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by Stephen Hayes


Witchcraft (ubuthakati, boloi) hast been the primary symbol of evil in many African cultures. Between 1994 and 1996 several hundred people were killed in the Northern (now Limpopo) Province of South Africa after being accused of witchcraft. The Christian response to witchcraft and witchcraft accusations has varied at different periods and in different places. Sometimes the church has discouraged witch hunts, while at other times it has enthusiastically participated in them. In South Africa some of the Zionist Churches seem to have an approach to the matter that others could learn from.


Hayes, Stephen. 1995. Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, in Missionalia, Vol. 23(3) November. Pages 339-354.

Missionalia, is the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. Other articles from Missionalia are available on the SAMS articles page.


Over 200 people who were accused of being witches were burnt to death in South Africa between the beginning of 1994 and mid-1995. These killings were not legal executions, but took place at the hands of lynch mobs, mostly from the communities in which the accused lived. Such witch hunts are rare. As recently as 1987 one South African scholar described them as "an extreme and remote possibility" and noted that though there had been periodic episodes of anti-witch purges in Central Africa, they were restricted to "identifying sorcerers, destroying their paraphernalia, putting them out of business and at worst exiling them" (Kiernan 1987:6). The situation, especially in the Northern Province, has become so serious that official investigations are being made into how to deal with it.1

In Western Europe and in North America, however, there were witch hunts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in which thousands of people accused of witchcraft were executed after a legal trial. In most societies, and at various times, the most favoured method of killing witches was to burn them to death. The fear of witchcraft and sorcery seems to be endemic to human society, though the killing of suspected witches seems to be epidemic rather than endemic. Terms like "endemic" and "epidemic" are normally used of physical diseases spread by germs. I use the metaphor deliberately, because I believe that witchcraft and witch hunts can be seen in theological terms as aspects of a spiritual sickness, as I hope to show in this article.

The problem of terminology

But what are witchcraft and sorcery? Anthropologists like to distinguish between them, and use them as technical terms. They regard "witchcraft" as the supposed power of a person to harm others by occult or supernatural means, without necessarily being aware of it. The witch does not choose to be a witch, and the supposed harm does not necessarily arise from malice or intent. Sorcery may be learned, whereas witchcraft is intrinsic. A sorcerer may use incantations, ritual, and various substances in order to do harm, while a witch does not (Hunter & Whitten 1976:405-406; Kiernan 1987:8). While this is a convenient and useful distinction for anthropologists to make, normal English usage is not as clear-cut, and the terms have often been used interchangeably (Parrinder 1958:18). In newspaper reports of recent witch hunts in South Africa, for example, the terms "witch", "sorcerer" and "wizard" are often used to translate the Zulu umthakathi or the Sotho moloi. And English speaks of "witch hunts", rather than of "sorcerer hunts", though very often those who are hunted would be technically described by anthropologists as sorcerers rather than witches.2

First-World neopaganism

The problem of terminology is further complicated by the rise of neopaganism in the First World. Neopaganism is a conscious attempt to revive the cults of the pre-Christian deities of North-Western Europe, mainly Celtic deities such as Lugh and Daghda, or Teutonic deities such as Odin and Thor. One section of the neopagan movement describes itself as "wicca" or "witchcraft", and its adherents call themselves "wiccans" or "witches". "Wicca" was the original Anglo-Saxon spelling of the modern English word "witch" (Adler 1979:11). Wicca is a fairly well-established modern religion, popular mainly in Britain and North America. Historically Wicca can be traced back to the writings of Gerald Gardner, who wrote mainly in the 1940s. Gardner was aware of what had been published about witchcraft in his lifetime, but had a very hazy grasp of history, and a lack of any sustained research into older texts. "His view of early thirteenth-century England, laid out in High Magic's Aid, was apparently based on a cross between The Witch Cult in Western Europe and Ivanhoe, and represents a vision of the past even more wildly inaccurate than either" (Hutton 1991:333).

