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.