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Witchcraft: African Witchcraft


As a set of beliefs that varies region by region and has a good many consequences in everyday life, African witchcraft is in many respects similar to corresponding sets of beliefs found among peoples of other continents. African systems, however, are of great interest because they have some unique features and because they have provided material for the formulation of definitions and the development of theories of worldwide application.

General Characteristics

Most African societiesthough not allhold the cardinal belief that certain members of the community are in the habit of using supernatural means for illicitly destroying the interests, or even the lives, of their fellows. This basic tenet has led Africans to attribute to persons designated by terms we might translate as "witches" or "sorcerers" characteristics that resemble those of their counterparts elsewhere. Beliefs about witches are, of course, not directly observable, but they may have overt consequences in everyday life.

Subjective aspects

Thus African witches (in the generic sense, including sorcerers) are believed to harm others either because they possess powers (of which they may not be aware and which their fellows find incomprehensible) that emanate from their aberrant personalities or because they perform antisocial magic, technically referred to as "sorcery" (see below). Furthermore, they resemble witches in other continents in that they are believed to employ certain species of animals and, in some instances, spirits or humanoid creatures as their servants, messengers, or familiars. Familiars are sometimes reputed to drive their owners to their evil practices.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, African witches are believed to belong to associations that meet periodically (usually around a fire) to discuss the promotion of their interests, the regulation of relations among them, and to celebrate recent antisocial accomplishments by, for example, having a ghoulish feast of the revived body of someone they have killed supernaturally. These associations form distorted reflections of the societies in which they are believed to exist. On the one hand, they may mirror the authority structure of the polity of which they are a part, as when, among the Chewa, their meetings are presided over by a village headman who is himself a witch. On the other hand, among some peoples the organization of witch societies may contrast with that of everyday society; among relatively egalitarian peoples witch societies are more hierarchical and vice versa. In any case, witch societies invariably invert normal ethical standards by delighting in the practice of promiscuous sexual activity (including incest), by going naked, by frequenting forbidden places such as graveyards, and by murdering and eating their fellow human beings, often their close relatives (African witches are believed to attack their neighbors and kinsmen rather than distant and unrelated persons).

As in other parts of the world, African witches are often reported to be preponderantly women (although there are notable exceptions, such as among the Azande, Bemba, and Tonga). However, it is important to note that the actual summation of cited cases of witchcraft may yield a gender ratio that is at variance with the traditional one expressed in general statements made by informants. Thus, although Chewa tradition holds that most witches are women, it is men, the more socially and politically active sex, who form a clear majority of those cited in instances of witchcraft.

Finally, in Africa as elsewhere, the belief in witchcrafttogether with other components of the religious systemprovides an explanatory framework, a means by which the misfortunes that befall people may be understood and, in terms of their beliefs, avoided in the future. African societies vary in the degree that witchcraft (as opposed to the other elements of religious belief) plays in the explanation of everyday events and, more importantly, crises. Thus, among the Lugbara, misfortunes appear to be attributed more often to the intervention of ghosts rather than witches, whereas among the Chewa the reverse is true. But in all societies where witchcraft is a component of the belief systemand this applies to the majority of African societieswitchcraft beliefs are of paramount importance insofar as they explain the persistence of evil and the inability of humans to eradicate it. As J. D. Krige (1947) puts it:

Witches and sorcerers are considered [by the Lovedu] to be the embodiment of malignant forces ever on the alert to enter into unholy matrimony with the criminal impulses of the human heart. Witchcraft particularly [as opposed to sorcerysee below] is the essence of evil, vicious and inscrutable, that whirls through the universe and seeks asylum in sinful souls in which the germs of wickedness lie ready to be quickened into life.

Overt consequences of belief

Some of the consequences of witch belief are visible to the ethnographer. This is because, given that people believe in and are concerned about witches, they take steps to protect themselves from them and (as individuals or assisted by professionals such as diviners, or perhaps backed by the political authorities) to detect, prosecute, and sometimes destroy by vengeance-magic those they assume to be bringing them harm. Many of the processes involved in self-protection, divination, and revenge are spiritual, usually involving magical substances (often translated as "medicines") of botanical origin, though activated by ingredients of animal or human origin which are of symbolic significance, such as a piece of human caul (protective in function) added to the powdered root of a particular species of tree to make a protective amulet.

Protective steps include not only wearing amulets but also taking "medicines" orally, washing the body in infusions of them, or rubbing them into incisions made in the skin. Huts and field crops can also be treated to make them invisible to, or impenetrable by, witches. Divination includes the use of oracles such as those of the Azande of the southern Sudan (adjective and singular noun, Zande), the best known of which consists of feeding benge, a poisonous substance, to chickens, mentioning the name of a suspect each time, and determining the guilt of a particular suspect by noting whether the chicken poisoned in accompaniment to his name dies.

