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The Social Functions of Witchcraft Evans Pritchard and the Azande

Evans Pritchard was the most prominent social anthropologist of the mid C20. He
attempted to establish and understand the relationships within primitive society and
the meanings primitive people give to rituals, as a means of understanding how these
societies work.
He saw these relationships as emerging from collective representations as a means of
classifying and representing the world. He was therefore sympathetic to Levy Bruhl
in that he considered collective representation to be the source of social thought and
behaviour. He did not consider the Azande as pre-logical even though they considered
their lives to be surrounded by mystical entities, but saw them as making use of
common-sense terms, such as in their explanations of why granaries fall down
(termites), and their recognition of causal processes (granaries collapse, someone
underneath is killed/injured, such misfortune must have a cause = witchcraft) in
linking events and misfortune.
For the Azande their mystical beliefs and magic are more important than religion.
Magic for them is the belief in supernatural powers, held by humans, which includes
witchcraft. Witchcraft (mangu) has a psychic quality contained in a substance in the
body of the witch it has a physical character that can be located by autopsy. But the
witch can possess the substance, and the powers it entails, without being aware of it.
Possession of the witchcraft substance is inherited. It is this witchcraft substance that
causes misfortunes including death, but not all misfortunes are caused by witchcraft.
The problem for the Azande is how to establish who are witches and when has
witchcraft been used. These questions are answered by referring to oracles. There are
different types of oracle the most important of which is the poison oracle (benge). It is
used to discover witchcraft by being administered to the bowels of a live chicken. The
presence of the witch/witchcraft is determined by whether the chicken lives or dies, in
response to questions posed by the witch doctor.
Prior to the arrival of the British in the Sudan vengeance magic was predominant and
part of the ritual was the attempt by the witch doctor to confront and cleanse the
witch. Failure on the part of the witch doctor resulted in either the witch being killed
or paying compensation to the victim. These severe punishments were banned once
the British took control.
Before the arrival of the Br the nature of these beliefs and rituals were art of a
complex political structure. All of the many Kings and Princes in Azande society had
their own poison oracle and witch doctor. For each case of suspicion of witchcraft the
witch doctor would attend and confirm their suspicions with the Prince, echoing and
reinforcing the social and political structure. Misfortune is treated as the result of illwill, and consequently attempts are made to discover who it is that bears a grudge.
The name arrives as a result of the oracle divination. The ritual was therefore a means
of dealing with a real social tension, particularly when allied to the compensation
payments. But this political structure was undone by the arrival of the Br with the
effect that subsequently magic was not so well regulated and had a considerably
weakened social force. Social relations changed but not the attributed powers of

The questions Evans Pritchard asked was why do the Azande believe in obvious nonsense such as witches, witchcraft, oracles and magic? They are rational people and
explain the working of the world in a rational way. Why then do they hold irrational
beliefs? Is it possible for rational people to accept magic and its efficacy?
Three notions of knowledge are suggested, mystical notions related to supra- sensible
qualities not logically inferred from observation, Common-sense notions logically
inferred from observation and which can be mistaken as a result of incomplete
observations. These are not mystical. And Scientific Notions that are developed from
common-sense notions but are more methodical and involve superior forms of
reasoning. In questioning mystical and common-sense notions, scientific notions are
seen as providing a means on which to base a judgement. But the Azande do not
possess scientific notions and cannot distinguish between the other two.
Why have they not developed scientific notions enabling them to see mysticism and
magic as fantastic?
1. Social Structure obstacle both common sense and mystical ideas become
adapted in different social situations. All rituals (witchcraft and magic) take
place within families. For instance death is interpreted as either the subject of
witchcraft as the result of an individual being a witch. By extension everybody
in Azande society can be a witch because witchcraft is inherited, but the
Azande do not believe that most people are witches.
2. Categorical there is no distinction between natural and super-natural and
therefore no need to delineate between mystical and common sense actions
3. Limits in the mode of experimentation the experience of the Azande with
oracles and magic makes them sceptical about the abilities of witch-doctors,
but they do not question the underlying assumptions of oracles or magic. Any
failure in the oracle or magic is simply put down to the magic/ritual not having
been done properly.
4. Lack of technology of reason The Azande have no measuring apparatus or
the technology necessary to put mystical beliefs to the test. Including in this is
the lack of a means of measuring time.
5. Mentality of Magic The Azande are involved in a world beyond experience,
a world not subject to empirical test therefore magic cannot fail and cannot be
The idea of witchcraft and the notion of rational and irrational with respect to it is
not alien to civilized societies, as evidenced by the C16 and C17 witch hunts at the
same time as they were doing science and with the same people sometimes
supporting both (eg Hobbes). It was the scientific revolution that undermined
these mystical beliefs. Evans Pritchard saw the Azande as irrational when
measured against science. In this respect he saw scientific knowledge as distinct
and able to provide judgement. However he failed to recognise the continuities
between mystical beliefs and science. In civilized scientific societies beliefs are
not always empirically demonstrable and/or crucial to social order. Illnesses are
explained in causal terms, but crime in society is explained, in social and moral
terms criminals are seen as responsible for their actions, a moral value is
attached in that they are seen to choose to do bad things. This approach ignores
any scientific explanation based on upbringing, genetics or background. People
are generally seen as self-determining, but why do we have this idea? All actions

have causes- they are determined, why then do we allocate the idea of free will, it
is not part of any scientific theory?
The distinction between natural and supernatural is drawn too thickly in modern
societies, and tends to make redundant traditional forms of knowledge with
evident material effects, which might include herbal medicine, acupuncture and
homeopathy. It also influences our perception of the character of scientific
knowledge. Evans Pritchard used science as the judge between mysticism and
common sense, but what if science is itself based on assumptions that are untested
and untenable? Thomas Kuhn argued that the only thing that judges science is
science itself, there is no going outside in order to look in. Science forms its own
belief system based on concepts and assumptions many of which are not tested.
This raises the question as to if there are independent criteria to test and judge
mystical beliefs? Should our attitudes be guided by relativism rather than