Witchcraft and sorcery have been recognized as a cause of human misfortune for millennia and it appears that these causes are nearly, if not entirely, universal; belief spreads from America to Africa to Asia. Records of witchcraft and sorcery are evidenced in rock art and date to pre-historic times. There is also evidence that some people of “small stature” do not believe in witchcraft (Klahari Bushmen, Pygmies, and Andaman Islanders). Even though “savages” have a rational connection to the world around them, witchcraft and sorcery are embedded in cultures throughout history.
In an attempt to account for human illness and adversity spirits and gods are frequently invoked, but there is a nearly universal belief that at least some of this misfortune is caused by individual humans using supernatural means. While being closely related terms in general usage, witchcraft and sorcery can be distinguished for anthropological purposes. Witches are believed to have innate psychic powers that may or may not be under their conscious control. This power is passed by heredity or implanted at an early age.Demonic possession is another explanation for a witch’s power. This demon may be born in the witch, passed from mother to daughter. Sorcerers, on the other hand, are ordinary persons practicing “black” magic using spells and physical objects. At times, witchcraft and sorcery are socially approved by the community and in some cultures witches may actually cure illness, not cause it. The term “witch” describes a ‘female sorceress or magician’ and is derived from the Old English term ‘wicce’. Some other explanations for misfortune include the will of god, karma, chance, ancestor spirits, and kismet.
There are many differences and similarities in witchcraft beliefs and many symbols used are culture specific. In Europe witches are thin, whereas in central Africa they are fat. There is a common thread in the belief that witches exhibit behavior that is the exact opposite of “normal” persons in a particular culture. They violate taboos against cannibalism, incest, and necrophagia. They eat and kill babies, they eat the souls of their victims, and they make sacrifices of blood. Sometimes they exhume bodies and feed on their flesh. Witches are nearly always acquaintances or relatives and are the scapegoats for illness and troubles in the community.
Witches are organized in covens and they meet for the Sabbath. The word coven is a variation of convent and comes from around 1500. The coven was the structure; the Sabbath was the meeting. Among the Navaho, groups would meet and be led by a chief witch. They might be shape-shifters. They could make themselves invisible or turn into animals or insects so they could slip through the cracks in houses to kill babies. One of the most common and oldest beliefs is that witches fly at night. They get to the Sabbath on flying broomsticks, horses walking backwards, or by the Devil sweeping them into the air. They might go to their meetings riding nocturnal animals. They could have magic “wands” or powerful medicines. Witches often meet at night. They often exploit assistants or familiars, including imps, black cats, rats, owls, beetles, and snails. Snakes, hyenas, and skunks were common familiars. In extreme cases the witches kept a zombie; a person killed by the witch and made to be her slave.
Witches were believed to be having sexual intercourse with familiars. Incubi and succubi, male and female demons respectively, would also have sexual relations with sleeping members of the opposite sex. Witches made love potions, capable of seducing ordinary members of the opposite sex. Witches were thought to harbor hate and greed, of being able to kill at a distance, and able to place foreign substances into other’s body. There are several explanations for the similarity of beliefs about witches cross-culturally. These include cultural diffusion, the existence of a world religion of witchcraft, and coincidence.