In many industrial societies, witchcraft and magic are often misunderstood and denigrated but the negative connotations that are often attributed to them stem from ignorance. Many people associate these categories of religion with Satanism, voodoo, or plain evil. For some cultures, like the Azande, witchcraft and magic are religion that is strongly incorporated into their culture. They become much like Christianity would to an average Christian American. In the Azande culture, witchcraft and magic are more than a religion; they are the cornerstone of their life. It serves as their way of explaining misfortune and fortune. It also gives them the answers to everyday questions, helps them hunt, and ultimately helps to solve legal problems. To Westerners, the Azande use of magic and witchcraft may seem controversial but, without them, the Azande would not have an explanation of many of life’s happenings.
In order to understand the Azande, one must know who they are. The Azande are an ethnic group of people located in the central Africa (Schneider 1981, 4-5). They occupy a stretch of land in Africa near the Nile-Congo divide. At varying times in the past, they were under the administration of the Belgian Congo, French Equatorial Africa, and The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Reining 1966, 1). Today they are under the control of the Sudanese government as well as that of the Central African Republic, and the Congo. The Azande get most of their food through shifting cultivation. Their main crops are those common to tropical climates, including but are not limited to cassava, maize, sweet potatoes, and bananas. For meat they rely on the wild animals (Reining 1966, 2-4).
Over the years, in the Azande politics have changed. In pre-colonial time a chief ruled over a designated area. They had officers, often wealthy relatives, who served under them. The chief had financial control over much of the land and crops. Chiefs not only held these powers but also the power of adjudication; punishment was often severe. At the high point of pre-colonial politics the chief was independent rulers, who did not have a higher official to report to. He only had a relationship with other chiefs and clients, non-chiefs that he dealt with, but had little to no contact with the people he ruled over (Evans Pritchard 1971) (Reining 1966 12-14). After Europeans arrived the role of the chief changed. The British governed the land and took over the judicial system, making it less harsh. In addition to changing other cultural aspects, the British government attempted a scheme to overtake the land. The chief became lost, becoming more of what Americans would consider a mayor. He only had control over his tribal area and could not over rule British law (Evans Pritchard 1971) (Reining 1966, 14-21).
Azande live on homesteads. Azande are a patrilineal society, meaning that the family traces their lineage through the males. They are also patrilocal meaning the wife will also move into the tribe of her husband. There is one interesting exception to the Azande system. If a husband dies, the wife would move to the homestead of her adult son. The Azande are polygynous, meaning the men are allowed to keep multiple wives. Each wife is given her own home that she shares with her children. The wives’ homes include their living space, a kitchen, and a storage area for food. If the mother of the husband lives on their homestead, she receives similar quarters. The women hold little power in the Azande. They are the child bearers and in charge of rearing children. The Azande dedicate much effort keeping homes neat (Reining 1966, 40-42 and 80).
In the past the Azande were subsistence farmers. Most of the crops they grew in their gardens were used for the family. Sometimes it was traded with other tribe members. They hunted the wild animals around them to supplement their rich grain and vegetable diet. Raised chickens were considered special because of their religious value, and were seldom eaten (Reining 1966, 40-42 and 80). With colonialism, came cash crops and the Azande began to grow crops for both subsistence and cash crops.
In addition to a rich culture the Azande have an interesting system of beliefs. In the past their main religion was witchcraft. Today, there is a combination of witchcraft and either Christianity or Islam. Almost all facets of a Zande’s life relate to witchcraft, sorcery, or magic. It is the cornerstone of their culture according to E.E. Evans Pritchard.
Azande believe there is a witchcraft substance, a physical attribute that is attached to psychological witchcraft. They believe that people who are witches contain a certain organ that releases the witchcraft substance. When a suspected witch dies they perform an autopsy and usually discover a swollen mass, they believe this mass is the witchcraft organ. Some anthropologists believe this may be the gall bladder or appendix that the only reason it is discovered is that witches are the only people subjected to autopsies. Additionally any deformed organ may be deemed the witchcraft organ. The witchcraft substance is inherited from parents of the same sex. The only way for a person accused of witchcraft to be pardoned before death is through a genetic test of sorts. The accusers simply ask the mother if she had any affairs, if she says yes then the child is not that of her husbands, but of a different man and therefore cannot be a witch. This only works for male children since it would be hard for her to deny giving birth to her daughter. This simple questioning is a way to save a family or at least the male half from being falsely accused of witchcraft substance (Evans Pritchard 1937, 114-115).
