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  • Writer's pictureEvoAnth@UCL

Conflict, competition and the sex of accused ‘witches’

by Sarah Peacey

Why do witchcraft accusations often target individuals of a specific sex?1 Despite the popular image of witches as female, many cultures throughout history have believed men were more likely to practise black magic. In the witch crazes of early modern Europe around 75% of those accused were female, though in Iceland, Normandy, Estonia and Russia they were predominantly male. Distinct patterns of sex-specific accusations are also found in modern settings: in Papua New Guinea, victims of violence associated with witchcraft beliefs are predominantly male in the region of Bougainville, largely female in Enga province and approximately split between both in the National Capital District 2.

Women accused of witchcraft in Ghana

By SALTN - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The underlying function of accusations may account for this variation. Our paper, using cases from the ethnographic record, examines the hypothesis that witchcraft accusations are a mechanism for targeting competitors. By giving someone the negative reputational tag of ‘witch’ (essentially designating them as evil) that person can justifiably be mistreated and excluded. This allows accusers and perhaps others to acquire resources that would otherwise have been used by the ‘witch’. Accusations can be effective ways of harming others, and as Evans-Pritchard pointed out in his famous account of witchcraft among the Azande of South Sudan, one of the things about witchcraft accusations is that they are unfalsifiable3. The plausibility of an accusation is determined by superstitious means (such as the European ducking stool or other forms of oracle and divination) or, essentially, how much others are prepared to invest in the idea that a particular person is a witch.

In environments where social structures mean that competition is mostly directed at men, accusations will target more men. Conversely, where competition is largely directed at women, more women will be accused. For example, in societies where inheritance is patrilineal (transmitted through the male line) brothers often have to compete with each other for the resources they need to marry. Male-female conflict (e.g. concerning fidelity and control in spousal relationships) can also lead to accusations. And in numerous societies, the relationship between co-wives in polygynous marriages is notorious for creating jealousy and conflict over their husband’s investment and resources. But competition can take many forms, meaning societal patterns of accusation are likely to be complex.

Bantu and Bantoid populations

Our study examined historic witchcraft cases among the Bantu and Bantoid populations of Africa. These societies are well-documented in the ethnographic record. They share ancestry but have some variation in cultural traits, and have a high level of belief in witchcraft.

Our findings

Many cases in our sample resulted in the accused ‘witch’ being forced to separate from their accusers. Some resulted in the ‘witch’ gaining a bad reputation, which is likely to be costly as the accused becomes less able to access resources and assistance from others.

Out of 423 accusations in 54 societies, the majority (63%) targeted men. Accusers were mostly male. However, the sex of accusers did not significantly associate with the sex of the accused.

We divided accused-accuser relationships into broad categories: non-relatives, relatives and affinal kin (relatives of the accused by marriage). Accusations targeting women often came from their affinal kin: primarily husbands but also from co-wives and other in-laws. Men were more frequently targeted by their blood relatives and those they were not related to in any capacity.

The sources also gave an indication of the circumstances leading to accusations, as identified by ethnographers. Men were frequently accused as a result of disputes over inheritance, material goods and political positions. Women were most commonly accused in relation to problems around fertility or child mortality, jealousy and adultery.

Overall, our paper suggests a variety of forms of competition and conflict determine who is likely to be accused. This may eventually lead to overall societal ‘phenotypes’ of male or female witches.

Read the paper here:


1. Peacey, S., Campbell, O. L. K. & Mace, R. Same-sex competition and sexual conflict expressed through witchcraft accusations. Sci. Rep. 12, 6655 (2022).

2. Forsyth, M. et al. Ten preliminary findings concerning sorcery accusation-related violence in Papua New Guinea. Development Policy Centre Discussion Paper #80, Crawford Centre of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

3. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. (Clarendon, 1937).

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