In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Witchcraft

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Historical Studies of Europe
  • Historical Studies of New England
  • Africa
  • Contemporary Melanesia
  • Sri Lanka and India
  • Southeast and East Asia
  • Native America
  • Meso- and South America
  • Contemporary Europe
  • Future Directions

Anthropology Witchcraft
Isak Niehaus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0029


Witchcraft refers to a belief in the perpetration of harm by persons through mystical means. The history of witch persecutions during the European Inquisition and Reformation have colored public understandings of witchcraft beliefs in morerecent times. The most significant contribution of anthropological studies has been to show that the belief in witchcraft is encountered in nearly all continents of the world and that it continues to be an important feature of contemporary times. It is the generality of these beliefs that has attracted analytical attention. Anthropological studies have generally left open questions about the reality and actual performance of witchcraft. Instead, they have sought to unearth the social and psychological factors underlying witchcraft beliefs.


Ethnographic studies across the globe have shown that, far from being confined to the distant past of Europe and New England, the belief in witchcraft is widely distributed in time and place—in Africa, Melanesia, the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas. These studies have raised the problem of definition. Is it possible to define witchcraft in a way that makes sense cross-culturally, while at the same time respecting the particularities of specific social settings? Is it sensible to use the term originally used to denote consorts of Satan in 16th-century England to describe contemporary causers of misfortune in a post-Socialist Tanzanian village? Do terms illuminate or distort complex realities on the ground? Are they ethnocentric? Crick 1979 opposes the cross-cultural use of the term witchcraft, whereas Meyer 1999 defends it. The most commonly accepted definition was provided in Evans-Pritchard 1937, a detailed, empathetic study of the Azande, of colonial Sudan, in which the author distinguishes between witchcraft and sorcery by their technique. Evans-Pritchard defines the former as the innate, inherited ability to cause misfortune or death. For the Azande, witchcraft involves unconscious psychic powers emanating from a black swelling, located near the liver. By contrast, the Azande refer to sorcery as the performance of rituals, the uttering of spells, and the manipulation of organic substances, such as herbs, with the conscious intent of causing harm. This distinction is widespread throughout East Africa. Stephen 1987 suggests that Melanesian societies construct an alternative contrast. The author describes sorcerers as dominant persons who deliberately use rituals to impose their will and mediate cosmic power both for constructive and destructive purposes. Political leaders often possess a monopoly of sorcery skills. By contrast, Stephen characterizes witches as socially unimportant persons who harbor totally destructive powers and carry blame for misfortune and death. Their powers cannot be controlled. They are accused, denounced, and punished. But, as with so many typologies, these distinctions do not hold true of all Melanesian societies (see Patterson 1974); many authors therefore use the terms witch and witchcraft more broadly, to denote both types of persons and modes of action. In this review, the word sorcery is retained only when used by authors in the original texts.

  • Crick, Malcolm. 1979. Anthropologists’ witchcraft: Symbolically defined or analytically undone? Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford 10.3: 139–146.

    Crick argues that anthropologists should abandon the term witchcraft because its associations are determined by the history of Europe.

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon.

    This study is widely considered to be the most authoritative account of witchcraft in any setting outside Europe. Evans-Pritchard defines witchcraft and sorcery and argues that both constitute logical explanations for unfortunate events.

  • Meyer, Birgit. 1999. Translating the Devil: Religion and modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. International African Library. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

    Meyer suggests that concepts from different cultures brought together under the umbrella of witchcraft do indeed have something in common.

  • Patterson, Mary. 1974. Sorcery and witchcraft in Melanesia. Oceania 45.2: 132–160.

    Patterson considers the appropriateness of Evans-Pritchard’s analytical distinction for Melanesia. Available online for purchase.

  • Stephen, Michele, ed. 1987. Sorcerer and witch in Melanesia. Carlton, Australia: Melbourne Univ. Press.

    This edited collection contains an insightful discussion of conceptual issues and provides an effective overview of witchcraft and sorcery in Melanesia.

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