Review of E.E. Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande
E.E. Evans-Pritchard. 1937 (1976). Witchcraft Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford University Press, New York. 1976.
This book explores the Azande group from Sudan, Africa and their societies relationship with beliefs and rites and the main forms these take. It focuses on beliefs regarding magic and how this influences and reflects the social structure of the community. Primarily this revolves around beliefs of witchcraft and how the Azande place blame, react to and discover witchcraft and witches. Included though are the notions of sorcery, oracles and witch-doctors. These beliefs, although only one aspect of their society, are so prevalent in every-day life that the book is able to detail the important parts of Azande life and death through the study of them. However, at the time of the study,1920’s, many changes were beginning in Azande social structure as British rule changed their society. Notably in law, Princes courts were not longer the ultimate tribunal and what had been previously regarded as means of proof for Azande were disregarded by British rulers. Thus this study finds the Azande in a transient state, with some features not conforming entirely to the previous norm of society.
The methods employed to study Azande culture seems to greatly differ from the majority of ethnographic studies of the time. The approach taken was to question the people and challenge their beliefs rather than to merely observe and accept their actions thus revealing an exposition of greater detail and understanding than most before. In doing this, not only did he discover more details and information regarding their culture, he was also able to uncover a much more coherent and logical system of beliefs than would have otherwise been identified. Due to this coherence this book seems to reveal the intelligence of the indigenous people contradicting traditional, earlier views of the ‘irrationality of primitive people’. Throughout comparisons are drawn between Western and Azande thoughts but without putting them into opposition and giving one greater truth value than another. Often the author would alter opinion as to the validity of the Azande beliefs saying first ‘I have…seen witchcraft’ (pg.11) and later ‘Witches…clearly cannot exist’ (pg.18). Always though the aim was to demonstrate that Azande were not irrational and their beliefs should not be written off out of hand, rejecting the theory of Edward Tylor that magical practice was illogical because they subverted the true cause and effect relationships. Evans-Pritchard even admits that while there he also accepted their beliefs despite often appearing critical.
The book is divided into four distinct sections headed witchcraft, oracles, witch-doctors, and magic. Each is then presented with chapters regarding different subjects and issues relating to the topic making it clear what information is going to be gained in reading that particular section. Also included is an introduction by Eva Gillies and four appendix chapters. The introduction manages to convey to some degree how Azande culture has greatly changed since the study allowing the reader to comprehend the changes which were beginning when the study was conducted.
The first topic discussed is that of witchcraft (Mangu) in chapters 1 to 4. Witchcraft is the starter topic as ‘it is an indispensable back-ground to the other beliefs’ (pg.1). The first chapter explains how a witch is defined and what is attributed to witchcraft with the subsequent chapters exploring fuller explanations and Evans-Pritchard’s own theories as to why Azande have these beliefs and how it can be thought rational and can relate to Western society. The obvious faults in witchcraft beliefs are also stated but a justification as to why it should be the case that the belief system has such glaring yet ignored faults is also offered; ‘Azande do not perceive the contradiction as we perceive it’(pg.4). It becomes obvious quickly that, although beliefs in witchcraft seem, from the Western perspective, to be irrational, the Azande perspective on it is not one of ignorance or naivety, rather one that fits well with a social structure and has a well formed logical background to it, equal to that of our own society. Witchcraft is not due to mere lack of understanding of causation as they were well aware of the cause but just thought that, when care was taken and taboos not broken, these unfortunate events would occur as the result of witchcraft. However, death is more definitive as ‘Death is due to witchcraft’(pg.5) and it is death which Azande mostly seeks to identify and punish the witch for, usually the witches identity is irrelevant as great harm is not normally caused or nothing can be gained by learning who is responsible.
From witchcraft follows witch-doctors; a means by which the Azande can ‘guard themselves against witchcraft and destroy it’. Chapters 5 to 7 looks into the closed off practices of the witch-doctor leading to less conventional styles of ethnography. Evans-Pritchard could only gain information about witch-doctors ‘by becoming a witch-doctor’(pg.67). Believing information would be hidden from him, Evans-Pritchard asked his personal servant, Kamanga, to participate instead and having him recount the practices taught. Being aware of this the training witch-doctor withheld information leading Evans-Pritchard to provoke a rivalry with another witch-doctor, having each attempt to prove the other knew less. This method, although experimental, proved fruitful for information about the secret actions of witch-doctors. The scepticism Evans-Pritchard holds regarding the validity of the witch-doctors practices are obvious throughout; believing the witch-doctor only says ‘what his listener wishes’(pg.82). This scepticism is revealed to have been a reliable view as a primary function of the witch-doctors (surgery) is revealed to be only sleight of hand. However, it is further revealed that Azande are themselves sceptical of this to some degree but this scepticism is most commonly explained as an individual failure of that witch-doctor. Also, these failings are explained in mystical terms; a ’cheat because his medicines are poor’(pg.107) and a ‘liar because he possesses no witchcraft’(pg.107) thus continuing to support the web of mystical beliefs. Witch-doctors themselves maintain faith despite faking acts, ‘in spite of [the witch-doctors] extra knowledge, [he] is as deep a believer’(pg.117). The social structure is therefore conveyed as not as a solid, trusted, ignorant view but one of rational understanding of things working and not. It is not a blind faith but one which conforms to human behaviour, understanding, and rational thought.
The following section is ‘Oracles’, a more reliable source of magical information and divination than witch-doctors. Each of the three main oracles used are described in detail; purpose, activities, and reliability. Primarily though the focus is on the poison oracle, the findings of which are regarded as undeniable fact and primary source of court justification before British rule. Explained also is the ambiguity of the questions means 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).
The final segment of the book regards the notion of magic. The ideas of good and bad magic are sharply divided in Azande society. Scepticism again enters the descriptions as ‘I am still doubtful whether bad medicines…really exist’(pg.192). The division of good and bad in magic seem reinforces social ideas of accountability; good magic judges and ‘acts only against criminals’(pg.189) while bad magic ‘slays one of the party…without regard to the merits of the case’(pg.189). Also displayed in this section is the flexibility of the 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 the chapter continues to describe 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 the association itself. It seems that the normal customs of Azande society are opposed by these associations as convention regarding sex division and respect of 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 Azande.
A primary criticism of Evans-Pritchard’s work is his inconsistent opinion regarding reliability of Azande beliefs. He seems to differ from being whole heartedly immersed in the beliefs to being totally unconvinced of it having worthy substance. This though does enable the reader to see how their beliefs can be understood differently. Mentioned occasionally throughout the book is the relation of men to 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. Another briefly mentioned aspect of their beliefs is that of ghosts; it seems the Azande do have an association with ghost but, Evans-Pritchard fails to explain this belief at all. 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. Also as it is unclear in some situations whether a practise is new or well founded, conforming tradition before British rule.
Despite any faults, this book was the first to truly seek the embedded understanding of magical practises and to explain the phenomena in the societies own terms, giving the Azande a greater level of respect. Evans-Pritchard also acted to reflect on his own beliefs rather than merely allowing his previous understanding to overwhelm the possibility of Azande beliefs.