Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande

To answer an essay like this, it is first important to understand the term ‘witchcraft’ in the same way as the Azande people of Southern Sudan.

Witchcraft to the Azande is a physical substance that is found in the stomachs of witches (page 2). Evans – Pritchard explains that he believes this ‘substance’ is simply the small intestine during certain stages of digestion. Witches do not show any external signs that they are indeed witches. More than simply being a physical trait, witchcraft is inherited (page 2).

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It is handed down in families from father to son, and from mother to daughter.The witchcraft a witch possess grows as the individual grows (page 7), that is to say the son of a male witch, whilst containing this witchcraft substance, will not contain enough to be of threat to an adult. It is only when they get older, and when the witchcraft substance they contain begins to grow that they can become a possible threat to other adults. It is important to note that to the Azande a witch is an unremarkable agent.

Referring to someone as a witch is simply stating a fact, rather like you or I calling someone a doctor.The actions of a witch are not seen as eerie; rather they are seen as aggressive (page 19). To the people of the Azande witchcraft is as much a part of life as taxes may be for us. As such, they must live with witchcraft and as much as possible deal with it.

So why do the Azande have a concept of witchcraft, how does it help them understand how the world around them works? The answer is relatively straightforward, witchcraft explains to them why bad things happen. In our culture we would be likely to substitute the term witchcraft for bad luck.Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is bad luck, whereas to the Azande you were in the wrong place at the wrong time because witchcraft made you. Evans – Pritchard uses the example of a boy who knocked his foot against a small stump of wood in the middle of a bush path (page 20).

Due to the position of the cut on his foot, it was not possible to keep the cut clean and so it began to fester. You or I would most likely blame bad luck, but the boy was adamant his predicament was caused by witches.Evans – Pritchard argued with the boy about this point, telling him he had hurt his foot because he was careless and that nature was the only reason this particular root was in this particular place. The boy accepted that witchcraft had nothing to do with the positioning of the stump, but claims it was witchcraft that made him not see the stump.

Further to this, he used the fact his cut had not healed as ‘proof’ he was the victim of witchcraft. Witches are also blamed for numerous other unfortunate incidents. An experienced potter whose pots break whilst being fired will claim he is the victim of witchcraft (page 21).Witchcraft is what causes grain-stores to fall on people underneath them (page 22).

Poor crops, or a low hunting yield can all be blamed on witches. When the misfortune is small, then it tends to only be the person or people directly involved who will blame witchcraft. The majority will laugh at them. It is only larger misfortunes when the society as a whole will blame witchcraft.

If in our society there were a group of people whom we all strongly believed caused all the bad things that happen in our lives, one might reasonably expect them to be victimised, hounded, and their lives made a general misery.However this is not how witches in the Azande are treated. Witchcraft is to some extent a personality trait. It is possible for a witch to possess this witchcraft substance but to never use it (page 4).

Therefore witches are seen as only possessing the ability to do evil. Being a witch and possessing witchcraft substance is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of witch-like behaviour. It tends to be only when a person has been killed as a result of witchcraft that the witch may be attacked or compensation sought. This seems fair and logical even by our standards.

When the misdemeanour of the witch is smaller all that can be done is to expose the witch, and kindly ask them to stop causing x, or stop harming y. Hence when a person suffers an permanent and severe loss there is no use pursuing the subject further as nothing will be gained. The victim may lament their loss but will tend not to take steps to identify the witch. It is only when identifying the witch responsible is of tangible benefit that the name of the witch is sought, for example if a man is ill and has been ill for a length of time, finding the witch responsible may be the only way to cure him (page 33).

Even when a practising witch is identified, the kinds of hysteria associated with the Salem Witch Hunts are notable only by their absence. So long as the injured party are the witch observe correct behaviour then the incident will pass without so much as a harsh word being uttered, or the relationship between the two being spoiled. It is dealt with diplomatically, politely, and respectfully. Every one has a right to ask the witch to leave them alone, but equally the witch is also a tribesman and as such has a right to live his life free from fear of reprisals.

