by Rebecca Deczynski
Throughout decades of pop cultural assimilation, the witch has become a highly recognizable—and highly stereotyped—figure in the American mindset. She comes in two basic forms: the scowling, green-skinned old woman who uses hexes to curse pretty young girls and all who cross her, and the cool, seemingly human witch who uses her powers largely for good, like Sabrina (the Teenage Witch) or Samantha from Bewitched.
At the same time, thanks to U.S. history classes and historical fiction, the American witch has been recognized for her tragic history—not just her vibrant narratives. Most famously in Salem, Massachusetts, witch hunts and trials in the late 17th century reflected the time’s mass hysteria and misogyny brought on by religious fervor and paranoia, showing negative attitudes towards witches as a whole.
But America isn’t the only place where something wicked this way comes. Across time and space, women have been both honored and persecuted for their supposed magical powers. These six examples of witches from around the world prove that magic comes in many forms.
1. South Africa: The Witch Doctor (Inyanga and Isangoma)
The “witch doctor” may be one of the most ubiquitous depictions of a witch (placing behind wicked witches and those in Harry Potter). But the fantastical moniker should not diminish the very real influence these figures have in South African culture. Native to the Zulu people, “witch doctors” are seen as healers who are divided into two different categories: inyanga and isangoma.
While inyanga are not dissimilar to modern day herbalists and practitioners of natural medicine, the isangoma are called to their profession by divine powers and perform tasks like predicting the future and using their psychic abilities to protect against evil spirits. Isangoma verge on being religious leaders in their communities, using trance and musical rituals to communicate with ancestors. Both inyanga and isangoma are viewed with respect in their culture and must undergo years of training; they are often consulted for a variety of problems, from health to spiritual.
2. Ghana: Witch Camps
While witch hunts largely ended in Europe in the 18th century, in some parts of the world, women continue to be banished as they are suspected of having supernatural powers. Recently, however, Ghana took a step forward to abolish this practice. In the West African country, nearly 1,000 women and 500 children are in the process of being released from six witch camps in the country’s Northern Region.
The witch camps were established nearly 100 years ago to provide a place of refuge for women who were made the scapegoats for tragedies like famine, sickness, and death. Not unlike the women accused of witchcraft in colonial America, these women were discriminated against in societies riddled by mass panic. While the camps provided a safe haven for the women and their children, they also lacked fundamental necessities like electricity and running water. As the camps were closed in December 2014, the women banished to these areas now struggle to become reintegrated into society and reunited with their families after decades of persecution and discrimination.
3. Chile: Kalku
Native to Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people, the Kalku is an evil sorceress who exists in opposition to Mapuche spiritual leaders and medicine women, the Machi. While the Machi are the culture’s major healers, the Kalku work with evil spirits to wreak havoc. The semi-mystical figures use black magic and are even believed to have evil sidekicks, such as Anchimayen (creatures that reanimate the corpses of deceased children) and the Choncon (a bird with the head of a Kalku). While both Kalku and Machi are traditionally women, the Kalku are seen as more mystical, fantastical creatures, while the Machi perform religious duties.
4. Philippines: Mangkukulam
In the islands of the Philippines, belief in magic is very much alive. Kulam is a form of Filipino witchcraft, with practitioners called mangkukulam. These sorceresses are believed to perform black magic. Using practices similar to voodoo, the mangkukulam cast spells and incantations intended to bring harm to others. However, the mangkukulam (which can be either men or women) aren’t only self-serving: They oftentimes sell love potions and services to help patrons exact revenge on those who have wronged them. So make sure you don’t get on their bad side!
5. West Indies: Obeah
As a folk magic-religion hybrid, Obeah flourished in the West Indies during the slave trade largely as a force of resistance. The dark magic uses spells to make predictions, gain knowledge, or obtain assistance for any task. While Obeah isn’t a religion in the sense that there is any sort of established church or ceremonies, female and male practitioners are seen as spiritual guides that can help with any number of problems. The magic, believed to have originated in West Africa, is found across the Caribbean in multiple forms. For example, in Haiti, the practice is known most specifically as Voodoo. Like most forms of witchcraft, this form of magic is believed to have some sinister potential—yet it is also used for personal benefit through purchased charms.
6. Mexico: La Santa Muerte
Though she may be considered a saint rather than a witch, Mexico’s Santa Muerte, or Saint of Death, is deeply connected to witchcraft. Portrayed as a woman wearing a skull mask, donning a long cloak—similar to a female Grim Reaper—Santa Muerte is honored through statues that are believed to hold magical powers. Black sculptures of the saint are used in cursing rituals while white sculptures are used for cleansing rituals. Some believers even consider Santa Muerte to be an intermediary between God and Earth, and others see her statue as an omen or threat of death.