Witchcraft and Sorcery

Jacky Vallée. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

The belief that some individuals have supernatural powers allowing them to harm others is present in many societies around the world. Regardless of whether these individuals are said to use psychic power or magic to do their work, whether they do harm intentionally or not, or whether they are born with these powers or have to learn them, they are often feared or reviled by members of their societies—embodying traits that are defined as immoral or evil according to local cultural norms. Based on ethnographic fieldwork over the past century, social and cultural anthropologists have described witchcraft and sorcery beliefs, and the practices associated with them, in various societies around the world. With this, they have examined cross-cultural patterns in what are seen as the causes of witchcraft, the characteristics and actions of witches, actions that can be taken against witches, and patterns of accusation. This has allowed anthropologists to elaborate various theoretical models explaining the existence of witchcraft and sorcery beliefs, as well as the mechanisms by which people deal with the results of these practices.

Anthropologists are interested in witchcraft and sorcery beliefs because they constitute an important part of the worldviews of many peoples. As such, these beliefs and practices are an essential component in understanding the total cultural contexts within which they are located, as well as in understanding the means by which humans create explanatory schemes for the world around them.


Anthropologists apply the terms witchcraft and sorcery to concepts in various cultural groups, referring to practices that involve the manipulation of supernatural forces or energy to malicious or evil ends, such as physical harm or misfortune. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably in Western popular culture and in lay conversation, anthropologists have tended to distinguish between the two practices. The term witchcraft usually applies when the ability to do harm is innate and when the manipulation of supernatural energy is done primarily through the power of one’s mind. Sorcery, on the other hand, is often used for practices that are learned and require the magical use of special equipment such as tools, herbs, and potions. However, this distinction is not always applicable. Indeed, Victor Turner (1967), an anthropologist of note, pointed out that this distinction was elaborated by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1937) with specific reference to the Azande of Sudan with no intention to apply it across cultures. Nevertheless, the terms have retained this particular usage in much of the anthropological literature on the topic, although they are sometimes used interchangeably. In this entry, the terms used by the authors of the works consulted are maintained, regardless of the degree to which they correspond to their respective usage in the model described above. In general discussions that do not refer to specific examples, witchcraft inclusively refers to both witchcraft and sorcery.

Another important distinction is the one between the anthropological use of the terms witchcraft and sorcery and the way the terms are used in Western popular culture. The general understanding of the term in the West stems largely from films and literature that draw from Christian conceptions of witchcraft. Anthropologists apply the terms in reference to culturally specific practices that often have little to do with the European and Euro-North American understanding of what witches and sorcerers actually do. It is also important to clarify that societies with belief systems that include the practice of witchcraft or sorcery have their own terms for these practices and the people who are said to employ them.

Finally, it is important to clarify that the traditional anthropological definition of witchcraft as described here does not take account of the neopagan practice of witchcraft, or Wicca. Wiccan witches perceive witchcraft as a spiritual practice with beneficial outcomes, rather than as a practice driven by malicious intent.

Ethnographic Case Studies

The following case studies, based on ethnographies and historical studies, provide an overview of beliefs and practices related to witchcraft in various societies. It is important to note, however, that there can be as many differences as there are similarities between neighboring groups. Therefore, these case studies should not be taken as representative of witchcraft beliefs and practices in their entire region. Rather, they should be read as examples among many others.

These case studies provide a brief description of cultural behaviors and are therefore useful in seeing how witchcraft belief systems operate in various societies. The sources of this information, listed in the bibliography at the end of this entry, contain more complete descriptions of these systems, as well as their wider social, cultural, and historical contexts.

The Azande (Africa)

The most widely cited anthropological work on witchcraft is Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Evans-Pritchard conducted ethnographic fieldwork among the Azande (singular: Zande), an indigenous African society, in the 1920s. The Azande occupied a territory referred to as Zandeland, on the Nile-Congo divide. Evans-Pritchard conducted his work in the portion of Zandeland that extended into Sudan.

According to the Azande, witch-craft, or mangu, had a physical cause. Some individuals were born with “witch-craft-substance,” also named mangu. This substance caused the individuals that carried it to have powers that could be used to cause harm to others. Mangu was transmitted from mother to daughter and from father to son, grew with the rest of an individual’s body during his lifetime, and could be found during autopsies. Indeed, definitive proof that someone was a witch could only be obtained after death. Moreover, accused individuals could claim their innocence by pointing to the fact that none of their close deceased relatives of the same sex were found to carry mangu.

