The Witch-Doctors of the Azande
One of the most important and intriguing aspects of a culture is how they attempt to influence or manipulate their environment as well as others around them. Among the ways in which people throughout the ages have attempted to control the hands of fate, magic is the one of the most mysterious. Of the many societies and cultures in the world today, few believe in a structure of magic as complex and multifaceted as that of the Azande. Much of the Zande way of life is influenced by their religious system of beliefs, which is centered around ngua, which means “magic.” Magic is considered advantageous and is used to help and protect people, but there is also the belief in mangu (“witchcraft”) and gbegere ngua (“sorcery”), and both of these are considered bad magic that brings harm to others.
Of unique position in Zande society is the abinza, or “witch-doctor,” who is a magician by trade. He has two main functions. The first is to sell to people items such as medicines, spells and charms. The witch-doctor’s second specialty is in tracking down and combating witchcraft. The objective of this paper is to look at the distinctive place of witch-doctors in Zande society as well as to explain why it is so.
The Azande have a population of about a million. They are located from the upper Nile basin in southern Sudan to the borders of semitropical rain forests in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Approximately spanning the present-day boundaries of the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Zaire, the land on which Zande live is mainly savannah country, with small forested areas and countless small streams. Agriculture, as well as hunting and gathering, both make up the primary subsistence activities. Cattle, goats and sheep are entirely absent. This is because a type of parasite that is attracted to such animals carries the sleeping sickness disease, and it can affect both animals and people. Chickens are kept, but not as food; rather, they play a key role in divining through certain oracles.
Marriage and Social Class
The Azande people mostly live in small groups of polygynous families, though the local and regional governors live in separate, small settlements, and the important chiefs live in villages of a few hundred people. In polygynous marriage, bride-price is paid, generally in the form of spears. Because there is inequality in power and prestige, Zande society is most like a class society. One cannot move from one social rank to a higher one. The Avongara class, or the class of nobles, kings and princes, is highest in rank. Below them are the commoners — the ordinary citizens. The commoners are subdivided into the Mbomu (the native Azande and their descendants) and the Auro (the descendants of the various conquered tribes). At the bottom of the social order are slaves, generally acquired in war.
Though the Azande generally believe that magic may be made by anyone, it is not normally used by women. On occasion, a woman may have a small role in a ritual ceremony, but as a general rule women have practically no involvement. Witch-doctors who sell their magical services are commonplace in the Azande, and their magic generally takes the form of whistles, amulets, charms or the like. Magic may be purchased; also, it is individually owned. “Fear of magic (mangu) is universal among Zandes. If bad luck or misfortune occur to a man, he will cast about in his mind for any person he can think of who might benefit by it, or who would be pleased at his affliction, and will firmly believe that he is the victim of this individual’s spell.”
A witch-doctor has the capability for both magic and witchcraft, and since he can either help or harm others, he is respected. During séances (in Zande society, ritual dances that take place before consulting an oracle), he has increased power and authority, and so people will do as he instructs. However, when he is not working as a magician, the witch-doctor does not have a social status any different from the commoners. There are many witch-doctors, but there are not many at all who are particularly well-known or renowned. Witch-doctors are generally well-respected, but there are a number of people who firmly believe that most witch-doctors are frauds who are only around to make money. Even some witch-doctors have confessed that not all are honest. If a person is skeptical of what a witch-doctor has said, he can consult what is called the poison oracle, and its “decision” is more or less the final judgment. It will either confirm or refute what the witch-doctor has said. The poison oracle is so called because the procedure involves whether or not a fowl dies upon having poison fed to it.
Witch-doctors do not have any sort of political power, but this does not mean that they are not occasionally sought out by those who do have such power. Princes occasionally consult witch-doctors, as do nobles, because the witch-doctors have power of good magic, and this is considered the nemesis of bad magic. Even though the witch-doctor does not have political importance, or even much social influence, the profession still shows a degree of social specialization; that is, he is a professional, is well-respected, and is a reliable expert in his field.
Witch-doctors of the Azande are skilled in a number of different aspects of magic, and they are consulted for a number of different purposes. The witch-doctor has different specialties and functions in the field of magic, and they are related and integrated with one another: “The Zande witch-doctor is both diviner and magician. As diviner he exposes witches; as magician he thwarts them. But chiefly he is a diviner.”
The Azande consider the witch-doctor one of the many oracles they use, but do not usually refer to them as such. While the witch-doctor uses his magic and medicines for the good of others, some may be surprised to learn that they also control some powers of witchcraft. It is simply that witch-doctors have strong control over the witchcraft so that it does not injure others or their property. The belief about witchcraft is that people who have it can use it without being consciously aware that they have done so. While it is difficult to explain exactly the differences between sorcery and witchcraft, the former is magic that is immoral and used as such. “…two different types of magic, one moral, legal, and ‘good,’ which only harmed persons who had committed a crime; the other immoral, criminal, and ‘bad,’ which was directed against an individual whom the worker of magic wished to harm.” Legally acceptable magic includes ngwa kisa kpolo (“homestead-protection magic”) or benge (“oracle magic”). One type of oracle magic, the poison oracle, is regarded as the most important of any Zande oracles. The poison oracle’s decisions carry the force of law, if it is so ordered by a prince.
In summary, the role of the witch-doctor in Zande society is about the same as that of an ordinary citizen, though he commands more authority during séances. While he is lacking in political power and social influence, the witch-doctor is still central to the Azande. Nearly everyone comes to such a person when they believe that they are under attack from another’s witchcraft. As both a diviner and magician, he not only seeks out evil spells but puts a stop to them. While a couple types of oracles are considered to be of better and higher judgment than a Zande witch-doctor — chiefly the poison oracle — the witch-doctor’s medicines, charms, spells and power over evil magic place him amongst the very highest of sources for people to come to when they need magical intervention. The Azande people have one of the most intricate, compound and fascinating system of beliefs and magical practices ever observed in the anthropological world. The Zande have been subject to other countries’ ideas of religion for centuries, they have been enslaved, and they have been under the rule of other countries countless times, but still the vast majority of the Azande culture have adhered to their own faiths. They are their own people, and refuse to be overwhelmed by the world around them.
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