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Asian witchcraft encompasses various types of witchcraft practices across Asia. In ancient times, magic played a significant role in societies such as ancient Egypt and Babylonia, as evidenced by historical records. In the Middle East, references to magic can be found in the Torah and the Quran, where witchcraft is condemned due to its association with belief in magic, as it is within other Abrahamic religions.
Shifting focus to South Asia, a darker narrative takes center stage, revealing the grim reality of witch-hunting and the abuse of women in countries like India and Nepal. These deeply entrenched superstitions have perpetuated acts of violence and marginalization against those accused of witchcraft, underlining the urgent need for legal reforms and human rights protections to counter these alarming trends. The stories from this region echo the complex interplay between traditional beliefs, societal structures, and the struggle for justice.
East Asia adds to this intricate tapestry with its diverse witchcraft traditions. In Chinese culture, the practice of "Gong Tau" involves black magic for purposes such as revenge and personal gain. Japanese folklore features witch figures who employ foxes as familiars. Korean history includes instances of individuals being condemned for using spells. The Philippines has its own tradition of witches, distinct from Western portrayals, with their practices often countered by indigenous shamans.
Overall, witchcraft beliefs and practices in Asia vary widely across cultures, reflecting historical, religious, and social contexts.
Main article: Witchcraft in the Middle East
Witchcraft in West Asia has a complex history influenced by cultural, spiritual, and societal factors. Ancient practices were evident in societies like Egypt and Babylonia, as seen in the Code of Hammurabi. Within Abrahamic religions, attitudes varied: Judaism had a mixed view of magic, Christianity condemned it, and Islam encompassed a range of perspectives. This evolving landscape reflects the interplay between cultural beliefs and societal norms, shaping the enduring presence of witchcraft in the region's history.
See also: Lilith
The belief in magic and its practice seem to have been widespread in the past. Both in ancient Egypt and in Babylonia it played a conspicuous part, as existing records plainly show. It will be sufficient to quote a short section from the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC).
If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.
Witchcraft's historical evolution in the Middle East reveals a multi-phase journey influenced by culture, spirituality, and societal norms. Ancient witchcraft in the Near East intertwined mysticism with nature through rituals and incantations aligned with local beliefs. In ancient Judaism, magic had a complex relationship, with some forms accepted due to mysticism while others were considered heretical. The medieval Middle East experienced shifting perceptions of witchcraft under Islamic and Christian influences, sometimes revered for healing and other times condemned as heresy.
Jewish attitudes toward witchcraft were rooted in its association with idolatry and necromancy, and some rabbis even practiced certain forms of magic themselves. References to witchcraft in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, highlighted strong condemnations rooted in the "abomination" of magical belief. Christianity similarly condemned witchcraft, considering it an abomination and even citing specific verses to justify witch-hunting during the early modern period.
Islamic perspectives on magic encompass a wide range of practices, with belief in black magic and the evil eye coexisting alongside strict prohibitions against its practice. The Quran acknowledges the existence of magic and seeks protection from its harm. Islam's stance is against the practice of magic, considering it forbidden, and emphasizes divine miracles rather than magic or witchcraft. The historical continuity of witchcraft in the Middle East underlines the complex interaction between spiritual beliefs and societal norms across different cultures and epochs.
Witchcraft in Central Asia embodies a diverse and intricate blend of cultural, religious, and historical influences. Rooted in ancient shamanic practices, it intersects with the region's dominant religions of Islam and Buddhism, while Christianity's influence is more limited. Witchcraft serves both maleficent and benevolent purposes, with practitioners, often known as shamans or healers, playing integral roles within their communities. Their practices encompass rituals, divination, and communication with spirits, reflecting the region's nomadic past and its connection between people, nature, and the spirit world. Documented[by whom?] as early as the 16th century, witchcraft is a feature of the traditional mythologies of Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
Witchcraft in Kazakhstan is closely intertwined with the country's cultural and spiritual heritage, influenced by its historical shamanistic traditions and indigenous beliefs. These practices involve interactions with spirits, ancestral beings, and nature deities. Kazakh witchcraft encompasses rituals, divination, healing, and protection, often performed by individuals known as "baqsy" or "baqsa." These practitioners possess specialized knowledge and skills to communicate with the spirit world, predict the future, and address various life situations. Witchcraft rituals and ceremonies are frequently conducted during important events, such as births, weddings, and harvests, and may involve offerings, dances, and music to appease spirits and seek their assistance. While the practice of witchcraft has evolved over time and may be adapting to modern influences, it remains an integral part of Kazakhstan's cultural fabric, reflecting the complex interplay between traditional beliefs, spirituality, and societal dynamics.