More immediately visible indicators that would lead people to suspect someone of being a witch were found in personalities and behaviors. Bitterness, spitefulness, greed, and an ill temper were all mentioned as signs that someone was a witch. Furthermore, habits perceived by the Azande as dirty or disturbing, such as urinating in public, eating without washing one’s hands, or insulting and cursing others, were read as signs that an individual was likely to perform witchcraft. Women and men were equally likely to be witches.

Although mangu was said to have a physical cause, its manifestation was through psychic means. Zande witches could cause harm without resorting to spells or charms. Through the power of their will, they would send forth mbisimo mangu, or the soul of witchcraft, from their bodies to their victim in order for it to eat the soul of their physical organs. In this way, after many psychic visits, witches would eventually kill their victims. These visits tended to occur at night, and the Azande claimed that a light could be seen in the sky along the path of the flying mbisimo mangu. However, witches could project this psychic power at any time. Interestingly, the Zande knowledge system posited that these powers could be active without the witch knowing. Moreover, an individual possessing mangu might not have used her powers at all.

Witches, according to the Azande, could cause various sorts of harm to other individuals. Physical harm, and even death, resulting from illness or accidents were major forms of harm that were considered to be results of witchcraft. Other common misfortunes included harm to their crops. As farming was their main livelihood, it stands to reason that crop failure could have dire consequences for a family.

A classic example of the way the Azande induced that witchcraft had occurred is the case of the fallen granary. Granaries were elevated structures, built on wooden posts, in which the Azande stored their grains. People would often sit underneath granaries to get some shade in the middle of the day. Because of the gradual work of termites, the granaries would occasionally fall. If this should happen while people were resting underneath, the obvious cause was witchcraft.

As with other misfortunes, the Azande knew that there were physical causes for this misfortune. For instance, they were aware of how termites operate, which is why they would inspect the posts on a regular basis and repair the structures as needed. Nevertheless, they also knew that witchcraft was the cause for the granary falling at that particular moment when there were people underneath. Witchcraft on one or more of those individuals was the obvious cause. The falling granary, or any other physical cause of misfortune, was merely a tool used by the witch to exercise harm on others. The actual result that needed explanation was the harm on a particular individual or group.

Although the effects of witchcraft constituted a prominent threat to safety and livelihood for the Azande, they were not helpless before its effects. Indeed, there were a series of actions that could be taken to determine whether witchcraft was the real cause of an event, and then to determine the identity of the witch. The Azande had recourse to various modes of divination to answer these questions, some of which were available to all individuals and some which required the intervention of a specialist. Evans-Pritchard described Azande oracles in detail in his ethnography.

Once a specialist determined the identity of a witch, a relative of a victim of witchcraft could ask a person in authority, such as a prince or deputy, to confront the witch. They would provide the prince or deputy with the wing of a fowl that they had killed in the witch’s name. That person would then bring the wing to the accused. Generally, since the Zande system included a belief that these powers could be active without knowledge or intent, the accused would claim that they were unaware of the actions of the mangu. The accused would also state their good intentions toward the victim, take water in their mouths, and blow it on the wing as a sign of good will. However, a witch found guilty of causing death could be expected to give some form of compensation. If one had caused multiple deaths, this individual could be subject either to formal persecution or vengeance magic.

The Diné (North America)

Another well-documented example of a witchcraft belief was found among the Diné, or Navajo, of the southwestern United States. Clyde Kluckhohn (1967), in the course of ethnographic fieldwork among the Diné in the 1930s through the 1950s, was able to collect data on witchcraft beliefs in this area in spite of the reluctance of many Diné to discuss this topic with non-Diné. He described the results of his research on this topic in Navaho Witchcraft.

The Diné described different types of witchcraft, each with its own Diné name. Kluckhohn used the terms witchcraft, wizardry, sorcery, and frenzy witchcraft to differentiate between them. However, witchcraft is used in this chapter to include all these forms of what the Diné considered to be evil magic.

Among the Diné, witchcraft was something that was obtained or learned, usually from relatives. Diné accounts point to the murder of a sibling as part of the initiation that allowed the novice witch to learn and acquire powers. Both males and females could be witches, but more male than female witches were reported. The Diné attributed greed, as well as other traits considered as antisocial, such as vengeance or envy, as major characteristics of witches. They met together to practice immoral acts such as incest, cannibalism, and necrophilia. In short, witches displayed traits and behaviors that went against the core values of the Diné, which were balance, harmony, and equal access to material resources.

