Evans-Pritchard: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande Summary

Part Of: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande sequence
Content Summary: 1600 words, 16 min read

Chapter 1: Witchcraft is an organic and hereditary phenomenon

Witchcraft is discovered by means of oracles.  Both oracles and stories of witches obey certain hierarchical expectations.  Witchcraft is not strange, but an expected part of everyday life.  Azande believe it to physically manifest through the the small intestine.  In accord with their sexual beliefs, being-a-witch promulgates along relatives of the same sex.  Witchcraft powers grow with the small intestine, and so children are generally considered harmless.  As a strategy, accusing social superiors of witchcraft often backfires. Distance is seen as proportional to susceptibility to witchcraft. By these mechanisms, witchcraft accusations are local affairs that do not often cross social boundaries of class, sex, and age.

Chapter 2: The notion of witchcraft explains unfortunate events

Witchcraft is primarily invoked for social phenomena that are deemed significant and/or slow-moving.  Witchcraft complements, rather than dominates, the causal beliefs of the Azande.  If a man is killed by spear throw in battle, the explanatory criteria (social, involves death) point towards witchcraft.  But the Azande do not deny that the spear killed the man; rather, they say that the witchcraft and the spear in tandem caused the tragedy.  They draw parallels to their hunting experience where a man first spears an animal, and his compatriot delivers the fatal second blow – witchcraft is often denoted as “the second spear”.  In this way, the Azande infuse a narrative into socially significant events.

Chapter 3: Sufferers from misfortune seek for witches among their enemies

Witchcraft is most often invoked for slow-developing illness.   The victim’s kinsmen will appeal to an oracle, bringing forward names of social equals typically suspected of the jealousy motive. If the oracle indicates the witchcraft-inspired responsibility of one or more of these, a messenger will be sent to politely request cessation of psychic violence.  The accused will deny the charges while maintaining goodwill towards the victim.  Should the victim recover, life proceeds; else the cycle continues.  If the victim should die, the kinsmen can resort to compensation demands or vengeance magic.  Since this process is considered private, little is known about individual cases other than by the kinsmen, oracle, and political authorities.  Witchcraft, not theism, is the fuel of Azande morality: witches are generally accused as a function of their adherence to social norms.

Chapter 4: Are witches conscious agents?

Azande asserts intentionality and scheming to participants of witchcraft.  However, for Europeans, witchcraft was an omnipresent, metaphysical reality; for the Azande, witchcraft only manifested for personal misfortunes.  As such, accused Azande could not deny the oracle’s decision, but typically denied intentionality of their purported actions.  Contrary to many accused European witches, Azande were willing to live with this inconsistency, modelling themselves as exceptional cases.

Chapter 5: Witch-doctors

Witch-doctors practice magic to provide leechcraft, revelatory information, and witchcraft protection.  Their modus operandi is the seance, which serves as a rare opportunity for the community to participate in an extra-familial social situation.  Seances are typically hosted by someone affected by misfortune desiring the services of the witch-doctor.  At least one practitioner performs for the commoners in attendance; to drums and song he wildly dances, so as to acquire answers to questions.

Chapter 6: Training of a novice in the art of a witch-doctor

Trade information obtained through sole informant, although it is typically well-protected.  Witch-doctors generally charge prospective students fees for ritual participation and medicinal information.  Trade knowledge of medicines and their correlated plants are shared by journeys into nature.

Chapter 7: The place of witch-doctors in Zande society

This particular profession is not considered politically important; only commoners adopt its methods.  The associated magic and revealed wisdom are not held to be as important as the poison oracle, or even the termite oracle; rather, it is held roughly as authoritative as the lowest of the oracles: the rubbing-board oracle.  Witch-doctors apart from the seance are treated as any other commoner.  Intelligent commoners may pursue the craft in order to explore more diverse social roles.  Skepticism on the efficacy of witch-doctors is prevalent, and possibly increasing on account of contemporaneous developments (influx of more practitioners more readily revealing a greed-motive).  However, observer suspicions of trickery are couched in context of the Azande metaphysic: witch-doctor spells do not work but they secretly coordinate efforts with witches.  Even witch-doctors themselves may believe in the authenticity of their colleagues; and their secret understanding of the efficacy of their medicines does not conflict with their beliefs.  Azande cannot readily explore pure skepticism as they know no other explanatory worldview than the witch-oracle-magic paradigm.

