From Ansara, to Son, to Sorcerer: Paul Stoller’s Journey Amongst the Songhay

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Paul Stoller’s eventual understanding and practicing of magic is the result of his acceptance and immersion in the world of the Songhay as a full-fledged member of the community. If Stoller had maintained his objective anthropological distance, his belief system would have never changed, and he would have never acquired the knowledge and acceptance of Songhay magic. It is not coincidence that when he begins to feel most accepted amongst the tribe parallel the moments when he starts to believe in their sorcery as not only real, but something so powerful he is at first afraid to understand it more thoroughly. In order to fully embrace Songhay magic, the limiting view of a white, outsider anthropologist, and all of the rigid beliefs that accompany that position had to be shed. Not only because that identity restricted his physical access to the information necessary to the study of sorcery, but because it also mentally distanced him, making his acceptance of their sorcery impossible. For Stoller, the transition from anthropologist outsider to student of Songhay sorcery was only plausible as he became increasingly accepted as a member of the community. It created the comfort and support required to loosen his lifelong training and beliefs, and allowed him to truly accept a different way of thinking, as he was himself living it. Although there are other factors that lead to Stoller’s gradual acceptance which are important to his overall shift, this change in his position within the Songhay community is at the crux of his transition. If he had continued to be a “good” anthropologist, his knowledge of Songhay sorcery would have been unreliable and impractical, as he would not have been able to experience it. Although the book begins with Paul Stoller undertaking an ambitious survey of the languages spoken among the Songhay, his status as an outsider renders his questions unworthy of the truth; the Songhay all lie in their responses, rendering his data useless (Stoller and Olkes 1987: 9). The real beginning of Paul Stoller’s magical journey begins many months after Paul’s acceptance among the Songhay - with a bird defecating on his head. While it is an amusing anecdote, it was nonetheless the important first step in his path toward becoming a Songhay sorcerer. For Djibo, the Songhay sorko (sorcerer-healer), it was a sign that Paul was to be initiated (Stoller and Olkes 1987: 23) in the ways of the sorko. If Djibo thought of him as a complete outsider, this proposition would have never occurred. For Paul, it was nothing more than an annoyance that turned into an opportunity to study yet another Songhay subculture. At this point, his quest for knowledge about the Songhay sorcerers was purely from an anthropological standpoint. In fact, Stoller wrestled with whether or not to directly participate, or to send an intermediary as the noted anthropologist Evans-Pritchard had while studying the Azande of Central Africa (Stoller and Olkes 1987: 25). If a person’s intent is to actually become a sorcerer, they would need to study the material firsthand, and Paul wavers on whether or not he should. An anthropologist, on the other hand, would try not to directly influence that which he is studying. When Paul makes the challenging decision to participate himself, it marks the important change in his journey as he moves from outside observer to active participant. By the time Paul and Djibo perform the healing ritual on the El Hadj (Stoller and Olkes 1987: 69), Paul has been studying and practicing the incantations of the sorko long enough to have memorized a few of them. The importance of that repetition and ritual cannot be overstated as a necessary beginning. Luhrmann recognizes the necessity of becoming proficient in magic as it creates a comfort with the material, and the freedom to enjoy it without the clumsiness of misunderstanding, and without the need to justify, question, and interpret (Luhrmann 1989: 313). Paul is slowly developing his...
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