One of the most puzzling problems in the history of western civilization is the reason for the decline in
magical and witchcraft beliefs. Briefly the puzzle is that such beliefs seem to have declined before any
viable alternative had been developed. It is not clear why people should have rejected the philosophical
comfort and practical protection of magical activities when 'science' offered no theoretical or practical
alternatives.2 Not much headway has been made in solving this problem since Keith Thomas wrote. In
this situation it seems worth approaching the problem from a different angle by looking at a
contemporary example of a rapid shift from magical explanations and action to something else.
What is needed is an example which has been observed more or less continuously over a generation
and in which there has been a rapid change in magical beliefs. Such a small case study can be made in
the Gurung village of Thak ( Gurung= Tolson) to the north of Pokhara in central Nepal. The village and
its economy have been described in a previous publication and the general features of Gurung society
have also been quite fully 4described.3 The changing situation in Thak itself has been described in a
previous article in Kailash.
Another theory to explain the decline of beliefs in witchcraft and magic is that it reflects a change in
social relations. There are two major varieties of this idea. One is that witchcraft reflects tensions in a
society, it is a 'social strain gauge' in Max Marwick's famous phrase.11 This would suggest that tensions
have declined in the village. There may be something in this. Up to about 1970, all returning Gurkhas
came back to the village and the jealousies and pressures between new wealth and the older families
was quite considerable. Now such people retire to Pokhara and build large and beautiful houses
alongside relative strangers. So the pressures may have been reduced.
[Click here to read full article]