Nadel’s “Witchcraft in Four African Societies”

Nadel’s comparison of witchcraft highlights the diversity and cultural embeddedness of belief. As in other societies, individual fears, animosities and ambiguities are moulded into belief systems as a way to explain and make sense of the world. With a particular reference to the male gender, Nadel portrays witchcraft as a culturally specific method of explaining social anxieties, frustrations and “mental stresses” (p.24).


The juxtaposition of the Nupe and the Gwari, societies found in Northern Nigeria with a similar language, kinship and political structure, provides the reader with an interesting insight into conceptions of gender roles. According to Nadel, both the Nupe and the Gwari understand witchcraft to be “unequivocally evil” persons who eat the souls of their victims during the night (p.265). However, where the Gwari believe that witches can be any gender, the Nupe believe that witches are female. Nadel attributes this to the Nupe’s hostility towards successful female traders. Legend has it that a man was once murdered by his protege, a successful woman and a witch. Only men who belong to a secret society can purge the village of witches using a cloth mask in the way legend states. Personally, the Nupe’s belief in witchcraft says more about cultural notions of masculine identity than about witchcraft as a doctrine.


Nadel’s comparison of the Korongo and Mesakin in Central Sudan also draws attention to, particularly, masculine social anxieties. The Korongo and the Mesakin are also economically, politically and generally culturally similar. In both societies, a ceremonial gift or an ‘anticipated inheritance’ is given by a mother’s brother to a post-pubescent son to mark the start of his sporting activity. Interestingly, Nadel links the anticipated inheritance to the fact that the Korongo do not believe in witchcraft. In Korongo culture the inheritance gift cannot be refused but can be postponed by the mothers brother, depending on his age.


The Mesakin, on the other hand, are “literally obsessed by fears of witchcraft” (p.270). Nadel links this to the strict rules surrounding the inheritance gift, which cannot be postponed or repeated. The Mesakin always initially reject the inheritance gift which often leads to conflict and public intervention. Should something happen to either party, accusations of witchcraft arise. Significantly, the gift represents a new generation of young men who will inevitably replace the older generation. As the Mesakin cannot postpone their gift, it is often the case that the mother’s brother are still young and therefore not ready for their impending replacement and resignation of sexual and sporting activity. Thus, the belief in witchcraft is underpinned with fear, anxiety and “envy of youth and virility” (p.275).


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