A Response to Pritchard’s ‘Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande’

Pritchard begins by laboring the point that the cultural belief in witchcraft is key to all aspects of Zande life. I feel this is important in his article as it helps to emphasize the difference between our western definition of witchcraft and that of the Azande culture. To them, witchcraft is not so much a supernatural mystery but rather, a common occurrence in the world which is used as justification for the mysteries of life. Perhaps this is why, as is mentioned later on in the article, the Azande explain why events occur through witchcraft rather than how they happen. They need not focus on a supernatural power possessing people to behave differently, instead they use witchcraft as a justification for misfortune.

I was surprised by the stark contrast between our stereotypical belief of the notion of witchcraft and the Zande tribes definition. In western society, witchcraft is considered a taboo subject as we associate it with supernatural and old ideas. Whereas the Azande welcome it as a main part of their culture in order to explain mystery.

However, they do not say that witchcraft is the sole reason for some events. If there is a clear chain of causation leading to an unfortunate event, witchcraft is a contributing factor but that does not mean to say that every event is determined by witches. They say that two independent events can be linked through the belief in witchcraft. For example, if I am just about to open my front door, I have my keys in my hand but just as I lean in, the door opens. It is my mother leaving to go to work. I drop my keys out of fright and they fall into a drain. The Zande tribe would say that although my mother leaving the house can be explained by her needing to go to work and my dropping my keys explained by the fact that I was startled, the overall incident was as a result of witchcraft because the two events happened at that particular time. If I had arrived home just five minutes later my mother would have already been gone so the chain of causation would not have occurred.

When first introduced to the notion of plurality when it comes to death, I found it to be rather unnecessary. Perhaps this is more a reflection on my not understanding enough about witchcraft in the Zande culture but I found myself unable to understand why it was not good enough just to say that the man with the spear killed the other man. Even though they explain it through reference to their ‘umbaga’ belief it seemed to me that they are aware that they use witchcraft merely as a coping mechanism. This is not uncommon and in fact all religion is based on this. Christianity for example we do not like the idea that our loved one has died so we qualify this by saying that God has intervened and chosen them to be taken to heaven.

Despite the witchcraft being the main explanation for misfortune, I found it refreshing that the Azande tribe do not ignorantly claim that this is always the reason for misfortune. If another plausible explanation is found for why something has happened they have no qualms in saying that this was the reason. Unlike other belief systems they can accept physical explanations within the world and this, for me, makes it easier to understand their views as they just reflect their culture rather than pushing a subjective religious belief on the reader.

Overall, Pritchard writes a descriptive account of this particular culture which may seem odd at first but upon further reading becomes more understandable. What the reader must remember is the difference between our view of witchcraft and what the Azande people mean when they refer to it. As only once you consider and understand the Zande concept of witchcraft can you use it to explain an unfortunate event.


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