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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

In his classic text, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Evans-Pritchard reveals that witchcraft (mangu) beliefs are ubiquitous and that mangu is a very real part of everyday life. An important aspect of the Zande witchcraft belief system is their consultation of oracles to reveal what is hidden. However, although the Zande consult oracles regularly and follow their guidance, as often as not the oracle contradicts himself [sic] (1976: 153). But these contradictions do not lead the Azande to question the integrity of their witchcraft beliefs. In fact, Evans-Pritchard suggests that the way the oracle is consulted the contradictions appear to be built-in to the system and are expected by the Azande, noting that [the] oracle seems so ordered to provide a maximum number of contradictions (1976: 154). In this essay, I will show how the Azande belief in witchcraft is sustained despite these apparent contradictions. In addition, I will argue that it is problematic to ask what sustains their belief in the face of counter-evidence as, from the Azande perspective there is no counter-evidence.

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

For the Azande witchcraft is a part of everyday life. They consider it to be responsible for almost all failures or misfortunes in their life; if crops fail, it is because of witchcraft, if an individual falls ill or sustains an injury, invariably it will be claimed that mangu is to blame. However, Evans-Pritchard

notes that Zande belief in witchcraft in no way contradicts empirical knowledge of cause and effect (1976: 25). Instead, witchcraft provides a means to explain the particularity of a misfortune. To illustrate how the Azande consider mangu to be responsible for an individuals misfortune, Evans-Pritchard

describes how a Zande boy, who injured his foot on a stump in the middle of a path, claimed that mangu was to blame for his misfortune. Rather than accept the boys account at face value, Evans-Pritchard challenged the boys claim; suggesting that the injury was due to carelessness on the boys part, and that as the stump had grown there naturally it was unlikely that witchcraft was to blame. Somewhat surprisingly, the boy agreed that mangu had nothing to do with the stump being there. However, he contended that as he always made the same journey taking care to locate and avoid any stumps, witchcraft was the only

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

possible explanation as to why, on this occasion, he should sustain an injury. In addition, the injury subsequently became infected; this was cited by the boy as further evidence that witchcraft was involved in his misfortune, noting that he had had many cuts before that had not festered (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 20). This may appear to suggest that the boy is simply using the notion of witchcraft in an attempt to deny his own negligence in failing to avoid the stump. However, the boys explanation does not ignore the causal effect of the injury; instead, it provides an explanation for the particularity of the boys misfortune.

In addition, the Azande believe that witchcraft is a substance found in the body (Evans-Pritchard suggests the lower intestine) which is transmitted by unilinear descent i.e. from father to son and from mother to daughter. However, for the Azande it does not follow that if a man is proven to be a witch the rest of the male members of his clan are ipso facto witches. Evans-Pritchard acknowledges that the Azande can see the logic of this argument but do not accept its conclusions (1976: 3). Furthermore, Evans-Pritchard reveals that, in pre-colonial

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

Zandeland, autopsies were regularly carried out to establish if a person accused of witchcraft was indeed a witch, noting that the results of an autopsy would often prove a persons innocence and, therefore contradict the oracles(1976: 15). However, these contradictions do not lead the Azande to reconsider their witchcraft beliefs as they can easily be explained by reference to a set of secondary elaborations (see below).

Another important element of Zande witchcraft beliefs is their use of oracles to reveal what is hidden. Evans-Pritchard lists more than thirty examples of occasions when the oracles are consulted - e.g. before embarking on a long journey or before building a new homestead - but notes that there are many more (1976: 122). The Zande have a number of oracles in their repertoire; the rubbing board oracle (iwa), the termite oracle (dakpa) and the poison oracle (benge), which is

considered to be the most reliable; as Evans-Pritchard notes [the] Zande rely completely on its decisions (1976: 121). Typically, the poison oracle is consulted for matters which are considered dangerous or socially important, e.g. when a family

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

member is ill (1976: 122). Consultation of the benge oracle consists of administering a poison obtained from a forest creeper to a chicken. The whole process is governed by strict rituals and taboos, which ensure the oracles efficacy. Moreover, although the poison is an inherent quality or natural property of the forest creeper, the Zande do not consider it benge unless it has been prepared subject to taboos and is employed in the traditional manner (1976: 147).

As the benge poison is administered to the chicken, the oracle is asked questions which require yes or no responses. However, to establish the validity of the oracles

pronouncement, two questions must be asked of the oracle; questions are phrased in such way that if affirmative answer would require a fowl to die in the first test but for the second chicken to survive (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 138). As the poison oracles pronouncement must be validated by a second test as often as not the oracle contradicts himself (1976: 153). However, these contradictions do not cause the Azande to

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

question their mangu belief system as they are not surprised by contradictions; they expect them (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 155).

