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Witchcraft, as most commonly understood in both historical and present-day communities, is the use of alleged supernatural powers of magic. A witch is a practitioner of witchcraft. Traditionally, "witchcraft" means the use of magic or supernatural powers to inflict harm or misfortune on others, and this remains the most common and widespread meaning.[1] According to Encyclopedia Britannica, "Witchcraft thus defined exists more in the imagination of contemporaries than in any objective reality. Yet this stereotype has a long history and has constituted for many cultures a viable explanation of evil in the world".[2] The belief in witchcraft has been found in a great number of societies worldwide. Anthropologists have applied the English term "witchcraft" to similar beliefs in occult practices in many different cultures, and societies that have adopted the English language have often internalised the term.[3][4][5]

In Europe, belief in witchcraft traces back to classical antiquity. In medieval and early modern Europe, accused witches were usually women who were believed to have used black magic or maleficium against their own community. Usually, accusations of witchcraft were made by their neighbors and followed from social tensions. Witches were sometimes said to have communed with evil beings or with the Devil, though anthropologist Jean La Fontaine notes that such accusations were mainly made against "enemies of the Church".[6] It was thought witchcraft could be thwarted by protective magic or counter-magic, which could be provided by the 'cunning folk' or 'wise people'. Suspected witches were also intimidated, banished, attacked or killed. Often they would be formally prosecuted and punished, if found guilty or simply believed to be guilty. European witch-hunts and witch trials in the early modern period led to tens of thousands of executions. While magical healers and midwives were sometimes accused of witchcraft themselves,[7][4][8][9] they made up a minority of those accused. European belief in witchcraft gradually dwindled during and after the Age of Enlightenment.

Many indigenous belief systems that include the concept of witchcraft likewise define witches as malevolent, and seek healers and medicine people for protection against witchcraft.[10][11] Some African and Melanesian peoples believe witches are driven by an evil spirit or substance inside them. Modern witch-hunting takes place in parts of Africa and Asia.

Today, followers of certain types of modern paganism self-identify as witches and use the term witchcraft for their beliefs and practices.[12][13][14] Other neo-pagans avoid the term due to its negative connotations.[15]


The Witches by Hans Baldung (woodcut), 1508

The concept of witchcraft and the belief in its existence have persisted throughout recorded history. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions there is "difficulty of defining 'witches' and 'witchcraft' across cultures—terms that, quite apart from their connotations in popular culture, may include an array of traditional or faith healing practices and are not easily defined".[16]

The most common meaning of "witchcraft" worldwide is the use of harmful magic.[17] Belief in malevolent magic has been found in cultures worldwide, regardless of development.[3][18] Most societies have feared an ability by some individuals to cause supernatural harm and misfortune to others. This may come from mankind's tendency "to want to assign occurrences of remarkable good or bad luck to agency, either human or superhuman".[19] Historians and anthropologists see the concept of "witchcraft" as one of the ways humans have tried to explain strange misfortune.[19][20] Some cultures have feared witchcraft much less than others, because they tend to have other explanations for strange misfortune.[19] For example, the Gaels of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands historically held a strong belief in fairy folk, who could cause supernatural harm, and witch-hunting was very rare in these regions compared to other regions of the British Isles.[21]

Historian Ronald Hutton outlined five key characteristics ascribed to witches and witchcraft by most cultures that believe in this concept: the use of magic to cause harm or misfortune to others; it was used by the witch against their own community; powers of witchcraft were believed to have been acquired through inheritance or initiation; it was seen as immoral and often thought to involve communion with evil beings; and witchcraft could be thwarted by defensive magic, persuasion, intimidation or physical punishment of the alleged witch.[17]

It is commonly believed that witches use objects, words, and gestures to cause supernatural harm or that they simply have an innate power to do so. Hutton notes that both kinds of practitioners are often believed to exist in the same culture and that the two often overlap, in that someone with an inborn power could wield that power through material objects.[22]

One of the most influential works on witchcraft and concepts of magic was E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, a study of Azande witchcraft beliefs published in 1937. This provided definitions for witchcraft which became a convention in anthropology.[20] However, some researchers argue that the general adoption of Evans-Pritchard's definitions constrained discussion of witchcraft beliefs, and even broader discussion of magic and religion, in ways that his work does not support.[23] Evans-Pritchard reserved the term "witchcraft" for the actions of those who inflict harm by their inborn power and used "sorcery" for those who needed tools to do so.[24] Historians found these definitions difficult to apply to European witchcraft, where witches were believed to use physical techniques, as well as some who were believed to cause harm by thought alone.[25][26] The distinction "has now largely been abandoned, although some anthropologists still sometimes find it relevant to the particular societies with which they are concerned".[22]

