Witchcraft In Other World Cultures

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In Europe, witchcraft developed along a particular historical trajectory, deeply influenced by Christian concepts of evil, the devil, and de-monology, but shaped also by unique European social and legal developments. For these reasons, the great witch-hunts that occurred in Europe from the 15th to the 18th centuries have never been matched elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, witchcraft in a more general sense, understood to mean simply the practice of harmful forms of sorcery by malevolent individuals, can be said to have existed in virtually every human culture throughout history. As these figures have almost universally inspired fear and anxiety, so attempts at suppression of witchcraft and the eradication of witches have also occurred throughout human history, although never on the scale of the witch-hunts of Europe.

Witchcraft has been a concern, it seems, from the very dawn of humankind. In ancient Mesopotamia, people believed that the world was full of hostile supernatural forces and demons bent on the destruction of human civilization. Both magical and religious rituals were widely employed to combat these hostile forces, which appear to have threatened to undermine human society in much the way that witchcraft was later conceived in Christian Europe. Authorities were concerned to expose and punish any witches—individuals who aided or directed these demonic or hostile forces—and to devise means of protection from this threat. The Babylonian magical ritual maqlu, for example, meaning "burning" and referring to the incineration of certain magical effigies, was designed to counter witchcraft. The ancient Greek and Roman re sponses to such supernatural threats have already been described briefly above, and they provided at least one basis for later European conceptions of and reactions to witchcraft.

Throughout the ancient Near-East and into South- and East-Asia, belief in harmful magic and malevolent, witch-like figures is known to have existed. As late as the 18 th century, a major panic over the supposed threat of harmful sorcery and the perceived existence of a conspiracy of evil sorcerers occurred in China. Beliefs akin to witchcraft have also been widespread in Africa and civilizations in the Americas. Since, especially in Africa, these beliefs have persisted openly into the modern era, they have been much studied by European anthropologists and in turn by historians seeking to make comparisons to historical witchcraft and witch-beliefs in Europe. Many similarities are evident. In most African societies, for example, women are far more commonly associated with witchcraft than are men. In addition, witches are often perceived to be not merely individual practitioners of harmful magic, but somehow organized and threatening to all of human society. In attempting to distinguish "witchcraft" from mere "sorcery," anthropologists have often categorized as sorcery those beliefs that involve humans learning to manipulate supernatural forcers in certain ways. Witchcraft, by contrast, is defined as operating (or being believed to operate) through some innate power found in the witch herself. Following this distinction, any person might learn to perform acts of sorcery, but only those born with innate power can be witches, and this power marks them as being inherently evil beings. This distinction is useful for many African and other world cultures, but would not seem to apply to Europe, where, historically, witches were believed to acquire their evil powers from the devil or from demons, not from any internal ability that they naturally possessed. European witches were, however, certainly often seen as inherently evil beings, because they had supposedly abandoned the true Christian faith and surrendered their souls to the devil.

Many traditional African magical beliefs were brought to the Americas during the period of the slave trade. In the Caribbean and elsewhere, these beliefs merged with the Christian beliefs of the slaves' colonial masters, and this resulted in the emergence of new, syncretistic systems. Voodoo (or, as more of its practitioners prefer, Vodoun) and Santería are the most commonly known examples of new systems of belief created out of the merger of traditional African and European concepts of magic and religion. Both Vodoun and Santería are properly identified as religions practiced by many people in the Caribbean, in Latin America, and to some extent in major centers of Hispanic population in North America. Both include certain practices that could be seen as more magical than religious, however, particularly those practices focusing on providing protection from harmful sorcery, and both include beliefs in malevolent figures similar in many ways to witches. Clearly, notions of witchcraft have not been limited to European societies, and they are not confined solely to the pre-modern period of world history.

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