Many Wiccans believe that their religion goes back to pre-Christian times in North-Western Europe, and that the witch hunts that culminated in the Great Witch Hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries constituted a persecution of their religion, a Christian attempt to eradicate their religion and culture. They identify themselves with those who died in the Great Witch Hunt in much the same way as Christians identify themselves with the martyrs who died in the persecutions of Decius, Diocletian or Stalin; or as Jews identify themselves with those who were killed in the Nazi Holocaust. This view is derived mainly from Margaret Murray's book The witch cult in Western Europe (cited by Hutton above). Murray, an Egyptologist, asserted that there was a witch cult that represented a pre-Christian religion in Europe; that Christianity was accepted only by the upper classes in society, and that the witch cult continued underground until it was violently eradicated in the Great Witch Hunt. Between the 1930s and the 1960s Murray wrote the article on "witchcraft" in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and so long after her views had been rejected by specialists in the field, they were accepted by non-specialists.3 As Hutton (1991:335) notes:

By assuming that witchcraft and paganism were formerly the same phenomenon, they (Wiccans) are mixing two utterly different archaic concepts and placing themselves in a certain amount of difficulty. The advantage of the label "witch" is that it has all the exciting connotations of a figure who flouts the conventions of normal society and is possessed of powers unavailable to it, at once feared and persecuted. It is a marvellous rallying-point for a counter-culture, and also one of the few images of independent female power in early modern European civilization. The disadvantage is that by identifying themselves with a very old stereotype of menace, derived from the pre-Christian world itself, modern pagans have drawn upon themselves a great deal of unnecessary suspicion, vituperation and victimization which they are perpetually struggling to assuage.

In this paper, therefore, I shall made a distinction between Wicca and witchcraft, and between Wiccans and witches, even though Wiccans themselves make no such distinction. I use the term "Wicca" to denote the modern religion, and "Wiccans" to refer to its practitioners, and I shall use the terms "witchcraft" and "witch" for those who are believed to cause harm by occult or supernatural means. It is important to note that Wiccans are not witches in the commonly-understood meaning of the term, nor are they Satanists - they do not believe in the existence of Satan. Though they have a wide range of eclectic beliefs and practices, one common feature is the Wiccan Rede, "An it harm none, do what thou wilt". Wiccans are committed to being harmless.4 In normal, non-Wiccan usage, however, the essence of witchcraft and sorcery is the causing of harm to persons or property by invisible occult means.

Differing Christian responses in history

Witchcraft (maleficium) was indeed common in pre-Christian Europe, and it was an ancient pagan custom for those who believed maleficium was being used against them or their kin to take personal retaliation. Death by burning was thought to be a proper penalty and was practised by the German tribes who worshipped Odin, Thor and the other deities of the Teutonic pantheon (Cohn 1975:147-149). Similar practices were found in the "civilised" society of the Roman Empire (Williams 1959:305). "The pagan Romans, like most ancient peoples and modern tribal societies, prescribed the death penalty for those who killed or who harmed property by witchcraft: in a system which believes in magic and has capital punishment for normal murder and arson, there is no other logical situation" (Hutton 1991:255). The hunting and killing of suspected witches was thus an established pagan practice long before the coming of Christianity.

Whatever the "witchcraft" that was being suppressed in the Great Witch Hunt was, it was not a pagan religion.5 The early Christians disapproved of both pagan religions and witchcraft, but they did not generally confuse them. The pagan Roman empire executed hundreds of Christians for refusing to endorse the validity of its system and its religion, but when Christians were in power they tended to attack deities but spare humans (see, e.g. Trombley 1993:203-204). There are few recorded cases of the legal execution of pagans in the first two centuries of the Christian Roman empire (though cases of mob violence were more frequent) nor, with very few exceptions, were heretics put to death until the eleventh century. In those parts of Europe inhabited by Germanic tribes, Christians actually put an end to the tradition of hunting and killing witches (Hutton 1991:256).

Williams (1959) and Cohn (1975) have traced the process by which the Western Christian attitude gradually changed, especially from the eleventh century to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The persecution of witches derived not from persecution of pagans, but from the punishment and persecution of Christian heretics, until in the fifteenth century the concept of a satanic conspiracy to destroy Christendom appeared, which resulted in thousands of executions (Hutton 1991:256). At the beginning of the eighteenth century, this persecution suddenly stopped. One of its last manifestations was the notorious Salem witch trials in North America, which ended when the judge and jury of Salem confessed their error, saying that they were deluded and mistaken in their judgment in condemning others to death for witchcraft, acknowledging that they had themselves been deluded by the powers of darkness into bringing the guilt of innocent blood upon themselves and others through their own ignorance (Williams 1959:292ff).

It is perhaps significant that the persecution of witches began in the West after the Great Schism of 1054. In parts of the Orthodox East, at least, witch hunts such as those experienced in other parts of Europe were unknown (Stewart 1991:38). The Orthodox Church is strongly critical of sorcerers (among whom it includes palmists, fortune tellers and astrologers), but has not generally seen the remedy in accusations, trials and secular penalties, but rather in confession and repentance, and exorcism if necessary (Stewart 1991:212f).

