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Sorcery, a central topic in the anthropology of religion, often implies the use of supernatural means to achieve personal or community objectives, often carrying a pejorative connotation in Western discourse. The belief in and practice of sorcery extends across cultures worldwide, varying widely in form, scope, and societal influence.

Anthropological Definition of Sorcery

Sorcery, sometimes interchangeable with witchcraft in anthropological texts, is defined as the manipulation of symbolic materials (like spells, rituals, or objects) to influence people, events, or the natural world, often negatively [1]. However, such definitions need to be contextually understood as cultures interpret and apply these concepts diversely.

Cross-cultural Perspectives on Sorcery

Sorcery in Melanesian Societies

Melanesian societies have a prevalent belief in sorcery, considered a powerful and harmful force wielded for personal or social grievances. In Papua New Guinea, “poison” or “sorcery” are terms often attributed to sudden or unexplained deaths [2]. This belief system influences societal behaviors and justice mechanisms.

Sorcery in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sorcery in Sub-Saharan Africa, termed “witchcraft”, is also a common cultural phenomenon. Beliefs range from attributing misfortune to malevolent forces to considering it a socio-political tool. Some cultures even regard sorcery as a hereditary trait [3].

Sorcery in South America

Among the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina, sorcery (wekufe) is believed to cause misfortune and illness. However, there is a thin line between beneficial and harmful supernatural practice, blurring the line between shamans and sorcerers.

Sorcery in Western Societies

In contrast, Western societies predominantly view sorcery within historical contexts (like the infamous witch trials), or as an element of popular culture (fantasy literature, films), with only subcultures such as neo-pagans continuing to practice it.

Table 1. Cross-cultural Perspectives on Sorcery

RegionTerms UsedTypical Beliefs and Practices
MelanesiaPoison, SorceryAssociated with sudden deaths
Sub-Saharan AfricaWitchcraftConsidered as a socio-political tool
South AmericaWekufeCauses misfortune and illness
Western SocietiesWitchcraft, SorceryAssociated with historical events or popular culture

Societal Impacts of Sorcery Beliefs

Beliefs in sorcery have significant societal impacts:

  1. Social Control: Sorcery often acts as a form of social control, deterring individuals from antisocial or immoral behavior for fear of supernatural retribution.
  2. Explanations for Misfortune: Sorcery provides explanations for misfortune, illness, and death, especially in societies without advanced medical knowledge.
  3. Conflict Resolution: In some societies, accusations of sorcery serve as a means of resolving conflicts, expressing social tension, or restoring social equilibrium.


Sorcery, a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, illustrates the diverse ways human societies interpret and respond to the unseen and the unknown. While often associated with malevolence and misfortune, these beliefs play essential roles in social control, understanding misfortune, and conflict resolution.


[1] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press.

[2] Zelenietz, M., & Stewart, P. (1981). “Sorcery and Social Change in Melanesia”. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, (7), 3-15.

[3] Geschiere, P. (1997). The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. University Press of Virginia.

Anthropologist Vasundhra - Author and Anthroholic

Vasundhra, an anthropologist, embarks on a captivating journey to decode the enigmatic tapestry of human society. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, she unravels the intricacies of social phenomena, immersing herself in the lived experiences of diverse cultures. Armed with an unwavering passion for understanding the very essence of our existence, Vasundhra fearlessly navigates the labyrinth of genetic and social complexities that shape our collective identity. Her recent publication unveils the story of the Ancient DNA field, illuminating the pervasive global North-South divide. With an irresistible blend of eloquence and scientific rigor, Vasundhra effortlessly captivates audiences, transporting them to the frontiers of anthropological exploration.

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