Nadel’s “Witchcraft in Four African Societies”

Nadel’s comparison of two pairs of African societies is an attempt to understand fully some of the more destructive results of an unrelenting persecution of witches. Through the comparison of Nupe and Gwari societies in Nigeria and the Mesakin and Korongo societies in Sudan, Nadel hopes to identify the main similarities and differences between these societies to use as a foundation for his speculation. Nadel’s theory on the general phenomenon of witchcraft is that the fears of witchcraft are directly linked to the grievances of a particular society, and thus the witches themselves must reflect the particular social anxieties present in the case studies.

The majority of the study comprises of an examination of life in both pairs of societies, first focussing on the similarities and then on to the marked differences including, but not limited to, remarkably differing attitudes towards witchcraft. The Nupe and Gwari both share the belief in the existence of witches, but have astoundingly different attitudes towards identifying and dealing with witches. The Nupe strongly believe that witches are exclusively female, which Nadel argues as being indicative of ‘sex-antagonism’ directly linked to male resentment of female economic domination in their society. The Nupe methods for the removal of witches are centred around torture or threats of it. The Gwari on the other hand do not discriminate by gender and have an annual community ritual where the village is cleansed peacefully.

The comparison between Korongo and Mesakin societies however caught my interest more as only the Mesakin believe in witches, despite the geographical and social proximity of the two groups. Nadel mentions the lack of an intricate creationist mythology as a potential cause for the Mesakin’s fierce fear of witches, but immediately dismisses it in favour of an examination of the testosterone driven culture of the two societies, but also the different stresses the two put on different ages. The fear of aging, which is believed to be accelerated through sexual contact, is created by the removal of activities central to the culture after the male has reached ‘old age’. It is the differing definitions of ‘old age’ that appears to create one relatively harmonious society and another crippled by its terrible fear of witches.

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