Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Witchcraft and Unfortunate Events Amongst the Azande By Jessica Boissonneau

Photo © Royal Anthropological Institute

Amongst the Azande, E.E. Evans Pricthard (1937) explores how witchcraft is used as a complex explanation for death, misfortune and the complications of life. If any of these fall upon any one or anything, it is due to witchcraft. They believe it can be inherited and that a person can be a witch, causing others harm, without realizing their influence. However, witchcraft explains why events are harmful to man, not how they happen. (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 72) For example, there was a little boy that knocked his foot against a small stump of wood in the center of a bush path and suffered pain and inconvenience. It began to infect. The boy stated that it had been witchcraft that made him knock his foot on a stump. Evans-Pritchad (1937) tried to argue with him that maybe he had knocked it because he was careless and wasn’t paying attention. The boy argued back that if he hadn’t been bewitched, he would have seen the stump as he was carefully looking ahead. The boy also stated that cuts usually heal quite fast as it is the nature of a cut, but why, on the contrary, had this cut infected if there was no witchcraft involved? However, when viewed from the western point of view, it would be seen to be caused by human error and carelessness.

Photo © Oxford Clarendon Press
In Western societies, witchcraft is spoken about in a weird way because it isn’t a main belief. It’s something that haunted and disgusted gullible ancestors. However, Azande don’t actually tell others how they feel about witchcraft. To them, witchcraft is normal and occurs on a daily basis. “Hence the difficulty of discussing the subject of witchcraft with Azande, for their ideas are imprisoned in action and cannot be cited to explain and justify action.” (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 83) They don’t believe that natural causation fully explains coincidences. On the contrary, for the Azande, the theory of witchcraft offers an adequate explanation of them. There are no feelings of wonder or surprise when supernatural powers happen. Azande just expect misfortunes to happen, and witchcraft with supernatural forces has most of the power of making it all happen. As mentioned, witchcraft has most of the power, but not all. “It sometimes happens that the social situations demands a common sense, and not a mystical, judgment of cause.” (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 74) Witchcraft does not make someone lie, steal nor commit adultery. That person, alone, is responsible. Azande rarely accepts responsibility for a happening and is always ready to put the blame on witchcraft.

In life, there are mystical understandings that sometimes seem non-logical, common sense understandings that are logical, and scientific understandings that provide a balance on which to base a judgment. Although the belief in witchcraft seems, from the Western point of view, to be irrational, the Azande point of view on it is not one of bewilderment; it is just their social structure. To them, it is thought to be a rational belief. There is no contrast between natural and supernatural, thus no need to understand the difference between mystical and common sense. The Azande are entangled in a world where empirical evidence doesn’t exist; therefore, magic cannot be tested and cannot fail.

Photo © Oxford Clarendon Press
Thus, the Azande deeply believe in witchcraft. As specified, witchcraft to them is dangerous. It could also be seen as a threat. “Oracles and divination provided information about the source of witchcraft, and magic was employed to counter it.” (Science.jrank.org, 2014) They didn’t use magic to change nature; they used it essentially in response to the mystical power of other human beings, known as witches. Magic is present as a necessity in the Azande culture to keep people out of danger caused by witchcraft. Azande’s understanding of magic differs from the western approach of magic. The western approach of magic, on the other hand, is for amusement. Someone that is capable of doing magic is looked up to, is seen as a hero. For example, Harry Potter. “The Harry Potter books make witchcraft and the practice of magic seem appealing and fun.” (Cline, 2014) Due to this, kids and adolescents might look up to Harry Potter because he is able to create magic. To western society, it is a form of entertainment and pleasure, which is completely the opposite of the Azande society. Western cultures will pay to go see magicians; they’ll pay to go see movies that consist of magic. They make it look engaging and lively, but to the Azande culture, it is a fundamental power to prevent danger. Being able to perform magic is almost like a profession to help others.

Photo © Oxford Clarendon Press
Thus, witchcraft among the Azande is threatening. Death, misfortunes and all complications of life are blamed on witchcraft. It is a very serious aspect in their society, however they don’t really mention it. Tragedies happen on a daily basis, thus, so does witchcraft. Nonetheless, they do not just believe in witchcraft. It is just an essential background to their other beliefs, known as oracles and magic. Oracles are a reliable source of magical information, mainly because there is little chance of the oracle being proved wrong. Despite the lack of faith as to the oracle findings, they do hold a great place in their societies structure. As for magic, it is extremely important to Azande. It is their way of feeling secure and protected from witchcraft. It is used typically in response to the mystical powers of other human beings. In contrast, the Western culture see’s magic in a complete different way. They view it primarily as entertainment.


Cline, A. (2014). Does Harry Potter Promote Wicca or Witchcraft? Is Harry Potter a Pagan Book?. About Religion.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E (1937). Chapter IV - The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events. In Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande (1st ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Science.jrank.org. (2014). Magic - The Functions And Effects Of Magic In Classic Anthropological Works.

About The Author

Jessica Boissonneau is presently studying at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. Witchcraft and Unfortunate Events Amongst the Azande was written as part of an assignment for Vampires, Witches and Werewolves... Oh My! in the Department of Humanities.

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