I have tried to show that the process of accusation, trial, sentencing and execution of alleged witches is not a typical Christian reaction to witchcraft. It was practically unknown in Christendom for the first ten centuries. It then gradually appeared in certain parts of the Christian world, but not in others. It lasted for about 600 years, though the last 200 years of this period were the worst, after which it suddenly disappeared. Such behaviour was fairly common in pre-Christian societies, but was altered when those societies became Christianised. There is not space here to recount all the arguments people such as Williams (1959) and Cohn (1975) use to account for this anomaly; what is important is to recognise it as an anomaly, and to look for a proper Christian response to witchcraft and sorcery outside the places and periods in which witch hunts occurred. In view of the witch hunts now taking place in South Africa, the question of a proper Christian response is not an academic curiosity, but for many people it is an important existential necessity.

It can be argued that witch hunts stopped in Western Europe because as a result of the Enlightenment people no longer believed in the phenomenon of witchcraft itself. The sceptical attitude of the Enlightenment was conducive to the belief that the concept of witchcraft was a delusion (Williams 1959:300ff). It has also, however, been argued that the use of torture and anonymous accusation that was common towards the end of the Great Witch Hunt was the result of Western rational education. The techniques pioneered then are still used today in modern technological dictatorships to detect dissenters and suppress opposition (Saul 1992:76). Nevertheless, it remains a common perception that it is belief in the power of witchcraft itself that gives rise to witch hunts, and that the best way to stop witch hunts is to eradicate the belief in witchcraft.

Western, and especially Protestant, mission has been profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment world view, and in that world view there is no place for such things as sorcery. A parable that can help to illustrate this is the account in Exodus of the magicians of Egypt throwing down their sticks, which turned into snakes. Aaron responds by throwing down his stick, which turns into a snake too, and then devours the other snakes. Aaron's response was a model used by many Christian missionaries until the Enlightenment. Since the Enlightenment, Western missionaries would not usually behave like Aaron. They would build a school to teach people that sticks don't turn into snakes.6 Bosch (1987:42) characterised these missionaries as "children of the Enlightenment" who "tended to deny the existence of supernatural forces located in human beings as well as the reality of spirits in general and the 'living-dead' in particular. They thought that, with education, these 'superstitions' would disappear."

Christian responses in Southern Africa

Comaroff & Comaroff (1991) have shown that most of the missionaries who came to sub-Saharan Africa from Europe in the nineteenth century were thoroughly imbued with the Enlightenment world view. These Western missionaries brought the Christian faith to pre-Enlightenment cultures. They soon became aware of the cultural gap, and the typical way of dealing with it was to say that before the Christian faith could take root, the preEnlightenment culture must make way for the Enlightenment culture, or, as they put it, civilisation must precede Christianisation. Since the Enlightenment such missionaries have said, in effect, "You must abandon your problems and accept our problems and explanations of evil". Enlightenment missionaries could only offer solutions to Enlightenment problems. Civilised solutions demand civilised problems!

According to the Western missionaries, sickness and disease were caused not by witchcraft, but by bacteria, parasites and viruses. The cure was to be effected by Western technological medicine. So since the Enlightenment such missionaries have exercised the Christian ministry of healing by building church hospitals and clinics, and staffing them with Western-style doctors and nurses. They regarded African healing practices as generally ineffective and frequently harmful (McCord 1951:88ff). This was in marked contrast to the methods of their preEnlightenment predecessors, who healed by prayer, laying on of hands, holy water, the sign of the cross, relics of saints, wonder-working ikons,7 and, where necessary, exorcism of unclean spirits.

The pre-Enlightenment cultures of Africa continued to accept witchcraft as an explanation of some forms of evil, however, and to those Africans who retained links with those cultures, the solutions proposed by Enlightenment missionaries appeared irrelevant. Among some there was a split response. This was to divide sicknesses into "isifo sabantu" and "isifo sabelungu" African disease and European disease. For the first one goes to the isangoma, and for the second one goes to the hospital or clinic. For Christians, however, this kind of double vision remains unsatisfactory. For those who adopted the Enlightenment culture, the Western view of sickness and cure was generally adopted. But others did not adopt it. It was the Zionists who re-contextualised the Christian message for a preEnlightenment culture in which witchcraft and sorcery are part of the prevalent world view. Zionism originated in the USA and emphasised divine healing (Sundkler 1961:48). Not only so, but the American Zionists rejected the use of Western medicine divine healing was to stand alone. For South African Zionists, this prohibition on medicine was applied to traditional African medicine as well (Sundkler 1961:226; Kiernan 1987:4).