While most cultures believe witchcraft to be something willful, some Indigenous peoples in Africa and Melanesia believe witches have a substance or an evil spirit in their bodies that drives them to do harm.[22] However, such substances are described in other accounts as being able to act on their own while the witch is sleeping or unaware.[23] The Dobu people believe women work harmful magic in their sleep while men work it while awake.[27] Further, in cultures where substances within the body are believed to grant supernatural powers, the substance may be good, bad, or morally neutral.[28][29] Hutton draws a distinction between those who unwittingly cast the evil eye and those who deliberately do so, describing only the latter as witches.[19]

The universal or cross-cultural validity of these terms are debated.[20] Hutton states:

[Malevolent magic] is, however, only one current usage of the word. In fact, Anglo-American senses of it now take at least four different forms, although the one discussed above seems still to be the most widespread and frequent. The others define the witch figure as any person who uses magic ... or as the practitioner of nature-based Pagan religion; or as a symbol of independent female authority and resistance to male domination. All have validity in the present.[19]

Anthropologist Fiona Bowie notes that the terms "witchcraft" and "witch" are used differently by scholars and the general public in at least four different ways that must be treated separately.[20] Neopagan writer Isaac Bonewits proposed dividing witches into even more distinct types including, but not limited to: Neopagan, Feminist, Neogothic, Neoclassical, Classical, Family Traditions, Immigrant Traditions, and Ethnic.[30]


The word is over a thousand years old: Old English formed the compound wiccecræft from wicce ('witch') and cræft ('craft').[31] The masculine form was wicca ('male sorcerer').[32]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wicce and wicca were probably derived from the Old English verb wiccian, meaning 'to practice witchcraft'.[33] Wiccian has a cognate in Middle Low German wicken (attested from the 13th century). The further etymology of this word is problematic. It has no clear cognates in other Germanic languages outside of English and Low German, and there are numerous possibilities for the Indo-European root from which it may have derived.

Another Old English word for 'witch' was hægtes or hægtesse, which became the modern English word "hag" and is linked to the word "hex". In most other Germanic languages, their word for 'witch' comes from the same root as these; for example German Hexe and Dutch heks.[34]

In colloquial modern English, the word witch is particularly used for women.[35] A male practitioner of magic or witchcraft is more commonly called a 'wizard', or sometimes, 'warlock'. When the word witch is used to refer to a member of a neo-pagan tradition or religion (such as Wicca), it can refer to a person of any gender.[citation needed]

Beliefs about practices[edit]

Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger. It shows a witch brewing a potion overlooked by her familiar spirit or a demon; items on the floor for casting a spell; and another witch reading from a grimoire while anointing the buttocks of a young witch about to fly upon an inverted besom.

Witches are commonly believed to cast curses; a spell or set of magical words and gestures intended to inflict supernatural harm.[36] Cursing could also involve inscribing runes or sigils on an object to give that object magical powers; burning or binding a wax or clay image (a poppet) of a person to affect them magically; or using herbs, animal parts and other substances to make potions or poisons.[37][38][39][22] Witchcraft has been blamed for many kinds of misfortune. In Europe, by far the most common kind of harm attributed to witchcraft was illness or death suffered by adults, their children, or their animals. "Certain ailments, like impotence in men, infertility in women, and lack of milk in cows, were particularly associated with witchcraft". Illnesses that were poorly understood were more likely to be blamed on witchcraft. Edward Bever writes: "Witchcraft was particularly likely to be suspected when a disease came on unusually swiftly, lingered unusually long, could not be diagnosed clearly, or presented some other unusual symptoms".[40]

A common belief in cultures worldwide is that witches tend to use something from their target's body to work magic against them; for example hair, nail clippings, clothing, or bodily waste. Such beliefs are found in Europe, Africa, South Asia, Polynesia, Melanesia, and North America.[22] Another widespread belief among Indigenous peoples in Africa and North America is that witches cause harm by introducing cursed magical objects into their victim's body; such as small bones or ashes.[22] James George Frazer described this kind of magic as imitative.[a]

In some cultures, witches are believed to use human body parts in magic,[22] and they are commonly believed to murder children for this purpose. In Europe, "cases in which women did undoubtedly kill their children, because of what today would be called postpartum psychosis, were often interpreted as yielding to diabolical temptation".[42]

Witches are believed to work in secret, sometimes alone and sometimes with other witches. Hutton writes: "Across most of the world, witches have been thought to gather at night, when normal humans are inactive, and also at their most vulnerable in sleep".[22] In most cultures, witches at these gatherings are thought to transgress social norms by engaging in cannibalism, incest and open nudity.[22]

Witches around the world commonly have associations with animals.[43] Rodney Needham identified this as a defining feature of the witch archetype.[44] In some parts of the world, it is believed witches can shapeshift into animals,{[45] or that the witch's spirit travels apart from their body and takes an animal form, an activity often associated with shamanism.[45] Another widespread belief is that witches have an animal helper.{[45] In English these are often called "familiars", and meant an evil spirit or demon that had taken an animal form.[45] As researchers examined traditions in other regions, they widened the term to servant spirit-animals which are described as a part of the witch's own soul.[46]

