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Witchcraft, African and European

6 April 2008

In a recent comment on this blog someone said that African and European witchcraft are completely different. I’ve seen similar statements elsewhere, and they are rather misleading.

Premodern European beliefs about witchcraft and premodern African ideas about witchcraft are in many respects very similar. There were differences between one part of Europe and another, and between one part of Africa and another, so anything that one says about either European or African understandings of witchcraft will be a generalisation. The are similar not only to each other, but also to premodern witchcraft beliefs in other parts of the world.

What is different is that European witchcraft beliefs changed enormously in the late medieval and early modern period. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in particular, there was a witch craze in many parts of Europe, in which suspected witches were accused and persecuted. The witch craze was not universal. It was most severe in Germany and neighbouring countries.

In the eighteenth century there was another change in European witchcraft beliefs, which led to the end of witch hunting. Whereas in the seventeenth century the figure of the witch inspired fear, by the nineteenth century the witch was a figure of fun and practical joking.

It was in the nineteenth century that there was growing contact between European and African people, but African witchcraft beliefs were premodern, and were closer to those of European society in the premodern period, before the eleventh century.

In our time there had been an increase in witch hunting in Africa, and perhaps it is not simple coincidence that it is taking place at a time when modernity is becoming more influential in many parts of Africa.

For survey of what has been happening, especially in the last 10-15 years, the following articles are very useful:

An Introduction – Part 1 of 4
The Brutal Reality – Part 2 of 4
The Hard Numbers – Part 3 of 4
The Medieval and the Modern – Part 4 of 4

Unfortunately it seems that these articles are no longer available to the public.

I have also written an article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery that gives some more background.

What does differ markedly from African witchcraft is Western Neopagan conceptions of witchcraft of the 20th and 21st centuries, but that also differs markedly from earlier European ideas of witchcraft as well. As the historian Ronald Hutton puts it, in his book The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles:

By assuming that witchcraft and paganism were formerly the same phenomenon, they (Wiccans) are mixing two utterly different archaic concepts and placing themselves in a certain amount of difficulty. The advantage of the label ‘witch’ is that it has all the exciting connotations of a figure who flouts the conventions of normal society and is possessed of powers unavailable to it, at once feared and persecuted. It is a marvellous rallying-point for a counter-culture, and also one of the few images of independent female power in early modern European civilization. The disadvantage is that by identifying themselves with a very old stereotype of menace, derived from the pre-Christian world itself, modern pagans have drawn upon themselves a great deal of unnecessary suspicion, vituperation and victimization which they are perpetually struggling to assuage (Hutton 1991:335, emphasis mine).

The two “utterly different archaic concepts” that Hutton refers to are ancient European pagan religion, and ancient European ideas about witchcraft, which were remarkably similar to African ideas about witchcraft until very recently.

In the pre-Christian world of antiquity, witchcraft was a very old stereotype of menace, which it still is in many parts of Africa today.

The spread of Christianity in Europe changed perceptions of witchcraft to some extent, but in different ways at different times and places. To simplify it (and at the risk of over-simplifying it), there are roughly five periods:

  1. Ancient (before AD 500)
  2. Medieval (500-1200)
  3. Early Modern (1200-1700)
  4. Post-Enlightenment (1700-1950)
  5. Postmodern (1950-?)

It’s not quite as neat as that, of course, and there is some overlap.

In antiquity, Christians found witchcraft beliefs in the society around them. Christianity began in the Roman empire, which was multinational and multicultural. People believed that there were such things as witchcraft and sorcery (maleficium) — trying to harm people by occult means. Some Christians practised witchcraft, though it was not regarded as appropriate behaviour for Christians.

Society in general disapproved of witchcraft as well. As Hutton (1991:255) puts it:

The pagan Romans, like most ancient peoples and modern tribal societies, prescribed the death penalty for those who killed or who harmed property by witchcraft: in a system which believes in magic and has capital punishment for normal murder and arson, there is no other logical situation.

