Healing - Magical Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Magical Arts

Some believe the origins of witchcraft lie in healing. Healers prescribed botanical cures, diagnosed causes of illness via divination and shamanic journey, and used various shamanic and magical techniques to safeguard the health of their communities.

Healing still remains an important magical art. Healing and magic are inextricably linked; healing and women are inextricably linked. Evidence suggests that Celtic women in Gaul followed many professions including that of medical doctor and this is true elsewhere. In many traditional communities, the face of the healer is that of a shaman or witch.

Although negative stereotypes suggest that witches are responsible for causing illness, witches are powerfully identified as healers. A Basque spell suggests, for instance, that should illness arise without obvious reason or cause, someone should bring a cauldron to a crossroads, place a comb inside the pot together with some stones, and turn the cauldron upside down. This serves as a signal to witches that healing action is required and allegedly assistance will soon arrive.

Many believe that the close identification of witches and healers sparked the European witch-craze. One theory suggests that witch-hunts resulted as a response to the medical revolution. According to this theory, medical advances contributed to witch-hunts and witchcraft hysteria.

As medicine became more sophisticated, more cures were found; understanding of the physical nature of illness expanded. Pagan traditions tend to view illness from a holistic standpoint: even illnesses derived from physical causes have a spiritual component, thus all cures tend to possess a spiritual component in addition to any other. Ancient healing rituals were thus conducted by shamans and witch doctors. Many of these rituals lingered among midwives and traditional female healers, even post-Christianity.

However with the advent of the new, exclusively male, university-trained physician, this situation changed. These physicians would not conduct traditional spiritual cures. Professional competition existed among traditional female healers and male medical practitioners. Some physicians believed that mysterious illnesses that resisted established cures were actually caused by witches specifically to create hurdles for the new medical doctors. If only a witch can cure an illness, then perhaps she caused it. The new university-trained physician notified the religious and secular authorities who pursued witchcraft charges.

An ancient theory, common around the world, suggests that “disease demons” cause ailments. These ailments were once diagnosed and treated via magical ritual. Post-Christianity, all magical ritual was perceived as diabolical and so people attempting to heal in this fashion were punished as witches.

This scenario inevitably leads to the conception of good witches versus bad witches. Bad witches cause illness; good witches heal them. “Witch” eventually became such a charged, dangerous word that no one wanted to be the “witch.” Thus names like “wise woman” or “cunning man” were substituted, even though the techniques and practices might be identical.

There was a very good reason for the fear of the word “witch.” During the witch-hunt era, healers were specifically targeted as witches. Those believed to cause illness were prosecuted as witches, but so were those who produced cures. The ability to heal, especially when an ailment had stymied a male physician, was considered evidence of witchcraft.

During the witch-hunt era, being requested to heal became a trap. If healing was accomplished, accusations of witchcraft might follow. At the same time, in the desperate face of illness, healers are desired at all cost. It is easy to see how community tension can arise: those who can heal or those believed able to heal refused to do so out of self-preservation, leading to anger, frustration, resentment, and further accusations. Healing was identified with witchcraft; refusal to heal became identified with witchcraft, too. It was a no-win situation.

Traditional healers were accused of causing illness and ailments so that they would then be requested to heal them, thus acquiring financial gain. In 1679, a witness was expressly asked during a Hungarian witch trial, “What do you know of the enchantment and wisdom of Mrs Mihály Csonka, which she used to bewitch the health of others and then remedy again?

A very specific type of healing remains exclusively identified with magic.

In the indigenous traditions of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, malevolent witchcraft is practiced by introducing foreign objects into a victim’s body. Among some indigenous American traditions, these objects are usually sharp things or are somehow associated with death, as the dead and anything associated with them are perceived as toxic, not just spiritually or psychically but physically as well. Any physical contact with the dead potentially leads to extremely debilitating, potentially fatal ailments, commonly called “ghost contamination sickness.”

In the traditions of sub-Saharan Africa, “live things” are introduced into the body.

Hoodoo incorporates both traditions, describing these foreign substances as “live things in the body.” Scientifically, they may not be literally alive, however because they are magically charged they generate malevolent energy.

Practitioners may introduce “live things” into the body by slipping them into food. “Live things” include frog or fungal spawn or similar eggs, as well as dried, powdered frogs, lizards, scorpions, and snakes. The results allegedly manifest as aches and pains, malaise, unnatural swelling, perpetual hunger that never abates regardless how much food is consumed, and gnawing sensations within. A strange tingling is experienced in the legs and arms. Women sometimes have the appearance of being pregnant although they are not.

In addition to introduction via food, in African tradition, harmful magical powders may be laid on the ground. When the target steps on or over the powder, the harmful substance is believed introduced into the body. Again, this may or may not have any scientific reality.

In Native American tradition, the sharp things are usually “shot” at a person, sometimes literally but sometimes only on a magical level. Although there is no exact European parallel tradition, it is similar to the Anglo-Saxon concept of elf-shot.

Malevolent Navajo witches use image magic to introduce sharp things into the target’s body. Sand paintings of the spell’s target are made using ashes. With a ritual bow, the witch shoots the figure with beans, beads or other objects. The essence of the object wings its way through the air, seeking out the correct victim and entering the body.

These are magical illnesses—hence they require magical solutions. Cures are effected by the medicine woman or man, healer or shaman, who usually sucks out or otherwise removes the source of trouble. This concept of extracting foreign substances, often perceived as living, is common to many magical and shamanic traditions, and this type of healing is not uncommon in many parts of the world. In South America, for instance, as in Siberia, “live things” or the equivalent are extracted via sucking, psychic surgery or via special magical tools and instruments.

Sometimes the shaman will display objects that allegedly have been removed from the victim’s body. Sometimes this is literally the case but sometimes there is a performance aspect to the cure. Various shamanic theories suggest that it is crucial that the patient see the removed article even if it did not come directly out of their body, because the object produced by the shaman contains the essence of the harmful object. This is the kind of magical reasoning that frustrates and enrages the literal (rather than magical) minded and led to accusations of shamanism as fraudulent. What can be witnessed are the roots of theatrical conjuring, also originally a shamanic art. Sleight of hand is used as a healing technique.