Humans have often encountered and attempted to control the supernatural through the practices of witchcraft, sorcery, and magic. These practices are frequently employed to explain experiences and conditions that can’t be explained otherwise. People often analyze them as forms of social control and leveling as well as ways of perceiving reality when they are concerned with misfortunes and harm, accusations and blame. Although the three terms are closely related in anthropology witchcraft spells they have distinct meanings and intellectual histories and frequently appear together in the same studies. Anthropological literature on this subject has a long history and is widely spread, with examples from virtually every continent.
This entry extends this introductory overview by emphasizing key ideas in anthropological approaches to magic, witchcraft, and sorcery and highlighting prominent scholarship during the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
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The Azande Example of Magic and Witchcraft
Witchcraft and sorcery also contain some of the concepts developed in the anthropological study of magic. Many populations separated by time and space are affected by conditions that lead to fissures in social relationships, conflict of interests, and cognitive jarring. Regardless of how misfortune and harm are conceived and dealt with in worldviews that develop conceptions of magic, witchcraft, and sorcery, they all share similar features. Many studies of magic and witchcraft conducted during the mid-twentieth century, particularly by anthropologists in the British structural-functionalist school, aimed to identify such patterns and features of social organization that might explain their variability.
In the study of magic and witchcraft and in many other fields, these studies were criticized for focusing on culture-bound forms of belief. Such criticisms have led to a return to the concept of magic, which has been seen as a universal force that underlies all religions and cultures. This study will attempt to show that the various forms of magic and witchcraft studied are not always culturally bound; they may be universal and even cross-cultural.
The Consistent Features of Witchcraft
Researchers examining the extensive anthropological and historical literature on witchcraft have noted key elements of worldview and prominent social factors that are common to all examples. These integrations range from minimalist perspectives that see few unifying factors long and detailed lists of traits that see fundamental similarities among disparate examples. The cross-cultural and historical relevance of two central concepts at the core of all witchcraft examples is noted by Fiona Bowie (2006, 200-202). In the first place, there is an idea that there is a life force, essence, or energy within people and animals, objects, and nature.