Rationality among the Azande

E.E. Evans-Pritchard, in “Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande,” draws a compelling example of the rational structuring of human society both contingent to and regardless of geographic locale. He introduces to us, through a narrative of the belief structure to which they adhere, the Azande tribe of central Africa – a tribe whose systems of self-governance and inherent morality, through artifice, superstition, and animal sacrifice would ordinarily seem not only savage but inhumane to most of the Western world. The Azande, whose ritual, theocratic social structure seems, at first glance through Western eyes, to be little more than illogical dogma, at closer look soon becomes a much more complex and reinforced system of social mores and communal cohesion that, at least on some very elemental levels, parallels even those Western dogmatic belief systems which we hold in such high regard. In short, by objectively observing the purpose behind such seemingly bizarre activities, Evans-Pritchard presents a common rationality behind the formation of societies that, on the surface, appear to be vastly different.

The Azande theocratic social structure revolves mostly around the existence and influence of witchcraft, a genetically inherited ability that finds its power in a dark viscous substance that resides in the belly of arguably all Azande1. This “witchcraft-substance,” which lies dormant for the majority of a Zande’s lifetime, can occasionally become awakened and apparently subconsciously seeks-out and inflicts illness upon a specific person who is held in disfavor by the substance’s host. The Azande use this phenomenon to explain any sort of ill-fated mishap which may befall them, from an unprofitable hunt to the stubbing of one’s toe in the brush2 (It may, quite accurately, be related in such small-scale situations to the Western concept of “luck”).  At the first sight of any misfortune, the Azande are quick to blame witchcraft. “[It] is ubiquitous… [and] plays its part in every activity of Zande life.”(18) The Azande, naturally, have formulated many methods to prevent, combat, and repel this witchcraft. The lower order, and perhaps the most socially complex of these methods is to employ the aid of a witch-doctor.

Witch-doctors play a particularly interesting part in the social structure of the Azande, as well as an integral part in the understanding of its methods. In everyday life, those who profess themselves to be witch-doctors are the same as any other member of the community; they are socially equal to their neighbors and live amongst them, assuming the social ranking “of an ordinary citizen.”3 This is, in part, where they find their greatest strength; it is also, in the eyes of the community, perhaps the source of their unreliability. Witch-doctors are hired to, through a complex ritual of medicine and mesmerism, discover the identity of a witch who is currently employing his or her witchcraft against another member of the village4. They apparently discover these witches through some manner of mystical divination, though it helps quite dramatically that, as members of the community, they are privy to the squabbles and disagreements between those who may bear one another ill-will. This is part of the artifice of their belief system, though it still proves effective. A key to this effectiveness is likely the apparent catch-all of oracles that can be utilized in addition to the witch-doctor. The witch-doctor differs from other oracular methods of divination in that (and is likely taken as unreliable because) he is human and is the only method of divination that relies on human logic.

Every method of oracular divination utilized by the Azande centers around the need to discover and eradicate witchcraft – from the “rubbing-board oracle” to the “termite oracle” – but only one method produces results that are so indisputable as to be legally actionable: the poison oracle5. The level of faith that the tribespeople put in the poison oracle, as opposed to the witch-doctor, is particularly revealing. The witch-doctor, who uses human logic to seek his results, is unreliable; the poison oracle, a system that relies almost indefinitely on chance, is not. The basic set of events when consulting the poison oracle function as thus: a number of men find a secluded spot in the brush, away from any prying eyes; these men produce a thick, red poison, similar in its chemical properties to strychnine; they pose a question to the poison oracle and proceed to pour this thick poison down the throat of a number of domestic fowl (who are bred for this specific reason) and wait to bear witness to the end result. The fowl may become sick, it may show visible signs of pain, or it may not. In the end, if the fowl survives, their suspicion is unfounded; if the fowl dies, their suspicion is confirmed.6

In the direst of cases, the question posed to the poison oracle is delivered by a man who has a friend or family member who has fallen gravely ill. In this case, he will present the poison oracle with a number of names of people in the village whom he believes capable of witchcraft against his family and the poison oracle will divine either a negative or affirmative answer to each name accordingly. If a person is found by the poison oracle to be guilty of witchcraft toward the sick party, they will be presented with a sort of ‘cease and desist’ order under possible penalty of vengeance7 (though Evans-Pritchard is never quite clear as to what exactly this vengeance entails). The assumed accuracy of this method, and the indisputability of its results, reveals an underlying purpose in the methodology of the Azande belief system and hints at a greater sense of morality in their social structure at large. It is key to note that if the poison oracle does not produce clear and reliable results, the fault lies in one of the men conducting the ritual (either he, himself, is a victim of witchcraft or he has not respected some ritual taboo leading up to the ceremony and has thus tainted it) not in the efficiency of the ritual itself.

