Which witch is which?

Yaseen Ally

Witchcraft has existed in some form or the other, in most societies around the world. In fact, it has dominated so much of human social life, that within almost every discipline within the academic world – researchers have embarked on studies to de-mystify witchcraft as a science. These studies, from the earliest known investigations have yielded understanding that reflects the experiences of the researcher as well as those who were studied. Although these studies have alluded -somewhat- toward bringing the academic and the curious mind closer toward an understanding of witchcraft, one has to consider the validity of such investigations. In most cases, and I am careful here with my phrasing, ‘in most cases’ witchcraft studies have yielded results that speak directly to the needs of the researcher. As an emerging academic and scholar within psychology, I too was motivated toward witchcraft research based on my personal experiences. I recall being a very young and naive second year psychology student and an event that directed much of my current research. I woke up one morning –the exact day and time cannot be precisely located – but it is safe to say that I was an undergraduate student. Not only was I a student, but I was a ‘student whose body was mysteriously covered in what seemed to be, a rash’. After numerous unsuccessful visits to doctors, my grandmother suggested a visit to a local community faith healer. Being desperate to rid my body of this ghastly red marks, I reluctantly agreed. To my surprise, the red marks/rash on my body vanished after a single treatment, which involved the tying of a string to my body, upon which verses of the Holy Koran was blown onto.

That was ‘it’ for me. My neuron’s begun making connection between the body, mind and the spirit – a combination which often is neglected in much of scientific studies. But in addition to this, I felt a deep sense of anger developing within me. “Am I a victim of bewitchment?” “Who dare be responsible for this?” “I want to kill (yes, kill) the person responsible for this experience”. Logically, it would follow that my feelings of anger were justified. Justified by the fact that the medical profession was at a loss to explain or even assist my ‘’suffering’. Inherent to this justification, was the association of my suffering to an evil being – a witch – who, for whatever reason, hated me and wanted to see me suffer. This personal experience motivated much of my postgraduate studies and research within psychology and I investigated the ‘victims’ of bewitchment.

Now, before a witch-hunt is leveled against me by my Pagan friends, I have another ‘revolution of thought’ that occurred early in 2008. Working at an institute that focused on violence and violence prevention intervention developments, I started researching “witchcraft and violence”. To my horror, I witnessed (over various search engines) witchcraft-related violence and attacks on ‘witches’. Upon further and closer investigation it emerged that these ‘witches’ were mostly women and that they faced an array of violent consequences. My initial response to this research development was a feeling that spread throughout my body – the same feeling one may get when seeing an injury on another that involves blood and pain. Were these ‘witches’ really responsible for the crimes they were accused off? Were these witches linked to the Devil and gained power through this association? I thought long and hard about this and the conclusion, quite simply, was ‘no’. It is at this point that it would fit in my argument to say that my thought processes and questions were not (and are still not) aimed at any particular culture or belief per se. rather, the issue for me became the extent to which beliefs accentuate and contribute toward violence against others. In the same light of the events that have re-directed much of the world, namely, 9/11 and ‘Islamic extremism’ I thought that maybe, in all cultures and communities across the world, there exist those person (s) who would interpret their belief systems to suit their own motives. As a South African Muslim, I am not in any way aware of the portrayal of violence within my belief system, although there may exist those who choose to selectively interpret religious and cultural teachings, readings and practices in ways that inform their ‘selfish’ needs. The same logic then applies to witchcraft related violence and attacks. Are those who fuel the accusations against mostly women and some men, motivated by their own needs? One may now question what these needs are, but before I explore this, below I present preliminary findings from my doctoral project on the types of violence those who are accused may face.

The table above describes the types of violence that are faced by those accused of witchcraft in South Africa. The analysis is based on a collection of newspaper reports from 2000 to 2009. Important to note from this table, is the types of violent consequences, which reflect much of the hysteria found in the European witch trials and the Salem Inquisition. Sadly though, unlike the witch-hunts in America and Europe, witchcraft accusations and the violence associated with it, is a current reality that is affecting the lives of countless people in many communities in South Africa and much of Africa. There are certain ‘risk factors’ that may locate a person in a position to be accused of witchcraft.

Risk factors related to witch-hunts

Concentration in certain provinces and rural areas

• Witch hunts are largely found in rural communities of South Africa.

• In particular, communities in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces reportedly have a prevalence of witch hunts.

Economic elements of witch-hunts

• Competition for scarce resources is connected to witch accusations.

• Apparently, relatively wealthier members of a community are targeted by others as they are believed to have used witchcraft to gain their wealth.

• At the same time relatively poorer members are also accused of causing misfortune to others who lose their economic status in the community or believe they are supposed to be better off than they actually are. Relatively well off persons may accuse poorer members of a community of practicing witchcraft in an attempt to assume ownership of land, property or even livestock.

Socio-psychological dimension of witch-hunts

• ‘Witches’ are believed to cause misfortune and to bring disease and even death to persons in a community.

• Psychological disturbances, divorce, business misfortune and even HIV/AIDS are believed to be caused by ‘witches’.

• Jealousy, rivalry and envy at success or beauty may make individuals vulnerable to an accusation of using bewitchment to attain these attributes.

