Cultures & Magic: Witchcraft and Shamanism

Native American shaman

The term witchcraft is used by many different people and the perceptions of the term change depending on the portion of society which utilises the term. E.E Evans-Pritchard (1937) published Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande focusing on the idea of irrational beliefs. Within his work, he translated the African Zande word mangu into the English word witchcraft. By doing this, Evans-Pritchard set the anthropological definition for witchcraft. The significance of his fieldwork is stressed in the following quote:

One of the factors that makes the study of Zande witchcraft so important is that among the Azande witchcraft is an everyday topic of conversation, and people will discuss witchcraft in great detail with an outside observer (Stein 2008 pg.224)

When anthropologists speak of witchcraft, they generally refer to individuals who have an innate ability to cause evil. A witch does not use witchcraft to achieve evil ends but simply wills misfortune to occur. In various cultures, witchcraft can be unconscious and unintentional.

Shamanism is also a broadly used term. It is seen as a range of traditional beliefs and practises communicating with the spirit world. Most anthropologists agree that it denotes a technique rather than a specific organised religion. Shamans, unlike witches, are depicted as mystical priestly figures who are guardians of the soul, protecting and appeasing the spirits in order to avoid harm being done to humans under their care. There are many variations of shamanism throughout the world, and several common beliefs are shared by all forms of shamanism. Four common beliefs identified by Eliade (1964) are: controlling the spirit, the trance séance, the shamanic calling, and shamanic regalia.

Witchcraft and shamanism still hold much prevalence today for anthropological study. Across many cultures and parts of the world, witchcraft is part of a cumulative process of a high frequency to climax in a violent and tragic manner. In Africa, witchcraft has played a role in rebellions, fighting wars, gaining independence and is often seen at election time. Some people also consult witchdoctors to cure diseases or find a husband. Extreme cases such as child witches can even result in an almost genocide like fashion. In Western societies, it can also be seen as a highly destructive, manipulating belief. Shamanism is often viewed in this same negative light. Yet, it should be stressed that Jesus is considered a shaman by some.

Essentially there are two umbrella categories of shamanism. Traditional forms exist in northern countries such as Siberia, Greenland, Inuit in Canada, Northern Scandinavia. In recent years there has been a rapid growth of interest in shamanism and shamanistic practices in western countries. This form of shamanism can be distinguished from that of more traditional forms in that it emphasises personal spiritual growth rather than depicting the role of the shaman as the protector of souls.

Similarities and differences between ritual specialists are more likely to be defined when an assumed resemblance is not obligatory to the use of a single term. For example, the use of ‘witchcraft’ to refer to phenomena in both Africa and Christian Europe can lead to misunderstandings of contiguity. Evans-Pritchard was attentive to this danger:

One can standardize a word taken from a primitive vernacular, like totem, and use it to describe phenomena among other peoples which resemble what it refers to in its original home; but this can be the cause of great confusion, because the resemblances may be superficial, and the phenomena in question is so diversified that the term loses all meaning. (Bowie 2006 pg.179)

Considering similarities, ritual activities and beliefs associated with shamans and witches share common roots in organisation and structure. Shamans and witches are the only magical religious practitioners that have a major involvement in malevolent activities as central aspects of their role.

Witchcraft was first brought to my attention during history classes on the Tudors and Stuarts. Henry VIII believed Anne Boleyn had bewitched him and thus used accusations as a means of political control under his own power. Nowadays, witchcraft is used as means of understanding discrepancy in belief about the universe or social life. The following quote supports this ideology:

To break the rules of social life is very often to break the laws the govern the universe (Keesing 1998 pg.291)

Initially, a contrast in gender can be drawn from the above descriptions. Shamans tend to be depicted as males. A witch can be of either sex although in belief and practise it more often female. Perhaps, male shamans engage in practices more than females, as shamans are perceived as needing a ‘hard body’ and women hold domestic responsibilities. Male shamans are usually married, whereas female shamans usually aren’t, thereby their domestic role is annulled. It is vital to note that female shamans tend to live on the outskirts of the town. This infers that they may be turning to shamanism as a means of being more interrogated into the community. According to Bowie, pregnancy may be the concern facing female shamans:

For a woman, childbearing could put an end to her shamanizing, and the spirits might suggest ways in which she could dispose of her husband! (Bowie 2006 pg.188)

