For people in the western world, witchcraft and sorcery are relegated to magical fairy tales, fictional forms of entertainment in movies like Harry Potter and The Lord of The Rings installments, and TV shows like Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Charmed. But while for us they are an entertaining fiction, in many parts of the world, witchcraft is very much a current practice, with powerful effects on the communities in which it still flourishes. Whether or not the witches have the powers they are believed to, the power of witchcraft is still evident in the deeply held beliefs and dramatic practices with which it is associated throughout the world. It wasn't so long ago that Western countries also believed in witchcraft. We all know about the Salem witch trials in 1690's Salem, Massachusetts. The period was marked with dozens of trials of women thought to have been practicing witchcraft, followed by numerous executions. Notoriously, the science and legal foundations of the trials were as shaky as the ducking stools prosecutors used to test for witches. This history is enough to make you indignant about the paranoia and religious extremism that caused so many innocent women to lose their lives. What a relief that these customs are no longer tolerated! But elsewhere in the world, witch trials, witch camps, sorcery and other weird and wonderful occult rituals are still central to many cultures. From Africa's witch doctors to voodoo in the West Indies and Romania's witch tax on the sorcerers who are cashing in, let's explore the weird world of witchcraft.
15 Saudi Arabia
Not only is witchcraft considered a real thing in Saudi Arabia, there is a dedicated, state-funded anti-witchcraft unit in the country's government (pictured). A special unit of the religious police pursues magical crime aggressively, and the convicted face death sentences. Although some argue that the unit is not a reflection of the state's belief in witchcraft, but another aspect of the oppressive system. But whether or not Saudi Arabia's government genuinely fears witches, the laws that are in place to hunt down and incarcerate people (women, in particular) suspected of performing witchcraft are very real. The laws are also enforced. One suspect was put to death in 2007, while another perished in prison, awaiting the verdict of her magical 'crimes'. Many of the accused are female foreigners who work as domestic helpers in Saudi Arabian households. It is unfortunate that the branding of witchcraft as a crime often seems to be used as a means to propagate discrimination. In 2013, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) pursued an accused woman, who evaded capture by getting naked (there are strict rules about public nudity in Saudi). In a report in the newspaper Al Arabiya, a senior Islamic cleric wrote: "Some magicians may ride a broom and fly in the air with the help of the jinn [supernatural beings]". Not this lady. Also in 2013, two Asian maids were sentenced to 1,000 lashings and 10 years in prison after their bosses claimed that they had suffered from their magic. Adam Coogle, a Human Rights researcher who specializes in the Middle East, says the relentless witch hunts reveal the hollowness of the country's long-standing promises about liberalizing its justice system.
Tanzania is a land of some very different beliefs and is almost torn apart by its belief in witchcraft, which is catastrophically powerful in many parts of the country. Between 2005 and 2011, reports say around 3,000 people were killed after being accused of being witches. Many of the victims of the attacks on 'witches' are women over 60 years of age. Witch doctors - village healers who are sometimes involved in the witch hunts - have also targeted young children and albinos, the latter because their body parts are thought to bring prosperity. There have been reports of politicians paying witch doctors to help them win elections, and these so-called sorcerers continue to rule through fear, oppressing people through their ignorance. The belief of so-called witch doctors in this east African nation is that albino body parts are powerful ingredients for the magical potions that the witches concoct. As a result, albinos in Tanzania face widespread persecution. According to reports by the British News Corporation (BBC), one woman with albinism was murdered in May 2014 in a village called Gasuma. Two witch doctors were suspected of performing the heinous crime and were promptly arrested. But a Tanzanian human rights group estimates that 500 suspected witches are killed in Tanzania annually.
Gambia’s faith-healer-turned-dictator Yahya Jammeh has taken to eradicating citizens who get in his way and uses witch hunting as a front for his actions. Although many Europeans vacation in the beautiful country of Gambia, it has a dark side. A modern day version of Papa Doc Duvalier, the late voodoo-practising dictator of Haiti, Mr. Jammeh has a reputation for jailing anyone who says things he doesn't like. He imprisons them at the notorious Mile 2 prison. The international outcry that followed his mass execution of these prisoners was all that prevented their annihilation by the dictator. Theories as to why Jammeh ordered their mass execution are aswirl, as few buy the official story, which is that it was a response to a crime wave in the county. Although it may have simply been a show of who's boss, others have speculated that a fortune teller had told Jammeh a "human sacrifice" was necessary or his power would be threatened. 2012 saw a bizarre blending of statecraft with witchcraft, (along with the Islamic religion which is also warped by this corrupt regime). Jammeh had 1,000 so-called sorcerers arrested and drink a hallucinogenic potion to exorcise their supposedly possessed bodies and minds. At least six died in this torture ritual. Jammeh has declared that he will rule for "a billion years" if necessary and claimed in 2007 that he had invented a herbal HIV cure. Needless to say, he had not.
