Characteristics of the witch or sorcerer

There is no single description of the witch or the sorcerer that may be taken as an authoritative picture fitting all societies. In most the witch is characteristically depicted as female, but in many either sex may be conceived of as witches. In a single society the sex ratio may vary according to whether the accusations consist of broad, general statements, leading to the impression that most witches are women, or specific explanations of misfortune, which may designate most witches as men, since men are often more socially involved in a small-scale cummunity.

In regard to other characteristics, the stereotype of the witch varies from one society to another. In Europe witches are pictured as thin and gaunt, whereas in Central Africa they are described as fat from eating human flesh, while their eyes may be bloodshot from pursuing in sleeping hours evil practices of which their everyday waking selves may not be aware. Witches' familiars or imps may be conceived of as simply aiding them in their nefarious practices or as personifying their addiction by relentlessly driving them on in their evil ways. In most societies in which belief in them occurs, witches are assumed to be members of the same local community as their accusers and supposed victims. Among the peoples of the Himalayan foothills and the Navajo of the U.S. Southwest, however, witches are believed to attack people outside their own community. This is also commonly reported of sorcerers in Oceania, who, however, may be considered as legitimately employing destructive magic against an outside enemy rather than practicing sorcery in the antisocial sense of the term.

In many societies witches are believed to be slaves of aberration and addiction. Thus considered, they are weird, sometimes tragic, characters in the human drama. Sorcerers, on the other hand, are regarded as ordinary people driven by understandable, even if deplorable, urges, such as malice, envy, or revenge, which are a part of everyone's experience. The propensity to be a witch is usually attributed to heredity or at least is considered constitutional in the sense of having been implanted at an early age through one's mother's milk or, as among the Cewa of east central Africa, through a child's having been magically inoculated by an adult, such as his grandparent, against the skin rash believed to result from eating human flesh, an activity attributed to Cewa witches. Sorcery, on the other hand, usually demands no special personal attributes and is believed to be practiced by anyone who can acquire the necessary magical substances (especially in Africa) or the appropriate magical spells (especially in oceania).

Introduction ~ Nature and significance ~ Witchcraft and Magic ~ Structure and Function ~ Occasions of witchcraft ~ Explanatory System ~ Theories of Witchcraft ~ Ancient Middle East and Europe ~ Western Christendom ~ Secular World ~ Witchcraft Societies ~ Bibliography