Necromancy is the practice of conjuring the spirits of the dead for divination or prophecy, although the term has also been applied to raising the dead for other purposes. The biblical Witch of Endor performed it (1 Samuel 28th chapter), and it is among the witchcraft practices condemned by Ælfric of Eynsham:[47][48][49] "Witches still go to cross-roads and to heathen burials with their delusive magic and call to the devil; and he comes to them in the likeness of the man that is buried there, as if he arises from death."[50]

Witchcraft and folk healers[edit]

Diorama of a cunning woman or wise woman in the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic

Most societies that have believed in harmful or black magic have also believed in helpful magic. Some have called it white magic, at least in more recent times.[51] Where belief in harmful magic exists, its use is typically forbidden by law as well as hated and feared by the general populace, while helpful "white" or apotropaic magic is tolerated or even accepted wholesale by the population, even if the orthodox establishment opposes it.[52]

In these societies, practitioners of helpful magic, usually known as cunning folk, have traditionally[timeframe?] provided services such as breaking the effects of witchcraft, healing, divination, finding lost or stolen goods, and love magic.[53] In Britain, and some other parts of Europe, they were commonly known as cunning folk or wise people.[53] Alan McFarlane wrote that while cunning folk is the usual name, some are also known as 'blessers' or 'wizards', but might also be known as 'white', 'good', or 'unbinding witches'.[54] Historian Owen Davies says the term "white witch" was rarely used before the 20th century.[55] Ronald Hutton uses the general term "service magicians".[53] Often these people were involved in identifying alleged witches.[51]

Such helpful magic-workers "were normally contrasted with the witch who practiced maleficium—that is, magic used for harmful ends".[56] In the early years of the witch hunts "the cunning folk were widely tolerated by church, state and general populace".[56] Some of the more hostile churchmen and secular authorities tried to smear folk-healers and magic-workers by falsely branding them 'witches' and associating them with harmful 'witchcraft',[53] but generally the masses did not accept this and continued to make use of their services.[57] The English MP and skeptic Reginald Scot sought to disprove magic and witchcraft, writing in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), "At this day, it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch' or 'she is a wise woman'".[58] Historian Keith Thomas adds "Nevertheless, it is possible to isolate that kind of 'witchcraft' which involved the employment (or presumed employment) of some occult means of doing harm to other people in a way which was generally disapproved of. In this sense the belief in witchcraft can be defined as the attribution of misfortune to occult human agency".[4]

Emma Wilby says folk magicians in Europe were viewed ambivalently by communities, and were considered as capable of harming as of healing,[59] which could lead to their being accused as malevolent witches. She suggests some English "witches" convicted of consorting with demons may have been cunning folk whose supposed fairy familiars had been demonised.[60]

Hutton says that healers and cunning folk "were sometimes denounced as witches, but seem to have made up a minority of the accused in any area studied".[51] Likewise, Davies says "relatively few cunning-folk were prosecuted under secular statutes for witchcraft" and were dealt with more leniently than alleged witches. The Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (1532) of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Danish Witchcraft Act of 1617, stated that workers of folk magic should be dealt with differently from witches.[61] It was suggested by Richard Horsley that cunning folk (devins-guerisseurs, 'diviner-healers') made up a significant proportion of those tried for witchcraft in France and Switzerland, but more recent surveys conclude that they made up less than 2% of the accused.[62] However, Éva Pócs says that half the accused witches in Hungary seem to have been healers,[63] and Kathleen Stokker says the "vast majority" of Norway's accused witches were folk healers.[64]

Witch-hunts and thwarting witchcraft[edit]

A witch bottle, used as counter-magic against witchcraft

Societies that believed in witchcraft also believed that it could be thwarted in various ways. One common way was to use protective magic or counter-magic, of which the cunning folk were experts.[51] This included charms, talismans and amulets, anti-witch marks, witch bottles, witch balls, and burying objects such as horse skulls inside the walls of buildings.[65] Another believed cure for bewitchment was to persuade or force the alleged witch to lift their spell.[51] Often, people would attempt to thwart the witchcraft by physically punishing the alleged witch, such as by banishing, wounding, torturing or killing them. "In most societies, however, a formal and legal remedy was preferred to this sort of private action", whereby the alleged witch would be prosecuted and then formally punished if found guilty.[51] This often resulted in execution.