You may think that the Salem witch trials were the last time that people were burned at the stake for being witches. But that practice still crops up sporadically (and unsurprisingly) in Nepal, as castigations of witchcraft fly around faster than a witch on her broomstick. In 2012, a woman was immolated in central Nepal after being (literally) branded a witch. Even worse, it was not some enemy, but her own family who committed the atrocity. The poor woman was pronounced a witch by (yet another) shaman troublemaker. The so-called shaman hurled accusations at the woman, saying that she cast a spell on one of her family members to make them ill, causing their death. Without any legal investigation into the likelihood of this story, the woman's family exacted their fury on her. The Nepalese government has strongly urged the public not to let shamans and faith healers cloud their judgment and decisions, especially if these result in innocent lives being lost. But clearly, the beliefs and superstitions are still clinging on in the psyches of many modern Nepalese people, and often mixed up in the confused motivations and justifications cited for violent crimes.
Known for its colorful diversity, the country of India combines numerous belief systems, both religious and occult. Over a billion people live in India, and amongst them, there are widely disparate world views and ways of life. Among them are the "babas", or teachers. A little like street performers, each baba has his own field of excellence and is respected and fed based on their contribution to society in this regard. Witches are feared by many people in India, but not as much as the witch hunters. A story which emerges across the world's witches suggests that women who are branded witches are often the victims of societal repression and abuse. Witchcraft as a currency is often co-opted by corrupt societies to mask and legitimize persecution. Since 2000, there have been more than that number of witchcraft-related murders committed in India. In 2014, an Indian woman from Bemetara was murdered by her own family after she was accused of having made her nephew ill through sorcery. Although many experts say that the zealous belief is rooted in superstition and history, others claim that it is simply used as an excuse for crimes of passion.
10 Papua New Guinea
Burning women accused of witchcraft has been so alarmingly prevalent in Papua New Guinea that a law was passed by the country's government to prohibit burning those suspected of performing dark magic. The witch hunt pictured above is common. Women have taken to fleeing their homes in fear of being captured and condemned for acts they didn’t perform. Four women in Enga province were forced to flee their village immediately, in fear of persecution, after a witch hunter accused them of causing a measles outbreak that killed several of the villagers. Scapegoating women for misfortune in this way is not uncommon in Papua New Guinea. In 2013, more than one woman was brutally murdered in public for purportedly practicing witchcraft. Contrary to Darwinian theories of social progress, these crimes are part of a pattern of increasingly atrocious and public murders that are justified through accusations of sorcery. It seems that this veil of legitimacy is enough to cloak the far more threatening corruption and violence endemic in society in many areas of the country. It is not the only country in which sorcery is confused with putting women down. Longtime Papua New Guinea resident and land rights activist, Lutheran missionary Anton Lutz, documents the attacks and has told press after a 2015 murder: “They believed she was a Sanguma (sorcerer), that she was responsible for deaths and misfortune in their world.” An eyewitness reports hearing one killer say, “I’m sorry sister, I guess this is your day to die.”
9 West Indies
A fusion of folk magic with religion, the practice and belief in Obeah, more famously known as Voodoo, flourished in the West Indies during the slave trade, largely as a force of resistance. The 'dark' magic practice uses spells to make predictions, gain knowledge, or obtain assistance for any task. Obeah isn’t a religion in the sense that an established church or ceremonial traditions exist. But both female and male practitioners are seen as spiritual guides who can help with any number of problems. The belief and practice of magic is believed to have originated in West Africa. It is found across the Caribbean in multiple forms. In Haiti, the practice is known specifically as Voodoo. Like most forms of witchcraft, this form of magic is believed to have some sinister potential—yet it is also used for personal benefit through purchased charms. Haiti is also the birthplace of the zombie movie, as the belief in zombies can be traced back to this part of the world. The character Calypso in Pirates of the Caribbean is inspired by this tradition, a reference to the slave trade that was active in the West Indies from the 1500s until the 1830s.