Evans-Pritchard

describes

how

the

Azande

can

acknowledge the failure of the oracle, in certain cases, but still maintain their belief in the witchcraft system. He identifies eight secondary elaborations which explain any oracular failings by attributing its failure to (1) the wrong variety of poison being gathered, (2) breach of taboo, (3) witchcraft, (4) anger of the owners of the forest where the creeper grows, (5) age of the poison, (6) anger of the ghosts, (7) sorcery, (8) use (155). As stated above, the whole process of consulting the benge oracle, from the collection of the poison creeper and preparation of the benge poison to the administering of the poison to the chicken, is governed by a number of important rituals and taboos. Therefore, if an oracles pronouncements can be shown to be false, the Azande can use these secondary elaborations to reason that one of the necessary rituals was not adhered to or an associated taboo had been broken (Evans Pritchard 1976: 155). As stated above, these contradictions cause no difficulty

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006 for the Azande because, as

Jamie McCollum Evans-Pritchard states, the

contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions (1976: 160). Thus, this type of reasoning, which has been described as circular (Polanyi 1972: 334), allows the Azande to maintain the integrity of their witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Moreover, the use of secondary elaborations leads the Azande to believe that the failure is not directly attributed to any failing of the oracle itself but rather it has been caused by some external error. Therefore, from the Azande perspective, there is no such thing as a failed ritual, only occasions when either the correct rituals have not been performed correctly or if associated taboos have been broken (Boyer 1994:208). This

shows that it is problematic to ask, [w]hat sustains Zande beliefs in witchcraft in the face of counter evidence? as from the Azande point of view there is no counter-evidence. Moreover, by asking this question it is implied that there is counter-evidence. However, as the example of the boy and the stump showed, the Zande notion of witchcraft seeks to explain the particularities of a misfortune, and does not ignore the actual causes of the

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

misfortune. Therefore, as Zande witchcraft beliefs address the questions of why me? why now? it would be impossible to produce any evidence which could answer these questions.

The persistence of Zande witchcraft beliefs despite all the inherent contradictions has inspired a scholarly debate

regarding the rationality of their beliefs and became the focus of an interdisciplinary debate amongst social scientists and

philosophers regarding the nature of rationality itself. Some, including MacIntyre and Gellner, have argued that there can only be one rationality based on universal (scientific) logic and cross-cultural comparisons of thinking is possible. Whereas others, such as Wittgenstein or Winch, have suggested there are multiple rationalities and that action can only be considered rational or irrational when considered from the perspective of the individual involved, and that comparison between the rationalities of different cultures is impossible (cited in Tambiah 1990: 115). However, whilst it has been shown that the Azande belief in witchcraft is entirely rational from their perspective (Winch 1964) it must be remembered that there is nothing

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

unusual about the persistence of such beliefs or indeed using circular logic. Tambiah describes how, in Northeast Thailand continue to make ritual offerings to the goddess of rice even though they are aware that to ensure the best harvest they must use the correct agricultural techniques, and suggests that an important element of ritual is its performative nature, which may also explain the persistence of witchcraft beliefs (1990: 136). Furthermore, studies from the field of cognitive science have shown that access to multiple explanatory frameworks is a universal psychological experience (Legare & Gelman 2008: 608). Therefore, the persistence of Zande witchcraft beliefs is entirely understandable, and perhaps, as Tambiah suggests rather than considering why scientific reasoning and logic does not displace performative action, we should think about why scientific knowledge cannot stand alone (1990: 137).

In this essay, I have described how the Azande sustain their belief in witchcraft, in the face of contractions and counterevidence, by using secondary elaborations. However, on occasions such as when consecutive oracular pronouncements

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

contradict each other, it is crucial to remember that these anomalies are only apparent or even relevant to an outsider; because from the Azande perspective, contradictions can only be expected and, as described above, can be easily explained. Furthermore, inherent in the term counter-evidence is the idea that there are occasions when the ritual is shown to be false, or wrong. However, I have shown that, by using secondary elaborations as a way of explaining any contradictions or failures, from the Azande perspective, there are no failed

oracular predictions, only occasions when background rituals have not been carried out correctly or if associated taboos have not been observed. As Boyer reminds us, rituals can never fail but people can fail to perform them correctly (1994: 208.) Moreover, I have described how recent studies have shown that access to multiple explanatory frameworks is a universal psychological experience (Legare & Gelman 2008: 608) and that people across the world use scientific knowledge as well as perfornative action (Tambiah 1990: 135). Therefore, there is nothing remarkable about the persistence of Zande witchcraft beliefs and perhaps before we question what sustains their belief

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

in the face of counter-evidence, we should remember what Durkheim told us: [i]t is not with logic that one puts an end to faith (1972: 221).

References Boyer, P. (1994). The naturalness of religious ideas: A cognitive theory of religion. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

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What sustains Zande witchcraft beliefs in the face of counterevidence?

ANT 3006

Jamie McCollum

Durkheim, E. (1972) [1887] The Conception of Religion. In: Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings. Ed. Giddens, A. Cambridge: Cambridge University. Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1976) [1937] Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Legare, C.H. & Gelman, S.A. (2008). Bewitchment, biology, or both: The co-existence of natural and supernatural explanatory frameworks across development. Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal 32, 607642. Polanyi, M. (1972). The Stability of Scientific Theories Against Experience. In Witchcraft and Sorcerv. Ed. Max Marwick. London: Penguin Books. Tambiah, S. J. (1990). Magic, science and religion and the scope of rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Winch, P. (1964). Understanding a primitive society. American Philosophical Quarterly, 1(4), 307-324.

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