Age as a factor in witchcraft accusations

• Most ‘witches’ are older women. The physical appearance of these women attributable to age seems to be taken as an indicator of the presence of malevolence.

In addition to these factors there is an association between witch-hunts and gender-based violence. Even though some men may have accusations of witch leveled at them, women are more vulnerable to witch accusations and subsequent hunts. Women, who assume power positions, either financially or through a role that provides power, are more vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft from men and women. Men who level witch accusations against women can be said to be threatened by the socio-economic standing of the accused.

Witch -hunting is thus essentially about gender-based control in that men assert and reassert their power and control over women’s independence, bodies, sexuality and individuality. Women who level accusations against other women can be said to function from within a patriarchal ideology, which is used to support the accusers’ economic, social, material or psychological needs and motives. Jealousy or envy, as examples, may be the real motive of the accuser but in charging another woman of witchcraft the accuser employs a patriarchal ideology.

Having briefly explored some of the dimensions to witchcraft accusations that are dominant within the academic world, I would like to revisit the title of this article. I began this article to the Penton with the title “which witch is which?”, and I do believe that it aptly captures what must be a dominant debate amongst Pagans. As a Pagan follower, one is more than likely to attribute the label of ‘witch’ to a follower of the belief. This follows in the same way the Muslims follow Islam and Monks follow Buddhism. But the inherent difficulty that may be faced by witches of the Pagan kind, must be the world-wide domination of the linguistic term ‘witch’ with evil, malevolence and the capacity to cause harm and misfortune by invoking ‘evil’ through the use of mystical pacts with the Devil. I am almost more than certain, based on readings and relationships forged with Pagans in South Africa that this must be furthest from the truth.

Unfortunately we live in world dominated by media power, which influences most, if not all of what we know and come to believe and practice. In South Africa then, Pagans must face a difficult task coming across daily accounts of ‘witch killed by mob’ newspaper headlines. The question that remains unanswered is which witch is which? And if Pagan witches are witches, then which witch is evil, if at all? This is important to consider as witches and evil have been associated from the beginning of monotheist thought. One has only to look at the hype created around films like Harry Potter to gain some insight to this media injustice. Are the generations to come going to perpetuate these associations and will witch-hunts be a feature in South Africa for years to come? Although research indicates that the ‘evil’ witch may be a collective entity upon which misfortunes are to be displaced and in so doing, maintain a sense of community cohesion, the reality of the situation is that somehow, somewhere, media and the world have borrowed a term that belongs to the Pagan faith and utilized it to describe what should be termed a scapegoat. This then lead me to wonder if those accused of being witches and fall victim to violent and malicious behaviour, are merely scapegoats in a broader socio-psychological dimension?

Instead of answering these questions in this article, I would like to open a debate amongst Pagans and others to comment on the ideas I have presented in this article.


Yaseen Ally has a master’s degree in Psychology from The University of the Witwatersrand. He has an interest in supernatural religio-cultural beliefs and violence; witchcraft accusations and violence; gender research; sport therapy and identity. Currently in practice as a registered counsellor, he has developed a drug & alcohol intervention program.

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5 Responses

  1. Antoinette Keyser says:

    Fantastic study! Thank you, Yaseen. I would love to read your thesis once completed.
    In answer to one of the questions posed in a comment above: the first time that the words “witch” and “witchcraft” were used was in early biblical times, after the Jews took over Canaan, which belonged to Pagan people, and which later became Israel. The destruction started in those times already, and I am quite certain that, in view of the fact that Israel is part of the Middle East, and a large part of the Middle East forms part of North Africa, that the terms “witch”, “witchdoctor” and “witchcraft” could have been used in Africa to describe traditional healers and their practices before Jan van Riebeeck first set foot in the Cape. Not so sure about Columbus and America, tho.

  2. Stephen says:

    well written, and unfortunately the plight of the rural witch hunts are well known to us living in smaller ares most of these killings are never prosecuted as they are treated under tribal law… one day we will be free….

    Interesting wording “researchers have embarked on studies to de-mystify witchcraft as a science”, I stand corrected but witchcraft only became a science in the 1800’s and the beginning of the brass age, when people left villagers and headed for cities to get better jobs… ppl would begin mixing and sharing ideas, and with education, their faith was changed to suit their surroundings… this division is where the craft became the art of witchcraft…

    Thank you for you submission…

  3. Judith says:

    Thank you for a very informative article Yaseen! It is good to know that you are doing this research for your thesis and I would love to read it when done.

    Many years ago, I had a discussion about witchcraft and witchdoctors with a (black) male colleague. One of his questions was “what gives you (whites) the right to call traditional healers witchdoctors and call their healing witchcraft?” We were discussing paganism.

    I am not sure that we can only blame the media for misusing the term witch – it goes back much further that – the early catholic church and other religions played a much bigger role in labeling the “witch” word. It is certainly more convenient to do so.

    Did the indigenous people of Africa know and use the words “witch,” “witchdoctor” and “witchcraft” before Jan Van Riebeeck, Christopher Columbus and colonialism when referring to their traditional healers?

  4. Helen says:

    Very informative thanks Yaseen! I wish you well with your doctoral project. 🙂

  5. Absolutely Brilliant! Thank you Yaseen!

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