In the early twentieth century, German sociologist Max Weber noted that one characteristic of modern societies was an increasing “disenchantment of the world.” By “disenchantment,” Weber meant that in modern societies people appeared to be moving away from believing in magic, spirits and gods (that is, powers that can “enchant” people), and moving instead towards adopting a more “rational” way of viewing the world.

These days scholars no longer believe that there is a direct line of development from “premodern” to “modern” worlds. Instead, many academic studies have been published that talk about the “enchantment” of the modern world, that is, they talk about how people in “modern” societies continue to follow certain “irrational” beliefs.

SG May 1948

Recently I was reading an issue of the Sarawak Gazette from 1948, and I came across some reports by a British Sarawak government official that clearly show evidence of the “enchantment” of society at that time.

There was, for instance, a report of an ailing Chinese man who was “spell-bound” by a Chinese medicine man and told to offer money to a spirit in order to cure his illness. The spirit accepted the money, but the Chinese man became even more ill.

Then there was a report of a conversation between this same government official and the Dayak head of a kampong, or village. The government official tried to convince the Dayak man that growing rice was more beneficial than raising pigs because one needed rice to survive whereas pigs tended to destroy the padi, or rice fields.

The Dayak man, however, responded that, “No. We must keep pigs to kill for our begawai (ceremonial feasts and offerings to the spirits); if we do not hold proper begawai the padi will be no good.”

begawai

In another report, the same official noted that in one area the rice fields had been badly damaged by pigs and rats. Nonetheless, the harvest was still better that year than it had been in the past.

The Dayak residents of that area attributed this to the fact that the government official had blessed the fields earlier in the year.

pig

This government official was an Englishman, a man who undoubtedly agreed with Weber that modern societies were “disenchanted,” and his reports were in some ways meant to point out the degree to which certain people in Sarawak remained “enchanted,” and therefore were failing to become “modern.”

To be fair, there is much less enchantment in the world today than there was in the past, but it remains, even in “modern” countries like Great Britain.

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