Witchcraft & Sorcery: Elements of Everyday Life in Traditional Cultures

By Mary Kay Seales

Poor Westerners.

We grow up in a culture devoid of magic. Everything is based on what can be seen and what can be touched. Magic is for children in the backyard, wearing a red cape and waving a plastic wand from Fred Meyer. We are so unaware that in many places, magic is real, not imagined. In many places, sorcery does exist and is part and parcel of everyday life. It is used to cast spells, for both good and bad. Witches are common and do fly by night. The boogey man in these places is alive and well.

As one anthropologist in a 1988 dissertation explains, in the West, our worldview does not have a “middle zone” whereas “the worldview of most non-Westerners is three-tiered:” 

“There is a cosmic tier on top, an everyday tier’ on the bottom, and a large middle zone where the two constantly interact. This is a “zone largely controlled by spirits, demons, ancestors, goblins, ghosts, magic, fetishes, witches, mediums, sorcerers, and such powers.” 

After living in places where witchcraft and sorcery are facts of life, you begin to understand that some cultures live by rules which allow for magic, witchcraft and sorcery, and that everyday life can be and is influenced by it.

For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least until this past century (up to the 1990s), one’s worldview was permeated with the existence of mupongo or witchcraft.“It is omnipresent, thus influencing all important decisions.” When someone is ill, dies, loses a child, it may be asked, “Why did this happen? Did someone have a fetish against me?” As one proverb from Central Congo states, “death always comes with a reason:”

“Mupongo (witchcraft) designates the power possessed by the buena mupongo to do evil to other human beings; it is also used [to explain] awareness of the patient’s bewitchment or an attempt to find the cause of illness or misfortune. When a patient is under bewitchment, the [people] say, “Mbamukuate” (He has been bewitched.) or “Udi mukuata” (He is under bewitchment.). The word “mupongo” is used to denote the awareness of bewitchment and a search for the cause of illness and misfortune.”

When I lived in the DRC, which was then Zaire, in 1985, I was told many stories of sorcery and witchcraft by my students. To be clear, these were highly capable university students. They were intelligent and had studied science. Still, EVERYONE had stories of witches flying in their villages at night. Everyone. They also warned me against visiting a nearby island because of the practice of sorcery there. The following quote (as well as the one above) is from a 1988 dissertation on the Congo and witchcraft (written by a Congolese student):

“African people who live in the rural situation, whether intellectual or not, are afraid of witchcraft as well as those who live in the urban situation, intellectual or not…”In modern African towns there is still great fear of witchcraft”‘

In one incident, in my class at the college in Eastern Congo, I gave a poor grade to a student. He became quite angry with me. In hindsight, I see why. Students at this school labored day and night to get their education, often eating one meal a day. There was no allowance for failure. Other students witnessed the outburst against me by this student, and warned me to not let him near my home. “Is it possible he has something you own? A hairbrush or comb?” I was told that it would be impossible to kill me without possessing something like this. 

In another incident, while talking to a friend at night on my porch overlooking Lake Kivu near Bukavu, an owl landed on the railing. I was delighted. An owl! Weird! Wonderful! Right? But my Congolese friend was not delighted. It was not a good sign, he said. Not a good omen. He may have been correct. A calamity followed concerning both of us. Was this coincidence? Self-fulfilling prophecy? An angry student’s fetish against me? 

President Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire, who was brought down in the 1990s prior to the name change to the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is still quite undemocratic), used this belief in mupongo to his benefit. Mobutu made his people fear him with their belief in mupongo and his ability to use magic against his enemies. His famous leopard hat was a sign of one of his many personas, his spirit animal that empowered him.

Let me be clear. I don’t write all this as a criticism of the DRC. I LOVED living there.  I also don’t write this to cast a negative light on Congolese culture. Rather I want to cast a light on the lack of openness we in the West have, on our ability to see the world only through the small scope of western science. Do we really have all the answers to what’s what?

Perhaps, western science has not yet caught up with the practices of witchcraft and sorcery in these places. We know that we have a long way to go on understanding the plant knowledge possessed by traditional cultures, and how these people use plants not only for medicinal purposes, but also to find their totem or spirit animal. A friend, a serious research scientist, recently told me about his use of an hallucinogenic substance in an Amazonian village, which allowed him, he said in all seriousness, to travel. As in outside of his body. He didn’t question the fact that it happened. It happened, he said. Not a dream. It was real.

We, in Western culture, tend to relegate the practice of witchcraft and sorcery to the history books. It does have a terrible and tragic history in the US and throughout Europe. Burning and drowning witches was seen as a duty to God. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Many innocents, largely women, were put to death on suspicion of witchcraft.

Anthropologists have studied the differences between the witchcraft of Europe and that of African countries. It has been argued that they were/are two different animals so to speak, with one type of witchcraft centered on Christianity  and the other on animism.

I’m not in any way advocating or promoting the practice of witchcraft. I believe it is primarily and historically a dark practice for evil, not good, a way of controlling others. It has generally been used to try to bring harm to those who are the receivers of its spells and fetishes, though it has had its revival among American women as an earth mother movement, Wicca. Good witches.

Since I am a serious believer in the actual powers of witchcraft , I’m completely against it. Tarot cards, Ouija Boards, potions, not allowed in my house. That said, I don’t believe a culture that is steeped in sorcery and witchcraft is ‘bad’ or even misguided. I think they are simply seeing a reality that others might not see.  They see the possibility of “spirits, demons, ancestors, goblins, ghosts, magic, fetishes, witches, mediums, sorcerers, and such powers,” while we in the West deny their existence.

Perhaps, we shouldn’t dismiss these beliefs as delusions so readily. Is it not a great sign of disrespect and arrogance to imagine that we, and Western science, have all the answers? That these cultures where witchcraft plays a role are backward?

“… the negative attitude of the colonial governments and most of the missionaries in Africa did not recognize witchcraft as a serious African daily problem. To them, witchcraft was, and is still a superstition.”

We in the West may be uncomfortable with the beliefs of others and think it our godly duty to condemn and correct them. But to me, that is more backward, and dangerous, than believing in the power of witchcraft or sorcery, and led us to be colonialists in the first place.

Be open.


For Further Reading: 

Crossing the Congo: Over Land and Water in a Hard Place Shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award 2016 in the category of Adventure Travel ***
In 2013, three friends set off on a journey that they had been told was impossible: the north-south crossing of the Congo River Basin, from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Juba, in South Sudan.


*Quotes from “Witchcraft Among the Kasain People of Zaire: Challenge and Response” by Mulumba Musumbu Mukundi



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