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

Table of Content

To address an essay of this nature, one must initially grasp the concept of ‘witchcraft’ from the perspective of the Azande people of Southern Sudan.

According to the Azande, witchcraft is a physical substance that resides in the stomachs of witches (page 2). Evans – Pritchard suggests that this substance is actually the small intestine during certain stages of digestion. Despite witches not displaying any outward indications of their true nature, witchcraft is something that is passed down through generations (page 2).

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The inheritance of witchcraft is familial, passing from father to son and mother to daughter. According to page 7, the witchcraft possessed by a witch increases as they age. For instance, a male witch’s son may possess some of this witchcraft substance, but not enough to pose a danger to an adult. It is only when they mature and their witchcraft substance grows that they can potentially threaten other adults. It is crucial to understand that the Azande consider a witch to be an ordinary agent.

Referring to someone as a witch is similar to calling someone a doctor. It is simply stating a fact. According to the Azande people, being a witch is not considered eerie, but rather viewed as aggressive (page 19). Witchcraft is an integral part of their lives, comparable to how taxes are for us. Therefore, they must coexist with witchcraft and handle it to the best of their abilities.

The Azande have a concept of witchcraft which helps them understand the workings of the world. This concept provides an explanation for why bad things happen. In our culture, we would refer to such occurrences as bad luck. For example, being in the wrong place at the wrong time is considered bad luck, but for the Azande, it is attributed to witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard illustrates this with the story of a boy who accidentally hit his foot on a small stump of wood while walking along a bush path (page 20).

The cut on his foot was unable to be kept clean due to its position, causing it to become infected. While most of us would attribute this to bad luck, the boy firmly believed that witches were responsible for his predicament. Evans-Pritchard disputed this claim, stating that the injury occurred because of the boy’s carelessness and that it was purely coincidental that the stump was in that specific location. Although the boy acknowledged that witchcraft did not play a role in the positioning of the stump, he still insisted that witchcraft caused him to overlook it.

Additionally, he utilized the lack of healing of his cut as evidence of being targeted by witchcraft. Witchcraft is also believed to be responsible for various other misfortunes. For instance, experienced potters may attribute the breaking of their pottery during firing to witchcraft (page 21). Witchcraft is also blamed for incidents where grain-stores fall on people below them (page 22).

Poor crops or a low hunting yield can be attributed to witches. When the misfortune is minor, only the individuals directly affected tend to accuse witchcraft, while the majority ridicules them. It is only when larger misfortunes occur that society as a whole holds witchcraft responsible.

If there were a group of people in our society that we believed were responsible for all the negative events in our lives, it would be reasonable to expect them to be mistreated and have their lives made miserable. However, the treatment of witches in the Azande tribe is different. In their culture, witchcraft is seen as a part of a person’s personality. It is possible for someone to have the ability to practice witchcraft but choose not to use it (page 4).

Therefore, witches are commonly perceived as having the capability to only engage in wicked actions. Being a witch and having the substance of witchcraft is important, but not enough, for exhibiting behavior similar to that of a witch. It is typically only when someone has been killed by witchcraft that the witch might face attack or demands for compensation. This appears to be equitable and rational even according to our own standards.

When the misconduct of a witch is minor, the only action that can be taken is to expose the witch and politely request them to cease causing x or stop harming y. Therefore, when an individual experiences a permanent and severe loss, there is no point in pursuing the matter further as there will be no gain. The afflicted person may mourn their loss but will usually refrain from trying to identify the witch. It is only when identifying the witch responsible offers concrete benefits that one seeks their name. For instance, if a man remains ill over an extended period of time, discovering the responsible witch might be the sole means of curing him (page 33).

Although there is a practicing witch, the Salem Witch Hunts are surprisingly lacking in hysteria. If the witch behaves appropriately, the matter will be resolved peacefully without any hurtful words or harm to their relationships with others. The situation is handled diplomatically, courteously, and respectfully. Each individual has the right to request personal space from the witch; nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that the witch is also a member of the community and should be able to live without fear of retaliation.