The Azande, in putting such a great degree of faith in the poison oracle, ritually manifest the importance vested in chance or fate rather than in reason. That they leave these sometimes grave divinations up to the will of the oracles shows faith not only in themselves and their greater understanding of the universe as a whole, but in the benevolence of the universe as well. “The notion of witchcraft is not only a function of misfortune and of personal relations but also comprises moral judgment… The Zande phrase ‘It is witchcraft’ may often be translated simply as ‘It is bad’.”(48) The Azande, in putting this intense faith in the poison oracle, naturally assume that, given a 50/50 chance, the oracle (or the universe behind the oracle) will choose benevolently. On the other hand, it is man who is capable of witchcraft.

The Azande justify their beliefs, or fill in the loopholes of their system, by creating this complex structure of dogma to reinforce dogma. This, in an ironic twist, is perhaps an ideal illustration of functionalism. Put simply, the dogma of this belief system fulfills the human need for governance. When compared to the dogmatic systems of Western culture, it becomes a clear display of what Adolf Bastian would call “the psychic unity of mankind” – that the mental acts of people everywhere on the planet conform to certain “elementary ideas,” or ideas specific to humanity that cause a society’s structure to develop over the course of their history from exhibiting simple sociocultural institutions to becoming increasingly complex in their organization. The Azande witchcraft system’s structure of constituent elements – from the witch-doctors, to the oracles, to the witches themselves – serves to reinforce a greater system that functions to fulfill this basic human need.

The reason why the belief system of the Azande is so effective in governing its people’s social behavior, as adherent to their specific folkways, is perhaps found in the gemeinschaft itself. An outside observer would naturally assume that this constant looming threat of (even unwitting) witchcraft would make the Azande an embittered, paranoid people. But as Evans-Pritchard notes, “Although they may at any moment be struck down by witchcraft they do not despair. Far from being gloomy, all observers have described Azande as cheerful people who are always laughing and joking. For Azande need not live in continual dread of witchcraft, since they can enter into relations with it and thereby control it by means of oracles and magic.” (65) It would seem that this constant threat of witchcraft, rather than producing malice between tribespeople, instead serves as a reason for them to be exceptionally hospitable to one-another. If a dispute arises between tribespeople, it is quick to be quelled – as both sides of the dispute are weary not only of the threat of witchcraft against them, but also of the threat of the ramifications of their own witchcraft accidentally harming another. This system of witchcraft, then, serves to regulate and encompass the very idea of morality for the Azande. Though the reasoning of its dogma may, at times, prove to be rather shallow, its purpose, and belief in its legitimacy, becomes absolutely essential.

Let’s compare this, now, to the reasoning of Western dogma. Upon first superficial comparisons from a Western perspective, the Azande system of morality as governed by witchcraft seems sublimely different from that of Catholicism (for example) or the idea of trial by a jury of one’s peers versus the poison oracle. These nevertheless distinctive social systems are obviously vastly politically different in cultural terms, but as Evans-Pritchard suffices to demonstrate, their very existences are glaring evidence of a drastically similar underlying rationality (that is, systems by which to reinforce and regulate the morality and etiquette of the people within a society). If Bronislaw Malinowski, a contemporary of Evans-Pritchard, tells us that “ethnography has introduced law and order into what seemed chaotic and freakish,”8 then I would propose this is exactly what Evans-Pritchard has accomplished.  By merely offering a practicality behind the rituals which initially seem vastly absurd to Western society, he thus affirms the notion of the “psychic unity of mankind,” and brings these two distinctive societies into almost a sort of “binary opposition” that serves to define within the comparison the abstract notion of humanity itself.


Works cited

1Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Pages 1-3 Print.

2Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Pages 18-21 Print.

3Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Page 111 Print.

4Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Page 66 Print.

5Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Page 120 Print.

6Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Pages 127-138 Print.

7Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976. Page 41 Print.

8 Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1984.  Page 9 Print.