The term witchcraft embraces a wide variety of phenomena. Its meaning varies according to historical and cultural context. The word witch derives from the Old English noun wicca (sorcerer) and the verb wiccian (to cast a spell). The original concept of witchcraft corresponds to what anthropologists call sorcery: the attempt to influence the course of events by ritual means. Sorcery is widespread and found in almost every culture and historical period. Two other, quite different, phenomena have also been called witchcraft. The first is the alleged diabolical witchcraft of early modern Europe and its colonies; the second is Neopagan witchcraft, a twentieth-century revival. This article will distinguish sharply among these three phenomena, because the connections between them are few and tenuous. Anthropologists describe witchcraft as the belief that certain members of society are inherently able to harm others. Witchcraft is usually thought to be inborn and inherited.

Ethnographic studies across the globe have shown that, far from being confined to the distant past of Europe and New England, the belief in witchcraft is widely distributed in time and place—in Africa, Melanesia, the Pacific, Asia, and the Americas. These studies have raised the problem of definition as regards cross-cultural sense and social settings. Crick 1979 opposes the cross-cultural use of the term witchcraft, whereas Meyer 1999 defends it. The most commonly accepted definition was provided in Evans-Pritchard 1937, a detailed, empathetic study of the Azande, of colonial Sudan, in which the author distinguishes between witchcraft and sorcery by their technique. Evans-Pritchard defines witchcraft as the innate, inherited ability to cause misfortune or death. For the Azande, witchcraft involves unconscious psychic powers emanating from a black swelling, located near the liver. By contrast, the Azande refer to sorcery as the performance of rituals, the uttering of spells, and the manipulation of organic substances, such as herbs, with the conscious intent of causing harm. This distinction is widespread throughout East Africa. Stephen 1987 suggests that Melanesian societies construct an alternative contrast. The author describes sorcerers as dominant persons who deliberately use rituals to impose their will and mediate cosmic power both for constructive and destructive purposes. Political leaders often possess a monopoly of sorcery skills. By contrast, Stephen characterizes witches as socially unimportant persons who harbor totally destructive powers and carry blame for misfortune and death. Their powers cannot be controlled. They are accused, denounced, and punished.

According to Evans-Pritchard, the study is widely considered to be the most authoritative account of witchcraft in any setting outside Europe. He defines witchcraft and sorcery and argues that both constitute logical explanations for unfortunate events. Meyer (1999) suggests that concepts from different cultures brought together under the umbrella of witchcraft do indeed have something in common. Akama and Kadenyi (2006) observe that belief and practice of witchcraft has significantly affected social, economic, political and spiritual developments of the Africans.

Brantely (1978:20-28) and Green (2000:170-178) assert that witchcraft is one of the most potent and dreaded superstitions in Africa. Most Africans as these scholars argue believe witches can act to influence, intervene and alter the course of human life for good or ill. Africans accept witchcraft as a mode of explanation, of perception and interpretation of their problems, events, nature and reality even when reason and common sense suggest otherwise. They believe witches can cause poverty, diseases, accidents, business failures, famine, earthquake, infertility and childbirth difficulties.

