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A witch and a devil making a nail with which to cripple a boy

Witchcraft is the use of magical powers. This might be for healing, seeing into the future, causing harm, or for religion. A person practicing witchcraft is called a witch, although a man practicing witchcraft is often mistakenly called a wizard (a word from Northern Europe), a warlock (a word from 14th century England[1]), a sorcerer, or shaman (a term for people who practice magic in parts of Asia). Such people are said to have a knowledge of the chemical (or pharmaceutical) effects of certain herbs or shrubs. Witches can use this knowledge to help people who are sick or to hurt them.

Witchcraft is different throughout the world and can be seen as good or bad depending on where you are. Today, many people practice a peaceful kind of witchcraft, called Wicca. However, there are still many other people who are scared of witchcraft and think that it is bad. Throughout history, there have been stories about good and bad witches.

In European history, witches were accused of physically making and performing spells to harm people. They could also harm people by using their mind. However, this belief was not real and was often used to explain why bad things happened sometimes.

In Africa, witches don't use physical tools or actions to curse. They can cause harm by just thinking about it. In fact, one may be unaware of being a witch, or may have been convinced of their witch nature by the suggestion of others. This understanding was described by anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, who studied African magical beliefs.[2]

Accusations of Witchcraft

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Éva Pócs (a scholar and folklorist) states that there are four reasons a person is accused of witchcraft:[3]

  1. A person was caught in the act of positive or negative witchcraft (performing a spell)
  2. A well-meaning healer lost the trust of their clients' or the authorities'
  3. A person seemed dangerous and made their neighbors scared
  4. A person was rumored to be a witch and surrounded with an aura of witch-beliefs or Occultism

She identifies three kinds of witches in popular belief:[3]

  1. The "neighborhood witch" or "social witch": a witch who curses a neighbor following some conflict.
  2. The "magical" or "sorcerer" witch: either a professional healer, sorcerer, seer or midwife, or a person who has, through magic, increased their fortune but caused harm to someone in doing so; due to community rivalries and the hard to recognize nature between good and bad magic, such individuals can become labelled as witches.
  3. The "supernatural" or "night" witch: portrayed in court narratives as a demon appearing in visions and dreams.

"Neighbourhood witches" are the product of neighbourhood arguments, and are found only in rural village communities where the inhabitants largely rely on each other. Such accusations follow the breaking of some social norm, such as the failure to return a borrowed item, and any person part of the normal exchange could potentially be accused. Claims of "sorcerer" witches and "supernatural" witches could arise out of social tensions, but not exclusively; the supernatural witch in particular often had nothing to do with community conflict, but expressed tensions between the human and supernatural worlds; and in Eastern and Southeastern Europe such supernatural witches became an ideology explaining calamities that befell entire communities.[3]


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It is believed that witches can perform magic by using plants, casting spells, or using their mind. The use of plants is often called herbalism and this involves collecting or growing herbs to use in potions or medicines to help or hurt people, animals, or things.

In popular artwork, witches can be seen using big metal cooking bowls called cauldrons to mix their spell ingredients. Witches also use wands, brooms, sticks, candles, swords, and fire to perform spells.

In some cultures, witches can harm people just by using their mind and thinking bad thoughts about a person. In these cultures, witches do not need any items and can potentially be anyone in the community.

By Region

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In Southern African traditions, there are three classifications of somebody who uses magic.

  1. The tagati is often poorly translated into English as "witch", and is a spiteful person who works in secret to harm others.
  2. The sangoma is a diviner, similar to a fortune teller, and is hired to detect illness, predict a person's future (or advising them on which path to take), or identifying the guilty party in a crime. She also practices some degree of medicine.
  3. The inyanga is often translated as "witch doctor" (though many Southern Africans do not like this description as it implies that a "witch doctor" is in some sense a practitioner of evil magic). The inyanga's job is to heal illness and injury and provide customers with magical items for everyday use.

Of these three categories the tagati is almost exclusively female, the sangoma is usually female, and the inyanga is almost exclusively male. Much of what witchcraft represents in Africa has been misunderstood and mistaken for European witchcraft.[4] African scholar Uchenna Okeja argues that witchcraft in Africa today plays a very different social role than in Europe of the past—or present—and should be understood through an African, rather than Western view.

When the first Europeans came to the New World, they brought with them the Christian religion and their fear of supernatural witches.[5] Native Americans had their own religion and beliefs. Since the Christian European settlers were living with these Native Americans and also African slaves (who had their own non-Christian religions and beliefs), this scared them. The Europeans were already scared, far away from their home in the New World with different plants and animals. This fear lead to violent crimes such as accusing and murdering people who they thought were witches and were hurting them with supernatural powers.

