Witch doctor, also sometimes witchman, is an unfortunate term created by English speakers during colonial times in Africa to refer originally to healers using supernatural means, but it became a generic term for any sort of traditional healer anywhere, regardless of what methods were employed or what affliction was treated. It reflects a time when the label witchcraft was applied pejoratively to any supernatural practice or belief system that appeared radically different from the observer’s custom, in spite of efforts by anthropologists to specify meanings. Early 20th-century anthropologists used the label witch doctor for specialists who treated victims of witchcraft, or who sought to cleanse alleged witches of their unwanted powers, especially when the healer used methods similar to those ascribed to witches. An early and influential usage of the term was by E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his classic 1937 work on Zande witchcraft, wherein he defines witch doctors as “diviners who are believed to diagnose and combat witchcraft in virtue of medicines which they have eaten, by certain dances, and by leechcraft” (this latter term is an archaic English synonym for medical healing, from the era when physicians employed bloodletting; its use by colonial-era anthropologists continued because healing methods worldwide often include sucking an offensive substance from the body of the patient). Some scholars attempted to justify the term by showing that the specialist may be well-trained, insightful, and effective, like Michael Gelfand’s sympathetic 1965 study of the Shona nganga. In 1978, George Foster and Barbara Anderson, in their book about “the new field of medical anthropology,” distinguished between “the shaman with his direct contact with the spirit world, and the witch doctor (to use an outmoded but still useful term from the African literature) with his magical powers.” But all such usages of the label are inadequate because they confuse witchcraft, sorcery, magic, spirit invocation, shamanism, and other beliefs and practices, and thus give no precise meaning to the term.
A great variety of traditional practices have been variously designated by the label witch doctor. Some referents and synonyms are medicine man (or woman), native doctor, diviner, prophet, shaman, healer, curer, spiritualist, herbalist, exorcist, and others. The label used may denote a general category of specialist (e.g., healer), or it may be a role term, indicating the dominant method employed by the specialist (for example, diviner, exorcist, or herbalist). Priests and shamans are highly trained specialists, distinguished by different techniques and different sociocultural contexts, but both perform a number of situational roles, in any of which the label witch doctor might be applied. Traditional healers typically draw from a wide stock of spiritual, mystical, material, and psychological methods, and may combine several in a specific treatment.
The witchcraft Evans-Pritchard referred to is a specific phenomenon found around the world in settled societies: It is an invisible evil power that vests itself in certain people, and thence moves freely among the “bush” and the world of spirits and its human host. It works in mystical ways. The power enables its bearer to leave his or her body, change form, fly, and work directly upon its target, and this can be done without magic or spiritual assistance. Wherever the belief exists, there will be specialists who combat it, and many of them, too, work in mystical ways. In many parts of Africa the witch doctor works through specially developed sensory perception; he may be called a “smeller” of witches, using the native term that means both olfactory and extrasensory perception. Among the Bachama of Nigeria witches are located and engaged in battle by a special fraternity of men who have demonstrated an ability to “see” into the spirit world; their “sight” works through invisible apertures at the center of the forehead and the occiput.
Regarding medicine men, it should be understood that medicine is an English term expropriated in colonial times to refer to any substance or technique, including ritual, that has power to change the state of someone or to protect people against outside influence, acting as an amulet. It may be specified as “good” or “bad” medicine. Sometimes we may encounter the English word “poison” referring to such means used with negative intent. And so medicine man is an imprecise and not very useful label.
A job of the specialist healer, which might give him the title witch doctor, is to counter sorcery. Sorcery generally means one of two individual acts of antisocial manipulation of the supernatural: spirit invocation and command, or harmful magic. The specialist healer might invoke a benevolent spirit and send it to do battle with the evil one sent by the sorcerer, a method employed in South and Southeast Asia; or he might work countermagic, aiming to deflect or nullify the magic the sorcerer has employed, and protect his client with amulets. Just as sorcery “works” through the victim’s psychology—the best example being the “Voodoo Death” syndrome described by Walter Cannon in 1942—the antisorcery of the witch doctor works by convincing the patient that the evil influence is gone. As Cannon and others reported, relief may be rapid and dramatic. Both sorcery-induced illness and magical relief work through the same physiological mechanisms as operate in the placebo effect.
A shaman is a unique specialist, well described by anthropologists, found typically in small-scale mobile societies of Asia and early Europe and throughout the Americas. The English word derives from a term in the language of the Evenk, a Siberian Tungus-speaking tribe; it designates a status achieved after long study and apprenticeship, mastery of an altered state of consciousness called ecstasy, and successful completion of a period of deprivation and hardship resulting in profound personal transformation, the famous “vision quest.” The shaman is in charge of the social, spiritual, and physical health of his people; he is politician, psychological counselor, and religious leader, as well as curer of diseases. Many of his decisions are made after consulting with spirits through ecstasy. In this state the shaman’s soul leaves his body and journeys to the realm of whatever spirit is sought for advice or bargaining regarding the human problem for which the shaman is seeking resolution. The shaman’s ecstatic state may be enhanced by ingestion of some psychotropic drug, and during his ecstatic flight, the shaman’s body may behave in bizarre ways—trembling, twitching, frothing at the mouth, and so forth; it may be these factors that attracted the label witch doctor. Today the label shaman has lost its original specificity and is applied popularly and by anthropologists to any religious specialist anywhere whose techniques include entering an altered state of consciousness.
Spirit possession is another type of altered state of consciousness employed by medical specialists, in which a spiritual entity enters a person’s body and takes control of it and all its faculties. Spirit mediums and cult priests may actively seek possession by particular spirits to acquire esoteric knowledge and guidance in curing human afflictions. Possession states commonly manifest in behavior alarming to Western observers, like convulsive jerking, frothing at the mouth, rolling back of the eyeballs, and glossolalia, all of which might justify the label witch doctor.
A patient’s ailment may be diagnosed as demonic possession, in which case the healer takes on the role of exorcist and employs any of a variety of means to lure or scare the possessing spirit out of the patient’s body. Many cultures distinguish between calm, orderly culture and wild, chaotic nature and believe that harmful possessing spirits are wild things of nature that can be successfully countered by invocation of even wilder and stronger things. The most effective remedies may include a variety of offensive materials and behaviors, such as fearsome masquerades embodying powerful nature spirits; magical enhancements of foul effluvia or body parts of dangerous animals; and techniques such as heating, chilling, beatings, or other inflictions of pain to render the patient’s body an uncomfortable abode for the possessing spirit. Any such methods might stimulate application of the pejorative label witch doctor.
Really, the label witch doctor combines implications of ignorance and backwardness. It is uninformative, and it should not be used by anthropologists or any serious students of culture.
- Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937). Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Foster, G. M., & Anderson, B. G. (1978). Medical anthropology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Gelfand, M. (1965). Witch doctor: Traditional medicine man of Rhodesia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.