Modern “Witch Doctors”: 25 Photos Of The Widely Misunderstood Practice

Published August 17, 2016
Updated January 23, 2018

Whether we call them witch doctors, shamans, or healers, these mystical men and women understand forces the modern world can't comprehend.

Witch Doctors
A witch doctor participates in the Ivory Coast's annual Popo Carnival, held in Bonoua. This festival features expected events like culinary competitions, parades, and dancing, as well as mock recreations of the brutality Ivorians faced while under French colonial rule.KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images

Witch Doctors Drum
A shaman, dressed with the traditional Yi costume, performs at the Torch Festival in Xichang, China's Sichuan province. As a result of fast urbanization in rural Chinese areas like Xichang, the traditional costume is fading away for the Yi people in daily life.FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Holding Blade To Teeth
This Yi shaman performs at the Torch Festival by holding an extremely hot shovel in his mouth.FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Witch Doctor In Animal Mask
An Ashaninka indigenous shaman wears a jaguar fur during a ceremony for the success of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games outside Maracana stadium, beside an abandoned building that used to be the Indigenous Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 19, 2016. Indigenous activists occupying the Indigenous Museum building were evicted in 2013, but they still have the hope that a university for indigenous people will be built on the site.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

Blood Splatter
An Indonesian shaman spits blood after ritualistically biting into a chicken during the Cap Go Meh festival, the closing event of the Chinese New Year celebrations, in Jakarta.ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Wide Eyes
A witch doctor says prayers outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where Nelson Mandela was being treated for a lung infection on July 2, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Masks With Horns
Shaman masks and outfits are displayed during an exhibit at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/GettyImages

Shaman Beating Drum
A shaman of the Shortsy nation plays drums celebrating their New Year, which coincides with the vernal equinox, in the Kemerovo region of Russia.YURI YURIEV/AFP/Getty Images

Mayan Fire Ritual
A shaman takes part in a Mayan ceremony in Guatemala City to commemorate the anniversary of the peace agreement that put an end to Guatemala's 1960-96 civil war.JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Sangoma Drinking Blood
Luke Van Vuuren, a rare white sangoma (witch doctor), drinks the blood of a freshly slaughtered goat in Gogogo, South Africa in order to ask the spirits of tribal ancestors to bless a nearby water project. The sangoma acts as a traditional doctor treating both physical and psychological problems, mediates in disputes, and acts as a conduit to the ancestors in traditional religion.YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty Images

Man Holding Staff
Tzaramenda Naychapi, an Ecuadorian shaman, performs a traditional healing ceremony in London in a bid to rid the United Kingdom of its evil spirits.Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Man With Painted Face
Naychapi was given permission by his council of elders to leave the Amazon for the first time ever in order to travel to London to visit the World Travel Market trade show.Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Goat Fetus
A shaman uses a sheep fetus during a ritual of predictions for the 2010 World Cup finals in Lima, Peru.ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

Animal Parts
A traditional healer stands at his booth at the fetish market in Lomé, Togo. There, healers will use fetish objects — skulls, feathers, statuettes — while placing his hand on the head of a patient and reciting incantations to treat all manner of ailments, ranging from malaria and typhoid fever to erectile dysfunction, asthma and tuberculosis.EMILE KOUTON/AFP/Getty Images

Colorful Headwear
A shaman of the Dessana tribe carries the Olympic Torch at the Tupe Reservation in the outskirts of Manaus, Brazil on June 20, 2016.RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images

Shaman With Eyes Closed
A shaman of the Tyva Republic performs a ritual ceremony at a sacred site outside Kyzyl, Russia.VALERY TITIEVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Huge Cigar
A Mayan shaman takes part in a ceremony celebrating the end of the Bak'tun 13 era and the start of the new Mayan age on December 21, 2012 at the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Smoke Surrounding Shaman
A Tenggerese shaman prays during the Yadnya Kasada Festival at the crater of Mount Bromo, Indonesia. On the 14th day of the month-long festival, the Tenggerese make the journey to Mount Bromo to make offerings of rice, fruits, vegetables, flowers and livestock to the mountain gods by throwing them into the volcano's caldera.Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Fowl With Shamans
A Tenggerese shaman prays as others collect holy water at Widodaren cave during the Yadnya Kasada Festival.Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Shamans Holding Torch
Dessana indigenous shamans take part in a ritual with the Olympic torch at the Tupe Reservation in the outskirts of Manaus, Brazil on June 20, 2016.RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images

Man With Needles Through Skin
An Indonesian shaman performs the tatung ritual — in which participants go into a kind of trance and demonstrate their ability to then withstand various kinds of physical pain (such as needles through the face) — during the Cap Go Meh festival in Jakarta, Indonesia.ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

Woman In Trance
A South African aspiring sangoma falls into a trance in the courtyard of the house where she is about to complete her training under the supervision of a more experienced sangoma in Johannesburg. After decades in the shadows, South Africa's sangomas are now big business, with millions of people regularly using a network of pharmacies and practitioners with enough public recognition to hand out sick notes.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Stone Pile
Shamans of the Tyva Republic perform a ritual ceremony at a sacred site outside Kyzyl, Russia.VALERY TITIEVSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Purple Headwear
A Nepalese shaman exhibiting traditional dress in Simikot.PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Man With Horn And Beads
Peruvian shaman Juan Osco performs a ritual involving predictions for the new year at San Cristobal Hill in Lima on December 28, 2009.ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

"Witch doctors" are the victims of some truly unfortunate irony: While considered noble healers and guardians who would protect others from witches and general malady, many popularly understand these herbalists as witches themselves -- and witches whose medicinal knowledge simply cannot aid others in the slightest.

By virtue of the role's inherent traditionalism, most cultures' witch doctors are still doing the same things they were doing back when they were considered the "good" guys. But with the development of modern medical science -- and the colonialism-created allegorical figure widely viewed as a physical, spell-casting fact -- the shifting scales of history have dumped witch doctors on the "wrong" side of the fence.

Today, we -- especially those of us in the West -- implicitly believe witch doctors to be benighted at best and malevolent at worst. Same goes for shamans, healers, and all the other various practitioners of divination and traditional medicine still found in dozens of cultures around the world.

Some of these traditional practitioners still make an honest living, but most are trotted out at festivals (willingly, plenty of the time) only as human curios, living museum pieces emblematic of a comfortingly distant past.

This is how we end up with jarring intersections of the traditional and the modern on the world stage, as was the case just this summer when shamans of several South American tribes were asked to take part in the Olympic torch relay ceremonies.

But whether their roles are ceremonial or not, what part do shamans, witch doctors, and the like play in the world of today? The answers lie with the eye-popping photos above.

Next, read more about the African albinos that are killed so that their body parts can be sold to witch doctors. Then, for more from the world of weird medicine, take a look at some of the most bizarre historical cures for mental illness, and discover what exactly the most horrifying Nazi research actually contributed to medical science.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.