Diné witches were said to take on various animal forms, such as wolves, coyotes, or sheep. Consequently, they could be seen fleeing homesteads at extreme speeds and frequently left tracks, allowing people to find them. Evidence of someone’s identity as a witch could be found in a wound that matched one inflicted upon an animal thought to be a witch in disguise.

The actions of witches ranged from grave robbery to causing illness or death. In many cases, witches were said to act on their greed to accumulate wealth. Two witches could enter a partnership in which one witch would cause an illness and the other would offer the victim a cure for a fee. Greed as a common characteristic of witches reflects the social pressure against the accumulation of wealth among the Diné at the time of Kluckhohn’s study. Indeed, sharing was an important social norm, and the acquisition of wealth constituted grounds for witchcraft accusations.

The Diné believed that witches harmed their victims through various means. One primary technique was the use of corpse poison, a powder made from the flesh of human corpses. Witches were said to introduce this powder into the mouths or noses of their sleeping victims, for example. Other techniques included burying of items belonging to the victim—such as nail clippings, feces, hair, or body dirt—with corpse poison and chanting spells over them; the insertion of small pieces of human bone into the victim through magic; and the use of narcotic plants. Effects of witchcraft included intense pain, seizures, emaciation, and illnesses leading to death.

The Diné had some means to prevent the work of witches. Since witches were thought to work at night, people would avoid walking around alone after sunset. Also, it was usual for people to hide personal material that could be used by witches, such as nail and hair clippings. There was also knowledge of some plants that could offer some protection. In addition, individuals with ceremonial knowledge were seen as strong enough to withstand the actions of witches against them. Curing ceremonies, which were typically held in cases of illness, would include additional elements that would turn witchcraft back against a witch in the case of witchcraft-induced illnesses. A witch who was targeted by a curing ceremony or made to confess was said to die by magical means. Alternately, individuals accused of witchcraft were sometimes put to death if they were captured but refused to confess. Finally, witches who remained uncaptured were assumed to eventually be killed by lightning.

Among the Diné, witchcraft was not automatically assumed in the case of illness. The primary causes of illness were seen as transgression of the norms that enabled individuals to live a harmonious life and to maintain order in the universe. Indeed, the central tenet of Diné life was the maintenance of order. This was accomplished by observing a number of taboos concerning food, work, and social interactions. Failing to observe these norms could lead to punishment by the Holy People, the Diné deities, in the form of illness. Another common cause of illness was the action of ghosts. However, if an illness seemed mysterious or persisted despite the usual curing techniques, witchcraft was considered to be the most likely cause.

The Burmese (South Asia)

In the early 1960s, Melford E. Spiro (1967) conducted fieldwork in Burma. While he concentrated on small villages, he gathered data in cities such as Mandalay and Rangoon. Spiro noted that the spiritual system of the Burmese was colored by both Buddhism and the indigenous folk religions based on animism.

Spiro’s research brought to light the existence of a gender division in terms of the types of witchcraft that were practiced. Female witches, or souns, were said to be much more numerous but less powerful than male witches. Souns usually acted within their own village. Their actions were known to be based on spite, malice, and sexual jealousy. Spiro’s informants claimed that they could identify souns by the dimness of their eyeballs and the inverted reflection in their pupils when they looked directly at another. For this reason, they claimed, souns would avoid looking directly at other people.

Some souns were born with the ability to cause harm because of bad karma, while others learned their abilities from ghosts and other malevolent supernatural beings. Those who were born with powers were considered stronger. Thus the illnesses that they caused were fatal since they were immune to the actions of exorcists. Souns who were born that way could also perform other feats such as flying, transforming into animals, and animating inanimate objects. Both kinds of souns ate human feces.

The Burmese, according to Spiro, identified four primary techniques, all involving some form of food poisoning, that souns used to cause illness. A soun could offer a meal to a victim and then verbally curse the person; mix a foreign element such as a human hair or piece of leather into a person’s food so that the element would multiply inside the person’s stomach; transform feces into food and feed it to her victim; or poison a fish made from a palm frond by rubbing it against her vulva, which, like male genitals, was attributed with evil qualities. Souns also acted by cursing something associated with a person, such as hair, feces, or spittle, or by taking someone’s soul when it left their body during a dream.