While their views on the cure may differ from the traditional African view, Zionists accept the explanation of the cause. Sickness is caused by sin and evil, either one's own sin, or that of others. Evil people can use sorcery to cause harm to others (Kiernan 1987:3). Zionists have thus, in effect, rejected the Enlightenment refusal to believe in witchcraft. This view has been strongly criticised by Western missionaries and missiologists. Kiernan (1987:5) quotes a missionary in Swaziland as saying, "I hold that in claiming to be able to cure the evil influences of traditional magic, they (the Zionists) are in fact reinforcing a belief in it".

Daneel (1990:220) contrasts two groups of church leaders and academic observers of African Christianity: those who either practise or theoretically support a ministry of exorcism, and those who oppose it. The former see its liberating value, while the latter (which includes the Swaziland missionary quoted by Kiernan above) believe that it enslaves people to the world of demons, and wizardry beliefs and fears, without providing a realistic Christian solution.

Zionists believe that the powers of sorcerers to harm are real, but they regard them as evil. No Christian may participate in sorcery in any way. But Zionists also do not believe that the best way to deal with sorcery is to ignore it. They devote much time and effort to countering sorcery (Kiernan 1987:4-5). Urban Zulu Zionists do not claim to eradicate witchcraft or sorcery, nor do they try to identify those responsible. "The objective is not to neutralise or knock out the sorcerer as such, but rather to render the attack ineffectual" (Kiernan 1987:11). Kiernan interprets this as having less to do with healing than with the self-definition of Zionists as a group, as a means of heightening their identity and enhancing their group solidarity. Kiernan notes that Zionists are peaceable and have no desire to harm others, so the threat of sorcery from outside serves the purpose of uniting the group in the face of a generalised threat without requiring them to hate or accuse anyone in particular. In traditional Zulu society such a threat might be seen as coming from an ancestral spirit, but in the urban setting, with its looser family ties and greater anonymity, kinship relations are not particularly significant in drawing Zionist groups together. Also, they cannot seek to eradicate witchcraft in such a setting because the Zionists are not in a position to marshal communal disapproval on a large scale (Kiernan 1987:9). While these factors no doubt apply to KwaMashu, where Kiernan's research was undertaken, I do not believe that all Zionists uphold sorcery as an explanation of sickness simply because they are dependent on it as an explanatory device, nor because it provides social cohesion for the group.

Daneel (1990:229-230) points out that all the Spirit-type churches in Zimbabwe practise exorcism to some degree, and that some have made a point of detecting and removing evil medicines placed by sorcerers or witches. This goes beyond merely providing protection, like the Durban Zionists described by Kiernan. Daneel (1990:230) goes on to describe the ministry of Bishop Nyasha of the Pentecosta Church, who, though he does not make direct accusations of witchcraft (such accusations being as illegal in Zimbabwe as they are in South Africa), baptises and exorcises self-confessed witches and encourages them to join his church, which has a reputation for being a refuge for social misfits and outcasts. In Shona society witchcraft (uroyi) is believed to be caused by a particular kind of evil spirit, often ancestral (Daneel 1990:232), which can therefore be removed by exorcism. This differs from the urban Zulu Zionists, who see sorcery as a purely human failing. Satan does not incline people to sorcery, but rather incites them to anger and physical violence (Kiernan 1987:7). Nevertheless, the point to note here is that Nyasha goes beyond a kind of holding operation to minimise the damage done by witches. He goes over to the offensive, as it were, and attempts to eradicate witchcraft, not by finding and punishing witches in a witch hunt, but by converting them, healing them, reconciling them, and reintegrating them into the community. This is a radically different approach from that of many Western Christians, who are conditioned by their own recent history to see only two possibilities: either one has witch hunts such as the Great Witch Hunt of Western Europe, or one must deny the existence or possibility of witchcraft altogether.

It is precisely at this point that the Zionists have much to teach other Christians in southern Africa, in view of the prevalence of the burning of suspected witches. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Those who interpret their experience of evil in terms of witchcraft and sorcery are likely to look down on those who deny their experience as people who do not know what they are talking about. But the Zionist approach, of taking that experience seriously but offering a different solution to the same problem, could well be more effective. From what Daneel has observed, it seems that Zionists take seriously the Christian idea that there is no sin too great for repentance. They therefore deny the commonly-held axiom "once a witch, always a witch", and so witches can be reconciled and restored to the community (Daneel 1990:241).

