Black magic is practised by people unwittingly possessed of little understood, natural or supernatural powers or by those consciously using such powers for selfish or evil purposes.
Distinctions have been made between witchcraft and sorcery, for example as they occur in the African Azande tribe and also as practised in 17th century England, but these distinctions are not universally applied. Social anthropologists have suggested that witchcraft depends upon the possession of appropriate powers that transform malevolent desires into reality. Sorcery is distinguished as involving some physical manipulation and its efficacy depends upon learning the appropriate skills or techniques to achieve its ends.
The earliest evidence of witchcraft is found in paleolithic cave drawings dating from 30,000 BC and ranges from the Soviet Union to Spain. Witchcraft practised in Western Christendom may have been a survival of indigenous pagan religion. There are references to witchcraft in the Bible, and in Greek and Roman literature. Belief in witchcraft became widespread in the Middle Ages and resulted in the trial, torture, confessions and burning alive of many women. In Western culture witches have traditionally been women; while in other cultures they may be either women or men, the latter being referred to as warlocks. Sorcerers in Western cultures were traditionally men and were also burnt alive. Witchcraft and sorcery were often alleged against rivals.
It was in the 14th century that the Catholic Church turned its full inquisitorial fury against the pagan witches, who were branded as being in league with the devil and therefore heretical and therefore punishable by burning to death. Accusation of witchcraft, then defined as "harm doing" (maleficum), was enough to initiate the process of extraction of confession by torture and confiscation of property by church and civic authorities. Estimates of the number of witches killed range from 2 to 9 million of which the vast majority were women. The process continued for 3 centuries. The last official burnings took place in the early 18th century.
Witchcraft and sorcery are usually manifested in fear, belief, imputation and accusation rather than in the discovery of rites taking place, since the psychic aspects of witchery, like the evil eye and the laying on of curses, are not necessarily accompanied by ritual actions. The belief in witchcraft is widespread among primitive tribes in Africa, Asia, Australasia and America. Witchcraft is very evident even in the urban areas of developing countries. Witchcraft may be used by football teams to jinx each other. Witchcraft is often suspected in unsolved murders. Men may divorce their wives because they are suspected of being witches. Some traditional healers contribute directly to the deterioration of their patients or merely endeavour to extort money from them (as may be the case with some practitioners of modern medicine). In 1993 the government of Equatorial Guinea accused the ambassador of the USA of using witchcraft because of an election-day visit to British war graves.
In South Africa in 1990, it was reported that large sums of money had been offered to black nannies looking after white children to hand them over to witchdoctors to be used in the production of a potion to end the civil war amongst the blacks in Natal. In 1990 in Nigeria it was reported that male genitalia were being spirited away by witchcraft and were being sold, notably to politicians as a way of enhancing their powers. The phenomenon was reportedly taken sufficiently seriously to prevent people from shaking hands (physical contact being one of the means through which the disappearance was effected). In industrialized societies there are still scattered claims. In the 1960s cases of black magic were reported in England; a village milkmaid in the former Soviet Union was accused of witchcraft; and beliefs and practices among peasants in Lower Saxony gave rise to a government investigation. In the 1950s, two alleged practitioners of witchcraft were lynched in Queretar, Mexico; in Guatemala, the wife of a political rival of the anticommunist colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was accused of practising witchcraft against the colonel. Witchcult religion survives in France and Italy with witches Sabbaths; and in the USA, where California and New York covens celebrate the rites of bell, book and candle. A considerable number of modern books advocating witchcraft have recently appeared in America and western Europe.