Note once again the similarity between European and African witchcraft.

In the early Medieval period Christianity came into contact with many pagan peoples outside the Roman empire, and Christians had come to rule within the Roman empire, which they inherited with many of its laws and customs intact.

For Christians, seeking to harm others, whether by sword or sorcery, was sinful. Such behaviour was seen as prompted by the devil. But witchcraft and sorcery were also regarded with a certain amount of scepticism. Christians should not only not practise witchcraft themselves, they should not fear it, and should not accuse others of practising it. As Charles Williams notes:

The Salic law of Charlemagne decreed that anyone who was convicted of witch-cannibalism should be heavily fined, but also that anyone who was found guilty of bringing such an accusation falsely should be fined an amount equal to one third of the other.

And Hutton (1991:256) points out that

in those parts of western Europe which were the home of, or taken over by, Germanic tribes, it seems that the Church ended a tradition of killing and hunting witches.

Thus in early medieval Europe Christians tended to treat witches and suspected witches considerably more leniently than pagans did, which is what also happened in Africa until recently, as I pointed out in my article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery. In Africa, pagans tended to believe that witches were incorrigible; there was no such thing as a reformed witch. The only good witch was a dead one. Christians believed that there was no sin so great that it could not be repented of, and sought to rehabilitate witches and reintegrate them into society.

In late medieval and early modern Europe however, there was a dramatic change in attitude. Instead of punishing the accusation as well as the deed, accusations of witchcraft came to be encouraged. Previously, belief in the power of witches to harm was thought to be heretical. In the early modern period, disbelief in the power of witches to harm came to be regarded as heretical. It was almost a complete inversion of earlier beliefs.

In the earlier period, people who practised witchcraft were believed to be weak Christians who had allowed the devil to tempt them into attempting to harm others through malice or the desire for gain. In the early modern period, witches were regarded as satanists, those who had actively sought to make a pact with the devil, and had apostasised from the Christian faith and worshipped the devil. In other words, witchcraft came to be seen no longer as a sin of human weakness and frailty, but as a conspiracy, where people actively conspired with the devil and worshipped him.

This was a radical departure from the earlier understanding, and led directly to the Great European Witch Hunt of the Early Modern Period.

Hutton (1991:306) summarises the causes of the Great European Witch Hunt as follows:

The Great Hunt was produced by a combination of four factors. One was the age-old pre-Christian fear of destructive witchcraft. Another was a new belief among intellectuals in a satanic crusade to subvert Christendom. A third was a long-term rise in population and price levels, making the populace more vulnerable to natural disasters and more prone to terror of witches. And the fourth – and the most important – was the struggle between Reformation and Counter-Reformation which produced a tendency among magistrates and churchmen to believe that they were witnessing a final war between God and the devil.

After the Enlightenment, there was another change in European thinking about witchcraft. In part it was legal. Many lawyers came to doubt the evidence or the fairness of the witchcraft trials. Even if they did not doubt the reality of witchcraft, they came to believe that many were accused on the flimsiest or pretexts, and were not given a fair trial. Others looked for empirical evidence of the harm allegedly caused by witchcraft, and, finding none, expressed scepticism about the whole thing. In art and literature people began to satirise the earlier beliefs about witchcraft, and it was ridicule, as much as anything else, that brought the great witch hunt to an end.

The witch became a figure of fun and harmless fantasy, rather than a stereotype of menace, as can be seen in the Harry Potter stories.

It was at this stage of European culture that contact between European and African cultures began to increase in the 19th century. The difference between African and European culture at that time was that African culture was premodern, whereas European culture was shaped by modernity, and the premodern understandings of witchcraft were culturally alien. European Christian missionaries in Africa were no exception. They had been culturally conditioned not to take African witchcraft beliefs seriously, and thought that the best way of dealing with any problems was education in the Enlightenment worldview, to teach people that they could not take such silly superstitions seriously.