If a victim were to attack a witch either verbally or physically he could reasonably expect to lose prestige, and find himself liable for damages if taken to court (page 34). He would also be aware that he had increased the hatred of one witch against him, something that no Zande wants for obvious reasons. Equally if a witch refuses to accept responsibility he will lose social prestige and may reasonably expect vengeance attacks if his victim dies (page 35). It is therefore of mutual benefit to all parties for an amicable solution to be reached.

The Azande have what may be described as a life and let life attitude towards witches.The Azande will not consult an oracle and find who is responsible for every little misfortune in their lives, life is too short and there may not always be a purpose to finding the perpetrator if nothing can be gained (page 35). Throughout life you are bound to make enemies, and some people will be jealous of your successes. A Zande is not always seeking to find someone to blame and this is a highly likable trait.

To the Zande people, the oracles are a source of truth. There is no doubt about this fact amongst them. It is very rare for anyone to be accused of witchcraft without the oracle first being consulted (page 43).To us, it appears that the actions of the oracles in themselves are random and so any supposed answers they give will be random also.

Following this logic on, accusing people whom the oracle points to is nothing more than making wild false accusations. The Azande do not see it like this at all, the oracle is the truth and this is widely accepted. They therefore very rarely make what they would see as false accusations. We are all too aware of the damage false accusations can do in our society, as someone like John Leslie who was recently cleared of sex allegations made against him will know better than most.

These damaging allegations tend not to be made within the Azande and so the distress they cause is lacking. To the Azande being a witch and being a good member of the community are not mutually exclusive. Witches can be good citizens who are respected. To the Azande, a good person is one whom carries out obligations cheerfully and lives charitably with their neighbours.

These so-called ‘good’ personality traits are no dissimilar to the traits that we would regard as a good person having. In our culture, some people would argue that the source of morals is some ‘higher being’.Regardless or whether you believe this to be the case, a lot of laws in this country have their origins firmly in Christianity. The Azande do not have the same concept of this so called ‘higher being’ (page 51).

To them, it is a very vague poorly understood concept with very little influence in their day-to-day existence. Instead, it is through witchcraft that the Azande express moral rules and enforce them, particularly those outside the spheres of influence of criminal and civil law. To some extent, morals to the Azande are more important than they are for us (page 53).To them, every happening that is harmful to them is due to ill feeling from another person.

In our culture we regard only certain misfortunes as due to the wickedness of other people. For instance if we misplace a wallet, it is bad luck and our own fault, whereas if we have a wallet stolen then it is due to the wickedness of other people. The Azande, faced with two similar misfortunes, would blame them both on witchcraft. Whilst witchcraft can appear to be a moral scapegoat to the Azande this is not the case.

Like criminals, witches are fully responsible for their actions (page 57).The people accused by the oracle will more often than not be surprised they have been accused, but because they have complete faith in the oracle they will accept the accusation. They will believe that they are the only person who has been harming someone without their explicit knowledge, that they are an anomaly. Witchcraft does not make someone tell lies (page 26).

Anyone who claims any different is laughed at. Therefore the Azande believe people to be fully aware and responsible of their actions at all times.I would agree strongly that Evans – Pritchard’s book is more about common sense and morals than about the occult. Witchcraft seems little more than a thought process the Azande use to explain their world.

It gives them a reason to act in a moral way because otherwise they may become the enemy of a witch and suffer the consequences. All practises associated with witchcraft are polite; witches are not shunned, hurt or beaten and are instead treated with respect. The rules of witchcraft prevent false accusations being made.Equally there is a great deal of commonsense integrated into the concept of witchcraft.

Take the belief that witchcraft can be passed from father to son and mother to daughter; this seems likely to have originated from the observation that son’s often have physical traits of the fathers and daughters of their mothers. It was therefore commonsense, to the Azande at least, to assume witchcraft was passed down also. As it seems commonsense that a adult has more witchcraft substance than a child. These are commonsense observations that have become part of the fundamental concept of witchcraft.

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Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/evans-pritchards-witchcraft-oracles-magic-among-azande-essay/