Notes on Nadel’s work, “Witchcraft in four African societies.”

Nadel’s discussion of witchcraft takes four individual African societies and pairs them by way of two distinct geographical areas, for comparative and analytical purposes. His style is immediately synonymous with the British school of Anthropology, and the supervisor he studied under (Malinowski), as he takes care to detail the intricate and somewhat intertwined systems of government, social structure and belief that these people rule themselves by, using notes and experience from fieldwork.

The topic of Nadel’s work is immediately interesting, as a student of both African Studies and Anthropology, but one of the two premises that is set out as an overarching assumption creates a somewhat skeptical tone over the text. Nadel suggests that witchcraft is “causally related to frustrations, anxieties or mental stresses” in the same way that psychopathological systems are related to other “mental disorders”(1970, 264). This brief yet staggering comparison suggests that the author is studying witchcraft beliefs from a very western point of a view, and as a person from a society where these beliefs are not such common practice, or even considered tangible.  For me, this opinion stuck for the duration of the text, and highlighted even more so the links that Nadel subsequently creates, as modes of explanation behind the practice, between witchcraft and ongoing social politics.

The first societies under comparison, the Nupe and Gwari of Nigeria, are described as similar in nearly everyway apart form their fundamental views of how witchcraft works. Although both conceive it as “unequivocally evil” (1970, 265), Nadel shows a distinction between beliefs. For example, he discusses at length the ideas about female only witchcraft in the Nupe (with men playing an ambiguous and confused preventative role), before briefly explaining that the Gwari do not distinguish between sex and gender. Nadel’s reasoning behind this is based on an interesting anthropological theory of social structure (despite both societies being based on patrilineal descent), and the institution of marriage in particular. He explains that whilst for the Gwari marriage is relatively tension free, it is “full of tension and mutual hostility” in the Nupe (1970, 268). The link then is that the frustrations felt by the men in Nupe society are projected into a belief that it is women who oppress and dominant society by way of social prowess and practice of witchcraft.

The second pair of societies, based in Sudan, show more divergent feelings toward witchcraft, although Nadel still relates both to the function and values of each society. The Korongo and Mesakin again are extraordinarily similar to one another, with societies based on matrilineal inheritance and specific aging brackets for males. However, the detailed systems of each society lend the Korongo to a disbelief in the practice of witchcraft and the Mesakin to a strong fear of it. In brief, Nadel suggests the main cause of the Mesakin’s beliefs are rooted in a frustration in society of age and growing old, which is realised in the system of cattle inheritance from a mother’s brother to his sister’s son. Although this act is performed in both Korongo and Mesakin, the management of the Mesakin system creates extreme tension when this gift can be taken through quarrel, if the former has not yet accepted his state of maturity. In contrast the Korongo are suggested to deal with this practice better, due to more gradual age brackets and the ability to delay the gift. This analysis conforms to the overall argument of this piece, that frustrations and anxieties create a reactionary belief in witchcraft when one party is oppressed by another.

Nadel’s argument that witchcraft exists due to frustrations felt in society remains clear throughout, as it is possible to see how the particulars of the belief change and mould to each variation of stress in a system. However, is any society truly free from some form of frustration? And how can we be sure that all belief in witchcraft is born out of this?


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