Warning: session_start() [function.session-start]: open(/home/content/96/12521296/tmp/sess_84hfqen2or3ul570fmmn2lkpc6, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in /home/content/96/12521296/html/display_article.php on line 2

Warning: session_start() [function.session-start]: Cannot send session cookie - headers already sent by (output started at /home/content/96/12521296/html/display_article.php:2) in /home/content/96/12521296/html/display_article.php on line 2

Warning: session_start() [function.session-start]: Cannot send session cache limiter - headers already sent (output started at /home/content/96/12521296/html/display_article.php:2) in /home/content/96/12521296/html/display_article.php on line 2
The psychology of bewitchment  @psychohistorian.org

The psychology of bewitchment

posted: 4203 days ago, on Tuesday, 2008 Aug 26 at 04:40
tags: psychology, supernatural.

In 1894 the delightful Oscar Wilde wrote:

"Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions."

It is certainly tempting to think that, as scientific knowledge advances, and the non-scientist members of society are increasingly exposed to both scientific thinking and the fruits of scientific labours, there is a general shift to rationality and the adoption of a more science-oriented way of interpreting the world. Supernatural belief systems dwindle and are replaced by the light of reason. Or so the story goes.

But, as Gavin Ivey and Tertia Myers, of the Psychology Department of the University of Witwatersrand, recently pointed out:

"It is a fact that bewitchment beliefs remain prevalent in black South African communities, despite the influence of Western rational-scientific explanatory frameworks. … traditional supernatural belief systems provide established and culturally accessible understandings … particularly when individuals in these communities are confronted by adverse or apparently inexplicable events." (Ivey & Myers, 2008)

Part one of their 2008 article "The psychology of bewitchment" identifies and describes salient subjective aspects of bewitchment. Study notes of this article follow.

Witchcraft in the context of the African worldview

The 'African worldview' comprises numerous aspects, which include:

Witches and witchcraft

Witchcraft, [the manipulation of evil] involves the secretive and evil employment of mystical powers, the aim being to harm others or their property. Consequently, it does not refer to visible actions but to 'mystical deeds, motivated by envy, malice and resentment. These emotions are part of complex webs of evidence that believers and accusers used to construct, and to reconstruct, the reality of witchcraft in specific situations.'

A witch is thus a person (male or female) who harms other through exercising invisible magical powers. They intentionally use arcane knowledge or magical substances for malevolent purposes, namely to inflict physical and psychological suffering upon their victims. Witches are omnipresent; they may live peacefully with others in the community but are generally considered to be anti-social, living on the periphery of society as outsiders. Secrecy surrounds witches and their craft, and they are careful to avoid detection. They operate outside the norms of society and are not limited by the laws of nature.

Witches harness evil through the use of malevolent magic, and muti. Muti is a magical substance capable of healing or harming, depending on how it is used. The influence of muti is also based upon the belief that people absorb elements from their surroundings, which leaves them vulnerable to bewitchment.

Important in muti beliefs is the intention of the user.

Symptoms and types of bewitchment

Bewitchment may manifest in a number of different ways:

  1. hallucinations
  2. fainting daily at the same time and place
  3. dreams or sighting of a naked person in one's room,
  4. public undressing
  5. eating excrement and other taboo substances
  6. voluntary confessions of evil doings.
  7. 'word salad'
  8. uncontrolled weeping
  9. listlessness
  10. loss of appetite
  11. suicide attempts
  12. 'deranged' behaviour
  13. odd muscular movements.
  14. general psychological distress, attributed to witchcraft.

Poisoning or spirit possession

Poisoning (idliso) usually implies placing muti in an intended victim's food. ".. it may be experienced by the victim as a snake moving in his or her stomach."

Idliso is considered one of the most common forms of sorcery in South Africa.

Spirit possession (ufufunyana) is induced by placing a mixture of soil and ants from graveyards in the path where the intended victim is expected to walk. This mixture is believed to capture the spirits of the dead, who then posses the intended victim when they walk over it.