I am not trying to give credence to many of the witchcraft accusations that are made. Many of them are false, and proceed from malice on the part of the accusers. But it seems that both in Durban and in Zimbabwe the Zionists are reluctant to make accusations. From the Christian point of view the making of accusations is, strictly speaking, satanic, since the very word "satan" means "accuser". This point was recognised in preEnlightenment Western Europe. "The Salic law of Charlemagne decreed that anyone who was convicted of witch-cannibalism should be heavily fined, but also that anyone who was found guilty of bringing such an accusation falsely should be fined an amount equal to one third of the other" (Williams 1959:68). The sixteenth-century witch trials ordered by the Malleus Maleficarum differed from earlier ones in that they did not punish false accusations. "The secular governments of centuries earlier had been wiser; they had penalized the talk as much as the act. The new effort did not do so; it encouraged the talk against the act" (Williams 1959:142).

The Great Witch Hunt of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though it was an anomaly in Christian history, was far more than that. It was, in the most literal and precise meaning of the word, satanic. Cohn (1975) gave his work on the topic the title of Europe's inner demons, and what was perhaps needed then was the response of some of the Zionists: those demons needed to be exorcised. The actual response, for the most part, was denial. The Enlightenment view was that witchcraft and sorcery do not "really" exist, that "exorcism" is "primitive", and that "modern man" who "uses electricity" cannot take seriously any belief in demons. But the use of electricity may itself become demonic, as its use as an instrument of torture in South Africa and elsewhere attests. The Soviet Gulag and Nazi Holocaust show that denial has failed to neutralise Europe's inner demons (Schmemann 1973:69-70).

If the Great Witch Hunt was an aberration and not typical, what was the "type" for Christian response to witchcraft and sorcery? The sources I have cited so far show that witchcraft and sorcery were contrary to the Christian ethos, and so were accusations and witch hunts. Spirit-type independent denominations in Southern Africa seem to have recovered something of this ethos they have not denied the reality of witchcraft and sorcery, but have regarded participation in both witchcraft and witch hunts as wrong for Christians.

Stewart (1991) made a study of the beliefs of a village community on the Greek island of Naxos. Like many other people in present-day Greece, they still speak of exotik . These are demons or spirits that are in many respects similar to those from which Zionist leaders seek to protect people in Southern Africa. Folklorists have noted the linguistic similarity of many of the exotik  to their pre-Christian namesakes (nereides and gorgona, for example), and have concluded, erroneously in Stewart's opinion, that these indicate the survival of the ancient Greek pagan religions side by side with Orthodox Christianity, as a kind of polytheism (Stewart 1991:5). As in Southern Africa, rural Greek peasants are making a transition from a pre-modern to a modern world view. Though his study does not deal with witchcraft directly (the only example on Naxos was the evil eye, which was witchcraft as opposed to sorcery in the anthropologists' sense of the terms), Stewart (1991:15) observes that the relationship of both to the Christian world view was very similar. From a theological (or missiological) point of view, the observations about relationship between the exotik  and Orthodox Christian theology can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the relationship with witchcraft.

Stewart (1991:146-147) summarises the Orthodox view of evil and the devil thus:

How is it that if God is good, there can exist so much destructive evil in the world and so much unhappiness in the lives of humans? Orthodoxy responds that God is purely good and that evil comes from another source altogether: the Devil. This would appear, then to resemble the dualist religions of Persia (Zoroastrianism or Manichaeism). But the position of the Orthodox Church is consciously distinct and opposed to precisely these doctrines... The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin, sin in turn places one closer to the Devil... Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force."

The Orthodox tradition is so broad that it is sometimes difficult to establish where Orthodoxy ends and alternative traditions begin. Radical divergence from the central doctrinal positions are called heresy or deisidaimonĦa (superstitions, but literally "fear of demons"). "Inordinate fear of demons was precisely the point. One who had accepted Christ should properly disdain demons as vain and ineffectual" (Stewart 1991:148). The main doctrinal point here is that there should be no dualism. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God's creation, and operates subject to the divine will.

