning I told them all that had happened.

Since that night I have been very frightened of witches and do not like to go out at night. It was lucky that the witches did not recognise me; otherwise I should not have lived. Ever since I have never stayed at home for long together; I go there for two or three months at a time and then go away and work elsewhere. I am too frightened to stay in my own village. Now all the old women who taught witchcraft are dead except one: when she goes I shall not be frightened any more. I shall be able to go home when I like. I have never told any one but my uncle and aunt what I saw until now that I have written it down.

So from my own experience I have no doubt about the existence of witches; I cannot say how they “eat” men, whether by magic or whether they order “bongas” to cause a certain man to die on a certain day. Some people say that when a witch is first initiated she is married to a bonga and if she wants to “eat” a man she orders her bonga husband to kill him and if he refuses she heaps abuse on him until he does.

 

Witch Stories.

Young girls are taught witchcraft against their wills and if they refuse to “eat” their father or brother they die or go mad. There was a girl in my own village and she went out gathering herbs with another girl who was a witch. As usual they sang at their work and the witch girl sang songs the tune of which the other thought so pretty that she learnt them by heart. When she had learnt them the witch girl told her that they were witch songs and explained to her their meaning. The girl was very angry at having been taught them unawares but the witch girl assured her that she would never be able to forget the songs or their interpretation; then she assigned her to a bonga bridegroom and then told her to sid atang and all would be well with her otherwise she would have trouble.

When the girl learnt that she must sid atang by “eating” her father or brother or mother she began to make excuses; she could not kill her father for he was the support of the family; nor her only brother for he was wanted too at the Baha and Sohrai nor her mother who had reared her in childhood. The witch girl said that if she refused she would die; and she said that she would rather die than do what was required of her. Then the witch did something and the girl began to rave and talk gibberish and from that time was quite out of her senses. Ojhas tried to cure her in vain until at last one suggested that she should be taken to another village as the madness must be the work of witches living in her own village. So they took her away and the remedies then cured her. She stayed in her new home and was married there. A long time afterwards she went back to pay a visit to her father’s house: but the day after she arrived her head began to ache and she fell ill and though her husband came and took her away she died the day after she reached her home.

There was another girl; her friends noticed that when she came home with them in the evening after planting rice she was very careful not to fall behind or be left alone and they used to laugh at her for being a coward. But one day she was gathering Indian corn with a friend and as they talked she said “You will all have lovely dancing at the Sohrai.” “You!” said her friend: “won’t you be there? Are you going away?” Then the girl began to cry and sobbed out that her mother had taught her witchcraft and married her to a bonga; and it was for fear of the bonga that she did not like to be alone in the dark; and because she had refused to “eat” anyone her mother intended to “eat” her and so she had no hope of living to see the Sohrai. Three days later the girl fell ill and died, and after her death her friend told how she had foreseen it.

 

Witch Stories.

In the village of Mohulpahari there was a youth named Jerba. He was servant to Bepin Teli of Tempa and often had to come home in the dark after his day’s work. One night he was coming back very late and, before he saw where he was, suddenly came upon a crowd of witches standing under a hollow mowah tree at the foot of the field that the dhobie has taken. Just as he caught sight of them they seized hold of him and flung him down and did something which he could not remember—for he lost his senses when they threw him down. When he came to himself he managed to struggle free and run off. The witches pursued but failed to overtake him and he reached his home in a state of terror. The witches however had not finished with him for two or three days after they caused him to fall from a tree and break his arm. Ojhas were called in but their medicines did him no good. The arm mortified and maggots formed and in a few days Jerba himself told them that he would not recover; he told them how the witches chased him and that he had recognised them as women of his own village and shortly afterwards he became speechless and died.

My own brother-in-law lived at Mubundi. One night he and several other men were sitting up on the threshing-floor watching their rice. In the middle of the night they saw lights shining and flickering in the courtyard of my brother-in-law’s house and he went to see what was the matter. When he got near, the lights went into the house: he went up quietly and as he looked in found the house full of women who extinguished the light directly they saw him and rushed out of the house. Then he asked my sister what the light was; but she could only stammer out “What light? I saw no light,” so he struck her a blow and went back to the threshing-floor and told the others what he had seen. That night he would not tell them the names of the women he had seen; and before morning his right arm swelled and became very painful; the swelling quickly increased and by noon he lost consciousness and a few hours later he died.