Accusations of witchcraft[edit]

Alleged witches being accused in the Salem witch trials

Throughout the world, accusations of witchcraft are often linked to social and economic tensions. Females are most often accused, but in some cultures it is mostly males. In many societies, accusations are directed mainly against the elderly, but in others age is not a factor, and in some cultures it is mainly adolescents who are accused.[66]

Éva Pócs writes that reasons for accusations of witchcraft fall into four general categories. The first three of which were proposed by Richard Kieckhefer, and the fourth added by Christina Larner:[67]

  1. A person was caught in the act of positive or negative sorcery
  2. A well-meaning sorcerer or healer lost their clients' or the authorities' trust
  3. A person did nothing more than gain the enmity of their neighbors
  4. A person was reputed to be a witch and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs or occultism.

Modern witch-hunts[edit]

Witch-hunts, scapegoating, and the shunning or murder of suspected witches still occurs.[68] Many cultures worldwide continue to have a belief in the concept of "witchcraft" or malevolent magic.[69]

Apart from extrajudicial violence, state-sanctioned violence also occurs in some jurisdictions. For instance, in Saudi Arabia practicing witchcraft and sorcery is a crime punishable by death and the country has executed people for this crime in 2011, 2012 and 2014.[70][71][72]

Witchcraft-related violence is often discussed as a serious issue in the broader context of violence against women.[73][74][75][76][77] In Tanzania, an estimated 500 older women are murdered each year following accusations of witchcraft or accusations of being a witch, according to a 2014 World Health Organization report.[78]

Children who live in some regions of the world, such as parts of Africa, are also vulnerable to violence that is related to witchcraft accusations.[79][80][81][82] Such incidents have also occurred in immigrant communities in the UK, including the much publicized case of the murder of Victoria Climbié.[83][84]

Religious perspectives[edit]

Ancient Mesopotamian religion[edit]

Working magic was widely accepted and deeply integrated into the religion and the wider Mesopotamian society.[85] According to Tzvi Abusch, the early stages of the development of witchcraft (ipšū or kišpū[86]) in ancient Mesopotamia were "comparable to the archaic shamanistic stage of European witchcraft".[87]: 65–66  In this early stage, witches were not necessarily considered evil, but took white and black forms and could help others using a combination of magical and medical knowledge.[87]: 65–66  They generally lived in rural areas and sometimes exhibited ecstatic behavior,[87]: 65–66  which was more usually associated with the ašipu (exorcist), whose main function at this stage of development was to battle non-human supernatural forces.[87]: 65–66 

In ancient Mesopotamian religion, witches (m. kaššāpu, f. kaššāptu, from kašāpu ['to bewitch'][86]) eventually[when?] came to be "regarded as an anti-social and illegitimate practitioner of destructive magic ... whose activities were motivated by malice and evil intent and who was opposed by the ašipu, an exorcist or incantation-priest",[87]: 65–66  who were predominantly male representatives of the official state religion.[87] The individuals mentioned in records of Mesopotamian society as witches tended to be those of low status who were weak or otherwise marginalized, including women, foreigners, actors, and peddlers.[85]

By the time of the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC), the use of magic to harm others without justification was subject to legal repercussions:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.[88][b]

The ašipu, in their continued efforts to suppress witchcraft,[87] developed an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû, probably composed in the early first millennium BC.[90]


During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141 BCE to 87 BCE) in the Western Han Dynasty of China, there were instances where the imperial court took measures to suppress certain religious or spiritual practices, including those associated with shamanism. Emperor Wu was known for his strong support of Confucianism, which was the dominant ideology of the Han Dynasty, and he promoted policies that aimed to consolidate central authority and unify the cultural and social landscape of the empire.[91]

One notable event related to the suppression of shamanism occurred in 91 BCE, when Emperor Wu issued an edict that banned a range of "heterodox" practices, including shamanistic rituals and divination, in favor of Confucianism. The primary target of these measures was the Wuism or Wu (巫) tradition, which involved the worship of spirits and the use of shamanic practices to communicate with them. Wuism was considered by the Confucian elite to be superstitious witchcraft and at odds with Confucian principles.[92]

Emperor Wu's suppression of shamanism was part of a larger effort to centralize power, promote Confucian ethics, and standardize cultural practices. While the ban on shamanistic practices did impact certain communities and religious groups, these measures were not universally applied across the vast territory of the empire. Local variations and practices persisted in some regions despite imperial edicts.[91]

The historical record from that time is limited, and our understanding of these events can be influenced by the perspectives of the Confucian scholars and officials who documented them. As a result, there might be some variations in the interpretation of the exact nature and extent of the expulsion of shamans and other religious practitioners during Emperor Wu's reign.[91]

Abrahamic religions[edit]

Witchcraft's historical evolution in the Middle East reveals a multi-phase journey influenced by culture, spirituality, and societal norms. Ancient witchcraft in the Near East intertwined mysticism with nature through rituals and incantations aligned with local beliefs. In ancient Judaism, magic had a complex relationship, with some forms accepted due to mysticism[93] while others were considered heretical.[89] The medieval Middle East experienced shifting perceptions of witchcraft under Islamic and Christian influences, sometimes revered for healing and other times condemned as heresy.