If souns acted out of personal spite, male witches, or aulan hsayas, usually acted on behalf of paying clients. However, they were still considered malicious. Unlike souns, aulan hsayas were found in other villages. The Burmese specified that it was impossible to identify one since they pretended to be moral and religious. The Burmese attributed greater power to the aulan hsayas, who were not born with their powers but had to learn them. These practitioners caused harm by coercing ghosts and other evil beings into doing their bidding.

The Burmese employed some means of protection against witchcraft, such as leaving food outside the house at night to placate a witch who was thought to be lingering in the area, wearing amulets, or practicing Buddhism. Practicing Buddhism was said to render one immune to the effects of witchcraft, while exorcism was used to cure people who were ill as a result of witchcraft. In the case of death caused by witchcraft, the witch became a target of retaliation by magic or legal punishment.

Witchcraft Beliefs in the Western World

In mainstream Western culture today, witchcraft beliefs are largely perceived as superstition, and the media-driven image of the female witch with the green face, the black pointed hat, and the broomstick is predominantly found at Halloween, when children dress as various supernatural figures to collect candy from neighborhood households. Historically, Western witchcraft beliefs are commonly associated with intense periods of witch trials in Europe and New England. Furthermore, there is a growing movement of people who practice a neopagan religion called Wicca, mentioned earlier. Wicca practitioners have reclaimed the term witchcraft and associate it with the use of magic for beneficial purposes.

European and American Witch Trials

Although European beliefs in witches began far earlier than the time of the famous European witch craze starting in the 1400s, this period of time is renowned in the West for the intensity of witch hunting and persecution. Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein (2005) point out that, in medieval times preceding the witch craze, witches and other heretics were occasionally brought to trial due to accusations by individuals. However, in the 1200s, the Franciscan and Dominican orders began seeking out witches by holding inquisitions. Very few accusations led to executions in these early inquisitions—the goal was to allow the accused to confess and repent.

In the 1400s, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, two inquisitors of the Dominican order, wrote an influential book called the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer Against Witches) in which they described the characteristics and behaviors of witches. Witches were characterized as extreme heretics. Not only did they renounce Catholic ideology; they signed pacts with Satan, offering him their service in exchange for the power to work evil magic that would cause economic misfortunes such as crop failures as well as illness and death, often among infants. Witches could cause harm with the mere power of their gazes. They could also place evil charms in someone’s property to cause harm.

Women, especially those without social support such as widows, were the most likely candidates for witchcraft, according to church authorities and reinforced by Kramer and Sprenger. Described as less intelligent and more likely to succumb to Satan’s charms, they were said to have intercourse with him during their nighttime gatherings, to which they flew on broomsticks. They would also engage in orgies where they would kill infants as a sacrificial offering and practice cannibalism.

Throughout the two centuries that followed the end of the Middle Ages, the sanctioned inquisition of the Catholic church reached its peak. With this, witches were sought out in various regions of continental Europe. Innocence was nearly impossible to prove, and a mere accusation was enough to condemn a suspect. Extreme torture was used as a means of eliciting both confessions and further accusations. Whether or not suspected witches confessed, they were condemned to burning at the stake.

In the American colonies of the 1600s, the witch craze was a more localized phenomenon. The most well-known case is that of the Salem witch trials from 1692 to 1693, when girls and young women suffering from convulsions that the community’s physician could not explain led to a series of dramatic witch trials. As a result of these trials, 19 people were executed by hanging. Stein and Stein point out that, as in England, tried witches were hung rather than burned. Burning was reserved for religious heretics and, in England and its American colonies, witchcraft was a civil offense even though witches were still said to engage in pacts with Satan.

John Putnam Demos (1983) demonstrates, however, that witchcraft beliefs and the resulting trials and accusations had been present in the decades leading up to the Salem witch craze. Witchcraft was an ongoing concern in New England communities such as Salem as part of a struggle between good and evil that was manifested in daily activities. Misfortunes ranging from capsized boats to beer going bad in the barrel were enough to lead people to ponder a potential case of witchcraft. Demos specifies, however, that these ponderings led to witchcraft accusations only if the victims could recall a recent conflict with specific individuals who were likely to engage in witchcraft. Therefore, there were no actual witch hunts, but witchcraft remained a plausible cause for misfortune.