Witchcraft in Tajikistan is rooted in the country's diverse cultural and historical background, incorporating elements of traditional beliefs, mysticism, and folk practices. Tajik witchcraft often involves rituals, divination, and healing performed by individuals known as "afsanadar" or "kudakaro." These practitioners possess specialized knowledge of spiritual matters and are consulted for guidance, protection, and solutions to various life challenges. Witchcraft rituals often incorporate elements of Islamic mysticism and local beliefs, and they may include offerings, prayers, and talismans. Spirit possession and trance states are also common during ceremonies, allowing practitioners to communicate with spirits and provide insights to their clients. Despite evolving social dynamics and influences, witchcraft remains an integral part of Tajikistan's cultural tapestry, reflecting the intricate connection between traditional practices, spirituality, and community life.
In certain parts of India and Nepal, belief in the supernatural has led to instances of witch-hunting and abuse against women accused of witchcraft. Lynchings and murders of suspected witches, known as "dayan" in India, have been reported, with at least 2100 such murders between 2000 and 2012. In Nepal, accusations of witchcraft result in severe abuse, beatings, and forced consumption of human excreta. Women marked as witches often endure mental and physical torture, leading to ostracization, emotional trauma, and even death. Outdated customs and superstitious beliefs perpetuate this cycle, limiting accused women's access to education and opportunities. The legal systems in both countries have not adequately addressed these issues, leaving the victims without proper protection or justice against these atrocities.
See also: Witch-hunts in India
In 19-century India, Christian missionaries, especially Jesuit missions, defined the term "witchcraft" as any involvement in non-Christian spiritual activities. David Mosse observed that:
Parishioners discovered attending pagan dramas, [...] or engaging in Hindu practices or "witchcraft" of other kinds were publicly humilated, having to wear a crown of thorns during Mass, or to go around the church on their knees; [...] When misfortune struck, priests were ready to explain this as retribution for engagement in the "abominable villainy and deceit" of witchcraft—broadly taken as any non-Christian meditation.
Belief in the supernatural is strong in certain parts of India, and lynchings for witchcraft are reported in the press from time to time. According to the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, at least 2100 suspected witches (known as dayan) were murdered between 2000 and 2012. It is believed that an average of over 150 women per year are killed accused of being witches, concentrated across central India. Murder is commonly carried out by means of being burned, hacked or bludgeoned to death, often preceded by ritual humiliation, such as being stripped naked, smeared with filth and forced to eat excrement. For those accused of witchcraft who are not murdered, nearly all suffer permanent ostracism or banishment and their families face social stigma.
The influence of Buddhism on shamanism and witchcraft in the Himalayas has been profound, leading to complex interactions and adaptations. As Buddhism spread through the region, it often absorbed and integrated elements of local shamanistic and witchcraft practices. Many aspects of indigenous spiritual beliefs were harmonized with Buddhist teachings, resulting in syncretic practices that combined elements of both traditions. Shamanic practices, which often involved spirit communication and healing rituals, evolved to coexist with Buddhist concepts of compassion and karma. While some shamanic and witchcraft practices persisted, they were often reinterpreted within the framework of Buddhist ethics and cosmology, altering their form and intent. Thus, Buddhism played a transformative role, shaping the syncretic spiritual landscape of the Himalayas, where traditional practices, influenced by Buddhist philosophy, continue to be practiced alongside formal Buddhist teachings.
Main article: Boksi
See also: Witch-hunts in Nepal
In Nepal, women are often accused of witchcraft and thus suffer abuse at the hands of people from their own communities. Nepali people view witchcraft as harmful to society and it still exists in most of the country. However, it is most prevalent in the Terai and hilly rural regions and women here are more vulnerable to abuse. Women of all ages and social statuses can be targeted and once a woman has been deemed a witch, she is treated horribly by society. The witches are called ‘Boksi’ in Nepali language and it’s believed that they learn witchcraft from their mothers.