As if it weren’t bad enough that Colombia is known to have one of the biggest drug trafficking operations in the world, it’s also had a problem in dealing with deaths due to sorcery. As reported by Fox News in 2012, a woman was murdered for allegedly practicing witchcraft. She was said to have rendered young people sick. Three women also accused her of appearing in their dreams, which apparently is a form of sorcery in the area. Imagine being condemned for having appeared in someone else's dreams! It's definitely not something developed Western societies pay much attention to, or would think it possible to control. But the belief in magic is mixed up with societal unrest in Colombia, where it lends credence to colorful stories about imaginary wrongdoing. Needless to say, the woman’s pleas to the authorities that her life was being threatened weren’t heeded by them, and the poor lady instead ended up forfeiting her life shortly after she asked for protection. Human rights charities such as Amnesty International have been campaigning for increased protection of women in countries like Colombia, where women are unprotected against violence and accusations of witchcraft. Despite the country's lax policy on violence against women, it still managed to produce Shakira, who has cast her spell on the world in a different way.
According to reports by major British newspapers, there’s a new rise in punishment due to witchcraft in the African nation of Ghana, where sorcery forms part of the country’s mythology. A 72-year-old woman was murdered by six people who suspected her of witchcraft, claiming she fell from the sky under a tree because she ran out of witch flying gas. Medical experts claimed that the elderly woman may have simply been suffering from dementia and her strange behavior was misinterpreted as that of a witch’s. Recently, however, Ghana took a step forward to abolish this practice. In the West African country, nearly 1,000 women and 500 children are in the process of being released from six "witch camps" in the country’s Northern Region. The witch camps were established nearly 100 years ago to provide a place of refuge for women who were made the scapegoats for tragedies like famine, sickness, and death. Not unlike the women accused of witchcraft in colonial America, these women were discriminated against in societies riddled by mass panic. While the camps provided a safe haven for the women and their children, they also lacked fundamental necessities like electricity and running water. After the camps were closed in 2014, the banished women now struggle to become reintegrated into society and reunited with their families after decades of persecution and discrimination.
6 The Democratic Republic of Congo
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the loss of lives due to witchcraft is the fact that many of its victims are children. In a 2013 report by the International Business Times, a staggering 50,000 children were accused of sorcery in Congo. Of course, the story continues as all horror stories do with regards to little ones: many of them have suffered abuse at the hands of their captors. And what are these people’s indication that the children are allegedly possessed by demons? Being disabled, wetting the bed at night, and suffering from nightmares. It seems that it is not just women, but society's most innocent and vulnerable who are at risk of being ostracized and persecuted under the guise of witchcraft allegations. The real magic is that these false accusations are not denounced by people and their falsehood brought to light, as they operate in undemocratic, corrupt societies in which free speech and equal rights have unfortunately not been standardized. Sadder still is that fear of the brutal regimes is often enough that populations turn a blind eye to violence against "witches" (read: women), preferring to believe there is some truth to the allegations rather than face the reality of deep-seated social injustice.
The president of Indonesia is one of the only world leaders that has publicly admitted that he believes in witchcraft. That’s not to say that he isn’t all for eradicating its practice, according to a 2014 report by The Washington Post. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recounted his first-hand experience with black magic in his own residence, where he claims there was a thick, black cloud of smoke that was trying to permeate his bedroom through the ceiling. Because of the incident and his religion's prohibition of sorcery, Yudhoyono’s government proposed to make amendments to the Criminal Code. The law has still not been passed, but the intention is to add a clause that the practice of black magic would be a criminal offense. Sorcery is serious business. Arsul, one of the lawyers who helped draft the law, claims that even making a joke about Santet (black magic) can be enough to land a person behind bars. A 2012 survey by the Pew Forum suggested that 69 percent of Indonesian Muslims believe witchcraft is real. “Many people in Indonesia, including its top leaders, turn to soothsayers to consult about their careers, fortunes, and marriages,” said Endy Bayuni, senior editor at The Jakarta Post. Presidents and top businessmen are rumored to seek the help of shamans and witch doctors—often rewarding the sorcerers with substantial payments for services rendered. Witch-killings are rare but occasionally occur.
