Witchcraft in Four African Societies

 S.F. Nadel does an excellent job of introducing the reader to the perceptions of witchcraft in African society by conducting a cross comparative analysis of attitudes in four separate societies. What he uncovers is that there is no default attitude to witchcraft and no generic archetypical witch.

Prior to reading I had assumed that witches would be female and marginalised and certainly in his first example, the Nupe, I was partly correct. Far from the cosy notions of Sabrina lies the Nupe’s perception of witches. In short, the female witches (gáci)are evil, duplicitous and subversive whereas the male witches are benevolent and good and are tasked with quelling the evil spread by the females. In addition to this, the female witches are dependant on cooperation with males if they want their witchcraft to be fully effective.

 

Whilst the Nupe and the Gwari both share a belief in the existence of witches they differ greatly in their approach. Whereas the aforementioned Nupe, ascribe a gender to ‘evil witchcraft’, the Gwari do not. In addition to this, the Nupe deal with witches via the use, or threat of, torture, the Gwari on the other hand perform a annual (and peaceful) ritual cleanse.

 

The other two societies that Nadel discusses are the Korongo and the Mesakin, in this particular comparison, Nadel examines why only the Mesakin believe in witchcraft in spite of the fact that the two societies share ‘the same economy, political organization, and religious beliefs and practices’ (Nadel, 1970, 269) . The contrast is stark, Nadel states that the Mesakin ‘are literally obsessed by fears of witchcraft’ (Nadel, 1970, 270) whereas the Korongo have no witchcraft beliefs at all. Nadel asserts that the Mesakin’s belief in witchcraft may be borne out of the male dominated culture in which virility and youth is paramount. The fact that sexual contact and the aging process are linked could explain why ‘accusations of witchcraft…are always directed against a person likely to feel the resentment and anxieties that go with mature age’ (Nadel, 1970, 276 . Ultimately Nadel argues that witchcraft is a ‘projection of hostility of the of the old…springing from such envy of youth’ (Nadel, 1970, 276).

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