Thoughts on Evans-Pritchard’s ‘The Notion of Witchcraft explains Unfortunate Events’

The first example Evans-Pritchard uses in this chapter to illustrate the Azande beliefs about witchcraft is about a boy who constantly cuts his foot on a wooden stump that was place on a bush path despite always consciously trying to avoid it. The boy identifies the fact that witchcraft may not have placed the stump there yet it does disable his ability to see it and therefore avoid cutting himself on it. From this example alone one could suggest that, although witchcraft may not strictly be seen as a religion, Evans-Pritchard appears to illustrate that the Azande use witchcraft in a similar way to Taylor’s intellectualist approach as it can be used as a mechanism to explain the unexplainable.

However, Evans-Pritchard also highlights that the Azande do not use the concept of witchcraft to explain all misfortunes. In fact it is made very clear within chapter two that witchcraft cannot be used as a scapegoat in any instances where immoral behaviour can be identified within the ‘victims’ actions. Witchcraft is not used to explain circumstances if it already has social justification, examples include breaking taboos such as committing  adultery or presenting a lack of human agency by being ignorant or lazy. This suggests that within the Azande community, people can only avoid misfortune by conforming to the social conventions of what they perceive and accept as moral behaviour. Only when people are without moral impurity can they attribute their circumstances to witchcraft. Furthermore, it is often stated that witchcraft was inflicted on people from a conflict with a friend or neighbour. This would suggest that if the community became complete harmonious there would be no misfortune as a result of witchcraft which would suggest there is perhaps some idea of social control within this concept. One could argue, therefore, that the Azande’s thoughts on witchcraft also contain elements of Durkheim’s sociological approach as the concept of witchcraft works within a set of socially accepted and practiced rules about behaviour to enable social solidarity. Thus Evans-Pritchard’s descriptions of the Azande concept of witchcraft seem to illustrate a combination of the two approaches, intellectualist and sociological, which are used to not only make sense of the world but also to keep order within it.

Evans-Pritchard introduces this chapter with the sentence: ‘Witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist’ (1976, 18). One could argue that this immediately creates a sense of scepticism and perhaps even seems quite patronising and close-minded. This tone is continued further through the chapter as Evans-Pritchard states that he ‘always argued with the Azande and criticized their statements’ about witchcraft (1976, 20). This further emphasises that Evans-Pritchard did not appear to accept or even empathise with the ideas of witchcraft for the Azande yet could be seen as trying undermining their believes by enforcing his own. This thinly-veiled attitude could lead one to question the validity of his explanations of the Azande beliefs regarding witchcraft since he clearly does not regard them as plausible and therefore may be not fully open to explanations. Evans-Pritchard compares his view of witchcraft as ‘supernatural’ with the Azande who, according to Evans-Pritchard, treat witchcraft as a common occurrence in everyday life, which makes it seem as if they are from another world. Therefore, it could be argued that this chapter highlights the sense of ‘otherness’ that can often be seen from ‘westerners’ when considering African communities and lifestyles. This idea could be said to be strengthened by the statement that Azande ‘intellectual concepts of it [witchcraft] are weak and they know better what to do when attacked by it then how to explain it’ (1976, 31). Some people could perceive this as criticism towards the Azande intellect. However, others could account this to the fact that, as previously mentioned, witchcraft is merely perceived as a common occurrence and so is not given much extended thought.

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