In addition to these symptomatic manifestations, people are inclined to believe witchcraft is being practices when there is supposed evidence of muti, or the presence of familiars and zombies.

Familiars are those entities, including animals and mythical figures, such as a tikoloshe, that are associated with witches and are the witch's subjects.

The tikoloshe is created by a witch from muti. It is a short, hairy, baboon-like being, with vicious teeth and a huge penis, or excessively large breasts. It is thought to act as the sexual partner of witches.

Zombies are corpses that have been revitalised through witchcraft. It is commonly believed that witches keep zombies to do their bidding, such as domestic chores and other menial tasks. Zombies are people who once offended witches and are punished by transformation into zombies. The creation of a zombie is a process that usually begins with the witch capturing the person's aura or shadow. This is followed by a gradual possession of the person's body parts, until just the outer shell of the person remains for the family to bury.

The role of family and social relationships

Strained family and social relationships often provide the context for bewitchment experiences.

Although family relationships usually offer support, most accusations of bewitchment take place between members of the same family, especially between relatives by marriage. Daughters-in-law are often identified as the perpetrators of bewitchment.

Bewitchment accusations are more likely to be made by family members against daughters-in-law, by husbands against their wives, and by senior wives against junior wives in polygamous marriages.

Perceptions of social inequality are another primary cause of bewitchment accusations.

Social tension is thus one of the main reasons for witchcraft accusations emerging in a community.

Any situation where there is a scarcity of resources and where competition for these resources exists may result in envious and hostile relationships.

Rapid social change, and the influx of foreigners into local communities, also creates uncertainty, intensifying socio-political tensions and increasing the likelihood of bewitchment accusations.

Trauma, misfortune, and death

Bewitchment beliefs or accusations emerge most strongly following traumatic experiences, in times of stress, or in response to various misfortunes.

Because it is believed that the aim of certain types of bewitchment is to kill the victim, when a young or apparently healthy person dies unexpectedly, this may give to suspicions of witchcraft.

In circumstances where body parts have been removed from a corpse it is believed that the person may have been killed in order to harvest these parts to make particularly powerful muti. Such murders do in fact occur in South Africa and are strongly associated with bewitchment practices and sangomas (traditional healers).

Sangomas are widely consulted in South Africa. Lambrecht (1998) claims that 84% of the black South African population seek treatment from traditional healers. Sangomas are considered to be a 'central link between the community and the ancestors, mediating between the material and spiritual worlds'.

Traditionally, one of the sangoma's central roles was the 'smelling out of witches', which also associates sangomas with the occult.

When traditional healers are consulted it is common for the healer to diagnose or attribute the illness of either problematic relationships with the ancestors or to a specific person who has bewitched the patient.

When bewitchment is the supposed cause of an illness or misfortune, treatment by a sangoma is considered essential. Various treatments are used, including exorcism and cleansing rituals such as enemas, emetics, steaming, and burning muti.

A phenomenological investigation of bewitchment experience

Given the fact that no detailed investigation of the subjective experience of bewitchment exists in the South Africa psychological literature, a qualitative research project exploring this neglected topic was undertaken. The aim of this study was explicate the subjective experience of bewitchment … investigating the commonalities and differences in their experiences.

Explication is a descriptive procedure whereby the implicit essential meaning of a phenomenon is made explicit, while fidelity to the subject's experience is maintained by bracketing one's own theoretical and ideological prejudices. This descriptive approach stands in contrast to interpretation, which involved attribution of meaning by the researchers to the phenomenon under investigation that goes beyond the lived experience of the participants.

It is the openness of the researchers to the subjectively perceived phenomenon under consideration that defines the phenomenological stance. From a Western psychological viewpoint there is a tendency to discredit magical beliefs, rather than respectfully entertain them in order to better understand the person's psychological world. The phenomenological method circumvents the need to established the validity of a person's experience; instead it seeks to articulate the lived experience of the phenomenon through a rigorous and systematic description of how it appears to the research participants. Phenomenology permits an acceptance of things as they are presented, rather than attempting to explain or analyse and thereby distort the subjective truth of the individual's experience.

