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What is a Witch Doctor?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated May 23, 2024
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For centuries, the term witch doctor has been used to describe someone who is believed to heal by using magic or witchcraft. Some historians claim that these early physicians and many of the potions they created probably led to modern medicine. Mentions of witch doctors are commonly found in early African literature, but in general terms, the reference could apply to early folk medicine practitioners worldwide. In various parts of the world, early medical practitioners might have been referred to as shamans, healers, or wise men or women.

In ancient history, especially in small towns and villages, a witch doctor was often the only medical practitioner available. They commonly assisted in childbirth, tooth extraction, and medical emergencies. When their healing failed, they commonly blamed the failure on the displeasure of the gods or the unworthiness of the patient. In this way, they were able to maintain their stature even though their treatments were often unsuccessful.

In order to perform rites of healing, the witch doctor frequently required payment in the form of food, weapons, or other valuables. In many cases, a sacrifice was required to be made to the gods, typically in the form of a slaughtered animal. Usually, the value of the sacrifice reflected the nature of the illness. A slight medical complaint might require the sacrifice of a small animal, such as a rabbit, while a more serious illness would typically require a larger animal, such as a lamb or deer.

Frequently, the role of witch doctor was passed down from one generation to another. In many villages, they came exclusively from one family tree. Most generally picked their own successor and typically began their training at an early age. The successor would generally serve as an apprentice until such time as the serving witch doctor was no longer able to carry out his duties. In most cases, the witch doctor held such an important and respected position that the villagers generally looked after him until his death.

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Discussion Comments
By BoniJ — On Oct 11, 2011

I imagine that the witch doctor in the village or tribe was one of the renowned and powerful members of the society. It sounds like they could ask for just about anything as payment for their services.

I don't quite understand how the sacrifice fit into the whole thing. It's interesting that the "doctor" asked for a small animal if the illness was minor, and a big animal if it was a big medical problem. I suppose it was to help in the patient's recovery.

By sweetPeas — On Oct 10, 2011

It seems reasonable that most all societies, before medical practices became common, used some kind of magical ways to make people well. People then had very little knowledge of the human body or how to fix it if one became sick. They just had to put their faith in what was available - witch doctors and nature.

Probably some natural substances helped and sometimes after the witch doctor did his work, they got well on their own - so they thought aha! - this works. I'm glad I live in the days of modern medicine.

By burcinc — On Oct 10, 2011

@celingcat, @burcidi-- I think witch/folk medicine appears to work sometimes simply because of the placebo effect. It's not that it would really help, but since the person who is taking it really believes that it will help, it does.

I think that the more serious the health condition, the less effective witch medicine will be. My dad is a doctor and I think he would be very sad to know that there are still people who are trying to find cures for their illnesses this way. Belief is a great thing, modern medicine needs belief too, but at least it is proven to help.

Witch medicine, voodoo and such just seem to be tricks to cheat us out of our money.

By burcidi — On Oct 09, 2011

I read a book recently that talked about witch doctors that still exists in Bali, an island in Indonesia. But they are not referred to as 'witch doctors' there. They are called 'medicine man' or 'medicine woman.' But how they work is exactly as witch doctors have been working for hundreds of years.

The book talked about special medicines and treatments being passed down from generation to generation of new doctors. Parents and grandparents who are village doctors teach these treatments and potions to their kids and grandchildren who are going to take their place one day.

What I found really interesting is that in addition to giving special gifts and food to these doctors as payment, the patients are also required to visit temples, pray and offer food to the deities. A treatment is not accepted as complete without these religious services.

What is even more interesting is that the book claimed that these treatments really do work and sometimes even better than Western medicine, with less side-effects. I'm not sure whether it's the medicine that works or the belief that works, but I doubt that people would continue this tradition if they didn't feel it benefited them.

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 08, 2011

@ceilingcat - That's funny about your mom!

This whole witch doctor thing is pretty interesting. I think it's funny that they would blame the patient for not getting better if their therapies didn't work. Very convenient for them!

Also, I'm kind of amused at the payment methods witch doctors accept. I sure wish I could pay my doctor with a chicken or food or something like that. My insurance is pretty darned expensive!

By ceilingcat — On Oct 07, 2011

I think the term witch doctor is still used colloquially. My stepfather calls my mom "the witch doctor" all the time.

No, she's not into voodoo or anything like that. But she's really into herbal remedies and natural medicine. If you have a minor medical problem, she can probably tell you what to take so you'll feel better. My stepfather finds this amazing, hence the nickname!

I find it amazing too, and pretty handy. When I was little, I didn't need antibiotics for something like 10 years between when I was 6 and 16. Eventually I had a sinus infection that natural remedies just didn't work for, though.

By wander — On Oct 07, 2011

@lonelygod - If you want to meet a modern witch doctor you should look up shamans and those specializing in the voodoo arts in your area. If you live in, or near a moderate sized city I doubt you'll have any problem finding one.

A voodoo witch doctor can actually be quite helpful if you are in need of spiritual healing. They also know their way around natural cures, which can help you out if you have an ailment. I have a lot of respect for the traditional healing arts and don't think you have to be superstitious to enjoy their benefits. Though, if you do see a modern witch doctor, don't be surprised if you find them in a simple office. Anything "spooky" is reserved for tourists.

By lonelygod — On Oct 07, 2011

Whenever I think of a witch doctor I can't help but think of the witch doctor costumes you see around Halloween, with the bone beneath the nose and wild hair and body paint. I think the idea of a witch doctor most people have is really influenced by pop culture, and has very little to do with the actual witch doctors that were seen as a vital member of a community.

Does anyone know where you could meet a real witch doctor if you wanted to? Do they still exist outside of remote parts of Africa and Asia? I would love to meet a witch doctor and speak with them about their beliefs.

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