Chapter 8: The Poison Oracle in daily life

Oracle poison is socially valuable, and its potency must be preserved.  Poison is protected via observance of taboos, hiding it from malevolent witches and women, and from the sun.  Use of the poison oracle represents a function of social control: women are formally prohibited from its use, or even knowing its relevance, and the poor cannot often afford to spare fowls during the ceremony.  The seance is performed away from the village, and the constituents are the operator, the questioner, the witnesses, the poison, and the fowls.  First, the operator administers the poison to the fowl (proportionate to its size).  Then, the questioner formally addresses the poison inside the fowl, its lethality is thus hinged on the answer to a certain pressing question.  No mechanism of the operator to manipulate the resultant verdict is known.  Verdicts are not considered binding until their opposite verdict is confirmed (oracle must kill for confirmation of the affirmative, and then spare for dis-confirmation of the negative); however, questioners are known to delay secondary verdicts according to their interests.

Chapter 9: Problems arising from consultation of the poison oracle

All Azande oracles are addressed as people, even though they are not personified.  Rather, their efficacy is attributed to their spiritual dynamism, or soul.  Further, Azande exhibit contradictory behavior and beliefs when it comes to benge poison.  Azande are careful not to eat fowls killed through the poison-test of the seance.  However, no one can express the reasons behind this behavior – for an Azande, benge only functions as poison when in a magical context.  Further, given that the poison acts randomly, often the confirmatory answer will contradict the initial answer.  However, the Azande utilize no less than eight explanatory vehicles to justify these contradictions, the result of which paradoxically results in a stronger affirmation of poison oracle efficacy.  Contradictions are further dismissed via a combination of language barriers, disinterest, and the promotion of ambiguous expectations.  Doubt is not repressed but is always couched in the context of the mystical paradigm.

Chapter 10: Other Zande oracles

Azande use other, less expensive and reliable, oracles for preliminary or less significant matters.  The termites oracle is operated by sticking two different sticks into a termite mound and assigning different answers to the consumption of either stick.  The rubbing-board oracle is imbued with medicine and had the detachable rim circumvents the table, with smooth motions and getting stuck being associated with different outcomes.  The three sticks oracle is arranged as a tent on the hut floor, and its status overnight (collapsed or not) is indicative of its message.  Finally, dreams are sometimes imbued with oracle-like significance.

Chapter 11: Magic and medicines

Magic is the third component of the Azande belief-triangle.  Its use through various medicines can either be socially accepted (positive magic) or condemned (sorcery).  Use of magic is used towards a large set of social goals, through a diversity of plants.  Magic is generally private and rarely practiced.  Magic is moral.  Good magic is impersonal: it will affect unknown individuals whose guilt is assured.  Bad magic is personal: it is used against a particular person in malice.  Sorcery in its full sense probably is not practiced, and only exists in rumors.  Light afflictions are treated empirically, only significant ailments are cause for magical remedies.  Magic is not thought to positively affect everyday life, but only to ward off negative mystical effects.

Chapter 12: An association for the practice of magic

New communal, illegal magic gatherings have become eminent due to current (circa 1920s) political events.  They represent wide and deep social change.  These Mani exhibit crude evidences of associative groups: organization, leadership, grades, feeds, initiation rites, and esoteric vocabulary.  Water immersion contributes to initiation rites, as does other behavior reminiscent of freshman hazing.  Four officials lead the group: the leader, cook, stirrer, and sentry.  None have much authority.  Meetings are highly emotional, in stark contrast with more public ceremonies.  Mani allow for female members, youth, poor (fees are minimal), and royalty (although, significantly, their authority is moot).  Nobility dislikes these groups on grounds of sorcery suspicion, marital jealousy, and general conservatism.  The organizations are grassroots, and lack inter-group cohesion.

Chapter 13: Witchcraft, oracles, and magic, in the situation of death

Azande belief structures are ill-defined and are only partially expressed in any given situation.  Their beliefs reach an cohesion and the height of synthesis in situations of death.  During later stages of illness, witchcraft is identified and addressed and both magic and leechcraft are invoked.  Should these efforts be unsuccessful, vengeance magic is prepared.  Vengeance practitioners are generally young men who will not suffer sex and food taboos as forcefully as others, although all kinsmen are affected.  Vengeance magic requires significant patience, and after enough time has past, kinsmen will oracle-inquire whether a socially-relevant death is the result of their magic.  Reactionary outburst are thus channeled through magical recourse, and are thereby tempered through uncomfortable, extended taboo-observances and wait-times that scale to years.

See Also: Quotes from The Azande Book


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