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The Rationality Of Azande Witchcraft

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1787 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Rationality is the way in which we come to form our decisions and views, to say that something is ‘rational,’ one might say that it is characterised by reason. Rationality arose in the 17th and 18th centuries when philosophers, such as Descartes and Locke, started declaring that the use of reason was the best method of obtaining objective truths. It was also at this time that science became central in Western thinking. The ability to reason was believed to be the one essential difference that separates man from other animals. As the importance of rationality grew in Western society other traditions and superstitions were deemed irrational and lost place in Western society. Things that were now unexplainable through rational means became invalid. Rationality is a vital concept to anthropologists as it has a tremendous impact on how they interpret the way of life for the culture that they are studying. In order to understand if Azande witchcraft is ‘rational’ one must understand the background behind their beliefs and how they were formulated. In this essay I will be exploring the relationship between rationality and Azande witchcraft.

Witchcraft may be defined as ‘The use of supernatural powers for the purpose of obtaining and exercising control over other people, circumstances, or events.’ Witchcraft often poses problems anthropologists, as its supernatural nature is perhaps conflicting to the common Western notions of rationality, mainly deemed superior.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard describes in great detail in his ethnography ‘Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande,’ the beliefs and practices of the African tribe. In it he states how fundamental this witchcraft is everyday Azande life, saying it is apparent in their ‘law and morals, etiquette and religion; it is prominent in technology and language.’ He even goes so far as to say that ‘there is no niche or corner of Zande culture into which it does not twist itself.’

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According to the Azande witchcraft is believed to be a substance in the belly, which is inherited from parents of the same sex. The substance can remain dormant, meaning someone might not know that they are a witch. However it is believed that sometimes this substance will act by striking someone the witch seeks revenge upon. Because witchcraft is believed to always be present, there are several rituals connected to protection from and cancelling of witchcraft that are performed almost daily. When something out of the ordinary occurs, usually something bad, to an individual, they may blame witchcraft, just as non-Zande people may say “bad luck”.

Luck may be defined as ‘an unknown and unpredictable phenomenon that causes an event to result one way rather than another.’ According to Azande belief, various misfortunes encountered in daily life may be attributed to the action of witches. Someone may fall ill, crops may fail or a hut may catch fire. Such events may be due to the magic of a witch who lives nearby. Azande witchcraft involves no rituals, spells or medicines. Evans-Pritchard describes it is a psychic act whereby “the soul of witchcraft” leaves a witch’s body and travels over not too great a distance to interfere with its victim (1976: 10-2). Witches inherit the property of being a witch from a parent of the same sex. Their bodies contain a “witchcraft substance” found in their belly, which is what makes them a witch. After the death of a suspected witch, it may be determined whether they were indeed a witch by examining the contents of their intestines for the presence of witchcraft-substance (1976: 15-6).

The poison oracle serves as a norm on the basis of which Azande accept beliefs about events which occur in daily life. This norm is different from any norm that we possess. However, it does not suffice for relativism merely to provide an instance of an alternative epistemic norm. It must also be argued that rational justification is relative to the norms that are in fact employed within different belief systems.

The Azande employ a number of techniques to determine the action of unseen forces. One of these, which Evans-Pritchard calls the “poison oracle”, is used to answer a very broad range of questions not limited to witchcraft (1976: 122). The poison oracle is the preferred way for the Azande to determine whether a particular mishap is due to the action of a witch. In the poison oracle, a poisonous substance known as benge is administered to a chicken (1976: 134-8).

A series of questions is posed. The chicken is either unaffected by the poison or, more frequently, has violent spasms. Sometimes the chicken dies. But just as often it survives. The manner in which the chicken reacts to the poison is interpreted as indicating the presence or absence of witchcraft. In certain circumstances, for example if a legal matter is at stake, poison is administered to a second chicken in order to confirm the result. When this is done, the questions are framed in such a way that, if the chicken dies the first time, the second chicken must survive, and vice versa. The Azande’s use of the poison oracle is an example of an epistemic norm that differs from any norm that we employ.1 For the Azande, appeal to the oracle provides reason to believe that a particular occurrence either is or is not the result of witchcraft. The oracle serves as an epistemic norm which operates in Azande society as the basis for beliefs about witchcraft. In this paper, I will use the Azande poison oracle as an example to illustrate the epistemological relativist claim that epistemic norms vary with belief system.