Punishment can range from receiving severe beatings with sticks or other blunt object to being forced to consume human excreta, a common practice in the plains area of Nepal. Women who are accused of witchcraft may be marked with soot on their faces or garlands of shoes around their necks. These traumatized women are forced to endure mental and physical torture that can lead to ostracization, emotional disturbance and even death.
In Terhathum, there is a rock called ‘boksimara’ which translates to “witch killer stone”. It is said that 200 years ago, accused women were taken to boksimara to be hanged from its precipice. To this day, these types of outdated customs and traditions continue to be prevalent among various castes and tribes. Laxmi Maya Nepali, a victim and inhabitant of Shrijung Village Development committee from Terhathum expresses her pain of being accused of being a witch:
I had to stay alone in an old house, it was difficult to move around for me, people used to call me witch; even my own relatives did not let me stay at home accusing me of being a witch. One of my relatives gave birth to a dead baby and they accused me as their baby was dead because of my witchcraft powers. Even my son was badly beaten by his own nephew.
The atrocities that these women face can also prevent them from equal access to education. Without the tools to succeed academically, the accused women are not able to change their societal status. The traditional ways and superstitious beliefs of Nepali culture trap accused women in a vicious cycle. This continues as they are denied opportunities to educate themselves and they are forced to suffer, oftentimes in poverty, for the rest of their lives.
The legal system has done nothing to address the horrors that Nepali women suffer to this day if they are accused of witchcraft. The state has not formulated any concrete law regarding the “crime of witchcraft”. The Nepali legal system also does not have provisions to punish individuals who have been involved in witch-hunts. If an individual has a complaint filed against them and they are found guilty, they are only imprisoned for a short period of time and may walk away with a fine. Section 10 of Muluki Ain or the National Civil Code states that if a person makes an accusation of witchcraft, they shall be jailed for three months to two years or fined five thousand to twenty-five thousand Nepalese Rupees or both. This is the only punishment for those who would commit atrocities against innocent women.
Witchcraft in Southeast Asia encompasses diverse practices deeply embedded in traditional beliefs. In the Philippines, witches engage in black magic specific to ethnic groups, countered by indigenous shamans; historical trials reveal accusations in Manila. In Vietnam, "thầy bói" and "bà đồng" practitioners intertwine witchcraft with animistic spirituality, performing rituals, divination, healing, and spirit possession, adapting to modernization while retaining cultural heritage.
Main article: Filipino witches
In the Philippines, as in many of these cultures, witches are viewed as those opposed to the sacred. In contrast, anthropologists writing about the healers in Indigenous Philippine folk religions either use the traditional terminology of these cultures, or broad anthropological terms like shaman.
Philippine witches are the users of black magic and related practices from the Philippines. They include a variety of different kinds of people with differing occupations and cultural connotations which depend on the ethnic group they are associated with. They are completely different from the Western notion of what a witch is, as each ethnic group has their own definition and practices attributed to witches. The curses and other magics of witches are often blocked, countered, cured, or lifted by Philippine shamans associated with the Indigenous Philippine folk religions.
During the 1580s in Manila, Philippines, the Spanish wife of the ex-governor (Guido de Labezaris) of the Philippines, Inés Álvarez de Gibraleón and their daughter Ana de Monterrey were put on trial for being accused of witchcraft and black magic. It resulted in two trials, however, due to there being no personal investigations, the ecclesiastical investigation was the result of hearsay. There is a record of this trial in the Archivo General de la Nación in Mexico City. However, the civil trial involving Ana de Monterrey and her husband Captain Juan de Morón disappeared.
Unlike Western notions of witches, majority of indigenous or traditional Filipino witches are not entirely evil by nature. Rather, locals can also consult them to initiate a form of criminal punishment through black magic for cases where families feel that an injustice to the victim was not properly taken cared of by prosecutors, leading to the freedom of the accused. There is a widespread belief that black magic does not work on people who are innocent. In these cases, "wrongdoers" may include thieves, adulterous spouses, or land grabbers, among others. As this type of sorcery is seen as a kind of "justice", especially for people who can not (or failed to) legally prosecute a wrongdoer, it has continued to be in usage for the benefit of the victims of wrongdoers.
