Ancient rites and rituals that are practised worldwide in more ways than one.

Forms of witchcraft have been used by all civilisations and cultures through the centuries; and even in the face of widespread persecution, superstition, and fear, it continues to cast its spell over people in both secular and religious communities to this day.

Forget about the Hollywood depiction of witchcraft conjured up by Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings as some kind of malign form of sorcery existing in the realms of fantasy. Witchcraft is alive and well, is still widely practised around the world, and is just as likely to be considered as a force for good as it is for bringing about evil or misfortune. As old as history itself, witchcraft is a kind of pagan religion, one in which believers may worship several gods or deities compared to the monotheistic practice of more orthodox and, in some cases, younger religions including the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths.

Witchcraft still underpins and influences the beliefs, culture, and practices of people in many parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, the West Indies, the Caribbean, and North America – most notably in the south, in New Orleans. Witchcraft was also fairly widely practised in Europe for thousands of years but witch trials and persecutions at the hands of the Christian church helped to drive it underground, if not eradicate it altogether.

In Britain, for instance, a modern form of pagan witchcraft, known as Wicca, was developed as recently as the early part of the 20th century.

The word ‘pagan’ comes from Latin and was used for someone who lived in the country; the term implied that pagans were less sophisticated than city dwellers but it wasn’t until the 15th century in Europe that pagans were first associated with witchcraft in a more negative context, as people who believed in evil spells, hexes, and worshipped the devil. That is not to say that all pagans practised the same form of witchcraft, or that witchcraft is the same everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, witchcraft is hard to pin down as it varies from country to country and is often used in different ways, including for medicinal reasons, spiritual healing, exorcism of bad spirits, nature worship, and calling upon magical powers through the use of spells, incantations and other rituals involving potions, herbs, and effigies.

Witchcraft around the world

As mentioned above, witchcraft in Europe was largely tolerated, if frowned upon, by Christians until witch hunts and persecution became more widespread. Powers attributed to witches (who were almost always women) included being able to make food inedible, make crops fail and livestock fall ill, cast spells and curses and, of course, fly on broomsticks! But not all witches were considered forces for bad. So called ‘white witches’, for instance, could undo evil spells, diagnose illness, and bring about magic cures.

The term witch-doctor was used in England before being ascribed to practitioners in Africa. A contemporary form of witchcraft – Wicca – was developed and promoted in England by Gerald Gardener, a retired civil servant, through writings and teachings, in the 1950s. Based on pagan beliefs, Wicca worships a goddess and a god, and some typical celebrations are connected to the cycles of the sun and moon.

Africa and Asia

There are many different types of witchcraft being practised in Africa, in countries as diverse as South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Malawi, Central Africa, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. In southern parts of Africa, the ‘thakathi’ is a kind of spiteful witch who is believed to do harm rather than good, whereas the ‘sangoma’ is more of a fortune teller and advises people on decisions about career, and potential life partners.

A witch doctor, or ‘inyanga’, is one who heals illness or injury that may be the result of some malicious spell – cast by a ‘thakathi’ perhaps. In some parts of central Africa, as well as using their powers for good, witches are accused of using magic to bring about illnesses such as AIDS and cancer, and even children are accused of being witches. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of so-called child witches have been physically abused and forcefully exorcised, while in Ghana a number of witch camps have been set up as safe havens for women who have been accused of being witches and attacked by their neighbours.

Obeah, a form of religion and magic linked with witchcraft, was developed by West African slaves who introduced it to the Caribbean islands. Similar in many ways to Hoodoo, Voodoo, Santeria, and Palo, Obeah is considered to be able to deploy the power of magic for both good and bad purposes.

Witchcraft and belief in the supernatural is widely spread, if not always tolerated, across Asia, including in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Japan. In Japan, it is believed that witches can recruit the magical, and mainly nefarious services of foxes, although they can be put to good use as well. Similarly, in the Philippines, practitioners can summon the help of invertebrates or insects to deliver a curse, but there are also forms of white magic, which is benevolent.

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A traditional witches market in Peru sells herbal remedies for any problem. Photo by Jess Kraft

Mexico and the Americas

Witchcraft has long been practised in Mexico and forms an important part of the country’s cultural history, as it does further south in countries in Latin America, including Chile and Brazil, in particular. One city with strong associations to the tradition in Mexico is Catemaco, in Veracruz, where modern male and female witches (brujos and brujas) continue to thrive, practising forms of both white and black magic rituals. People from all walks of life, including politicians and businessmen and women, seek help from the witches of Catemaco, one example being the ritual of ‘limpias’ which is a form of spiritual cleansing they believe will give them an advantage in their business dealings.

As practised by other cultures, native American witchcraft, such as Dinè and Navajo, derived many of their symbols and ideas from the natural world, using charms and amulets in their rituals. Carvings, totem poles, herbs, feathers, stones, and bones were used to call up spirits and cast spells by shamans. Two more powerful symbols are the sacred pipe, often used in lamenting the passing of a loved one, and the owl, which was seen as a symbol of bad luck. Not as strong as it once was, some beliefs and forms of native American witchcraft are still used and practised today.

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View of the Witches Market, which sells llama fetuses among other things in La Paz, BOLIVIA. Photo by Jess Kraft

Witchcraft capital of the US

Although everyone has heard of the notorious Salem witch trials in Massachusetts (1692-93) when around 150 people were accused of being witches and put on trial – 19 of them being hanged – the undoubted heartland of modern witchcraft in North America is the southern city of New Orleans may have one of the oldest witchcraft stores in country, but European witchcraft, voodoo, and Haitian voodoo thrives in New Orleans like nowhere else in the US. Indeed, voodoo culture has been an integral part of the culture since the city was founded in 1700, and it even had its own Creole voodoo priestess in the form of the legendary Marie Laveau! Both Marie and her daughter of the same name were celebrities in the 19th century and were credited with having great powers and influence.

The subject of popular legends and lore, Marie Laveau’s tomb remains a popular draw for tourists who believe the age-old rumour that if they draw an ‘X’ on her tomb, Marie will grant them a single wish.