Jewish attitudes toward witchcraft were rooted in its association with idolatry and necromancy, and some rabbis even practiced certain forms of magic themselves.[94][95] References to witchcraft in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, highlighted strong condemnations rooted in the "abomination" of magical belief. Christianity similarly condemned witchcraft, considering it an abomination and even citing specific verses to justify witch-hunting during the early modern period.


Historically, the Christian concept of witchcraft derives from Old Testament laws against it. In medieval and early modern Europe, many Christians believed in magic. As opposed to the helpful magic of the cunning folk, witchcraft was seen as evil and associated with Satan and Devil worship. This often resulted in deaths, torture and scapegoating (casting blame for misfortune),[96][97] and many years of large scale witch-trials and witch hunts, especially in Protestant Europe, before largely ending during the Age of Enlightenment. Christian views in the modern day are diverse, ranging from intense belief and opposition (especially by Christian fundamentalists) to non-belief. During the Age of Colonialism, many cultures were exposed to the Western world via colonialism, usually accompanied by intensive Christian missionary activity (see Christianization). In these cultures, beliefs about witchcraft were partly influenced by the prevailing Western concepts of the time.

A 1613 English pamphlet showing "Witches apprehended, examined and executed"

In Christianity, sorcery came to be associated with heresy and apostasy and to be viewed as evil. Among Catholics, Protestants, and the secular leadership of late medieval/early modern Europe, fears about witchcraft rose to fever pitch and sometimes led to large-scale witch-hunts. The fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise in awareness and terror of witchcraft. Tens of thousands of people were executed, and others were imprisoned, tortured, banished, and had lands and possessions confiscated. The majority of those accused were women, though in some regions the majority were men.[98][99]: 23 In Scots, the word warlock came to be used as the male equivalent of witch (which can be male or female, but is used predominantly for females).[100][101][102]

The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for 'Hammer of The Witches') was a witch-hunting manual written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It was used by both Catholics and Protestants[103] for several hundred years, outlining how to identify a witch, what makes a woman more likely than a man to be a witch, how to put a witch on trial, and how to punish a witch. The book defines a witch as evil and typically female. It became the handbook for secular courts throughout Europe, but was not used by the Inquisition, which even cautioned against relying on it.[104] It was the most sold book in Europe for over 100 years, after the Bible.[105]


Islamic perspectives on magic encompass a wide range of practices,[106] with belief in black magic and the evil eye coexisting alongside strict prohibitions against its practice.[107] The Quran acknowledges the existence of magic and seeks protection from its harm. Islam's stance is against the practice of magic, considering it forbidden, and emphasizes divine miracles rather than magic or witchcraft.[108] The historical continuity of witchcraft in the Middle East underlines the complex interaction between spiritual beliefs and societal norms across different cultures and epochs.

Modern paganism[edit]

During the 20th century, interest in witchcraft rose in English-speaking and European countries. From the 1920s, Margaret Murray popularized the 'witch-cult hypothesis': the idea that those persecuted as 'witches' in early modern Europe were followers of a benevolent pagan religion that had survived the Christianization of Europe. This has been discredited by further historical research.[109][110][111][112][113]

From the 1930s, occult neopagan groups began to emerge who called their religion a kind of 'witchcraft'. They were initiatory secret societies inspired by Murray's 'witch cult' theory, ceremonial magic, Aleister Crowley's Thelema, and historical paganism.[114][115][116] The biggest religious movement to emerge from this is Wicca. Today, some Wiccans and members of related traditions self-identify as "witches" and use the term "witchcraft" for their magico-religious beliefs and practices, primarily in Western anglophone countries.[12]

Regional perspectives[edit]

Prevalence of belief in witchcraft by country[117]
Socio-demographic correlates of witchcraft beliefs[117]

A 2022 study found that belief in witchcraft, as in the use of malevolent magic or powers, is still widespread in some parts of the world. It found that belief in witchcraft varied from 9% of people in some countries to 90% in others, and was linked to cultural and socioeconomic factors. Stronger belief in witchcraft correlated with poorer economic development, weak institutions, lower levels of education, lower life expectancy, lower life satisfaction, and high religiosity.[118][117]

It contrasted two hypotheses about future changes in witchcraft belief:[117]

  • witchcraft beliefs should decline "in the process of development due to improved security and health, lower exposure to shocks, spread of education and scientific approach to explaining life events" according to standard modernization theory
  • "some aspects of development, namely rising inequality, globalization, technological change, and migration, may instead revive witchcraft beliefs by disrupting established social order" according to literature largely inspired by observations from Sub-Saharan Africa.