Evans-Pritchard in his ethnographic text ‘Witchcraft Oracles and Magic Among the Azande’ wrote about the Azande people of Sudan. The belief in witches and witchcraft was an integral part of Azande life at this time. Evans-Pritchard gives the example of when an old granary collapses, killing or injuring somebody resting beneath it. He stresses that Zande people know that termites eat away at the wood, and that in the heat the granary provides shade. The Azande people however seek to determine why at that point that particular granary fell on that particular person. The first port of call is always witchcraft because ‘If there had been no witchcraft, people would have been sitting under the granary and it would not have fallen on them, or it would have collapsed but the people would not have been sheltering under it at the time. Witchcraft explains the coincidence of these two happenings.’ To the Azande people it is perfectly rational to suspect witches are responsible for these acts, as they believe that witchcraft existing is a self-evident truth. They do not question if witchcraft but rather how. A Western scientist would consider the non-existence of witchcraft to be a self-evident truth and therefore conclude something different, that the death was an accident. E. Mansell Pattison believes that the difference is not a question of rationality but rather ‘…our differing construction of what reality is.’ ; the self-evident truths we hold, and it would seem these are not as objective as we like to think they are.

The extract from EE Evans-Pritchard’s ‘Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande’ is a much-discussed text. It attracts attention both for its interesting account of the ways in which the Azande – and in particular the Azande men – see the world, take decisions and live in it, and for the methodological and philosophical questions that it raises.

Throughout the book, Evans-Pritchard takes issue with Lévy-Bruhl’s belief that the ‘savage’ thinks in a different way from modern men. The Azande may have a world-picture which is different from our own, but in their reasoning and in their actions, they are just as logical and just as reasonable as we are. Moreover, the customs which seem bizarre or mistaken to us are, in the end, just as useful as our own. The anthropologist says that he used the poison oracle himself, and that it proved as satisfactory a way of organizing his life as any other.

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In view of this, it is rather surprising to discover that the philosopher, Peter Winch, has argued that Evans-Pritchard’s account is flawed. It is flawed because, says Winch, in the end, the anthropologist subscribes to the view that Azande witchcraft beliefs, and their faith in the poison oracle are mistaken. The European adopts a scientific view where the Zande adopt a mystical one and, says Winch, for Evans-Pritchard, “the European is right and the Zande is wrong.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but, if this really is Evans-Pritchard’s position – and I’m not absolutely sure that it is – then it seems, on the face of it, to be quite reasonable. I do not myself believe that feeding poison to a chicken will or can offer me any enlightening information about the behaviour or motives of my neighbours. Nor do I believe that anyone can affect my health or my emotions by casting a spell on me. Moreover, I am convinced that my belief is well-founded. It is, I will claim, a scientific view of things, and has behind it all the weight of the immense advances in human knowledge and control of nature that science has brought about. What, then, can Winch’s objection be?

In essence, Winch argues that it is mistaken to compare the scientific view-point and Azande witchcraft beliefs at all. It is, he says, a category-mistake. My conception of the mystical – which I then dismiss as nonsense – is different from the Zande’s conception of the oracle or the witch. In fact, the problem is that I do not have the same category – magic – that the Zande possess, and so I mistakenly try to understand it by measuring it against a category that I do possess – science.

From this point of view, the Azande have a richer culture than I do: they have a ‘primitive’ technical sphere which, although rudimentary compared to mine, is adequate to their needs. But they also have magic, which I do not. Magic gives them the tools with which to do things that I cannot do, to think about things that I cannot think about (I think I am paraphrasing Winch here). I look at the Zande accounts of oracles and of witchcraft with amused condescension. But the Zande may have more justification in looking askance at my own cultural poverty.


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