Witches and Witchcraft: A Cross-Cultural Perspective
Whenever the word “witch” is used in everyday conversation, any number of images may come to mind.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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