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Witchcraft and the Monkeysphere

By Sara Amis

Witches generally speaking work in small groups and have a certain anti-authoritarian, anarchistic bent. The latter is especially true of traditions like Faery which have no effective hierarchy beyond “initiate/non-initiate”* but it remains a trait of even (relatively) more hierarchical traditions. As people experiment with more “churchy” organizational structures, that tendency may wane; however I think that inevitably the “witchiness” of a given group will wane along with it. In his post “When Wicca is Not Wicca” Jason Mankey says “Wicca works best in covens, and not groups of 200 people.” This is emphatically also true of other forms of religious witchcraft, possibly more so. But why? And what do hierarchy, authority, and group size actually have to do with one another?

Part of the answer I believe lies in the monkeysphere, also known as Dunbar’s number. This is an anthropological theory which states that there is a practical limit, determined by the size of the neocortex, to the number of others that a human being or other primate can perceive as distinct individuals; therefore, a limit to how many individuals with whom we can maintain stable social relationships. Groups above that number tend to either break apart or develop restrictive rules and norms in order to maintain stability, along with ever-more-authoritarian means of enforcing those rules. That number for human beings is somewhere between 150 and 250, depending on a number of factors including how much outside pressure there is to force cohesion and how much the members communicate and interact.

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