[Sequence] Evans-Pritchard: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande


I read this classic text several years ago, and it left a lasting effect on me.

The Zande people are primarily a small-scale farming population located in central Africa. Their demographics are split between Democratic Republic of the Congo, in South Sudan, and the Central African Republic:


Evans-Pritchard briefly sketches Azande life in general, before zooming in on their complex religious system. At time of writing, 1937, these traditions had already begun to erode in the wake of European cultural imperialism. Racing against the clock, as it were, Evans-Pritchard managed to document the essence of these practices before they faded in the memories of the community.

Evans-Pritchard is a consummate professional, and this shows in his ethnographies. Azande culture and mysticism is explored in detail, and their customs – foreign to our ears – are treated largely without distracting judgment. Azande seeks spiritual answers from three kinds of oracles, each with increasing power: rubbing board, termite, and poison oracles. This practice was enmeshed in their legal system, their social structure, and their metaphysical beliefs. Azande culture further complemented these oracles by means of complex, interlocking theories of magic, and the social and medicinal contributions of a witch-doctor population:

Link: Summary

For me, the most interesting part of the book had to do with the relationship between mysticism and attention. Most of the following quotes relate to this.

Link: Quotes

To understand why it is that Azande do not draw from their observations the conclusions we would draw from the same evidence, we must realize that their attention is fixed on the mystical properties of the poison oracle and that its natural properties are of so little interest to them that they simply do not bother to consider them.

Observations such as the above suggest that disinterest in certain question-categories is not some random phenomenon that can be taken at face value. Azande individuals systematically experience disinterest in doubt-provoking challenges to their mystical ideology, and this “attention funnel” is anything but pre-meditated. Thus, attentional habits are not solely artifacts of personality: they also can be subpersonal, they are also influenced by culture: they do not necessarily serve the interests of their owners.

Finally, it would seem myopic to suppose that this quirk of human psychology is contained to this one culture. Perhaps this is enough to drive home my takeaway: treat disinterest with suspicion.


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

Part Of: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande sequence
See AlsoSummary of the Azande book

On Mysticism And Its Insulation From Falsification Through Attention:
Azande act very much as we would in like circumstances and they make the same kind of observations as we would make.  But Azande are dominated by an overwhelming faith which prevents them from making experiments, from generalizing contradictions between tests, between verdicts of different oracles, and between all the oracles and experience.  To understand why it is that Azande do not draw from their observations the conclusions we would draw from the same evidence, we must realize that their attention is fixed on the mystical properties of the poison oracle and that its natural properties are of so little interest to them that they simply do not bother to consider them.  If a Zande’s mind were not fixed on the mystical qualities of poison and entirely absorbed by them he would perceive the significance of the knowledge he already possesses.  But in real life these bits of knowledge do not form part of an indivisible concept.
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 149).

It is evident that the oracle system would be pointless if the possibility of [poison being natural], as an educate European would regard it, were not excluded.  When I used at one time to question Zande faith in their poison oracle I was met sometimes by point-blank assertions, sometimes by one of the evasive secondary elaborations of belief that provide for any particular situation provoking skepticism, sometimes by polite pity, but always by an entanglement of linguistic obstacles, for one cannot well express in its language objections not formulated by a culture. 
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 150)

[Azande] are not surprised at contradictions [of the poison oracle]; they expect them.  Paradox though it be, the errors as well as valid judgments of the oracle prove to them its infallibility.  The fact that the oracle is wrong when it is interfered with by some mystical power shows how accurate are its judgments when these powers are excluded.  The secondary elaborations of belief that explain the failure of the oracle attribute its failure to (1) the wrong variety of poison having been gathered, (2) breach of a taboo, (3) witchcraft, (4) anger of the owners of the forest where the creeper grows, (5) age of the poison, (6) anger of the ghosts, (7) sorcery, (8) use.  
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 155).

Zande behavior, though mystical, is consistent, and the reasons they give for their behavior, though mystical, are intellectually coherent.  If their mystical notions allowed them to generalize their observations they would perceive, as we do, that their faith is without foundations.  They themselves provide all the proof necessary.  They say that they sometimes test new poison or old poison which they fear has been corrupted by asking it silly questions.  At full moon they administer the poison to a fowl and address it thus: ‘Poison oracle, tell the chicken about those two spears over there.  As I am about to go up to the sky, if I will spear the moon today with my spears, kill the fowl.  If I will not spear the moon today, poison oracle spare the fowl.’  If the oracle kills the fowl they know it is corrupt.  And yet Azande do not see that their oracles tell them nothing! Their blindness is not due to stupidity: they reason excellently in the idiom of their beliefs, but they cannot reason outside, or against, their beliefs because they have no other idiom in which to express their thoughts.  
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 159)

The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions… Indeed, as a rule Azande do not ask questions to which answers are easily tested by experience, and they ask only those questions which embrace contingencies.  The answers either cannot be tested, or if proved by subsequent events to be erroneous permit an explanation of the error.  In the last resort errors can always be explained by attributing them to mystical interference. 
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 160-161).

On Mysticism And Explanation:
You ask [the Azande] how they know [the oracle] works and they reply, ‘It has a soul.’  If you were to ask them how they know it has a ‘soul’, they would reply that they know because it works.  They are explaining mystical action by naming it.
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 151).

On Mysticism And Time-Models:
It would appear from [Azande] behavior that the present and future overlap in some way so that the present partakes of the future as it were.  Hence a man’s future health and happiness depend on future conditions that are already in existence and can be exposed by the oracles and altered.  The future depends on the disposition of mystical forces that can be tackled here and now.  Moreover, when the oracles announce that a man will fall sick… his ‘condition’ is therefore already bad, his future is already part of him.
(Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, Chapter 9, page 162)

See AlsoSummary of the Azande book

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