A Review of Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard's "Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande"
E.E. Evans-Pritchard was one of the founding researchers and practices of social anthropology. He focused specifically on African cultures.
Evans-Pritchard's book Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande explores the beliefs and rites of the Azande group in Sudan, Africa. In it, Evans-Pritchard observes the Azande relationship to 'magic' and how this relationship influences the social structure in the Azande community.
The Azande social structure is built around beliefs about witchcraft and how the Azande place blame, react to and discover witchcraft and witches. The Azande identify sorcery, oracles and witch-doctors as active agents of change in their community. Observations of magic in the Azande culture shaped social norms.
A Shift in Azande Societal Norms
At the time of Evans-Pritchard's study in the 1920s, British influence was present in Sudan. Because of this, Azande Prince courts were no longer the ultimate tribunal and traditions previously regarded as determining practices for the Azande were disregarded by British rulers. Evans-Pritchard's study finds the Azande in a transient state, with some features not conforming entirely to the culture's previously British-free society.
Social Anthropology: Method and Structure
The methods used to study Azande culture greatly differed from the majority of ethnographic studies from the same time.
Evans-Pritchard questioned the Azande people and challenged their beliefs rather than to merely observing the Azande behavior. Evans-Pritchard revealed greater detail and a broadened perspective of the Azande culture because of his interrogative angle. He was able to uncover a much more coherent and logical system of beliefs than would have been observed using traditional methods usually used in the same time period.
This book prioritizes the intelligence of the indigenous people, contradicting traditional, earlier views gleaned from ethnography, often deeming the ways of the indigenous people as the ‘irrationality of primitive people’.
Evans-Pritchard draws comparisons between Western and Azande thought, but without putting them into opposition. He avoids creating an imbalanced dichotomy where one culture has perceived greater objective value than the other.
Throughout the book, Evans-Pritchard exhibited he had no set opinion of whether he believes in the Azande witches or not. This is shown especially when he first says ‘I have…seen witchcraft’ (pg.11) then later ‘Witches…clearly cannot exist’ (pg.18). It seemed his aim was to always demonstrate that Azande were not irrational. Evans-Pritchard admits in the text that while there he accepted their beliefs despite often appearing critical.
This open-minded approach to ethnography is in direct opposition to theories implemented by Edward Tylor. Tylor, an anthropologist practicing at a similar time, maintained that magical practice was illogical and regressive because they subverted 'true' cause and effect relationships.
The book is divided into four distinct sections headed 'Witchcraft', 'Oracles', 'Witch-Doctors', and 'Magic'. Each chapter is a detailed account of each role supernatural beings or acts takes in the Azande culture.
Also included is an introduction by Eva Gillies and four appendix chapters. The introduction conveys how Azande culture has changed since the study. This sets the stage for cultural changes that began to take place when the study was conducted.
Section 1: Witchcraft
Witchcraft (Mangu) is discussed in Chapters 1 to 4. Witchcraft is the first point of discussion because ‘it is an indispensable background to the other beliefs [of the Azande]’ (pg.1). The first chapter defines a witch and what is considered witchcraft. The subsequent chapters explore Evans-Pritchard’s own theories as to why Azande have these beliefs and how they're relatable to theories in Western societal thought.
The faults of belief in witchcraft are described, but a justification for the belief system that has such glaring yet ignored faults is also offered. This justification is softened with the following statement: ‘Azande do not perceive the contradiction as we perceive it’ (pg.4).
It becomes obvious quickly by Evans-Pritchard's text that, although beliefs in witchcraft seem, from the Western perspective, to be irrational, the Azande perspective is formed based off a different discursive experience of the world.
What Is Considered Witchcraft?
Witchcraft was the reason for an outcome that happened seemingly without bad karma or a single initiation point. Death in the Azande world is the primary outcome of witchcraft identified by Evans-Pritchard; i.e., ‘Death is due to witchcraft’ (pg.5) and it is death which Azande mostly seeks to identify and punish the witch for. Usually, the witch's identity is irrelevant as great harm is not normally caused or nothing can be gained by learning who is responsible.
Section 2: Witch-Doctors
Witch-doctors in the Azande culture ‘guard[ed] themselves against witchcraft and destroy it’. Chapters 5 through 7 look into the private practices of the witch-doctor. Because of the privacy in the Azande community surrounding witch-doctors, the ethnographic techniques used to study them became increasingly unconventional by Evans-Pritchard's account. Evans-Pritchard could only gain information about witch-doctors ‘by becoming a witch-doctor’ (pg.67). Believing information would be hidden from him even then, Evans-Pritchard asked his personal servant, Kamanga, to participate in becoming a witch-doctor instead. Evans-Pritchard then asked Kamanga to recount the practices taught to him in the witch-doctor training.