Mazrui (1993:32-38) argues that most people in Africa attribute any extraordinary, mysterious or inexplicable event, manifestation or phenomenon to witchery and wizardry. In some African communities there is even a talk about positive and negative witchcraft. The belief is that positive witchcraft is used to do good-cure diseases or solve problems, and negative witchcraft is used to do evil. Mbiti (1969:80-85) and Mbula (1975:60) observe that Africans believe witches and wizards are spirits but that they carry out their nefarious activities as human beings, animals or insects. The belief is that witches and wizards transform into humans, animals and insects to perpetrate their evil machinations. Ranger (1980:45) adds that in countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Uganda, witches are identified mostly with women or infants. In Nigeria, all nocturnal insects and animals especially birds are suspected to be witches or wizards. In Gambia or Senegal, witches are associated with the bird (owl) and children are advised to kill it wherever they see it. Witches are believed to operate mainly in the night. They allegedly organize nocturnal meetings in the seas, oceans and forests where they feast on human blood, flesh or fetuses. The general belief among African communities as Parkin (1970:23-26) and Tinga (1998:34-39) argue is that witches and wizards always convene to plan evil. They gather to plot how to inflict harm or undermine the progress of people especially their family members. As a result of this, Hinger (1998) states that throughout Africa witchcraft accusation in families is common. People blame their fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, uncles and aunties, grandfathers and grand mothers for any evil or misfortune that befalls them even the ones they caused for themselves. Abungu (1975:21-28) observe that while witch hunting is a thing of the past in most parts of Europe and the entire western world, in Africa, it is still an ongoing activity. Witch attacks, persecution and killings still take place on the continent. Incidentally, most of the victims are women and children. Recently there have been several reported cases of witch attack and killing in different parts of the continent. Nthamburi (1991:8-12) says that one of the most intriguing aspects of the belief in witchcraft is witch confession- the claim that witches and wizards sometimes openly admit to have indulged in occult activities. Believers in witchcraft often citeand use- this as a justification for witch attack and persecution. For instance in 1998 in Lagos, Nigeria, Ranger (1978:39, 40) observe that a middle aged woman was stoned and later burnt to death after she allegedly confessed to have indulged in witchcraft activities. The woman reportedly confessed to have killed ten people including her own kids as well as being responsible for the repatriation of her brother from Europe. Mbula (1975:34, 35) states that, in some cultures in Nigeria, witch confession is believed to be therapeutic. Among the Okpameri people in Southern Nigeria witch confession is believed to be curative. So those suffering prolonged and complicated ailments are urged to confess and be healed’. Also in Pentecostal churches as Nthamburi (1991:32) argues witch confession is perceived as a process of spiritual rebirth and recreation. Witches were associated according to Latour (1982 & 1984) to people who did things that were not in society’s best interest. For instance, a detailed account was given on the pre-colonial era of witchcraft in the northern part of Nigeria. It was concluded from the study that Northern Nigeria was booming economically, and wealth had a strong association with witchcraft.

In contemporary scholarly and popular discourse, the term witchcraft refers to a wide variety of ideas, practices, and institutions. Among most social science scholars of Africa, particularly anthropologists, witchcraft is defined as an act of magic that results in harming a person or aspects of the material world on which he or she depends. In this context, witchcraft and magic are used interchangeably; it is assumed that magic used for harm and magic used for healing, or enhancement, can be distinguished, either conceptually or in practice.

During the past forty years, witchcraft has occupied a controversial place in African Studies scholarship. As a general term that describes the harmful use of magic, witchcraft is not specific with respect to the societies or peoples who use it. Witchcraft and magic exist in all societies, but, as many scholars have shown, in the history of Western thought and popular culture, and in much of contemporary European-American scholarship, witchcraft has been positioned as a backward or erroneous system of thought. In the study of African religions, it is also interesting to note that Western scholarship has given it great prominence. As noted by John Mbiti in African Religions and Philosophies, Western scholarship has often presented witchcraft ideas out of context and emphasized their association with harm, which has resulted in a fundamental misrepresentation of African religions.

Peter Geschiere’s The Modernity of Witchcraft shows how the many different fields of everyday experience that shape witchcraft for the Maka in Cameroon are influenced by regional, national, and global forces. In her study of legal and administrative institutions in Kenya, Diane Ciekawy (1998) shows how local religious practice is both constrained and encouraged to develop in ways that further strengthen the power of state institutions. Witchcraft serves many different social functions. In ethnographic studies of peoples around the world, anthropologists have detailed many of the positive social functions of witchcraft. As popularized in Evans-Pritchard’s work, witchcraft can be understood as an explanation for misfortune, which might function to provide people with a sense of control over their own lives and the ability to understand forces in their world. These could be called empowering functions of witchcraft. Understandings about witchcraft can be used to define values and moral standards in a society, thus contributing to a society’s definition of itself or distinction from other groups. Also, people who are in relatively weak and marginal positions in society might be able to use witchcraft, or the threat of witchcraft, as a form of power. In this way, the ideas and practices of witchcraft could work to mediate social, political, or economic inequalities.

Witchcraft also serves more overtly political functions. The complex of ideas associated with witchcraft can involve rituals that identify people responsible for practicing witchcraft. Early anthropological works on African societies noted the existence of movements against witchcraft, sometimes known as anti-witchcraft movements or witchcraft eradication movements that borrowed from these cultural institutions. Audry Richards’s important essay on a witch-finding movement in Zambia shows how the movement drew from responses to the influences of colonialism, yet also drew from rituals that are part of a common complex in central African societies.