Method & analysis

Four subjects took part in open-ended interviews and were asked the single question: "Describe in detail your experience of bewitchment and the impact it had on your life."

The analysis started with a thorough reading of the transcript. Then, 'natural meaning units' (NMU) were identified. An NUM is described as 'a statement made by the Subject which is self-definable and self-delimiting in the expression of a single, recognized aspect of the subject's experience.'

The NMU's were then evaluated and organized into central themes. An 'essential description' of each participant's subject experience of bewitchment was then written: "a succinct description emerging from the process of explication… and containing all the essential elements in the structure of the phenomenon under investigation."

The final step of the analysis was to compile an extended general description of the experiences, derived from integrating the salient features of each essential description. Commonalities and differences in experience were noted. The extended description thus captures the essential structure of the phenomenon of bewitchment, generating a useful general account of what the experience of bewitchment entails.


The participant's experiences displayed essential commonalities.

  1. the belief that they had been bewitched offered plausible and meaningful explanations for traumatic and seemingly inexplicable life events. Although alternative explanations were available, bewitchment remained the preferred explanation for the problematic events.
  2. The experience of bewitchment was identified as a crisis in which individuals perceived themselves as helpless victims, vulnerable to onslaught from hostile agents having malevolent intentions towards them. A prerequisite is the conviction that one is a target of another's malevolence. This understanding of one's experience arises within a discursive network of hearsay, folklore, media reports, and conversational anecdotes that inform and structure it as a bewitchment phenomenon.
  3. Bewitchment experiences tend to emerge in the context of disturbed interpersonal relationships, particularly familial relationships tainted by perceptions of hostility, jealousy and envy.
  4. Witchcraft was felt to be a sinister, omnipresent and life-threatening force. Susceptibility appeared contextually sensitive, however. In times of transition or change, participants felt a greater vulnerability.
  5. A common account of how bewitchment was effected was that evil muti had been ritually used to curse or poison them.
  6. The impact of bewitchment ranged from a sense of loss of actual or potential relationships, an avoidance of contact with suspect family members, a fear of death, or a sense of living in a persecutory and frightening world.
  7. All experiences of bewitchment had a strong somatic component: panic and choking sensations, the experience of an alien entity moving in the digestive trace, burn wounds, and the inability to heal. Traditional medicines or rituals performed by a spiritual healer were considered necessary to bring relief. Medical treatment was considered of no avail and, it was claimed, might even lead to further harm.
  8. Bewitchment resulted in a desperate search for assistance, primarily from sangomas and Zionist Christian prophets. Generally, more traditional healing methods, employed by sangomas and prophets, were viewed as superior to Western medicine, since it was felt that western doctors were unaware of bewitchment and thus unable to diagnose and treat it correctly. The antidote to bewitchment was the use of 'good' muti, exorcism rituals, and prayers.
  9. Sangomas and Zionist Christian prophets were not only allocated curative roles in the participant's narratives, however. Sangomas and prophets would divine who the perpetrator of the act was, or forewarn a potential victim of the intended harm. This resulted in an escalation of fear and the experience of hostile feelings towards the alleged perpetrator. Sangomas and prophets thus perpetuate bewitchment beliefs at the same time as alleviating the suffering of individuals who believed they were bewitched. Bewitchment beliefs evidently strengthened participant's belief in the Christian God, which in turn heightened awareness of evil and its manifestation as witchcraft.


Belief in the supernatural

Underpinning all of the participant's experience of bewitchment was a strong belief in the supernatural. A moral dualism was apparent in the distinction between good (God and positive mystical experiences) and evil (bewitchment) supernatural phenomena. It thus appears that religious beliefs make the individual more susceptible to belief in other supernatural phenomena.

