The indigenous Paiwan tribe in Taiwan has recently started a class to train young people in the traditional skills of witchcraft that they have practiced for centuries. Witchcraft is an important ancient ritual for the Paiwan, the mediums who practiced it treated diseases, prayed for the community, blessed people and protected them from evil.
“In the past, mediums had a high status in the tribe,” said Weng Yu-hua, who spearheaded the opening of the class and whose mother is a tribal witch. “They played an important role, especially during major occasions such as before a hunting excursion, before the year’s crops were planted, or when the tribe mourned the death of one of its members,” she said.
Half a century ago, the Paiwan tribe had more than 100 practitioners of witchcraft, but the tradition has nearly died out with the spread of Christianity. Now the tribe has fewer than 20 witches.
A major challenge for those who want to preserve the art of witchcraft is the lack of a Paiwan written language. All the witches’ chants were memorised and passed on orally. There are specific chants for each occasion. For instance, there is a chant to bless hunters, a chant to pray for a good harvest and a chant to invite the various gods and the souls of tribal ancestors to the village.
“We’ve only been able to note down about half the chants,” said one of the students. “The elders have difficulties chanting for a long time.”