Practitioners of Wicca generally identify as witches. However, they describe witchcraft as a beneficial, rather than evil, practice. The word witch itself is often taken by Wiccans to derive from ancient English terms meaning “wise,” and to be a witch signifies accessing wisdom relating to nature. Based on the works of Margaret Murray (1962) and Gerald Gardner (2004), many Wiccans see Wicca as a continuation of pagan beliefs and practices dating back to pre-Christian Europe. Persecuted by the church during the period of inquisitions, pagan practitioners hid and continued to pass knowledge through the generations, resulting in their revival in the 20th century. Not all Wiccans adhere to this particular explanation for the origin of Wicca, however.

The Wiccan belief system is rather flexible and allows for the belief in many deities of the practitioner’s choice. Some Wiccans believe in a single Goddess, others believe in a Goddess and a God, and others incorporate various deities taken from Roman, Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and other mythological systems. Many Wiccans also give special regard to the elements of earth, fire, water, air, and spirit, using the pentagram to represent these five elements. The cycle of birth, life, and death—often associated with an agricultural way of life such as that found among pagans in pre-Christian Europe—is important to the Wiccan ritual system, and eight yearly sabbats mark important times of the year.

Some Wiccans practice in solitude and base their belief and practice on their own blend of traditions whereas others practice in covens. Magic is an important element in the practice of most Wiccans. Magical rituals are performed to achieve good ends such as personal success in work or studies; the maintenance of good health; or simply a connection with deities, elements, and spirits. A common element of Wiccan belief is that one can do as one will, provided that it does not harm others. This, as well as variations on the threefold law, where both good and evil come back to the practitioner threefold, are incitements for Wiccans to practice good magic.

Theoretical Perspectives

As is the case with all cultural practices related to beliefs in the supernatural world, anthropologists are not concerned with proving or disproving the truth, validity, effectiveness, or morality of witchcraft and sorcery. Rather, anthropologists are interested in how various societies conceptualize these practices. Some of the goals of the anthropological study of witchcraft, sorcery, and other ritualistic activities are to examine how these practices tie in to a larger cultural framework and how beliefs related to these practices vary across societies and through time. This allows researchers to outline cross-cultural patterns and variation with respect to beliefs in the origins and causes of witchcraft and sorcery; ways people have to deal with effects of these practices; and connections to political, economic, and familial systems within a society. This also allows researchers to establish theories about why humans have these belief systems. Another goal of studying witchcraft and sorcery in a cross-cultural context is to increase our knowledge about how humans interpret their world and develop strategies for coping with the problems that occur as a part of human life. Anthropologists want to understand the benefits that human belief systems have for humans and their societies. In brief, anthropologists are interested in how and why human societies have the types of belief systems and practices that they do.

Social and cultural anthropologists, as well as sociologists and psychologists, have utilized various theoretical models to explain the ubiquitous existence of beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery. As with theories regarding religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in general, these models are based on data gathered in ethnographic research. The models then attempt to make sense of these beliefs and related practices by locating them within wider social and cultural processes.

Many scholars working in the earlier part of the 20th century applied a functionalist approach in their analyses of witchcraft beliefs and other beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural. This enabled them to locate various ways in which these practices fulfill human needs such as understanding the world around them, alleviating anxiety in a world that is out of their control, forming community, and maintaining social norms.

One of the universal needs found among humans is the need to understand why bad things happen. Illness, threats to food sources, and other misfortunes may sometimes have apparent physical or environmental causes, but the existential question of “why this person or this group at this particular time” remains unanswerable. A functionalist analysis of witchcraft beliefs shows how these beliefs help fulfill this explanatory need. Evans-Pritchard’s (1937) case of the fallen granary among the Azande is a classic example. Rather than rely on the possibility of coincidence when a granary happened to fall when people were underneath, a belief in a specific cause such as witchcraft gave meaning to something that might otherwise have been meaningless.

Keith Thomas (1970), in his contribution to Mary Douglas’s (1970) volume titled Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, argued that the explanatory function on its own is insufficient to support the existence of witchcraft beliefs. In the case of witchcraft beliefs in England from the 1500s to the 1700s, other supernatural causes for misfortune, such as punishment by God, were prevalent. If witchcraft was used as a frequent explanation, it was because a belief in witchcraft carries with it a course of action to which people can resort to prevent or reverse its effects. In societies where there are witchcraft and sorcery beliefs, there are usually corresponding practices devoted to protection from the effects of malevolent practitioners, divination to determine their identity, or practices to cure individuals who have been targets of their practice.