Contemporary ideas of witchcraft provide an idiom for expressing individualism, innovation, and human agency that are much a part of modern life. During this period of rapid globalization and incorporation within the postcolonial state, ideas of witchcraft have been used by African peoples as frameworks of interpretation. As interpretive constructs, they also help to shape the political world, and they are, therefore, powerful forces that can both help to maintain or transform social and political worlds.



In Nigeria generally, a witch according to Offiong, (1991) was often referred to the person that the community suspected of practicing witchcraft or a person who had confessed to practicing the art, or a person who had been identified by traditional doctors, spiritualists, or fellow witches to be a witch. Once somebody confessed to being a witch or was identified as one, people were usually not surprised since such person demonstrated many antisocial or asocial characteristics. Since the characteristics believed to be associated with witches were well understood, anybody who possessed them was labelled as a witch. It is against this background that Offiong (1983), thus stressed that long before a confession or accusation of being a witch occurred, some people gossiped about the behaviour of the person. The people talked about seeing the individual making surreptitious visits to people who were known witches and the people believed the person chased, flogged, or whipped them in their dreams. Thus the people concerned, and in the opinion of Prince (1961), all these confirmed that the person was a witch. What this suggested was that witchcraft according to Dorglas (2013) accusation followed a process of discussion and affirmation among relatives and friends before the accuser actually made the accusation. There had been confessions of women to witchcraft and a lot of what were known of witchcraft came from such confessions. Such confessions according to Sanders (2003) were taken as valid since the confessors were not usually forced to do so. They confessed voluntarily. Although, there were cases when trial by ordeal led to confessions. There were cases of old women and men confessing their guilt on their death beds. Ter Haar (2007)

There were many different views and explanation on the concept of witchcraft in Nigeria, there were also many similarities in the identity of a witch. Nigerians believed that a witch was any person who behaved abnormally outside the expected patterns of societal behaviour Bastian (2001) is of the view that among abnormal behaviours likely to earn one the stigma of being a witch were manifestations of antisocial behaviour such as: not being fond of greeting people; living alone in an isolated area; enjoying adultery; exacting too much for sales of anything; committing incest; walking about in the night; crying at night (in cases of children); not showing adequate sorrow at the death of a relative; not taking proper care of one’s parents, children, wife or wives; hard-heartedness.

In general, Mgbako (2011) indicated that witches were mean-looking, mean-acting, or otherwise socially disruptive people whose behaviour deviates significantly from cultural or community norms. Nigerians believed that witchcraft was a mystical or supernatural power that caused harm, including death. This power to them was purely psychic and evil. The art of witchcraft practices, was seen as a form of incorporeal vampirism because as stressed by Prince (1961) a witch as believed could remove the souls of their victims and transforming such souls into a goat, sheep, or cow (or any animal of their choice), thus causing a slow, wasting disease and death.


Another stimulating issue in witchcraft practices in Nigeria was the hierarchy and leadership in the group. The headship of the witch group or society in the northern part of the country was the exclusive right of males, but the most experienced female witch was recognized leader of all female witches. To the eastern and western Nigeria as perceived by Awolalu and Dopamu (1979), a woman was the acknowledged head witch. The second order to the head was made up of the most senior witches in the group who mastered the art and science of the group and was capable of stepping into the position of headship. The third order was the beginners while the fourth order was those who were unconsciously conferred into the groups membership.

Those in the last order of the group were made up of members that were conferred without their knowledge, and were not fully aware of the activities of the group. They bewitched people and attended witch meetings, but they were not aware of what they did. The issues surrounding the fourth order in the witchcraft group remained debatable as Latour (1995) emphasized that some believed that the people in that order must give their consent to join the witch society. Others believed that no consent was requested when there was an identified mark of the witch society on the intending member. The mark of the group might not be on the victim directly, but placed on the family, property, and spouse or transmitted to the victim.


The conferment of a witch took many forms. The most common form in Nigeria in the period under reference was by hereditary where ones` parent transferred the art of witchcraft to both born and unborn children. Offiong (1983) pointed out that the conferment of witches was more common with female witches compared to their male witches. Female witches always wanted their children to take their position within the witch society. Also, some people willingly joined the group in search of supernatural powers of protection and wealth, as this was predominantly common in Nigeria. Others were consciously or unconsciously conferred into the witch society based on the recommendation by a senior member or the group who needed the person to serve a purpose.