An Azande witch doctor, who is believed to cure bewitchment

African witchcraft encompasses various beliefs and practices. These beliefs often play a significant role in shaping social dynamics and can influence how communities address challenges and seek spiritual assistance. Much of what witchcraft represents in Africa has been susceptible to misunderstandings and confusion, thanks in no small part to a tendency among western scholars since the time of the now largely discredited Margaret Murray to approach the subject through a comparative lens vis-a-vis European witchcraft.[119]

While some colonialists tried to eradicate witch hunting by introducing legislation to prohibit accusations of witchcraft, some of the countries where this was the case have formally recognized the existence of witchcraft via the law. This has produced an environment that encourages persecution of suspected witches.[120]

In Cameroon among the Maka people, witchcraft is known as "djambe" and encompasses occult, transformative, killing, and healing aspects.[121] In the Central African Republic, hundreds of people are convicted of witchcraft annually, with reports of violent acts against accused women.[122] The Democratic Republic of the Congo witnessed a disturbing trend of child witchcraft accusations in Kinshasa, leading to abuse and exorcisms supervised by self-styled pastors.[123] Ghana grapples with accusations against women, leading to the existence of witch camps where accused individuals can seek refuge, though the government plans to close them.[124]

In Kenya, there have been reports of mobs burning people accused of witchcraft, reflecting the deep-seated beliefs in the supernatural.[125] Malawi faces a similar issue of child witchcraft accusations, with traditional healers and some Christian counterparts involved in exorcisms, causing abandonment and abuse of children.[126] In Nigeria, Pentecostal pastors have intertwined Christianity with witchcraft beliefs for profit, leading to the torture and killing of accused children.[127] Sierra Leone's Mende people see witchcraft convictions as beneficial, as the accused receive support and care from the community.[128]

Lastly, in Zulu culture, healers known as sangomas protect people from witchcraft and evil spirits through divination and ancestral connections.[129] However, concerns arise regarding the training and authenticity of some sangomas.

In parts of Africa, beliefs about illness being caused by witchcraft continue to fuel suspicion of modern medicine, with serious healthcare consequences. HIV/AIDS[130] and Ebola[131] are two examples of often-lethal infectious disease epidemics whose medical care and containment has been severely hampered by regional beliefs in witchcraft. Other severe medical conditions whose treatment is hampered in this way include tuberculosis, leprosy, epilepsy and the common severe bacterial Buruli ulcer.[132][133]


North America[edit]

The views of witchcraft in North America have evolved through an interlinking history of cultural beliefs and interactions. These forces contribute to complex and evolving views of witchcraft. Today, North America hosts a diverse array of beliefs about witchcraft.[134][135]

Indigenous communities such as the Cherokee,[136] Hopi,[137] the Navajo[5] among others,[138] included in their folklore and beliefs which malevolent figures who could harm their communities, often resulting in severe punishments, including death.[139] These communities also recognized the role of medicine people as healers and protectors against these malevolent forces.[citation needed]

The term witchcraft arrived with European colonists, along with European views on witchcraft.[134] This term would be adopted by many Indigenous communities for those beliefs about harmful supernatural powers. In colonial America and the United States, views of witchcraft were further shaped by European colonists. The infamous Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, along with other witch hunts in places like Maryland and Pennsylvania, exemplified European and Christian fear and hysteria surrounding accusations of witchcraft. These trials led to the execution of numerous individuals accused of practicing witchcraft. Despite changes in laws and perspectives over time, accusations of witchcraft persisted into the 19th century in some regions, such as Tennessee, where prosecutions occurred as late as 1833.

The influences on Witchcraft in Latin America impacted North American views both directly and indirectly, including the diaspora of African witchcraft beliefs through the slave trade[140][141][135] and suppressed Indigenous cultures adopting the term for their own cultural practices.[142] Neopagan witchcraft practices such as Wicca then emerged in the mid-20th century.[134][135]

Latin America[edit]

When Franciscan friars from New Spain arrived in the Americas in 1524, they introduced Diabolism—belief in the Christian Devil—to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.[143] Bartolomé de las Casas believed that human sacrifice was not diabolic, in fact far off from it, and was a natural result of religious expression.[143] Mexican Indians gladly took in the belief of Diabolism and still managed to keep their belief in creator-destroyer deities.[144]

Witchcraft was an important part of the social and cultural history of late-Colonial Mexico, during the Mexican Inquisition. Spanish Inquisitors viewed witchcraft as a problem that could be cured simply through confession. Yet, as anthropologist Ruth Behar writes, witchcraft, not only in Mexico but in Latin America in general, was a "conjecture of sexuality, witchcraft, and religion, in which Spanish, indigenous, and African cultures converged."[145] Furthermore, witchcraft in Mexico generally required an interethnic and interclass network of witches.[146] Yet, according to anthropology professor Laura Lewis, witchcraft in colonial Mexico ultimately represented an "affirmation of hegemony" for women, Indians, and especially Indian women over their white male counterparts as a result of the casta system.[147]