In societies such as the Diné, among many others, where witches or sorcerers could make use of things like human hair or nail clippings, the act of hiding these things was one such practice. Divination techniques such as those found among the Azande and rituals such as Burmese exorcism or Diné curing ceremonies are other examples. All of these practices enable people to assume control in the face of the many misfortunes that can happen in all human societies and over which they would normally have no control.

Other functions of beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery that anthropologists have elucidated involve group cohesion and the maintenance of social norms. In terms of community and group cohesion, Douglas (1970), in the introduction to her edited volume, commented on the variability with respect to patterns of witchcraft accusations. In some instances, people tend to accuse people that are close to them, either in terms of kinship bonds or geographical location, whereas in others, people tend to accuse distant people who are sometimes not directly identifiable. In situations where the accused tend to be outsiders to the community, more attention is paid to curing the victim than identifying the witch. This can lead to greater group solidarity.

On the other hand, when the witches are insiders, they become emblems of social deviance. This provides a clarification of social norms and moral codes. In many societies where these beliefs are present, witches and sorcerers are said to embody many of the characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those that are encouraged among the population. Indeed, Kluckhohn’s (1967) work demonstrated that greed, which is considered one of the trademark characteristics of witches, stands in stark opposition to the value of sharing in Diné ideology. One who accumulates wealth therefore stands a chance of being accused of witchcraft. This portrayal of greed—and other traits and actions such as murder, cannibalism, and incest—as traits of witches thus enforces adherence to the social norms.

While this description reveals a possible social function of witchcraft beliefs where adherence to norms is implicitly promoted through the vilification of persons who go against these norms, Marvin Harris (1974) suggested that a belief in witchcraft, specifically in medieval Europe, was used more directly as a mechanism for the maintenance of power on behalf of the church and the state. The characterization of witches in this particular context posited them as people, mostly women, who would sign pacts with the devil, pledging to do his work. While antisocial behavior, or behavior that went against the church-established norms, was said to be typical of the actions of witches, Harris proposed that there was a conscious desire on behalf of those in power not only to encourage adherence to the norms but also to keep the population divided due to mutual fears of witchcraft or accusations. This division would prevent people from identifying the economic oppression perpetuated by those in power. According to Harris, then, a belief in witchcraft could serve as a tool for political power.

In relation to accusations within a community, Evans-Pritchard (1937) also pointed out that allegations helped to bring underlying social tensions to light. This was the case in accusations between Azande cowives, for example. However, these tensions could also be alleviated by the ritual described earlier, where the accused blew water on a fowl wing and expressed good will toward the victim. This act served to acknowledge the potential that witchcraft occurred without the accused’s knowledge and helped to diffuse the existing tension.

Witchcraft beliefs may serve functions at the societal level, but several authors have pointed to functions for individuals as well, both those who claim to be victims of witchcraft and those who are accused. Kluckhohn (1967) elaborated on some of these functions with reference to his work with the Diné. He argued that some individuals might actively seek to become witches to gain supernatural power, especially if they were unable to achieve such powers through socially approved channels such as becoming singers, who have important spiritual roles among the Diné. Thomas (1970) also discussed the possible point of view of the accused in his historical work. Since people tended to accuse individuals who were economically and politically marginal, such as elderly widows, and who were dependent on neighborly goodwill for support, these individuals could benefit from the way people’s fears would keep them from withdrawing such support. Being seen as a witch, according to Thomas, could therefore serve as a mechanism of empowerment for those who were poor and marginal.

Kluckhohn (1967) also pointed out that Diné individuals who claimed to be targets of witchcraft were often people with low status who could get some kind of attention and support from other community members through their claims. Moreover, he argued that witchcraft beliefs and accusations served to channel people’s feelings of aggression and hostility, and desires for drama and excitement, in a way that would be socially approved. Similarly, fantasies about incest or necrophilia could be mentally played out in guilt-free ways when these actions were ascribed to witches.

If the theoretical explanations described here seem appealing, there has been criticism of the functionalist approach on the grounds that it tends to reduce human activities to mechanical processes. Demos’s (1983) work presents an outline of some of the major criticisms. For example, some scholars have argued that functionalism posits static models of culture, neglecting to examine the effects of social change, and that it presents a potentially disruptive social phenomenon, such as witchcraft accusations, strictly in positive terms. However, functionalist analyses of witchcraft and sorcery beliefs have remained useful in anthropology as a means of understanding how beliefs and practices surrounding witchcraft and sorcery are located within social and cultural structures.

