1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Why do many people still believe in witches?

Suzanne Cords
December 12, 2022

A global study shows that the belief in witchcraft is still alive and well in the 21st century.

Witch doing magical spell over a kettle.
The notion of an 'evil witch' has been around for generationsImage: NomadSoul/Panthermedia/IMAGO

"I'm a modern witch, I stand by that," says Barbara from Cologne. In the Middle Ages, she would probably have been burned at the stake for such a statement.

Barbara is not the only one who still believes in witchcrafttoday.

According to "Witchcraft Beliefs around the World: An Exploratory Analysis," a global study released in November by economist Boris Gershman of American University in Washington, D.C., a remarkable 40% of the global population across 95 countries is convinced that witches exist.

That figure fluctuates from country to country: In Tunisia, it is around 90%, in Germany just 13%. The authors of the study also define those who believe in the evil eye and in curses as "believers in witches."

Blue eye bead intended to ward off evil spirits
Amulets are believed to ward off evil spirits Image: Walter G. Allgöwer/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Barbara, however, doesn't want to put a curse on anyone, she told DW emphatically: "This classic image of a witch sneaking out at night, flying on a broom and conjuring up something evil for people, that's of course total nonsense."

Scapegoats for calamity

For centuries, many people, especially women, fell victim to this notion of the witch, and particularly between about 1450 and 1750 in Europe. Whatever the misfortune — disease, dead livestock, failed harvests, a failed business — a scapegoat was needed. This was common in the past, but still exists today in some countries.

"Similar ideas of witchcraft to those of the early modern period actually exist today in other parts of the world as an explanation for calamity," ethnologist Iris Gareis told DW. "Unfortunately, for decades people believed to be sorcerers or witches have been killed in a cruel way in many parts of the world."

While in countries such as Tanzania or Ghana women accused of witchcraft have to seek refuge in so-called witch camps to escape death, some people in the northern hemisphere openly profess to witchcraft.

For example, Justin (name changed): "As a child, you learn about the witch in the Hansel and Gretel story, as the evil one who eats up the good. And at some point, you address that notion and learn to see the witch as a wise woman." Justin is a self-professed follower of Wicca — a neo-pagan religious movement named after the Old English word for witch.

"Hexe," the German word for witch, is derived from the Old High German "hagazussa," which means fence-rider. Someone who can see into other worlds, says Justin, and can bring magic into their own life or that of other people. Spirits and magical rituals help him, he says, adding that for him Christianity lacked that sense of magic for him and he never felt at home in that religion.

Ghana's witchcraft victims

In a parallel universe

Barbara likewise did not feel at home in the Christian Church. As a witch, she is a follower of natural religions, she says. She talks to trees, and uses a drum to come into contact with spirits and go into a trance. She says that she learned to do this from a shaman. "The witchcraft universe is rich and colorful. You live a little bit here and a little bit in a parallel world."

While many modern witches read tarot cards, Barbara prefers to use runes as to predict the future. "Why should I wait for the powers of fate to give me something?" she asks. "If I ask a question, the answer is sure to come." She also always has incense and plant extracts at home — to combat illness. "It all sounds like herbalism. But it's supposed to sound like it, too, because that's what witchcraft used to be all about, knowing herbs and healing people."

Various herbs in glass jars on a shelf.
Modern German witches have various magical herbs at the readyImage: Waltraud Grubitzsch/ZB/picture alliance

But from a historical perspective, the image of the witch as a wise woman with special knowledge as a healer and midwife is nothing more than a cliche, says ethnologist Iris Gareis. "The women who were persecuted as witches were not always some great herbalists, but mostly quite normal people. And they didn't always have red hair, as is often claimed. That's total nonsense and doesn't appear in any historical document." However, the image has become so entrenched in people's minds that it often cannot be countered even with scientific evidence, she points out.

Witches as figureheads for feminists

The phenomenon of modern witches is closely linked to the women's movement of the 1970s, which rebelled against the dominance of the male world. "In the witch, they had a figurehead, so to speak," says Gareis. "Of course, these feminists were not witch researchers. They were just normal, even intellectual women who just appropriated this image of the oppressed woman."

In the 1980s, the spiritual aspect was added to this image. It was especially urban women who were attracted to nature-based religions, the ethnologist says. "What I can imagine is that in times of uncertainty, people seek their salvation in nature."

Woman sitting in front of tarot cards and glass ball.
Some witches read tarot cards to foretell the futureImage: Lori Martin/Zoonar/picture alliance

While many modern witches in urban metropolises do not belong to any group, but Wiccans organize themselves in circles. 

The Wiccan cult originated in Britain in the first half of the 20th century and is recognized as a religion there, as it is in the US. Justin completed his own initiation ritual years ago. 

Different kinds of magic

"Some say you have to put a pointy black hat on a witch so that she can be recognized as such," Justin said. "I personally like to surprise people by not draping myself with charms and talismans. And then — boom — something unexpected and magical comes from me."

"That's my little wicked witch community," he adds, with a twinkle in his eye.

In no way, however, does he want to harm anyone, he says. But he is convinced, as is Barbara, that there are witches with dark intentions: "There are magicians who cast curses and  spells with which they can definitely achieve something."

Linen cloth depicting runes and golden charm.
Runes are used for oracle readings Image: Paolo Gallo Modena/Zoonar/picture alliance

Parallels between belief in witches and conspiracy theories?

According to the Gershman study, the belief in witchcraft is less widespread among well-educated and economically sound people but iris Gareis is not so sure: "In view of modern conspiracy theories, which became especially apparent during the COVID pandemic in the US, and also here in Germany, that is doubtful."

After all, she points out that there are even educated people who believe that reptiloids, or lizard people, live among us and control events in politics and the economy — something that is incomprehensible to her. 

Witchcraft is not a game

Justin warns against getting involved with witchcraft if you don't have your feet on the ground: "People who are mentally unstable should stay away from magic and sorcery. If they can't get their lives under control, they won't find a way to balance themselves through witchcraft or Wicca. If I am not grounded, then I cannot reach out and explore the heavens."

Or to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

This article was originally written in German.