In recent years, a rapid growth of interest in shamanism and shamanic practices evolved in western countries. Academic Anthropologist, Michael Warner, is the founder and director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, California. Warner believes that participation is the optimum way to discover shamanism. Since 1961, he has practised shamanism and shamanic healing. His most prominent work, The Way of the Shaman, is based on his experiences of shamanism and is designed as a self-help manual for those who seek similar spiritual experiences. Warner offers us a vivid description of his state of trance:

First, they showed me the planet Earth as it was aeons ago, before there was any life on it. I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky. Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape. I could see that the “specks” were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies. Their heads were not visible to me. They flopped down, utterly exhausted from their trip, resting for aeon (

This insightful passage reveals how Warner had a ‘calling’ during his deep trance, which ultimately led him to believe in the shamanic ways of the Amazon. The use of hallucinogenic drugs and community healing activities are very different, predominately negative characteristics of witches (e.g. causing illness and death).

Inversely, some characteristics of shamans are similar to those associated with witches. These include night time activities; personal interaction with the spirit world and control of spirits; animal familiars and transformation into animals; the ability to fly, and causing illness and death through the theft of the victim’s soul or projection of objects or malicious spirits into the body of the victim.

Principal characteristics associated with healing, divination, hunting, and group leadership are not typically found in the witch. Shamans are also found in societies quite distinct from those of witches. Cross-cultural data shows that shamans are found in hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and agricultural societies, whereas witch practitioners are found in societies with agricultural survival patterns, political hierarchies and social stratification. In effect, shamans and witches do not both occur in the same society. Conversely, in Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, Douglas offers a contrasting opinion:

evidently, in many cultures these two forces coexist and sometimes even blend into a hybrid entity (Douglas 1970 pg. 299)

I would assert that the most dramatic difference between witchcraft and shamanism can be portrayed in today’s media. A potent example of this was a Channel 4 documentary on child witches in Nigeria. Dispatches reported on an outbreak of witch hysteria in Akwa Ibom, an area which receives all the pollution from a local oil industry and benefits from none of it’s wealth. The toxic blend of animalism combined with Christian belief from local churches insists that the resulting ills of the region are all the result of witchcraft. This was further fuelled by the release of a grisly evangelical horror film made by one of Nigeria’s most successful hellfire preachers. The pastors and prophetesses of Nigeria’s many independent churches, anxious not to be left out of the dramatic (and very lucrative) witch-denunciation business, soon began identifying small children as agents of Satan. Once denounced, you are either expensively ‘cured’ or driven out of your home. Or murdered. Parts of the film were almost unbearable to watch. Four and five-year-old children, terrified out of their wits during church excommunications. Young children brutally scarred by the beatings and torture that are used to extract ‘confessions’ of their Satanic allegiance. A five-year-old girl called Mary who had been abandoned after her mother died, was blamed for causing the death by a local preacher.

The film ended with two minor triumphs: a protest by the children at the offices of the local state governor, which persuaded him to finally sign into law Nigeria’s Child’s Rights Act; and the return of a smile on Mary’s face, months after she’d arrived in the charity’s children’s home. Neither was quite large enough to erase the impression of ignorance so wickedly manipulated and so evil in its effects that you’d be tempted to speculate the existence of the Devil to explain it away; if you didn’t know that men and women can do such things perfectly well on their own account.

As much of my research encountered, both witchcraft and shamanism operate to control and make sense of the wider social and cultural environment. They manifest themselves as a means of social control which can be considered socially harmful. Mesaki’s thesis on witchcraft in Tanzania further reinforces this statement:

It deals with existential problems and offers quick answers to a host of happenings such as death, illness, misfortunes and failure in life- in all of these; witchcraft can be used to avoid facing reality (Mesaki (n.d.) pg. 1)

It is evident that the margins of witchcraft and shamanism remain very much blurred. A tremendous amount of fear and corruption is held within societies that practise these beliefs. Such strong views can cause an almost genocide-like attitude by taking the law into their own hands. This inevitably will lead to high levels of destruction amongst cultures practising witchcraft and shamanism.



Bowie, Fiona (2006) The Anthropology of Religion: Blackwell Publishing: Australia

Douglas, Mary (1970) Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations: London & New York: Routledge

Keesing, Roger M. (1998) Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective, Third Edition. USA: Thomson Wadsworth

Mesaki, Simon. (n.d.) Witchcraft and the Law in Tanzania Ph.D. (Anthropology)

Stein, Rebecca L. (2008) The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft, Second Edition. USA: Pearson



Dispatches: Saving Africa’s Witch Children [TV documentary]
Channel 4, 12 November 2008 21.00.


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