Witchcraft in Four African Societies

In his ethnography S. F  Nadel focuses his research on the four similarly structured societies of: the Nupe and Gwari of North Nigeria and the Korongo and Musakin of Central Sudan. Nadel is demonstrating, through a cross comparative analysis of the societies the differences that the societies hold in terms of their Witchcraft practices.  Furthermore, he seeks to understand how these practices can be so very diverse whilst their societal structure such as kinship and language is all relatively similar. Nadel discovers that each society has a distinct way of shaping their witchcraft beliefs; and by the end of the piece it is clear that he believes that the way witchcraft is perceived is very much interlinked to societal frustrations and antagonism between gender and age.

For example, while researching the Nupe, Nadel discovered that the society is structured in a way that sees women more often than not surpassing men in the sexual hierarchy. Thus this creates within the Witchcraft belief system women as the delinquent and evil figure whilst the man is portrayed as benevolent and in charge of controlling the evil. This very much aligns to the western notion of witches which, as seen every Halloween is very much linked to women’s sinister power. Counter to this, Nadel sees in the Gwari a very different theme within their beliefs. Witches are entirely indiscriminate, there is no sexual antagonism. Furthermore to be rid of the witch it becomes an entirely community focused cleansing ritual whereas the Nupe use forms of torture as a way to ride the evil.  

In Nadels second comparative study he looks at the Mesakin and the Korongo societies that although sharing almost all aspects of ‘the sameeconomy, political organization, and religious beliefs and practices’ (Nadel, 1970, 269) their beliefs in witchcraft are entirely different. The Korongo have in fact no belief in witchcraft whilst the Mesakin are somewhat obsessed by the mysterious and malignant power. It is these stark differences in their beliefs that help to understand their social structure. For both societies the age-class of the adolescent male is instrumental to the social structure, and being a matrilineal structure the power lies with the mother’s borther and the sister’s son. Nadel discovers that within these age-classes there is a stage were the inheritance must be passed down in anticipation of the older man’s death. Amongst the Korongo this passes as a smooth peaceful ceremony as there is a stark contrast between the young and the old having had six distinct age classes to pass through. However among the Mesakin; having only three age class the difference between the young and old is not all that big thus creating much antagonism and eventually room for ill-will and the use of witchcraft.

Overall Nadel concisely and clearly demonstrates that in each case it is the societal frustrations and antagonisms that cause and decide the elements and structure of the society’s belief in witchcraft. 

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