Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande
Anthropology of Religion
Witchcraft among the Azande is an integral part of everyday life. From highly involved communal practices to individual daily life, witchcraft and such happenings can take place at any time and to anyone. During his time among the Azande, Evans Pritchard originally thought of the Azande’s belief in witchcraft as naïve, believing that all mishaps were caused by bewitchment instead of taking personal responsibility. I personally find this interesting as it is a fine example of how people universally do not typically take responsibility for their misfortunes; instead they blame it on another. Why is this? Well, think to yourself, have you ever been stuck in traffic cursing at everyone else’s poor driving? The answer is probably yes because most people do not turn inwards towards themselves to see a potential problem. This is because we are sensory beings designed to sense and experience the world outside of ourselves. Turning inwards and seeing ourselves as the problem naturally is not something we as individuals do, this takes years or even a lifetime of fulfillment and maturity to realize. But this is further than I want to take us for now. Let us get back to our authors interpretation of Azande witchcraft and how his understanding of this topic changed the more time he spent among the Azande people.
The author notes that a common argument to mishaps taking place among the Azande is that witchcraft is the only explanation, since the Azande take numerous precautions to certain things and yet misfortunes still take place. For example, a young boy who despite knowing there are bushes to watch out for when walking still happens to stub his toe. The young boys argument is that if all precautions were made and that he knew to watch out for such mishaps, how then could stubbing his toe take place? It must be witchcraft the young man argues. Or when an expert potter who spends much time in finding only the best clay to kneed with, and constructing his pottery carefully and heating it to bake in a slow fire; such careful craftsmanship could never lead to their pot’s breaking, it must therefore be witchcraft if the pot’s break, the Azande would argue. Witchcraft among the Azande, Evans Pritchard Wintrich III
suggests, seems to be something that happens to someone after careful measures to do something are made and yet the individual still sustains misfortune and injury. Logically this sounds like a reasonable argument, but to me I would suggest that such misfortunes occur because accidents happen and are not necessarily caused by witchcraft. However, this of course is my etic interpretation of witchcraft among the Azande since I do not believe in witchcraft. The Azande, however, do believe in witchcraft, so what then is the emic meaning of witchcraft among Azande culture? Let’s get back to our authors study of the Azande.
Our author uses an analogy; to the Azande, witchcraft attempts to explain specific phenomena that are not universal truths, such as fire’s universal truth as being hot versus its specific characteristic of potentially burning you. Fire’s hotness is not owed to witchcraft because hotness is fire’s nature. Therefore, it is fire’s universal quality to burn, but not to burn you. Being burned by fire may never happen to you, our author tells us, but to the Azande to be burned by fire, as being burned by fire is not fire’s universal quality, must then be caused by bewitchment. So what then does it mean to be bewitched, and how does someone come to be bewitched? An interesting puzzle arises from this question. Suppose you have a granary that has termite damage in the support beams, and on a hot day part the community seeks shelter from the hot sun under this granary. Should the granary fall, the Azande argue, would be caused by witchcraft. The argument is this; “We say...
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