S. F. Nadel’s “Witchcraft in Four African Societies: an essay in comparison”

I read S. F. Nadel’s “Witchcraft in four African Societies: an essay in comparison” which was published in 1952. I found it important to remind myself of that while reading the article as some of the ideas appeared to be slightly controversial. For example the thought that witchcraft beliefs are related to mental stresses precisely as psychopathological symptoms are related to mental disturbances of this nature.

Apart from that I found quite a few ideas in this essay rather intriguing. For example, in the Mesakin society in Central Sudan, witchcraft is always related to the tensions between the younger and the older members of this society. It all revolves around the inheritance the mother’s brother is supposed to give to his sister’s son. What struck me was that the brothers are almost always reluctant to give out the inheritance, which is never the case in the other Central Sudanese, the Korongo society. The reason behind this reluctance, apparently, is that among the Mesakin, being young is almost regarded as a superior state to being old. There are resentment and anxieties that go with mature age among the Mesakin.
I found this interesting because in the African societies I have studied beforehand, the eldest members of the society are always the most important and honorable ones. Elders are treated as superior to the young, but it all seems to be upside down for the Mesakin.

The author also stated a hypothesis at the beginning of the article. He assumed that infantile experiences represent a paramount determinant of culture and they affect the ideas of witchcraft. At the end of the article, though, Nadel found that infantile experiences definitely have some importance in the ideas of witchcraft, but they also arise just as much from adult experiences.

I also noticed connections being drawn between sexual relations and witchcraft. In the Nupe and Gwari societies in Northern Nigeria, until the child is two or three years old, parents refrain from cohabitation. In Nupe, the wife will later start visiting the father in his hut and the children will stay in the sleeping quarters. It is important to mention that in Nupe, only the females can be witches. In Gwari, on the other hand, the husband visits the wife and it is certain that children are often there to witness the intercourse. This again might entail deeply unsettling psychological effects for the children and it could foster the oedipus trauma and definite tensions between child and father.
When it comes to sexual relations in the Sudanese societies, the decline in physical vigor at the end of adolescence is attributed to the cumulative effects of sexual activity. Both of the Sudanese groups believe that regular sexual intercourse is weakening for the male. This again will lead to the aforementioned envy of youth among the Mesakin. So among these societies, the act of sex could sometimes be seen as one of the reasons behind witchcraft.


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