If a victim were to verbally or physically attack a witch, they would risk losing prestige and potentially being held liable for damages if taken to court (page 34). The victim would also understand that their actions would escalate the animosity of a witch towards them, which is something that no Zande wishes for obvious reasons. Similarly, if a witch denies responsibility, they will forfeit social prestige and could face retaliatory attacks if their victim dies (page 35). Therefore, it is advantageous for all parties involved to achieve a peaceful resolution.

The Azande possess a mentality of granting others the freedom to live their lives, even when it comes to witches. They do not feel the need to consult an oracle and determine the cause of every small misfortune that occurs in their lives. They recognize that life is too brief and that there may not always be a purpose in identifying the culprit if there is nothing to be gained from it (page 35). Inevitably, one will encounter adversaries throughout life, and some individuals may harbor envy towards one’s achievements. However, the Azande do not constantly seek to assign blame, which is an admirable characteristic.

To the Zande people, the oracles hold great significance as a reliable source of truth. There is no question about this belief within their community. It is an uncommon occurrence for anyone to be accused of witchcraft without first consulting the oracle (page 43). However, from our perspective, the actions of the oracles seem arbitrary, resulting in answers that may appear random as well.

According to the Azande, accusing individuals indicated by the oracle is simply a matter of making baseless and unfounded allegations. However, the Azande view the oracle as the ultimate truth, and this belief is widely embraced. As a result, they seldom make what they perceive as false accusations. In our society, we acknowledge the harmful consequences of false accusations, an experience that individuals like John Leslie, who was recently acquitted of sexual misconduct charges, can particularly empathize with.

Within the Azande community, damaging accusations are not typically made, resulting in a lack of distress. The Azande do not consider being a witch and being a valued member of society as mutually exclusive. It is possible for witches to be respected and seen as good citizens. In the Azande culture, a good individual is someone who fulfills their responsibilities with enthusiasm and demonstrates neighborly kindness.

These ‘good’ personality traits are similar to the traits that we would consider as good qualities in a person. In our culture, some argue that morals come from a ‘higher being’, regardless of whether one believes in this or not. Many laws in our country have roots in Christianity. The Azande, however, do not have the same concept of a ‘higher being’ (page 51).

The Azande view the concept of witchcraft as vague and poorly understood, and it has minimal impact on their daily lives. However, witchcraft is significant to the Azande in expressing and enforcing moral rules, especially in areas not governed by criminal or civil law. Compared to our perspective, morals hold greater importance for the Azande. They attribute any harm they experience to the ill intentions of another person.

Our culture only considers certain misfortunes as the result of the evil actions of others. When we misplace a wallet, we consider it bad luck and our own responsibility. However, if our wallet is stolen, we attribute it to the wickedness of other people. The Azande, on the other hand, would attribute both similar misfortunes to witchcraft. Although witchcraft may seem like a moral scapegoat to the Azande, this is not true.

Just like criminals, witches bear full responsibility for their actions (page 57). When accused by the oracle, individuals will typically be taken aback but, due to their unwavering trust in the oracle, they will embrace the accusation. They firmly believe that they are the sole perpetrator of harm without being consciously aware of it, considering themselves as an exceptional case. Witchcraft does not compel individuals to utter falsehoods (page 26).

The Azande firmly believe in the notion that individuals are always conscious and accountable for their actions, with anyone challenging this notion being met with ridicule. In my strong agreement, Evans-Pritchard’s book primarily delves into rationality and ethics rather than the supernatural. The concept of witchcraft appears to function as a mere cognitive mechanism employed by the Azande to elucidate their understanding of the world.

The concept of witchcraft encourages individuals to act morally, as failing to do so may result in becoming the enemy of a witch and facing consequences. In this belief system, all rituals and practices associated with witchcraft are conducted with politeness. Witches are not stigmatized, harmed, or mistreated; rather, they are treated with respect. The rules of witchcraft aim to prevent false accusations from being made. Additionally, the concept incorporates a significant amount of common sense.

The Azande people believe that witchcraft can be passed down from parents, as they have observed that sons resemble their fathers and daughters resemble their mothers. This similarity in appearance leads them to conclude that witchcraft is also inherited, since adults are believed to possess more witchcraft substance than children. These observations form the basis of their understanding of witchcraft.

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Evans-Pritchard’s Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. (2017, Dec 19). Retrieved from


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