More recent scholars who focus on witchcraft and sorcery have often confirmed the applicability of the traditional functionalist approaches. These approaches have emphasized the ways in which witchcraft beliefs worked to fulfill certain human needs, such as explaining misfortune or providing a course of action against it. For example, Alexander Rödlach (2006), like Evans-Pritchard and Kluckhohn, has noted various functions served by witchcraft beliefs. In contemporary Zimbabwe, in the wake of much health-related misfortune and economic turmoil related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, witchcraft accusations abound. In addition to serving the functions of explaining and dealing with misfortune, witchcraft beliefs, according to Rödlach, often reflect social relations that are strained by the stresses and uncertainties caused by such massive social crises. Moreover, the authors cited in the remainder of this entry all acknowledge that explanatory and social functions are, indeed, fulfilled by these beliefs.

However, there has been a tendency to explore other layers of analysis while acknowledging that these functions of witchcraft belief exist. Indeed, several anthropologists since the days of Evans-Pritchard and Kluckhohn have found the functionalist approach incomplete in explaining social phenomena, especially in an intellectual context where anthropological thought has moved away from the idea of culture as a bounded, internally coherent whole. Rather, internal heterogeneity with respect to access to prestige and power is increasingly recognized, as are external influences and the ways in which people adapt to them or contest them.

As early as the 1960s, anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Melford E. Spiro were expanding on earlier functionalist paradigms by considering witchcraft beliefs, among other supernatural beliefs and practices, in social and psychological contexts. Turner (1967), in his work among the Ndembu of central Africa, espoused a processual approach where rituals and their associated beliefs were intertwined with processes in the community in which “social dramas” took form. These dramas, based on existing social tensions, unfolded through various mechanisms. These then led to the redefinition of social boundaries by casting people as outsiders because of their witchcraft practices.

Spiro (1967) was more concerned with psychological factors that motivated individuals to believe in witchcraft. He argued that a strictly functionalist explanation limits itself to explaining the belief system in terms of its latent results. He stated that it is essential to also examine the perceptual, cognitive, and motivational explanations for human belief in witchcraft, sorcery, and other ways in which people suffer at the hands of supernatural power.

Based on fieldwork in Burma, where beliefs pertaining to the supernatural were influenced by both Buddhism and animism, Spiro claimed that fear of aggression from witches or sorcerers was a projection, or displacement, of the inner turmoil that resulted in an individual after the brutal rejection that all children faced from their parents at a certain age after an initial period of tenderness. Believing in witchcraft allowed individuals to externalize the anxiety and to project it onto something that they could deal with directly. It also avoided exacerbating feelings of antagonism toward one’s parents. Moreover, possession through witchcraft, which was one of the ways Burmese witches were said to attack people, allowed the possessed person to engage in acts of aggressiveness that would otherwise have been unacceptable since it was, in principle, the witch who was acting through this person. It is interesting to note that this is similar to one of Kluckhohn’s (1967) theoretical points about socially sanctioned feelings of aggression. However, whereas Kluckhohn included this as a latent function of witchcraft beliefs, Spiro located it as a motivational psychological factor of these beliefs.

Spiro also explained the role of cognition in the continued belief in witchcraft among the Burmese. Learned knowledge about witches and witchcraft informed an individual’s interpretation of events; events that were interpreted as involving witchcraft, in turn, substantiated their knowledge. To Spiro, this approach took greater account of human interpretation than the majority of functionalist explanations.

As with their predecessors from the 1960s, anthropologists dealing with witchcraft beliefs since the 1980s have not denied the validity of functionalist explanations for the existence of witchcraft beliefs. However, they have increasingly considered the impact of changing political and economic contexts as well. The consideration of interactions between traditional local systems and the remaining ideological systems of colonizers is now considered essential to an understanding of indigenous beliefs and practices in any location. Furthermore, power dynamics within and across national boundaries are an unavoidable factor given the relationship between witchcraft ideology and social power.

In this vein, Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern (2004) have employed a theoretical perspective, largely based on Victor Turner’s processual approach that considers local social dynamics as a basis for the study of witchcraft beliefs. In a cross-cultural study that examines witchcraft beliefs in Africa, Europe, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka, they argued that these beliefs are intertwined with the social processes of rumors and gossip. Accusations of witchcraft, they asserted, are based on preexisting rumors and gossip that circulate within communities and that reflect ongoing tensions and conflicts. These tensions escalate in moments of social crisis, leading to accusations that will result in some sort of outcome—in the form of resolution by trial or further conflicts.