The exotik  are sometimes described by various generic terms as devils, demons, tempters, or evil spirits (Stewart 1991:151). They inhabit lonely places, and are particularly active at certain times and at certain stages in the life-cycle birth, infancy, childhood, marriage and death. Before the Second World War, when most Greeks were not familiar with bio-medical models of illness, the exotik  were blamed for miscarriages, infant mortality and childhood illnesses (Stewart 1991:174). They are most dangerous outside the ecumene, inhabited space, and their very name exotik  means things outside, aliens, things beyond here. Stewart (1991:139) notes that the role of these demons in provoking such evils, and the Orthodox values opposed to them, have remained constant from the fourth century to the present.

In this, there is a similarity with Kiernan's observations about the Durban Zionists, who saw those outside their immediate community as a potential threat, which could convert their relationship to one of sorcerer-victim (Kiernan 1987:11). The Orthodox image of Satan as a "powerless force" appears to apply as well. Bishop Nyasha managed to convince his followers and some outsiders that "all wizards can in fact be cured completely through the mercy and power of the Christian God, irrespective of the degree of their involvement with evil" (Daneel 1990:238). There is no sin that is too bad for God to forgive, no evil so powerful that one cannot escape from it by turning to God. In other words, there is no dualism, such as is implied by the belief "once a witch, always a witch". Satan's power is limited; involvement with evil spirits requires the cooperation of the human will. There needs to be confession of one's own collaboration with evil, and one cannot make the excuse "the devil made me do it" (Daneel 1990:238).

In Western Europe, though there were witch hunts and trials between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, it was only after the publication of the Malleus maleficarum at the end of the fifteenth century that the worst horror began. As late as 1440, at the trial of Gilles de Rais, who confessed to many brutal ritual murders, he was embraced by the Bishop of Nantes after declaring his sorrow and repentance (Williams 1959:122). "Even with Gilles de Rais, the spectacular scene of the Bishop of Nantes embracing the convicted prisoner shows that something of the sense of Christendom remained vital and active. If it was melodrama, it was proper melodrama. If it was insincere (which there is no reason to suppose) it was yet an insincerity which pretended the right things and which did not involve the prisoner in much worse things" (Williams 1959:174f). But as the Middle Ages gave way to the period of the Renaissance and Reformation this sense of Christian reconciliation evaporated. They no longer even pretended the right things. Witches were regarded as incorrigible.

In the Great Witch Hunt large parts of Western Europe were gripped by the fear of a Satan-inspired conspiracy that could destroy Christendom. This fear gripped Catholics and Protestants alike. This conspiracy was perceived as having enormous power - power so great that no witch could be set free from it in this life, and the only possible remedy was death. Such a belief was fundamentally dualistic - for all practical purposes the devil's power was considered to be as great as, if not greater than, that of God. Much of Europe was, in effect, demonised. The switch from credulity to denial was as sudden as it was complete. And neither attitude bears any resemblance to the traditional Christian view. In the Orthodox Christian view evil is not some kind of essence which has any actual independent existence, like the elements and powers of the world which were created by God. Evil is only a deviation of living beings from the original condition in which the creator placed them. Good can exist without evil, but evil cannot exist without good. Evil is parasitic on good, as counterfeit money is parasitic on a system of good money. Evil has no independent existence, it is simply the twisting and deformation of the good creation of God (Pomazansky 1994:151; Bosch 1987:58). Those who are deformed by evil are to be pitied rather than hated and persecuted. If we hate and persecute others, no matter how evil we perceive them to be, we ourselves are deformed by the same evil. It is precisely by abandoning Christian love and compassion that we betray Christ and go over to the side of the devil.

It is the Zionists who are rediscovering the mainstream Christian view.

I have not thus far dealt with the question that seems most important to the Enlightenment mindset - do witches, sorcerers and demons exist? Can they be empirically verified?

It is all very well to speak disparagingly of the bio-medical model of illness, and of the varying mixtures of rationalism and empiricism that form the Enlightenment mindset. But empirical research tells us, for example, that malaria is caused by parasites that are carried by mosquitoes, and that the best way to deal with malaria is to attack the parasite or its vector. Attributing such an illness to a human agency, such as a witch or sorcerer, is irrational. But how adequate is such a narrow mechanical model of cause and effect?