A few took a somewhat different approach. In South Africa, for example, Anglo-Catholic missionaries, who were concerned to assert the legitimacy of the Church of England vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic Church had often studied the premodern history of the Church in England, and were aware of premodern views, and approached African witchcraft beliefs more sympatheitically, and added attempting to bewitch people to the list of sins to be confessed, along with theft, adultery, slander and missing Mass. It was African Independent Churches, however, who recontextualised the gospel for premodern culture, and provided protection for the fearful, and an opportunity for repentance for witches.

There is a difference between African pagan beliefs about witchcraft on the one hand, and both African and European Christian beliefs on the other. In Christian belief, the symbol and source of evil is the devil. It is the devil who tempts people to evil acts, whether by witchcraft or other means. In pagan African belief, however, the symbol and source of evil is the witch. Evil, sickness, famine and other misfortunes are caused by human malice, in the person of the witch.

The similarities between African and European witchcraft may, however, go beyond those between the premodern beliefs. There seems to be a rise in the number and severity of witch hunts in sub-Saharan Africa. And it also seems to coincide with modernisation. The Great European Witch Hunt coincided with the rise of modernity. Nowadays people often talk of witchcraft beliefs as “medieval”, but that is not strictly accurate. The witch craze in Europe was essentially modern.

And modernity seems to be having a similar effect in Africa, to judge from the increase in witch hunting.

This has not escaped the notice of anthropologists; see, for example, Comaroff, Jean & Comaroff, John (eds). 1993. Modernity and its malcontents: ritual and power in post-colonial Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-11440-6.

For this reason, pretending that African and European witchcraft are completely different is not merely wrong, but dangerous. It can prevent us from learning lessons from history. It can blind us to what is happening in society around us.

The four articles I cited at the beginning give an indication of the extent and seriousness of witch hunting in South Africa at the moment. It doesn’t seem that the problem is about to go away.

African children protesting against witchcraft accusations

There are also indications that Christian responses are changing, just as they changed in early modern Europe. In my article Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery I noted that African initiated churches often had a more healthy and realistic approach to witchcraft and sorcery than Western-initiated churches. But there are signs that this is changing. There is a new breed of African independent churches, the Neopentecostal churches, that are modernist and modernising, and which have a different attitude to witchcraft and sorcery, and some of them, at least, seem to be promoting witch hunts. Zionists wear robes and beat cow-hide drums, the Neopentecostals wear Western suits and have expensive sound systems. See my earlier post on African neopentecostals battle witchcraft in the West.

It may not be all Neopentecostals that are promoting such views, but concern with what they are promoting goes beyond their immediate membership. They spread their message beyond their membership by means of mass media, and by publicly advertising what they are doing. In Congo there are hundreds of children who have been accused of witchcraft who have been thrown out of their homes.

Because this sort of thing has happened before, in the Great European Witch Craze, we can learn from history, and perhaps prevent a repetition of such things. One of the lessons Christians can learn from that is the important difference between the adjectives “satanist” and “satanic”.

The Great European Witch Hunt was based on a conspiracy theory — the idea that witches were apostate Christians who had made a pact with the devil and worshipped him, and were therefore “satanist”. But it was the witch hunters themselves who were satanic, because they accused others of witchcraft. The word “satan” means “accuser”, as does the Greek translation “diavolos”, from which the English word “devil” comes. And the primary satanic activity is the making of accusations.

The 16th century witch trials ordered by the Malleus Maleficarum differed from earlier ones in that they did not punish false accusations. “The secular governments of centuries earlier had been wiser; they had penalized the talk as much as the act. The new effort did not do so; it encouraged the talk against the act” (Charles Williams, Witchcraft 1959:142). And it is precisely that that made the Great European Witch Hunt a satanic delusion.

We should recognise the parallels, and warn Christians against falling into the same delusion today.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 April 2008 11:14 am

    30 days of Advocacy against Witch Hunts in South Africa – Saturday 28 March to Sunday 27 April 2008

    Should cultural practices and religious beliefs that promote the murder of innocent people on the basis of belief be tolerated in any society?
    The answer must be a resounding NO.