The supernatural world was also seen to impact strongly on the human world. Interestingly, in this sample of four participants, the role of the ancestors did not feature. Accounts in the literature imply that disaffected ancestors, the lack of adherence to certain propitiatory rituals, and/or ancestors who withdraw their protection, are predisposing factors in bewitchment.

There was strong evidence of a belief in linear causality; all four participants described how envy of their perceived betterment or resources led to their becoming targets of witchcraft. They also noted that those who used evil magic were ultimately influenced by it. Corrupt sangomas, described by two participants, had lost their positive mystical powers and resorted to witchcraft in order to make money.

Hostile, competitive and envious relationships

In all the accounts, strained or competitive relationships were a precipitant for witchcraft accusations. This supports some previous findings, that family tensions created fertile ground for bewitchment.

Neighbours were also found to be alleged perpetrators of bewitchment, especially when there was competition for resources. A novel finding in this study was the competition for resources between sangomas – here, the valued resources were dreams and mystical power.

All the participants described or implied jealousy or envy as the motive for their bewitchment.

The role of witchcraft discourses

It is evident that the participants experiences were shaped by various discourses on bewitchment, as previous studies had shown. These discourses, which took the form of rumours, media reports, and anecdotes, appeared to verify the participant's experiences, and perpetuate bewitchment beliefs. This was the case even when participants expressed some scepticism regarding dubious information. Media reports, it is evident, fuel suspicion and fear, and – in some instances – gave credence to witchcraft beliefs.

Not surprisingly, sangomas also play a significant role in perpetuating witchcraft discourses by identifying alleged perpetrators, providing a means to protect oneself, and ridding victims of bewitchment symptoms.

Bewitchment accusations

No reference is made in the literature to the difficulties that the supposed victims encounter when accusing the alleged perpetrators of bewitching them. However, from the participants experiences, it appears that accusations are seldom made directly to the perpetrators – in contrast to some previous findings. All four participants pointed to the difficulty of accusing a person of bewitchment, indicating that this was primarily due to such people being in positions of authority or to their being close family members.

However, it was also evident that not confronting the perpetrator allowed the victim to harbour a grievance against the suspect. Sustained grievances appeared to have functional value for the participants, allowing them to continue to attribute difficulties encountered in their lives to the supposed bewitchment. [It's not my fault – it's the fault of the other guy].

The signs and effects of bewitchment

Indications and effects were personalized and fitted the individual's context and life experiences. Bewitchment strikes at one's frailties, and the things one values. While the bewitchment belief gives meaning to disturbing life events, it also entails significant suffering for the victim. This study finds that such distress is experienced both psychologically and physically. The interpersonal world becomes a dangerous place.

All participants reported a somatic aspect. In three cases this manifested as the inability to recover from ailments when medical treatment was administered. Two cases displayed dermatological symptoms (a burn, and a skin rash) that were claimed to correspond with the sangoma's prediction.

This points to the unity between the psyche and soma, understood to be part of an African worldview, as well as to the possible heightened suggestibility of those prone to bewitchment beliefs.

The role of muti in possession and poisoning

One of the primary themes to emerge from this research was the prominent role of muti. Evil muti was seen to affect its victims in three ways:

  1. by creating a possessing entity,
  2. by physically poisoning the victim, or
  3. by conjuring up a hostile spiritual presence in the victim's physical environment.

There is no clear distinction between muti poisoning and possession: possession is viewed as a consequence of poisoning.

Participants described muti as an ambiguous substance that either had healing properties or could cause bewitchment.

Dreams: A sign of bewitchment and a valuable resource

This study confirmed earlier findings that dreams were a possible indication of bewitchment.


All four participants mentioned sangomas, but their perceptions of these traditional healers varied considerably. Sangomas are ambiguously, and sometimes ambivalently, perceived figures, capable of leaning toward either good or evil. There was, however, little evidence of sangomas acting as mediators between the supernatural and the natural. Instead, for these participants, the activities of sangomas were largely confined to healing various ailments, particularly those related to bewitchment, as well as the provision of muti.