The presence of the witch is a constant in the ethnographic history of colonial Brazil, especially during the several denunciations and confessions given to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of Bahia (1591–1593), Pernambuco and Paraíba (1593–1595).[148]

Brujería, often called a Latin American form of witchcraft, is a syncretic Afro-Caribbean tradition that combines Indigenous religious and magical practices from Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao in the Dutch Caribbean, Catholicism, and European witchcraft.[149] The tradition and terminology is considered to encompass both helpful and harmful practices.[150] A male practitioner is called a brujo, a female practitioner, a bruja.[150] Healers may be further distinguished by the terms kurioso or kuradó, a man or woman who performs trabou chikí ("little works") and trabou grandi ("large treatments") to promote or restore health, bring fortune or misfortune, deal with unrequited love, and more serious concerns. Sorcery usually involves reference to an entity referred to as the almasola or homber chiki.[151]


Okabe – The cat witch, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Asian witchcraft encompasses various types of witchcraft practices across Asia. In ancient times, magic played a significant role in societies such as ancient Egypt and Babylonia, as evidenced by historical records. In the Middle East, references to magic can be found in the Torah, where witchcraft is condemned due to its association with belief in magic.

In Chinese culture, the practice of "Gong Tau" involves black magic for purposes such as revenge and financial assistance. Japanese folklore features witch figures who employ foxes as familiars. Korean history includes instances of individuals being condemned for using spells. The Philippines has its own tradition of witches, distinct from Western portrayals, with their practices often countered by indigenous shamans.

Overall, witchcraft beliefs and practices in Asia vary widely across cultures, reflecting historical, religious, and social contexts.

Middle East[edit]

The practice of witchcraft in southwest Asia, sometimes referred to as the Middle East, has a long history. The ancient cultures of the region had complex relationships with magic, often integrating them deeply into both their religion and wider culture.[152] The ancient Hittites focused sanctioned mystical power in the hands of the state, and often used accusations of witchcraft to control political enemies.[153] As the ancient Hebrews focused on their worship on Yahweh, Judaism clearly separated between with forms of magic and mystical practices which were accepted, versus those which were viewed as forbidden or heretical, and thus "witchcraft".[154] In the medieval Middle East, under Islamic and Christian influences, witchcraft's perception fluctuated between healing and heresy, revered by some and condemned by others. In the present day diverse witchcraft communities have emerged.


Elizabeth Sawyer, witch executed in 1620

European witchcraft is a multifaceted historical and cultural phenomenon that unfolded over centuries, leaving a mark on the continent's social, religious, and legal landscapes. The roots of European witchcraft trace back to classical antiquity when concepts of magic and religion were closely related, and society closely integrated magic and supernatural beliefs. During the Middle Ages, accusations of heresy and devil worship grew more prevalent. By the early modern period, major witch hunts began to take place, partly fueled by religious tensions, societal anxieties, and economic upheaval. Witches were often viewed as dangerous sorceresses or sorcerers in a pact with the Devil, capable of causing harm through black magic.[155] A feminist interpretation of the witch trials is that misogynist views led to the association of women and malevolent witchcraft.[155]

One pivotal text that shaped the witch-hunts was the Malleus Maleficarum, a 1486 treatise that provided a framework for identifying, prosecuting, and punishing witches. The burgeoning influence of the Catholic Church[citation needed] led to a wave of witch trials across Europe. Usually, accusations of witchcraft were made by neighbours and followed from social tensions. Accusations often targeted marginalized individuals, including women, the elderly, and those who did not conform to societal norms. Women made accusations as often as men. The common people believed that magical healers (called 'cunning folk' or 'wise people') could undo bewitchment. Hutton says that healers and cunning folk "were sometimes denounced as witches, but seem to have made up a minority of the accused in any area studied".[51] The witch-craze reached its peak between the 16th and 17th centuries, resulting in the execution of tens of thousands of people. This dark period of history reflects the confluence of superstition, fear, and authority, as well as the societal tendency to find scapegoats for complex problems.

The Tsardom of Russia also experienced its own iteration of witchcraft trials during the 17th century. Witches were often accused of practicing sorcery and engaging in supernatural activities, leading to their excommunication and execution. The blending of ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions in Russia's approach to witchcraft trials highlighted the intertwined nature of religious and political power during that time. As the 17th century progressed, the fear of witches shifted from mere superstition to a tool for political manipulation, with accusations used to target individuals who posed threats to the ruling elite.