Stewart (1991:117-118) provides an interesting example of the difference between the pre-modern and modern outlooks on the Greek island of Naxos. Until the mid-twentieth century it was widely believed that whirlwinds were caused by ner ‹des or other exotik  dancing. Nowadays one rarely hears meteorological events explained in terms of supernatural agency. There are weather stations all over Greece, including one on Naxos. Greek meteorologists have access to satellite data and reports from elsewhere that enable them to predict weather conditions. The average villager possesses only a vague understanding of the principles of meteorology, but knows that this science is based on natural principles and not on the exotik . It is given authority by respected people, by radio and TV, and this authority usurps most efforts on the part of farmers and villagers to formulate their own predictions. Only a few shepherds and farmers retain the sensitive and elaborate classification of winds and other phenomena. The acceptance of modern science - not only meteorology, but other fields such as medicine and psychology - has substituted blind faith based on authority for empirical observation on the part of the villagers. It can be argued that there is nothing irrational in this procedure. If weather forecasts are indeed correct, people may be expected to notice, verify and trust in them. This would provide an aspect of empirical verification. But Stewart (1991:118) cites a study of British weather forecasting, in which forecasts of the next day's weather were only right 38% of the time, and in 25% of the cases the following day's weather was entirely different from what was predicted. Two-day outlooks were correct only 22% of the time and were wrong 60% of the time. Greek meteorology, using the same techniques, is unlikely to have a significantly different success rate. In South Africa a TV advertisement is based on the same conditions - it shows villagers consulting an isangoma, who disappears indoors to consult his satellite TV set, and emerges to announce "Sixty percent chance of rain". His bones start to rattle to warn him that his wife is coming.

The modern, or Enlightenment world view emphasises the importance of rationality and empirical research, but the adoption of that world view might not be based on rational or empirical considerations at all. It is thus possible to have a society based on a myth of absence of myth.

Anderson (1990:256) says:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard - might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

The Christian faith is concerned with human relationships, and with the moral aspects of such relationships. It is concerned not only with the consequences of actions, but with their intentions. Jesus said that hatred was as bad as murder, lust as bad as adultery. From the moral point of view, if I plant a bomb in someone's house or car, and it fails to explode, or explodes and fails to kill or injure anyone, I am just as guilty as if it had succeeded. From a legal point of view, of course, it would result in the charge being reduced from murder to attempted murder. There is a difference between the moral and legal points of view. In the same way, if I plant, not a bomb, but muti, in a person's house or car, the means is different, but the intention is the same. And it is the intention, as much as the consequence, which gives the act its moral quality.

In the Enlightenment view, "witchcraft" does not "exist". A witch or sorcerer is a person suffering from an irrational delusion about invisible powers. The way to deal with the problem is to get such a person (and those who feel threatened by such people) to see that such invisible powers do not exist. The problem with such a view, from a Christian, moral point of view, is that it fails to take the witch seriously as a person. It may be possible to persuade such a person that they have no real power to harm, but that does nothing to deal with the intention to harm, with the hatred that motivated the act. And in many cases it is their very powerlessness that has caused such people to use magical means, because those are the only means that remain accessible to them. It was their disempowerment that caused them to resort to witchcraft in the first place, instead of to explosives or other modern technical means that they had no access to.

Bishop Nyasha's approach - encouraging witches to confess, repent, and be reconciled, and seeking to restore them to the community, is in fact far more rational from a Christian moral point of view. The Zionist leaders whose ministry involves the detection and removal of muti are, from the Christian moral point of view, doing precisely the same thing as the organisers of the "Gun-free South Africa" campaign.


In Southern Africa, decades of violent repression and armed struggles against it have led to a "culture of violence". Witchcraft and witch hunts are but two manifestations of that. The core of the "mainstream" Christian understanding of evil that applies here is that evil does not come from God, but from the devil; nevertheless, evil is not an equal and opposite force to God, but since the resurrection of Christ has become an oxymoron, a powerless force. The final result of the struggle is not in doubt. But until then, we are to cultivate the Christian virtues of modesty, humility, patience and love. Both witchcraft and witch hunts are incompatible with these. Our country, our subcontinent, our world, needs to be exorcised of the demons of witchcraft, witch hunts, violence, hatred and the satanic vice of making accusations. Past sins need to be acknowledged and confessed - so some kind of "truth and reconciliation" commission is needed - not as a witch hunt, to accuse and punish the guilty, but to avoid the kind of denial that the Enlightenment imposed on the Great Witch Hunt in Europe - a denial that allowed the Great Witch Hunt to reincarnate itself in the horrors of Auschwitz and the GULAG. The Wiccans' interpretation of the Great Witch Hunt and use of terms like "witchcraft" to describe their own religion carries with it a dual danger. On the one hand, it exposes them to misunderstandings on the part of others who might be inclined to attribute evil intentions to them where none exist. On the other hand, it adds a further layer of misinterpretation over Western history, and can insulate First-World Christians from the need to face and exorcise the demons of their past.