4 South Africa
The “witch doctor” is one of the most ubiquitous genres of witch (right behind wicked witches and those in Harry Potter). But this fantastical moniker should not diminish the very real influence these figures have in South African culture. Native to the Zulu people, “witch doctors” are seen as healers who are divided into two different categories: inyanga and isangoma. While inyanga are not dissimilar to modern day herbalists and practitioners of natural medicine, the isangoma are purportedly called to their profession by divine powers, and perform tasks like predicting the future and using their psychic abilities to protect against evil spirits. Isangoma verge on acting as religious leaders in their communities, and their methods include using trance and musical rituals to communicate with the community's ancestors, or so it is believed by the people. Both inyanga and isangoma are viewed with respect in the traditional South African culture and must undergo years of training. To this day, they are often consulted for a variety of problems, from health to spiritual. This relatively harmless form of sorcery is less linked with violence than it is in other parts of Africa, where it often becomes entangled with corrupt politics.
Native to Chile’s indigenous Mapuche culture is Kalku, the evil sorceress who exists in opposition to Mapuche spiritual leaders and medicine women, the Machi. While the Machi are the culture’s major healers, the Kalku work with evil spirits to wreak havoc. These semi-mystical figures use black magic and are even believed to have evil sidekicks, such as Anchimayen (creatures that reanimate the bodies of deceased children) and the Choncon (a bird with the head of a Kalku). While both Kalku and Machi are traditionally women, the Kalku are seen as more mystical, fantastical creatures, while the Machi perform religious duties. To become a Machi, a Mapuche person has to demonstrate character, willpower, and courage, because the initiation into the practice is both long and painful. Usually a person is selected in infancy, based upon premonitory dreams, familial decisions, inheritance, their own initiative, and believed powers of healing disease. The Machi is believed to be a person of great wisdom and healing power and is the main figure in Mapuche medicine. They have detailed knowledge of medicinal herbs and other remedies, and are also said to have the power of the spirits and the ability to interpret dreams, called peumo in Mapudungun. Machis are also said to help communities identify witches or other individuals who are using supernatural powers to do harm.
Famously celebrated on Mexico's colorful Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Mexico's Santa Muerte is considered a saint rather than a witch, but she is deeply connected to witchcraft. Portrayed as a woman wearing a skull mask and a long cloak, like a female Grim Reaper, Santa Muerte is honored with sacred statues that are believed to possess magical powers. Some have traced Santa Muerte's origins back to the Aztec goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, while others attribute Mayan and Incan roots to the bony lady. It is normal in Mexico for small villages to have their own unique rituals for worshipping the saint, who is still believed in many places to govern the prosperity of the people. Shrines to the saint are ubiquitous in Mexico, and traditional occult beliefs are mixed up with Christian iconography and celebrations like Christmas. Black sculptures of the saint are used in cursing rituals, while white sculptures are used for cleansing rituals. Some believers even consider Santa Muerte to be an intermediary between God and Earth. This is perhaps the reason for the high esteem in which she is held in Mexico, as the tradition surrounding Santa Muerte is interwoven with the memorial of the dead, and respect for family values. Both beloved and feared, the figure of Santa Muerte still looms large in the occult practices of modern Mexicans.
Superstitions are no laughing matter in Romania, the land of the medieval ruler Vlad the Impaler, who inspired the tale of Dracula, and have been part of its culture for centuries. President Traian Basescu and his aides have been known to wear purple on certain days, supposedly to ward off evil. Until recently, the thriving witch business in Romania was untaxed by the Government, who were reticent to risk being hexed by the country's witches. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who presided over Romania from the sixties until the eighties had his own personal witch. The most famous witch in Romania is Maria Câmpina, the self-proclaimed queen of the fortune tellers. Usually, of Roma origin, these women are said to be able to read a person's future in his or her palm, in grains of wheat, or in the stars. The practices are handed down from generation to generation, and the majority of Romania's population consult the witches at some stage in their lives. So Romania's witches are rich. Previously, the less mainstream professions of witch, astrologer, and fortuneteller were not listed in the Romanian labor code, and people who worked in those jobs used their lack of registration to evade paying income tax. Under a law passed in 2011, (colloquially known as the "Romanian witch tax"), they now pay 16 percent income tax and make contributions to health and pension programs, like other self-employed people. Many witches celebrated their legal legitimacy, despite being subject to taxation.