Witchcraft in Vietnam is a diverse and culturally rich practice deeply intertwined with the country's traditional beliefs and indigenous spirituality. Practiced by individuals known as "thầy bói", "thầy pháp", "thầy phù thủy" (male) or "bà đồng" (female), Vietnamese witchcraft encompasses rituals, divination, healing, and protection. These practices are rooted in animistic beliefs that emphasize connections with spirits and deities to influence various aspects of life. Rituals often involve offerings, divination techniques, and spirit possession by "bà đồng" practitioners who act as vessels for spirits, conveying messages from the spirit world to the living.
Vietnamese witchcraft includes both positive and negative aspects, ranging from healing and protection to casting spells or curses. Traditional festivals and ceremonies, such as Tết Nguyên Đán celebrations, often incorporate these practices as part of broader cultural traditions. While some view witchcraft practitioners as respected figures providing valuable services, government regulations have been introduced to prevent potential scams and exploitation. As Vietnam undergoes urbanization and modernization, traditional witchcraft practices may be evolving to adapt to changing social dynamics while maintaining their ties to cultural heritage.
During the Western Han Dynasty in China, Emperor Wu aimed to bolster his authority and promote Confucianism, leading to the suppression of shamanistic practices such as the Wuism tradition. In 91 BCE, he issued an edict banning these practices in favor of Confucianism, striving to unify cultural practices and centralize power. Despite the suppression, local variations of these practices endured in certain regions.
Japanese folklore prominently features the figure of the fox witch, known for enlisting foxes for magical purposes. These witches strike deals with fox familiars, utilizing their shape-shifting, illusion, and possession abilities. In Korea, the history of shamanism (musok) has been marked by suppression under Christianity. While stigmatized, shamanism has experienced growing acceptance in South Korea, even though some critics still label mudang (shamanic practitioners) as manipulative and disruptive.
Main article: Chinese shamanism
During the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141 BCE to 87 BCE) in the Western Han Dynasty of China, there were instances where the imperial court took measures to suppress certain religious or spiritual practices, including those associated with shamanism. Emperor Wu was known for his strong support of Confucianism, which was the dominant ideology of the Han Dynasty, and he promoted policies that aimed to consolidate central authority and unify the cultural and social landscape of the empire.
One notable event related to the suppression of shamanism occurred in 91 BCE, when Emperor Wu issued an edict that banned a range of "heterodox" practices, including shamanistic rituals and divination, in favor of Confucianism. The primary target of these measures was the Wuism or Wu (巫) tradition, which involved the worship of spirits and the use of shamanic practices to communicate with them. Wuism was considered by the Confucian elite to be superstitious witchcraft and at odds with Confucian principles.
Emperor Wu's suppression of shamanism was part of a larger effort to centralize power, promote Confucian ethics, and standardize cultural practices. While the ban on shamanistic practices did impact certain communities and religious groups, these measures were not universally applied across the vast territory of the empire. Local variations and practices persisted in some regions despite imperial edicts.
The historical record from that time is limited, and our understanding of these events can be influenced by the perspectives of the Confucian scholars and officials who documented them. As a result, there might be some variations in the interpretation of the exact nature and extent of the expulsion of shamans and other religious practitioners during Emperor Wu's reign.
In modern times, Gong Tau in Hokkien, Teochew in Cantonese or Jiang Tou in Mandarin is the term used when someone is suspected of having been attacked by black magic and is believed to be a fusion of poison skills which originated in Yunnan, China and witchcraft seen in South East Asia. It is used to either seek revenge, resolve relationship issues or even to assist with money problems.
In Japanese folklore the witch can commonly be separated into two categories: those who employ snakes as familiars, and those who employ foxes. The fox witch is, by far, the most commonly seen witch figure in Japan. Differing regional beliefs set those who use foxes into two separate types: the kitsune-mochi, and the tsukimono-suji. The first of these, the kitsune-mochi, is a solitary figure who gains his fox familiar by bribing it with its favourite foods. The kitsune-mochi then strikes up a deal with the fox, typically promising food and daily care in return for the fox's magical services. The fox of Japanese folklore is a powerful trickster in and of itself, imbued with powers of shape changing, possession, and illusion. These creatures can be either nefarious; disguising themselves as women in order to trap men, or they can be benign forces as in the story of "The Grateful Foxes". By far, the most commonly reported cases of fox witchcraft in modern Japan are enacted by tsukimono-suji families, or "hereditary witches".
