Saturday, April 23, 2011

Modern Day Witch-Hunts: Azande pt. 1

So we have been discussing witch-hunts that have been happening in modern day times and the numbers are numerous. Now that I have shared with you the details surrounding the deaths of many we can safely day the majority of them are a result of the this “fear of the unknown.” The need to blame a group of people for sickness, misfortunes and the like which like I have mentioned has been going on for thousands of years. Now though it’s time to discuss what people of different cultures really think of witch and the practice of witchcraft and sorcery.

Now obviously I am foremost a writer who is objectively looking at these cases but also I am an aspiring anthropologist who looks at things through an anthropological lens at time. Then I would me remise if I didn’t pull information from perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of writing when it comes to getting at the core of a culture. This of course is an ethnography. Now I never assume that people know what I’m talking about when I get into “technical” speak so for those out there who don’t know ethnographies are the writings of an anthropologist who immerses themselves in a culture for an extended period of time. The ethnography then chronicles the time that they’ve spent and can be anywhere from the size of a short novella to a large book reminiscent of encyclopedias.

My favorite ethnography and one that I actually own falls into this whole series of witch-hunts perfectly is Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. This ethnography was written by Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard who was a professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University from 1946 until 1970. During the late 20s Evans-Prichard and a team of researches journeyed to the Southern Sudan and lived among Azande and learned all they could about them. The ethnography was originally published in 1937 but no one really seemed to care about these villages in Sudan and their practices. It was until the 1950s that it became talked about in anthropological circles. To this day ones cannot take a class or have a detailed discussion on sorcery or witchcraft beliefs without mentioning Evans-Pritchard’s work.

Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande is a very detailed look at the beliefs among the Azande and their views about witchcraft and the implications of it on their lives. It is so detailed though that I can only mention so much of it without practically quoting all 265 pages of it. For these last couple of days of the 30 Days of Advocacy Against Witch-Hunts I will be discussing the ethnography with an emphasis on how the witches are treated in the society and specifically the outlandish and bizarre views that the community has on the subject. I urge you all to go and read this ethnography on your own since it is a beyond fascinating read.

For this first post on the Azande I just want to give some background and their ideas of witchcraft. Once again I feel better quoting Evans-Pritchard directly to get the full feel of what he experienced when he first entered the community:

Azande believe that some people are witches and can injure them in virtue of an inherent quality. A witch performs no rite, utters no spell, and possesses no medicines. An act of witchcraft is a psychic act. They believe also that sorcerers may do them ill by performing magic rites with bad medicines. Azande distinguish clearly between witches and sorcerers (Evans-Pritchard 1).

So right away with his first paragraph in his ethnography we already get the sense that these notions of witchcraft are a lot different than many other witchcraft practices around the world and thus have much different implications to the society.

Throughout the ethnography Evans-Pritchard stresses that there is no problem finding information about witchcraft among the Azande. They talk freely about it and will tell him and the rest of his researches whatever they want to know about the subject. He talks about how the first word he ever heard uttered in the village was “Mangu” which in the Azande language means witchcraft.

Evans-Pritchard then explains the concept of what a witch is after talking to one Azande village man:

[They] believe that witchcraft is a substance in the bodies of witches… it is difficult to say which organ Azande associate with witchcraft. I have never seen a witchcraft-substance, but it has often been described to me as an oval blackish swelling or a bag in which several various small objects are sometimes found. When Azande describe its shape they often point to the elbow of their bent arm and when they describe its location they point to just beneath the xiphoid cartilage which is said to ‘cover witchcraft-substance.’ They say: “It is attached to the edge of the liver. When people cut open the belly they have to only pierce it and witchcraft-substance bursts through with a pop (Evans-Pritchard 2).

So already we have this picture in our heads of what exactly this witchcraft substance is and the way it is describes isn’t an appealing one. So one could argue that it is something that is considered bad in the society just from the way it is described by the villagers, like it is a tumor or a disease of some kind.

The question then becomes, where does this substance come from? Does it grow within the person or is one born with it? Well the answer is the Azande believe that the witchcraft-substance is inherited. It is passed “…by unilinear descent from parent to child. The sons of a male witch are all witches but his daughters are not, while the daughters of a female witch are all witches but their sons are not.” Evans-Pritchard then goes into more detail about how this biological transmission is one that complements the beliefs of sex among the Azande which is another study all in itself (Evans-Pritchard 2).

So hopefully now you have a better grip on what exactly makes a Azande witch a witch in the eyes of the people. In the next couple of posts I will be outlining how the society views these witches and what happens to them. I then leave you with this notion that the Azande have “[all] death is due to witchcraft and must me avenged” (Evans-Pritchard 5).


E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Cover of the Book pictured above


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