Christians in Southern Africa have often argued in the past that individual conversions are not enough - the unjust structures of society need to be changed. Now many of the unjust structures of society have been changed. At the political level, at least, we have a democracy in place of a dictatorial race oligarchy. But is it possible to build a democracy without democrats? Is it possible to build a just society on hatred that manifests itself in violence? Witchcraft and witch hunts are two aspects of this violence. And it is some of the Zionists who are discovering ways of dealing with them that are most in accord with "mainstream" Christian theology and values.

Originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. There are more articles from Missionalia available on the Web.

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Adler, Margot. 1979. Drawing down the moon: witches, druids, goddess-worshippers and other pagans in America today. Boston: Beacon.

Anderson, Walter Truett. 1990. Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper.

Berglund, Axel-Ivar. 1976. Zulu thought-patterns and symbolism. London: Hurst.

Bosch, David. 1987. The problem of evil in Africa: a survey of African views of witchcraft and of the response of the Christian church, in Like a roaring lion, edited by Pieter G.R. de Villiers, vide de Villiers 1987.

Cohn, Norman. 1975. Europe's inner demons: an enquiry inspired by the great witch-hunt. London: Sussex University Press.

Comaroff, Jean & Comaroff, John. 1991. Of revelation and revolution: Christianity, colonialism and consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Daneel, M.L., 1990. Exorcism as a means of combating wizardry: liberation or enslavement?, in Missionalia, Vol. 18(1) April. Page 220-247.

Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 1993. The lost beliefs of Northern Europe. London: Routledge.

de Villiers, Pieter G.R. (ed.). 1987. Like a roaring lion: essays on the Bible, the church and demonic powers. Pretoria: C.B. Powell Bible Centre.

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Wright, William Kelley. 1941. A history of modern philosophy. New York: MacMillan.

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1 For example, on 29 May 1994 the Sunday Times reported, "Villagers live in terror in the former homeland of Lebowa as the barbaric killing of 'witches' and their families continues - with the death toll standing at 70 since January". Back to text

2 See also the discussion in Berglund (1976:267,299). Back to text

3 Many Wiccans today recognise that the myth of Wiccan origins is not literally and historically true. Since Wicca is not a historical religion, it is in any case not dependent on particular historical events (Adler 1979:46). I have stressed the question of historical accuracy here not in order to disparage Wiccans, but because the myth has circulated far more widely than just among Wiccans, and is regarded as historically true by many non-Wiccans as well. Back to text

4 A great deal of my knowledge of the beliefs and prac tices of modern Wiccans comes from electronic dialogues on the Religion conference of the RIME computer bul letin board network. I am particularly grateful to Jon Eveland and Eileen Gruber, both practising Wiccans living in the USA, for their thoughtful and courteous replies to my queries. This has provided an important background understanding of material that I have cited from published sources. For those who would like to know more about Wicca, Adler (1979) and Luhrmann (1989) are useful sources. Back to text

5 Concerning the origin and meaning of the term "pagan", Fox (1987:30) notes, "In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani... In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians' usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagani were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians' view of life." See also Adler (1979:416). In this article I generally use "pagan" in this sense. The term "neopagan" is used for those who have sought to revive pre-Christian religions in a post-Christian era, and "paleopagan" refers to religions that existed before contact with Christianity. In this sense, African tra ditional religions, as well as the pre-Christian reli gions of Europe, could be described as "paleopagan". "Pagan" and "Paganism" (with a capital P) refer specif ically to religions of the neopagan revival, which include, but are not limited to, Wicca. Back to text

6 The Enlightenment is usually regarded as beginning with the publication of Locke's Essay concerning human understanding in 1690, and ending with Kant's Critique of pure reason in 1781 (Wright 1941:139). In this article I use the term "post-Enlightenment" to refer to those who lived after the period of the Enlightenment itself, but whose world view was largely shaped by the Enlightenment philosophy. Those who have abandoned, or tried to abandon, the Enlightenment frame of reference, consciously or unconsciously, I refer to as "postmodern" rather than "post Enlightenment". Back to text

7 I use the spelling "ikon" to distinguish church ikons from the "icons" that are nowadays found mostly on computer screens. Back to text

Printed 1996-08-13 5:04 PM

Originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society, November 1995 Vol 23(3), pages 339-354. There are more articles from Missionalia available on the Web.

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