The fox witch is by far the most commonly seen witch figure in Japan. Differing regional beliefs set those who use foxes into two separate types: the kitsune-tsukai, and the kitsune-mochi.
The first of these, the kitsune-tsukai, gains his fox familiar by bribing it with its favourite foods. The kitsune-tsukai then strikes up a deal with the fox, typically promising food and daily care in return for the fox's magical services. The fox of Japanese folklore is a powerful trickster, imbued with powers of shape changing, possession, and illusion. These creatures can be either nefarious; disguising themselves as women in order to trap men, or they can be benign forces as in the story of 'The Grateful Foxes'. However, once a fox enters the employ of a man it almost exclusively becomes a force of evil to be feared.
A fox under the employ of a human can provide him with many services. The fox can turn invisible and be set out to find secrets and it still retains its many powers of illusion which its master will often put to use in order to trick his enemies. The most feared power the kitsune-tsukai possesses is his ability to command his fox to possess other humans.
Magical girl genre may be the most commonly known to feature witchcraft, but it appears liberally in any works of fiction where such supernatural power can exist, despite the fact that such magic resembles more of western witchcraft than an oriental counterpart. Evil witch antagonists, borne out of the European concept of witch, are popular; however, their powers rarely stem from worshipping devils.
Magical girl animation is typically referred to as mahō shōjo and majokko anime in Japan and the target audience is intended for female prepubescent viewers. The protagonists of these anime are normal schoolgirls who suddenly happen across a mystical item that transforms them into super-beings who have magical abilities. Despite the repetitive story lines that are supposed to be aimed at children, the magical girl genre brings attention to the surrounding gender roles and identities. Some argue that the magical girl genre is empowering for young audiences as the characters become superheroes who take down the bad guys. However, other theories accuse the magical girl anime of depicting an abundance of eroticism and violence.
Toei Studio produced the first heroine anime which was also the first magical girl anime, Sally the Witch. The settings and character elements were heavily borrowed from many live-action television programs which included the American comedy, Bewitched. While the concept of witches waned in the United States, the symbolism of magic and witchcraft translated well into Japanese culture.
Main article: Korean shamanism
Korean shamanism or Mu-ism is a religion from Korea. It is also called musok (무속; 巫俗) in Korean. Scholars of religion have classified it as a folk religion. There is no central authority in control of the religion and much diversity exists among practitioners.
Attempting to influence others through spells in Joseon was widely censured by the royal court. On discovering that Consort Hwi-bin Kim had used witchcraft on the crown prince, Sejong the Great described her as a "sorcerer" or "evil monster" (Hanja: 妖邪) and had her thrown out of the palace.
By the late 19th century, many Korean intellectuals eager for modernisation came to regard musok as superstition that should be eradicated; they increasingly referred to it with the term misin ("superstition"). These ideas were endorsed in The Independent, Korea's first vernacular newspaper. Many of these intellectuals were Christian, thus regarding the mudang's spirits as evil demons. In 1896, police launched a crackdown by arresting mudang, destroying shrines, and burning paraphernalia.
Musok has been suppressed throughout Korean history under a succession of dominant ideologies including Confucianism, Japanese colonialism, and Christianity. At the start of the 21st century, the mudang remained widely stigmatized in South Korean society, facing widespread prejudice. In 2021, Sarfati observed that while the religion was "still stigmatized," it was experiencing "growing acceptance" in South Korea.
The religion's critics often regard mudang as swindlers, people who manipulate the gullible. Critics regularly focus their critique on the large sums of money that the mudang charge, and maintain that the expenses required for its rituals are wasteful. Critics have also accused mudang of disrupting the civil order with their rituals. Kendall noted that there was a "generally adversarial relationship" between mudang and Protestants in South Korea, the latter regarding musok as "Devil worship". Mainline Protestant theologians have sometimes blamed musok for predisposing Koreans to Pentecostalism and the idea that prayer can generate financial reward. Christians have sometimes harassed mudang at their places of work or during their ceremonies, something which some mudang regard as religious discrimination.
According to Czech legend, the Golem was fashioned from clay and brought to life by a rabbi to protect Prague's 16th-century ghetto from persecution, and is said to be called forth in times of crisis. True to form, he is once again experiencing a revival, and in this commercial age, has spawned a one-monster industry.