A Sneaky Competition for Information
It seemed even Evans-Pritchard's relationship with Kamanga was not enough; the training witch-doctor knew of Kamanga's relationship and withheld information. This lead Evans-Pritchard to provoke a rivalry with another witch-doctor. In order to gain information, he created a competition with the other witch-doctor where each would attempt to prove the other knew less. This method, although experimental, proved fruitful for information about the secret actions of witch-doctors.
It is clear Evans-Pritchard is sceptical of the witch-doctors practices throughout; he believes the witch-doctor only says ‘what his listener wishes’ (pg.82) to hear. This scepticism is confirmed; witch-doctors who performed surgery were revealed to be performing only sleight-of-hand. It is further revealed that Azande are sceptical of this to some degree as well. This sleight-of-hand is most commonly explained as an individual failure of that witch-doctor. When a witch-doctor failed, their failure was explained with mystical reasoning: He was a ’cheat because his medicines are poor’ (pg.107) and a ‘liar because he possesses no witchcraft’ (pg.107). Despite understanding that the practices of witch-doctors were ineffective, the Azande rationalized them away with mystical reasoning.
Reflection and Conformity
Witch-doctors maintain the faith despite faking acts, ‘in spite of [the witch-doctor's] extra knowledge, [he] is as deep a believer’ (pg.117). The social structure around witch-doctors within the Azande people is therefore conveyed as not as a solid, trusted, ignorant view but one of rational understanding of things working and not. It is dynamic. It is not blind faith but one which conforms to human behavior, understanding, and rational thought.
Section 3: Oracles
‘Oracles’ covers more on Azande magic than previous sections.
Evans-Pritchard primarily focuses on poison oracle. the findings of which are regarded as undeniable fact and primary source of court justification before British rule. Questions of the oracle lacked ambiguity suggesting that ‘there is little chance of the oracle being proved wrong’ (pg.160). Despite this lack of conviction as to the worth of oracle findings Evans-Pritchard still maintains that they are not impractical and that they do have a place in societies structure, ‘their blindness is not due to stupidity’ (pg.159).
Section 4: Magic
The final segment of the book is about magic. Perceptions of good and bad magic are starkly divided in Azande society. Scepticism by the Azande again are called into play: ‘I am still doubtful whether bad medicines…really exist’ (pg.192).
Good Vs. Bad Magic
The division of good and bad in magic seem to reinforce social ideas of accountability.
- Good magic judges and ‘acts only against criminals’ (pg.189)
- Bad magic ‘slays one of the party…without regard to the merits of the case’ (pg.189)
Also described in this section is the flexibility of the magic structure. Each situation has multiple possible magical explanations as ‘notions do not bind everyone to identical beliefs’ (pg.194); ‘each twists the notion…[to] suit himself’ (pg.194).
Beyond the descriptions and doubts of magic, Evans-Pritchard continues the chapter describing the secretive existence of closed associations arising in the first two decades of the century, particularly the Mani.
These associations appear to be a result of European invasion and this is reflected in the structure of each individual association itself. It seems that the normal customs of Azande society are opposed by these associations as convention regarding gender division and respect for elders and nobility is not the same. Also confused is the ‘division of magic into good and bad’ (pg. 218). The new changes to Azande society are exposed to a greater extent towards the end of the book, conveying the threat these changes posed to the beliefs and social system of the traditional Azande.
Issues With Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande
A primary criticism of Evans-Pritchard’s work is his inconsistent opinion regarding reliability of Azande beliefs. He seems to oscillate between being wholeheartedly immersed in the beliefs to being totally unconvinced of their traditions having worthy substance. This helps the reader both empathise with and criticize the Azande beliefs.
- Gender and Mysticism: Mentioned occasionally throughout the book is the relation between men and women and women’s relation to the mystical beliefs. However, this is not delved into in much detail leaving the reader lacking information about women’s position in society.
- Ghosts: Another briefly mentioned aspect of their beliefs is that of ghosts; it seems the Azande do have an association with ghosts but Evans-Pritchard fails to explain this belief at all.
- When One Applies Mystic Theory: It is also difficult to differentiate between when magic was and was not allowed but this could perhaps have been a feature of the society which is merely reflected in the book. The previous methods and means of relation to witchcraft could have been detailed more fully.
- Ambiguity Around Tradition: Also as it is unclear in some situations whether a practise is new or a well-founded, conforming tradition from before British rule.
A Foundation for Social Anthropology
Despite any faults, this book was the first to truly seek and understand magical practises, and the first ethnographic account to attempt to explain phenomena in the societies own terms.
Evans-Pritchard also reflected on his own beliefs rather than merely allowing his discursive experience overwhelm the possibility of Azande beliefs. This is the founding of the much-improved cannon of anthropological methods used today.
E.E. Evans-Pritchard. 1937 (1976). Witchcraft Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford University Press, New York. 1976.