The role of other bewitchment-related phenomena

All participants made reference to other supernatural or bewitchment-related phenomena. Two referred to muti-murders. Only one participant mentioned zombies or tikoloshe in the context of bewitchment. This may be because the participant is Xhosa, and tikoloshe are more prevalent in Nguni folklore.

With regard to zombies, the participant had heard a number of rumours about zombies and had seen the corpse of an alleged zombie – her experience was that it still looked alive, thereby confirming her beliefs in such supernatural beings.

Western vs. traditional African treatment

The literature indicates that when an ailment is believed to be a consequence of bewitchment traditional healing methods are more effective in treating the condition.

Two participants in this study held that western medicine might do more harm than good if administered to a victim of bewitchment. In contrast, another participant, despite holding witchcraft beliefs, was convinced that Western medicine was more effective as it had been scientifically tested.

Justice and retribution

The functional utility of witchcraft beliefs would be negated if evil deeds went unavenged and innocent people were left helpless before destructive magical forces. A life without retribution or constraints on the influence of witchcraft would be untenable. It is thus interesting to note that three participants spoke of a form of cosmic justice that punishes the perpetrators of witchcraft.

Explanatory models of bewitchment beliefs in the light of this study

Witchcraft in African communities has proved a staple topic for anthropological studies and an extensive amount of literature on bewitchment exists in this disciplinary field.

Anthropological explanations of bewitchment beliefs assume two main forms:

  1. the cognitive model, and
  2. the social strain gauge model.

The cognitive model accounts for the presence of witchcraft as a means of explaining misfortune and inexplicable events. Evans-Pritchard proposes that the concept of witchcraft 'provides… a natural philosophy by which the relations between men and unfortunate evens are explained and a ready and stereotyped means of reacting to such events is offered.'

According to the social strain model, witchcraft beliefs arise as a result of social conflict, power dynamics and community upheaval. The work of Niehaus and Geshiere, who focus primarily on the role of politics and power relations, would exemplify this model.

From this study, it appears that both explanatory models of bewitchment offer plausible but partial explanations for the participant's experiences. It further appears that the factors advanced by these two different models seem to operate simultaneously. People may create meaning out of otherwise inexplicable misfortunes by believing themselves to be bewitched, while concurrently attributing this to the malice of others who are envious of their social advancement or access to scarce resources.

These two models fail to make sense of the specific bewitchment symptoms and fantasies reported by individual sufferers and how these relate to their intra- and interpersonal contexts. The scant psychological literate that exists on bewitchment in the African context is also deficient in this regard, tending merely to emphasis cross-cultural comparisons between Western models of psychopathology and indigenous African understandings of psychological disturbances. As an offshoot of this literature, bewitchment symptomology is commonly viewed as a cultural expression of psychopathology.

Labelling bewitchment experience as a cultural variation of psychopathology hardly helps us understand it better. A more adequate psychological understanding of bewitchment needs to begin with detailed descriptions and case studies. The research study described in this article, though based on a small sample, is a step in this direction. In the second article on this topic, the authors propose a psychoanalytic model of bewitchment.


Of course, to contrast "rational" with "supernatural" thinking is clearly wrong. The African world view seems entirely rational; witness the "complex webs of evidence" that the witchcraft-believers use. Rather, what is at work is a fundamental difference in the grounding beliefs, the basic axioms, culturally transferred in early youth, that lead to the rational formation, and subsequent use, of a particular world view that just happens to include the reality of the supernatural as a key feature.


Ivey, G. & Myers, T. (2008) The psychology of bewitchment (part 1). SA J Psy, 38(1), 54-74.

nothing more to see. please move along.

Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/96/12521296/tmp/sess_84hfqen2or3ul570fmmn2lkpc6, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0