Since the 1940s, neopagan witchcraft movements have emerged in Europe, seeking to revive and reinterpret ancient pagan and mystical practices. Wicca, pioneered by Gerald Gardner, stands out as one of the most influential neopagan traditions. Drawing inspiration from ceremonial magic, historical paganism, and the now-discredited witch-cult theory, Wicca emphasizes a connection to nature, the divine, and personal growth. Similarly, Stregheria in Italy reflects a desire to reconnect with the country's pre-Christian spiritual roots. Many of these neopagans choose to self-identify as "witches". Contemporary, neopagan witchcraft in Europe encompasses a wide range of traditions, reflecting a blend of historical influences, modern interpretations, new religious movements, and a search for spiritual authenticity in a rapidly changing world.

Ancient Roman world[edit]

Caius Furius Cressinus Accused of Sorcery, Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, 1792

During the pagan era of ancient Rome, there were laws against harmful magic.[156] According to Pliny, the 5th century BC laws of the Twelve Tables laid down penalties for uttering harmful incantations and for stealing the fruitfulness of someone else's crops by magic.[156] The only recorded trial involving this law was that of Gaius Furius Cresimus.[156]

The Classical Latin word veneficium meant both poisoning and causing harm by magic (such as magic potions), although ancient people would not have distinguished between the two.[157] In 331 BC, a deadly epidemic hit Rome and at least 170 women were executed for causing it by veneficium. In 184–180 BC, another epidemic hit Italy, and about 5,000 were executed for veneficium.[157] If the reports are accurate, writes Hutton, "then the Republican Romans hunted witches on a scale unknown anywhere else in the ancient world".[157]

Under the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis of 81 BC, killing by veneficium carried the death penalty. During the early Imperial era, the Lex Cornelia began to be used more broadly against other kinds of magic,[157] including sacrifices made for evil purposes. The magicians were to be burnt at the stake.[156]

Witch characters—women who work powerful evil magic—appear in ancient Roman literature from the first century BC onward. They are typically hags who chant harmful incantations; make poisonous potions from herbs and the body parts of animals and humans; sacrifice children; raise the dead; can control the natural world; can shapeshift themselves and others into animals; and invoke underworld deities and spirits. They include Lucan's Erichtho, Horace's Canidia, Ovid's Dipsas, and Apuleius's Meroe.[157]


Cook Islands[edit]

In pre-Christian times, witchcraft was a common practice in the Cook Islands. The native name for a sorcerer was tangata purepure (a man who prays).[158] The prayers offered by the ta'unga (priests)[159] to the gods worshiped on national or tribal marae (temples) were termed karakia;[160] those on minor occasions to the lesser gods were named pure. All these prayers were metrical, and were handed down from generation to generation with the utmost care. There were prayers for every such phase in life; for success in battle; for a change in wind (to overwhelm an adversary at sea, or that an intended voyage be propitious); that his crops may grow; to curse a thief; or wish ill-luck and death to his foes. Few men of middle age were without a number of these prayers or charms. The succession of a sorcerer was from father to son, or from uncle to nephew. So too of sorceresses: it would be from mother to daughter, or from aunt to niece. Sorcerers and sorceresses were often slain by relatives of their supposed victims.[161]

A singular enchantment was employed to kill off a husband of a pretty woman desired by someone else. The expanded flower of a Gardenia was stuck upright—a very difficult performance—in a cup (i.e., half a large coconut shell) of water. A prayer was then offered for the husband's speedy death, the sorcerer earnestly watching the flower. Should it fall the incantation was successful. But if the flower still remained upright, he will live. The sorcerer would in that case try his skill another day, with perhaps better success.[162]

Papua New Guinea[edit]

A local newspaper informed that more than fifty people were killed in two Highlands provinces of Papua New Guinea in 2008 for allegedly practicing witchcraft.[163] An estimated 50–150 alleged witches are killed each year in Papua New Guinea.[164]

Belief and practice of witchcraft are prevalent in Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea.[165] Unlike other provinces, the Samarai Islands and Milne Bay particularly sees much less violence against both those accused of witchcraft and women in general than other parts of the country.[165] It is suggested the history of witchcraft in the area contributes to a raise in status of women in the area overall.[165]

Witches in art and literature[edit]

Albrecht Dürer c. 1500: Witch riding backwards on a goat

Witches have a long history of being depicted in art, although most of their earliest artistic depictions seem to originate in Early Modern Europe, particularly the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Many scholars attribute their manifestation in art as inspired by texts such as Canon Episcopi, a demonology-centered work of literature, and Malleus Maleficarum, a "witch-craze" manual published in 1487, by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.[166] Witches in fiction span a wide array of characterizations. They are typically, but not always, female, and generally depicted as either villains or heroines.[167]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ There is some discrepancy between translations; compare the displayed text with that of the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Witchcraft Archived 2021-02-11 at the Wayback Machine (accessed 31 March 2006)[89] and the L. W. King translation Archived 2007-09-16 at the Wayback Machine (accessed 31 March 2006).


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Works cited[edit]

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