Witchcraft in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa: Terminology

by B.A Robinson

In that part of Africa south of the Sahara desert, and in parts of Asia, the terms Witch and Witchcraft have multiple, conflicting, and largely unrelated meanings:

  1. Early Christian missionaries in Africa used these terms to refer to individuals who are believed to intentionally use “incantations, ritual, and various substances” 1 to mount psychic attacks against other people. The latter were believed to direct destructive black magic in the direction of their victims. These individuals are called umthakathi among the Zulu and moloi among the Sotho. “Evil sorcerer” or “evil sorceress” would be a preferred term to use. Unfortunately, they are often referred to simply as “Witches.”
  2.  Followers of many African Aboriginal religions use the terms witch and witchcraft to refer to individuals who are believed to have the potential to harm others through psychic means. They are believed to be unaware of their evil powers. Witchcraft is not something that they learn; they are perceived as having been born with magical abilities to harm others. Witch Doctors are spiritual specialists who attempt to counteract the powers of the witches.
  3. The terms Witch and Witchcraft often refer to Wiccans and Wicca throughout the world. This is a modern religion that is based largely on symbols, beliefs, deities and festivals of the ancient Celtic society. This meaning has occasional use in Africa as well.

Additional, mostly unrelated, activities which have been called “Witchcraft”:

  1. “The world of imagination and fantasy can help pass on to the child cultural and social messages [and] function as a way to experience vicariously things an individual could not do first-hand.” C. Aminadav, International Journal of Adolescent Medicine & Health. 1995 APR-JUN, 8: Pages 103-106.
  2. “The Bible is clear about issues such as witchcraft, demons, devils and the occult…they are real, powerful and dangerous. Throughout it insists that God’s people should have nothing to do with them.” Carol Rookwood, Principal, St. Mary’s Island School in Kent, UK
  3. “Harry’s magic is of an entirely different nature from real-world witchcraft: ‘Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don’t make contact with a supernatural world.’ ” Lindy Beam of Focus on the Family, quoting Chuck Colson, a popular Christian author. 3
  4. “The books are set in surroundings involving sorcery and witchcraft. WE STRONGLY CONDEMN THESE WRITINGS AS THEY ARE FULL OF WITCHCRAFT AND SORCERY. The Bible is strong in its condemnation of these things.” G.T. Armstrong 1

The term “Witch” is often mentioned:

  1. In English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) where the Hebrew actually refers to women who harm others via spoken curses;
  2. In English translations of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) where the Greek actually refers to criminals who use poision to commit homicide;
  3. By Wiccans, followers of a popular Neopagan, Earth centered religion;
  4. By followers of other Earth-centered religions;
  5. By writers of imaginary fantasy novels, like R,K, Rowling’s Harry Potter™ series;
  6. By some religious Satanists;
  7. etc.
  8. Many people believe, incorrectly, that all of these refer to the same system of beliefs and practices.

Violence against “Witches” in Africa:

“In Southern Africa, decades of violent repression and armed struggles against it have led to a ‘culture of violence’. Witchcraft and witch hunts [directed against evil sorcery] are but two manifestations of that.” 1

The Ministry of Safety and Security of South Africa’s Northern Province created a Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft, Violence and Ritual Killings. The Commission issued a report in 1996-MAY which showed that thousands of people had been accused of witchcraft, run out of town and lost their property. More than 300 had been killed by vigilante mobs over the previous ten years. The victims were accused of “shape-shifting” themselves from human form into bats and birds, of converting people into zombies, and of causing death by calling down lightning or through the use of toxic medicines. These beliefs are quite similar to those which circulated during the Witch burning craze of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe circa 1450 to 1792 CE. Those Witches didn’t exist either. One possible source of confusion in the country is the Suppression of Witchcraft Act (1957) which does not differentiate between most forms of traditional African healing and evil sorcery (black magic). It banned both practices.

Ten farms have been set up in the Northern Province to hold hundreds of refugees who have been found guilty of witchcraft by traditionalist kangaroo courts and are in danger of being assassinated by mob action.

The Congolese Human Rights Observatory recently announced that more than 60 people had been burned or buried alive in that country since 1990 – including 40 in 1996. The victims were accused, often by members of their own family, of being witches.

On 1998-SEP-7, a conference involving about 200 police and government representatives was convened in Thohoyandou, South Africa. Its purpose was to curb Witchcraft-related deaths. Between 1994-APR and 1995-FEB, 97 women and 46 men in South Africa had been accused of being Witches or Wizards, and murdered by townspeople or rural individuals. In the first 6 months of 1998, in the Northern Province alone, 386 crimes had been perpetrated against suspected witches; these included murder, damage to property and assault. Victims accused of Witchcraft are typically women between 55 and 72 years of age. Murders are most common in the rainy season, when Witches are accused of directing lightning at people that they wish to destroy.

It will be very difficult to eradicate crimes against suspected Witches. Ill-educated people are convinced that evil Witches exist and react violently in what they consider to be self-defense.

According to African Eye News Service, The South African Gender Commission is  sponsoring a road show which features former Witch-hunters committed to changing people’s beliefs about Witches and evil spirits. Some of the 33 actors had been given amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after they testified that witchcraft-related violence in the former homelands was politically motivated. The Gender Commission said on 2000-JUL-19 that its road show had dramatically reduced Witchcraft-related violence. 2

Similar violence in India:

On 2002-JUL-29, five women were hacked to death because they were believed to have been practicing “witchcraft.” The murders took place in the tea belt area of Jalpaiguri state of India. Ten laborers in the Kilkote tea estate were arrested. During the previous decade, 79 women had been murdered in this area on suspicion of witchcraft.  14

Between 2001 and 2006, police have reports of over 700 women being killed as witches or witch doctors in eastern India alone. But they believe that the actual number could be many times higher.

The Dakini Vidya form of witchcraft is widely practiced by women in India. Similar to Wicca, it involves invoking the Mother Goddess to draw spiritual strength. Unfortunately, perhaps because of lack of education and literacy, witches are often persecuted by villagers who blame them for natural disasters, illness, death, or theft.

Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, a prominent social activist who practices Wicca, studied the religion in Canada. She has written two books on Wicca, including “The Sacred Evil” which has been adapted as a movie. She said:

“People from different walks of life and even governments had asked me to institutionalize Wicca, but I was waiting for the right moment. … Now is the time we stood up against people who persecute and kill innocent women.”

She is organizing a “Wiccan Brigade” to document complaints of persecution and work with the police to bring criminal cases to trial. Over 100 people signed up to take her course in Wiccan philosophy, literature and psychology. 4

It is worth noting that the fundamentalist Christian “Abominations” website at http://aboms.comadded a biblical quote to its reporting of the “Wiccan Brigade on 2006-OCT-17.” It is Exodus 22:18’s advocacy of religiously-based genocide:  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” This is from the King James Version. More recent translations use the term “sorcerer” in place of “witch.”

Copyright © 1999 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-NOV-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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