Witchcraft provides the Azande with a natural philosophy, through which they are able to relate natural events to man. Witchcraft explains all misfortunes. If a crop does not grow or someone falls ill with the flu, witchcraft is used as the explanation. Instead of saying “Maybe it was a bad crop” or “there must have been a flu going around”, a Zande would say “Someone used witchcraft against me.” A Zande affected by witchcraft becomes annoyed rather than awestruck or fearful of the power rather that revered. This is very unlike a religion like Christianity where God’s power is revered and feared. Evans Pritchard says that every man must go through a series of trials, if he fails, it is attributed to witchcraft and not to his own error. In his article “The Notion of Witchcraft Explains Unfortunate Events,” Evans Pritchard spoke with a man who had been brewing beer one night in his hut. The man went to check on his beer with a lit bundle of straw to light the way. The make shift candle lit the hut on fire. Although the man obviously was in error, he blamed a witch since he had done the same thing many times before without burning down the hut (Evans Pritchard 1997, 303).
One may ward off witchcraft is using magic and medicine. Azande magic involves the use of medicine derived from plants. To fully create medicine a ritual as simple as repeating a prayer must take place. Sometimes the magic may require more drastic measures such as avoiding certain foods or sexual intercourse. Most medicine plants bear a physical resemblance to their purpose. A good example is a breast shaped, sap producing fruit whose roots are used to make a special drink that is given to women who are having trouble nursing. Medicine maybe used in agriculture and hunting such as one used to help guide hunters’ arrows, or to avenge murder and adultery. Many medicines also provide protection from witchcraft and illness. Certain types of plant and physical medicine, such as whistles can be made and used by a person afflicted by a witch.
Medicine can be used in a variety of ways. Plant medicine can be either burned, used as a paste, or in a drink. Whistles can be made as well, that when blown ward off misfortune. Medicine is used in simple, private rituals so do not know its purpose and so that no other magic can interfere. The rituals usually are simply reading a spell and making the medicine. The Azande know the difference between magic and sorcery. According to them sorcery is magic that is used for illegal purposes. Anyone caught using sorcery is killed, as many times the sorcerer is using his powers to kill. Only medicine can be used to kill sorcerers (Stein 2005, 148-149).
The final element of Zande witchcraft is oracles that are used to answer questions. The best known oracles are the iwa, dakpa, and benge. The iwa, the rubbing board oracle, can be consulted quickly and is used in cases of sudden illness and questions needing an immediate answer. The iwa is relatively small and is always made of wood with a flat, round or oval surface and either a lid or top piece. The object becomes an oracle when medicine is applied. The bottom “female” piece is usually treated with plant juice. The “male” top is simply moistened with water. Azande believe that this oracle has the highest error rate because it is human made.
The dakpa or termite oracle has a higher accuracy rate. This is made when two sticks are placed in a termite mound. The questions are usually more in depth than ones asked of the iwa, meaning the dapka answers ones that require a few days as opposed to a few minutes. The dakpa takes a day or two, as the answers are based on termites eating the sticks. Since termites are not influenced the way other people are, the dakpa is a more reliable oracle.
The most important Azande oracle is the benge, which is used to solve important legal and social problems. To answer benge a red powder from a forest creeper is mixed with water to form a paste. A toxic liquid is squeezed from the paste and put into the beak of a living chicken, who are forced to swallow it. Ultimately the reaction of the chicken gives the Zande their answer. Chickens are raised for the benge, and are only eaten on special occasions such as weddings. Only highly trained older men are allowed to handle the benge (Stein 2005, 158-159).
Azande witchcraft and other world religions have similarities and differences. First, both witchcraft and Christianity are used to explain misfortunes. Where the Zande would say “witchcraft caused situation A”, a Christian would say “the Devil caused situation A.” In both, some affiliation of the religion can explain why something unfortunate could happen. Another similarity is their use of idols. Where Christians use a cross to ward off evils, the Azande use their medicine. Another similarity could be the use of prayer to answer questions in Christianity and oracles in Azande witchcraft. Another similarity is that often prayers in both religions are done in private. The major difference between Christianity and Azande witchcraft is the world view of the two. Christianity on a worldwide scale is readily accepted, being it is the most widely practiced. Witchcraft however, is often tied to its negative connotations. All in all, these religions are not as different as some make them out two be as they both help people explain the bad in life and help them achieve a greater good.
As misconceived as witchcraft tends to be in the western world, it is no different than any other religion. Azande witchcraft has its rituals much like any other religion. The main difference seen in the Azande tradition is that it dominates their lives. Any of their inconveniences and misfortunes is easily explained as someone hexing them. The Azande rely on witchcraft to help them in all of their daily activities as well. It is seen clearly how Evans Pritchard was led to believe witchcraft is the cornerstone of their life. Everything from curing illnesses to shooting a straight arrow is somehow connected to witchcraft. The only deep sadness that comes out of this is the British attempt to change Zandeland. Their radical ideals to Anglo-cize the Azande was unsettling. Their idea to change these people was very ill thought. Luckily, these people have held onto their belief in witchcraft.
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