The most famous witch accusations were the 1692-1693 Salem Witch trials. During these trials, 150 people were accused of being witches, and 19 people were killed by hanging. Every Halloween season, Salem, Massachusetts hosts a Halloween festival in which they highlight their towns notorious history with the 1692 Salem Witch trials. This festival often involves live music, parties, and vendors selling witch-themed items.

Throughout the world there are many people who claim to have supernatural powers such as; psychics, mediums, palm readers and New Age healers. These people are sometimes members of witchcraft religions like Wicca. These people perform tricks to entertain and heal people such as tarot card reading, astrology, crystal healing, Reiki healing, talking to dead family members, or seeing the future.

Middle east

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The belief in witchcraft and its practice seem to have been widespread in the Ancient Near East and Nile Valley. It played a clear role in the cultures of ancient Egypt and in Babylonia. Later tradition included an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû. A section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 B.C.) prescribes:

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.[6]

Ancient Greece

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There are many examples of witches in Greek mythology, such as Circe, who was a sorcerer in Homers’ Odyssey. Circe used potions to put spells on visitors to her house, and she could turn people into pigs.

Ancient Ireland

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Druids were members of the high-ranking professional class in ancient Celtic cultures. They were religious leaders, legal authorities, adjudicators, lorekeepers, medical professionals, and political advisors

The earliest record of the druids comes from two Greek texts from circa 300 BCE: one, a history of philosophy written by Sotion of Alexandria, and the other a study of magic widely attributed to Aristotle. Both texts are now lost, but were quoted in the 2nd century CE work Vitae by Diogenes Laërtius.[7]

Some say that the study of philosophy originated with the barbarians. In that among the Persians there existed the Magi, and among the Babylonians or Assyrians the Chaldaei, among the Indians the Gymnosophistae, and among the Celts and Gauls men who were called druids and semnothei, as Aristotle relates in his book on magic, and Sotion in the twenty-third book of his Succession of Philosophers. - Diogenes Laërtius,  Vitae, Introduction, Section 1[7]

Later Greek and Roman[disambiguation needed] texts from the third century BCE refer to "barbarian philosophers", possibly in reference to the Gaulish druids.[7]

Middle Ages

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In Medieval times, witchcraft gradually became an enemy of Christianity. Christians thought that witchcraft was the work of the devil, and the Bible was used as evidence against witchcraft. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:11–12 and Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") were very influential.

In Europe in the Late Medieval/Early Modern period, Catholics, Protestants, and state leaders became very afraid of the power of witches. There were large witch-hunts in many places. People believed that the devil was using witches to try to overthrow Christianity, so tens or hundreds of thousands of people were killed, and others were put in prison, tortured, and had lands and possessions taken away from them. Most of these witches were women, because people believed women were more likely to be witches.

Witch-trials looked for evidence to prove that a person was a witch. Evidence included such things as signs of plant medicine, or images of non-Christian gods. One way to physically test if a person was a witch was to 'swim a witch'. This meant they would throw them in a river with their hands tied. If they sank, they were innocent. If they floated, they were guilty of witchcraft and were hanged. This violent practice was not based on any actual evidence. Instead, it allowed the witch-hunter to look right and powerful for the scared people who were watching.

South America

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In South America, people continue to practice a form of witchcraft which started before the arrival of European Christianity. Throughout the Andes, there are many places called witch markets, such as the Mercado de las Brujas in La Paz, Bolivia. These markets sell items such as plant medicines

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Witches are often seen in art and cinema. Many movies have focused on witches and witchcraft such as; Bewitched, Harry Potter, the Wizard of Oz, Hocus Pocus, and Rosemary's Baby. Many television shows also have witches and witchcraft. Some examples are: Charmed (1998) and (2018), American Horror Story: Coven, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.


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  1. "Definition of WARLOCK". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2019-12-01.
  2. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (Edward Evan), 1902-1973. (1977). Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the azande. Clarendon. ISBN 0198231032. OCLC 850849210.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Pócs, Éva (2018-07-30). Witchcraft Continued. Manchester University Press. doi:10.7765/9781526137975.00013. ISBN 9781526137975. S2CID 171992924.
  4. Okeja, Uchenna (2013). "Postcolonial Discourses and the Equivocation of Expertise". Philosophia Africana. 15 (2): 107–116. doi:10.5840/philafricana20131524. ISSN 1539-8250.
  5. Baker, Emerson W. (2016-07-07). "The Salem Witch Trials". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.013.324. ISBN 978-0-19-932917-5.
  6. "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Witchcraft". Archived from the original on 2019-10-24. Retrieved 2019-04-22.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Diogenes Laertius (2002-01-31). Marcovich, Miroslav (ed.). Diogenis Laertii Vitae philosophorum, Volume III, Indices. doi:10.1515/9783110961072. ISBN 978-3-598-71319-4.