    The 30 day advocacy campaign (from 29 March to 27 April) against religious prejudice and witch hunts will focus on a) highlighting the tragedy of sporadic and ongoing Witch hunts, b) exposing the religious beliefs and cultural prejudice against Witchcraft, and c) asserting the right of Pagan Witches to self-definition, self-determination, religious freedom and safety and security.

    Download a free copy of ‘A Pagan Witches TouchStone’ today.


    For more information visit:

    South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA)

  2. 7 April 2008 3:21 pm

    Hello Steve,

    thank you for this article. It is a great summary of the themes and facts of the issue, and the conclusions of the difference between ‘satanist’ and ‘satanic’ very illuminating. I will be recommending this post to my students. Thanks.


  3. 8 April 2008 10:58 pm

    Steve, thanks for this interesting historical and cutlural study that helps distinguish between various types of witchcraft. I think I’d add a further element to the discussion in the Western context and that is the figure of the witch as it appears in fairytale that includes connections to and disparity between forms of witchcraft in ancient paganism and contemporary Neo-Paganism. Harry Potter belongs in the fairytale category for a contemporary generation, just as Disney’s various depictions of witches in their classic cartoons provided a fairytale archetype for previous generations. In my view Potter’s witchcraft has been read far too literally and plucked from its fairytale context by critics and supporters of Wicca. This might make for another facet of the discussion and distinctions as well.

  4. 8 April 2008 11:07 pm

    Thank you Steve, much food for thought here…

  5. 9 April 2008 3:18 am


    Yes, the Harry Potter and Disney depictions of witches are very much fantasy, in a society that has largely ceased to fear witches. They draw on certain elements of older stereotypes, and use them in a harmless way, but of course they differ markedly from current African or older European perceptions.

    Much the same thing has happened to the figure of the sea pirate. (also with a certain amount of help from Disney). I don’t think it’s happened to plane and car hijackers yet, though.

  6. 31 October 2008 9:11 am

    It is not a matter of whether witchcraft existed in the European or African contexts – instead one should examine how purported ‘witchcraft’ is used in Europe versus Africa.

    In this regard, I just published an article by a German anthropoligist on my blog which you may wish to read dealing with witchcraft specifically where it relates to its use as a political power tool in modern-day South Africa. This article, written over 7 years ago, also asks the question whether whites in South Africa could (under the increasingly ‘Africanised’ instead of Western-European legal system, ) also be charged with ‘witchcraft’ as this is understood by Africans? The word used by African communities to denote a witch is ‘cockroach’. In the public rhetoric in South Africa ‘s current leadership crisis, the word ‘cockroach’ is again heard frequently, and the number of ‘muti-murders’ , decapitations and incidents of other ‘witchcraft’-related events have soared. Several Indian businessmen were recently also accused of witchcraft and torched inside their cars by local communities which claimed they were selling human body parts.

    These events often cover up a more ominous motive, namely to destroy a business or political rival, or kill someone who one owes money to, etc… hiding under the umbrella of witchcraft.

    These are often reported only briefly in the news media frequented by ‘whites’ in SA, but when one reads Sowetan and other ‘black’ newspapers, one can obtain more detailed information. It all depends which newspaper you read and which radio station you listen to!

    Read the article:

  7. 1 November 2008 8:51 am


    This is very confusing, and the blog entries you refer to are very confusing too.

    For example, the question whether whites could be charged with witchcraft… under what law do you envisage them being charged, and why do you single out whites? It sounds as though there is a racist agenda there, and the blog post you refer to shows that even more strongly.

    Also, in Zulu, at least, there is no resemblance at all between the word for “witch” (umthakhathi) and the word for “cockroach”. There is a resemblance to the word for tapeworms.

  8. tony wells permalink
    18 January 2011 2:27 pm

    would like to read the stuff on witchcraft in south africa but the links are broke! any chance…


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