Similarly, Isak Niehaus, Eliazaar Mohlala, and Kally Shokaneo (2001) focused on the relationship between witchcraft and power in the South Africa Lowveld in the 1990s. Their analysis of this postcolonial context, where people of various ethnic backgrounds coexist in a society that has been impacted by colonialism, apartheid, and Christianization, attempts to balance the explanatory function of witchcraft with the role of power dynamics in witchcraft beliefs and accusations. They described how the oppression of people by dominant powers and attempts to repress local ideological systems, including witchcraft beliefs, contributed to the marginalization and poverty that actually helped to maintain these beliefs as an explanation for the misfortunes that people had to deal with. Witchcraft beliefs, then, can be perceived as a tool of empowerment.

Alternately, as Peter Geschiere (1997) as well as other contributors to Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders’s (2001) volume addressed, witchcraft beliefs can operate as power mechanisms for both those with official power and those without. In the case of the former, perceived access to supernatural powers related to witchcraft or sorcery can legitimize or solidify their social power. In the case of those without social power, it can operate to level out social inequalities since those in power will fear the effects of witchcraft.

Neil L. Whitehead and Robin Wright (2004) argued that this leveling mechanism operates on a larger social scale among various peoples of Amazonia. In many of these societies, shamans are as capable of harming as they are of curing. Sorcery, then, is seen as a necessary counterpart to healing practices. Although this duality leads to some ambiguity toward shamans within their communities, their potential power over outsiders can work to give people a sense of integrity with respect to outside threats.

As can be seen from this recapitulation of theoretical approaches to the analysis of witchcraft beliefs, anthropologists over time have sought to explain the existence of these beliefs and associated practices in various social and cultural contexts. It is generally acknowledged that these beliefs, along with other beliefs related to the supernatural world, help fulfill some basic functions in human societies such as the desire to understand misfortune and the maintenance of social norms. However, recent scholarly works on the topic have been careful to relate their analyses in social and political processes that operate both within societies and between societies, and how these processes influence the social dynamics within which witchcraft accusations take place. Witchcraft beliefs are therefore one example of the ways in which humans both make sense of their worlds and find ways in which to influence the course of their lives.

Ongoing and future work in the field will undoubtedly continue to explore the ways in which indigenous beliefs and practices related to witchcraft and sorcery intersect with various religious, political, and economic forces that circulate in an increasingly globalized world. It will also be interesting to consider how members of the societies where anthropologists have documented witchcraft beliefs react to these ethnographic documents. Undoubtedly, anthropologists will continue to debate the accuracy of the terminology that is used within the discipline to refer to the variety of local beliefs and practices that exist in the world.


A belief in witchcraft or sorcery is found in many societies around the world. Certain individuals are believed to be able to cause misfortune to others either through the power of their own will or by the magical use of substances. These individuals are sometimes said to be born with these capacities, inherited from one of their parents, but they usually are said to learn witchcraft or sorcery. Certain types of people are more likely to be the target of accusations. Very often, people who are marginal in some way and have little social status are easy targets. People who are perceived as embodying antisocial traits are routinely subject to accusations and symbolize the traits that a society’s members should avoid displaying. In some cases, individuals such as healers who are responsible for the well-being of others are potential objects of scrutiny since their powers to do good are counterbalanced by their powers to do harm.

Where there are witchcraft beliefs, there are also means of protection against witchcraft or of reversing the misfortunes brought about by it. People resort to charms, the hiding of substances that witches or sorcerers can use against them, or, in case of witchcraft-induced illness, curing ceremonies. In some cases, the process of accusation and confession can solidify community bonds, and in others, they can lead to greater conflict.

Rather than attempt to validate or invalidate witchcraft beliefs and associated practices, anthropologists have attempted to understand why they exist and how they manifest in various cultural contexts. Anthropologists generally agree that these beliefs serve certain functions in human societies such as explaining misfortune, giving people recourse in the face of misfortune, maintaining social norms or power, and providing psychological outlets for both individuals who are accused of witchcraft and those who claim to be victims. Recent work has focused on power dynamics within and across groups in the face of economic, political, and religious changes and how people use witchcraft beliefs to maintain or improve their lot in life.

While the general attitude toward witchcraft beliefs in mainstream Western culture is one of amusement at best and ethnocentric scorn at worst, anthropologists maintain that witchcraft and sorcery beliefs make sense as an element of the systems of thought and of the social contexts in which they exist.