Evans-Pritchard was the founder and first president of the Association of Social Anthropologists. His seminal work on indigenous, African tribes has preserved a unique perspective of primitive societies or societies that retain their aboriginal features even in modern times -- their mental processes more than the social constructs. This essay will present a societal perspective of the Azande tribes of southern Sudan. This research was conducted at a time when every Zande (singular for Azande) paid abeyance to either the British or the Arabs, whichever happened to wield influence at the time. The thesis of this essay: "The Azande society (as a whole) and each individual was driven by a quest to avoid the ill effects of witchcraft." The significance of witchcraft is necessitated by a unique context and definition. This entire essay is about defining societal ramifications of witchcraft among the Azande, which will make the meaning of witchcraft all too clear. The reader must dispel all visions of witches being burned at the stake as the opening sequence in the Shekhar Kapoor's "Elizabeth" (SalemWeb, 1992); nor should Azande witchcraft be associated with the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition in the name of Christianity. Witchcraft among the Azande was, to say the least, different. Moreover, this essay will argue that witchcraft for the Azande was really to gain ascendancy and control over their lives in a manner that no society has or ever will.
Ethnographers and anthropologists have often been accused of "falling in love" with the subjects of their research. References to the "noble savage" abound. Brian Morris raises (while not specifically mentioning it) an important point: "But Evans-Pritchard interprets the "mystical" domain (religion, witchcraft and magic) quite differently from the functionalist and symbolist anthropologist." (Evans-Pritchard, 1937) In the texts, the examples are very clear; where they are not, Evans-Pritchard says they aren't. There is no room for interpretations or implications. The text is comprehensive in what the Azande see as witchcraft.
In Germania, perhaps the original ethnological work, Tacitus compares his new research of the Germanic tribes to the current thriving of the Roman Empire. Tacitus is objective. He identifies the evolution of culture among the early Germanics and bemoans what he considers to be primitive and reprehensible. His work is unbiased. He even criticizes the Romans when compared to some aspects of the Germans. (Tacitus, 1877) In Witchcraft, Oracles... however, the very ideas that one can use to support Evans-Pritchard's objectivity, leave the reader unsatisfied. Evans-Pritchard makes no attempt to put certain Azande mores into modern perspective, other than the obvious "witches and witchcraft do not exist." Enough medical technology existed at the time of the writing the book that would have aided in identifying exactly the affliction by which a "witch" would be identified as possessed of witchcraft post mortem. The corpse of the purported witch was eviscerated and the small intestines were checked for a bolus of dark material -- witchcraft was considered an organic, tangible substance. There was no metaphysical bearing to witchcraft if it was not visually identified. Evans-Pritchard avers that this could merely be undigested food. Other opinions varied from "witchcraft" attached to the liver to the gall bladder to even the appendix (this is inferred from anatomical descriptions, though the word is not really mentioned). The author makes no attempt to clarify the concept of what the physical manifestation of witchcraft really is.
So what then is witchcraft as experienced by the Azande; and, how did it play a role in society? Man encounters good and evil constantly in: the world, society, and also within himself, the Azande believe the same. For the Azande, however, witchcraft is the embodiment of every evil or misfortune -- physical or emotional -- that a Zande experiences. From the mundane, the act of stubbing a toe and the resulting pain and bruising, to the emotional upheavals of discovering that one's spouse is in an adulterous relationship, to the more serious illness and death -- every one of these misfortunes is attributed to witchcraft.
Interestingly, the Zande does not ascribe these instances of witchcraft to divine providence or fate. While most modern societies recourse to God in times of need, Azande do not. For this tribe, the only divine being is M'bori (or M'boli). But man's relationship with this divine entity does not go beyond an invocation that could be easily transliterated as "By Jove (Jupiter)!!" To this reader, the novelty of the Azande behaviour, notwithstanding, this attempt to control their destinies in whatever way they can mirror (and perhaps, goes beyond) modern society. In today's world, science and technology enable modern man to seek solutions to several ills -- for our physical ills we have invented medicines; to make the world a global village -- we have easier access to travel and the ubiquitous Internet. There are however, differences among us. While some of us chalk occurrences in our lives to happenstance, there are others among us that work relentlessly to better our lives. Witchcraft among the Azande personifies the relentlessness of the latter. Every Zande bears this character.
Instead, the Azande seek solutions to their problems among those around them -- witches. These witches are normal human beings, not far removed from the afflicted person (sometimes even a blood-relation), that harbour ill will to the victim. The solution lies then in identifying the witch by means of oracles (one or more) or witch doctors, or both. Once the witch is identified, he or she is confronted. The confrontation is either direct, or ordered by the prince or ruler through an intermediary. Logically one would assume that the witch thus confronted would show affront. The idea of witchcraft as the only cause for any evil, however, so suffuses the Azande culture, that even the witch is not aware if he or she is indeed the cause of someone's misfortune or affliction. The witch relents and shows that he or she was not aware that he or she harboured witchcraft. The witch then makes attempts to minimize the effects of the witchcraft. If death occurs, then the identified witch is required to pay compensation. This is a nutshell presentation of how a Zande elucidates witchcraft and then makes attempts to rid him or herself of evil influences.
It deserves mention at this point, prior to a more detailed analysis, that the process (mentioned above) contains some glaring inconsistencies. Azande believe that witches normally form a cabal that gloats and celebrates the misfortunes they have wrought. But if accused, they show (justifiable) ignorance. Neither the Azande nor Evans-Pritchard attempts to explain this break in logic. Evans-Pritchard emphasizes that there is a certain method to exactly which situations the Azande blame on witchcraft. The Azande, according to the author, carefully identify situations that can be attributed to happenstance. He demonstrates that the Azande are capable of thought and deliberations. Why then is there no extrapolation to logically explain some coincidences rather than jumping to the conclusion that it is witchcraft? Is this intellectual laziness on the part of the Azande?
Evans-Pritchard tells of an instance where he responded to a hubbub outside his hut. People who resided in huts besides his showed him a glowing ball of fire floating in the darkness. This phenomenon was witchcraft initiated by a witch making its way to a hapless victim. The author explains it as a Zande walking with a clump of burning grass (for light) to answer nature's call. In relating this anecdote, there is no attempt on the part of the author to explain this to the Azande or an attempt to find this person and clear the issue.
So how do the Azande react to it, and attempt to exorcise it. Witches are born, not made; and, witchcraft is in their system. Witchcraft is transferred from father to son and mother to daughter. In an effort to prove that they are not witches, some Azande request the evisceration of deceased relatives in an effort to prove that they do not harbour witchcraft. Evans-Pritchard mentions one horrific event (and the only one to his knowledge), where a distraught man, on being accused of being a witch, killed his own son and eviscerated him to prove that he did not carry witchcraft. Typically, outward signs could not identify a witch, though some averred that a witch had red eyes. Instances of flies flying out of a corpse, that till forensic scientists showed otherwise, was used by proponents of creationism (other than William Paley's teleological "watch in the wilderness" experiment) was also used by the Azande to identify if a deceased had been a witch. Even among witches, older people were feared because they were considered to wield more power and could do more damage. On the other hand, the witchcraft ability of children was weak and not worthy of consideration. Some typical habits of birds and animals were associated with witchcraft: the hooting of the owl at night and the baying of dogs -- all portents of impending death.…