Witches and Witchcraft: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

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While most everyone has their idea of what "witchcraft" is, you may be surprised to learn how that idea differs individual to individual, culture to culture throughout the world.


Whenever the word “witch” is used in everyday conversation, any number of images may come to mind.

Some may relate the word to the “Wicked Witch of the West,” while others to the modern Wiccan image associated with the likes of Sybil Leek

Some may harken the image long held of the Salem witches, while still others may imagine a curandera, the wise woman found in Hispanic communities throughout North, Central, and South America (and Europe as well). 

In fact, depending on one’s place of origin, age, sex, spiritual persuasion, life experience, education, and worldview, any number of archetypes are possible.

Historically, the study of witches and their “craft” has fascinated humankind for thousands of years--and probably much longer. 

References can be found in all major sacred texts around the world including the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the Judaic Bible, the Islamic Qur’an, as well as in the ancient writings of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, and Persia. 

In fact, most social scientists recognize the belief in witchcraft as culturally universal--rooted in the fundamental fabric of human thought, and manifested in basic human behavior in a number of obvious and subtle ways.

But, if one examines ancient texts, it quickly becomes evident that although witchcraft in its many guises shares numerous cross-cultural similarities, it would be short-sighted and demeaning to assume that it is a single, homogenized concept.  Because even though many superficial parallels can be readily observed, in reality, “witchcraft” refers to a wide range of religious and spiritual practices varying in perspective, purpose, approach, emphasis, and cultural significance.

By Definition

The word witchcraft in its most popular connotation refers to “the use of supernatural forces--most often employing magic(k)--to bend the world to one’s own will.” 

For nearly three-quarters of a century now, scholars have relied on this definition first presented by cultural anthropologist Edward Evans-Prichard following his now famous ethnographic studies of the Azande of Sudan, Africa, culminating in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande.

Azande Witch

But while an ethnographic perspective may be helpful in assessing the fundamental beliefs underlying cultural behavior, to acquire a true understanding of the craft of witches, a knowledge of religion (philosophy and mythology), history (both oral and written), natural environment, socio-cultural relationships, as well as a basic understanding of the forces driving the human psyche must also be factored-in.  For while a belief in the ability of individuals to bend reality to their liking may indeed underlie human reasoning and behavior, how that ability manifests culture to culture is as varied as the cultures themselves.


For example: What constitutes witchcraft in an Azande village in Sudan is much different from that of a Buddhist community in Sri Lanka or a Wiccan community in Highland Ireland.

While the Azande see witchcraft as an ability physically inherited by individuals that can be used for good or evil--a tangible “witch-substance” that can be found in the pit of the stomach, one Buddhist sect relates it to the demon god of darkness Huniyam, whose shrine imbues pilgrims with the power to curse enemies, while Wiccans see it as a beneficial birthright available to anyone who learns how to commune with the forces of nature.  And true to this varying form, the many Native American tribes of North America have their own individual perspectives on witchcraft as well. 

Thus, when referring to “Witches” or their “craft,” it is essential to first place it within the appropriate cultural framework.  Because while witches are a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon, they are not interchangable nor do they serve the same cultural function.


Witch Craze, L. Roper

Paganism, J. & R. Higginbotham

A Witches Bible Compleat, J & S. Farrar

Religion, Magic, Witchcraft, Stein and Stein

Many Peoples, Many Faiths, Ellwood


Images via Wikipedia.org

Related Articles:

>  Gerald Gardner

Sybil Leek

>  Salem Witch Hunts

>  Santeria

Egyptian Book of the Dead


>  Elements of Magic, Laws

Elements of Magic, Methods

Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Adena

>  Ritual Music

>  Shintoism

Good and Evil

Aborigine Mythology

Feng Shui and the Environment

>  The Pikey Culture



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