After the conferment, the group implanted a physical substance into the body of the newly conferred member. The implanted substance was perceived to be “round, hairy ball with teeth” passed on from parent to child, with all the sons of a male witch and all the daughters of a female witch being witches. The substance allowed the members to be activated into their world and also permitted the soul to engage in errands during meetings or group`s activities. The substance symbolized the source of power of a witch and the group`s linkage to all her members. Witch group conferment in Nigeria had a well-defined system and regulation which all members followed strictly otherwise the consequence was punishment or death.


There are some reasons for people becoming witches in Nigerian communities. Some of the reasons are:

  1. a) Domestic tension
  2. b) Jealousy
  3. c) Egotism

Domestic tension was bound to grow in any close knit community. For this, be-witching was always reported mostly among relatives and neighbours. It was assumed that a stranger might hardly bewitched another stranger should there be a dispute between neighbours or relatives, one party intended to get rid of the other by means of mystical forces.

  1. e) Should something goes wrong following a dispute and quarrelling, every one immediately suspected it was caused by the other party through witchcraft and evil/magic. At times people wished to get rid of others to inherit their properties or wealth, took revenge for the wrongs done, showed or displayed their power ridiculed or brought to disrepute such peoples in the communities.
  2. f) In the primitive traditional Nigerian society, people invented witchcraft to explain human experiences of pain, suffering and sorrow. These inventions were sometimes the fruits of many long experiences of life throughout the centuries. Since human beings, were curious, they satisfied people’s search for explanation and solution to their problems. In modern Nigeria societies, the practices are still valid for many people in both the urban and the rural societies. People in desperation often appeal through rituals, to calm the unseen witches to have a lease of live!!


People who did not belong were scared when the word witchcraft was mentioned in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As evil as witchcraft was, there were some elements of fair goodness for the peoples of the communities at one time or the other. Even now-a-days witchcraft is condemned by everybody except those who possessed the art from the survey conducted by the authors, the following items were some of the result found to be some positive aspects of witchcraft in some of the communities in Nigerian:

  • Beliefs in the mystical powers helped people to find explanations when things go wrong.
  • People were not satisfied with knowing only how misfortunes or diseases occurred and were caused; they wanted to know who caused them to occur.
  • People were able to have answers which appeared to them satisfactory. Such answers harmonised with the view of the universe, recognized that there were many invisible forces at work that were available to human beings.
  • Once people feared that their neighbours and relatives could apply witchcraft against them, they were likely to refrain from certain offences like stealing, rudeness, committing crimes, or deliberately offending their neighbours and relatives.
  • The belief became a tool for stabilizing relations among relations, neighbours and members of the community.
  • In our traditional society in Nigeria, witchcraft portended a mirage or assumptions. Since the witches made use of supernatural powers, people in the communities always fear the feats of witch crafting and thus repulsed doing evil all the time


In recent years a number of people had confessed to witchcraft. Vulnerable people confessed to serious crimes due to torture or fear. The majority of the confessor identified, were usually female but a significant minority were men. The consequences of witchcraft accusations as seen by Mgbako (2011), violated a wide range of human rights. Attacks against the accused violated fundamental rights including the right to life, liberty, security, the right to hold property, and in some cases, the prohibition against torture. In some industrialized countries, the violence against witchcraft as noted by Mgbako reduced because many people feared they were punishing and torturing victim of witchcraft inhumanly and, innocent people were being killed. Witchcraft trials where recognized, became more rigorous and higher standards of evidences were demanded.

In Europe, America and many industrialized world, the concept of witchcraft, magic etc. had fizzled out in their territories as a result of scientific break-through and industrialization. But before then, there were always the use of torture to extract confessions provided what was taken to be convincing evidence of guilt, and these confessions confirmed the superstitious belief and ignorance of the people. However, Ogenbo (2006), observed that witch-hunting became a mania and the climax came in England, Scotland and America, in the 17th century where great numbers of people in these areas were cruelly put to death by burning. But next century witnessed the beginning of technology and industry which brought about a more skeptical attitude towards witchcraft practices in those countries – Washington (2006)






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