Elsewhere in central Africa an ordeal is held in which a poison (mwafi, mwabvi, etc.) is administered to the human suspects themselves (and sometimes to the accuser as well to check that he is acting in good faith), and a person is deemed guilty if he retains the poison (an action that will cause him eventually to purge, faint, or actually die) and innocent if he vomits it. In southern Africa witches may be "smelled out" in a public ceremony by a diviner, who is guided by his audience's verbal responses to his tentative naming of the suspects. All over Africa diviners use a variety of techniquesdreaming, manipulating various kinds of apparatus, throwing dice ("bones"), opening the Bible or the Qur'an at randomto help clients identify their attackers.

From several parts of Africa it has been reported that persons found to be guilty of witchcraft were traditionally burned. This penalty is also suffered by convicted witches in some other parts of the world.

Distinctive Features

A comparison by E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1929) of Zande and Trobriand magic (and thus of the variant of witchcraft sometimes separately designated as sorcerydestructive magic illegitimately applied) suggests that whereas Melanesians regard the verbal element, or spell, in an act of magic (in general and sorcery in particular) as all-important and insist on its being word perfect, Africans place greater emphasis on the material element, or "medicines." Hence in Africa the verbal element is less important, more properly being regarded as a relatively informal address made to the "medicines" to activate them and make them attack the proper victim.

Another feature setting off African witch beliefs from those found elsewhere is the range of animal species that witches are assumed to use as familiars. Whereas in Europe, cats, dogs, and weasels are commonly believed to be witches' familiars (dogs and foxes in Japan), in Africa hyenas, owls, and baboons are commonly listed. While not unparalleled elsewhere, witches in some African societies are believed to be served by familiars of human origin or appearance, such as a "zombie" (khidudwane ) among the Lovedu of the northern Transvaal or a "hairy dwarf" (tokoloshe, tikoloshe ) among the Zulu and Xhosa-speaking peoples of Natal and the eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Within Africa, regional variations apply to the main list of familiars, with hyenas cited more often in central Africa and baboons in southern Africa.

There are similar regional differences in other aspects of witch beliefs and their everyday concomitants. For instance, while in most parts of the continent people accused of witchcraft are likely to refute the accusation and with it the long list of crimes (e.g., murder, incest, necrophagy) that it implies, there is a tendency, reported mainly from West Africa, for people to confess their witchcraft, sometimes voluntarily.

Debate over a Basic Distinction

An outstanding instance of how African ethnography has stimulated worldwide debates over terminology is provided by Evans-Pritchard's seminal book on the Azande (1937). In witchcraft theory, the Azande make a distinction between two entities, mangu and ngwa. Mangu, a hereditary substance which can be discovered by autopsy in the stomach of a witch, exerts a baleful mystical influence over the lives of others in the community when it is activated by hatred. On the other hand, ngwa ("magic") is not identified with a particular substance; less of an object, it is subdivided into "good" magic (wene ngwa ) and "bad" or "criminal" magic (gbigbita ngwa ). Evans-Pritchard translates mangu as "witchcraft" and gbigbita ngwa as "sorcery." He sums up:

To Azande themselves the difference between a sorcerer and a witch is that the former uses the techniques of magic and derives his power from medicines, while the latter acts without rites and spells and uses hereditary psycho-physical powers to attain his ends. Both alike are enemies of men, and Azande class them together. (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 387)

Although Evans-Pritchard emphasized that he expressed no opinion on the applicability of this distinction to peoples other than the Azande, several anthropologists working in Africa have found parallels to it, and this would, at first sight, justify its more general use. Thus the distinction between "night witch" and "day witch" made by the Sotho-speaking peoples of the plateau of South Africa, as well as the Lovedu, parallels that made by the Azande between witch and sorcerer. Similarly, among the Chewa of east-central Africa the distinction between nfiti yeniyeni ("real witch") and mphelanjilu ("killer for malice") is similar, though not as clear since both are commonly referred to as nfiti. However, among the Nguni-speaking peoples of South Africa (including the Zulu, Pondo, Bhaca, Xhosa, etc.) the distinction is tenuous, applying simply to the mode of attack, that is, "with animals (familiars)" or "with medicines."

Some anthropologists question the value of employing the witch-sorcerer distinction more widely than in the context to which Evans-Pritchard limited it. This position is taken by both Victor Turner (1964) and Mary Douglas (1967) in their respective review articles on the books by John Middleton and E. H. Winter (1963) and Maxwell Gay Marwick (1965). Turner's conclusion is that "almost every society recognizes such a wide variety of mystically harmful techniques that it may be positively misleading to impose upon them a dichotomous classification" (Turner, 1964, p. 323); Douglas suggests that it would be better to use traditional English terms freely and to classify beliefs according to whatever criterion is significant (Douglas, 1967, p. 73).

A related debate has stemmed from the reports by Godfrey Wilson (1936) and Monica Wilson (1951a, 1951b) that the Nyakyusa of southern Tanzania believe that "the defenders" of the village, by exercising a supernatural power known as "the breath of men," protect their fellows and punish those who transgress; it is claimed that this power "comes from the same source as the power of the witches" (Wilson, 1951a, p. 97). In its antisocial form, that is, if it is illicitly used (and victim-transgressors are often likely to assert this), this power is indistinguishable from the witchcraft of other societies. Thus the Nyakyusa, who like peoples all over the world divide magic into good and bad forms, also dichotomize mystical influence in the same way, with "the breath of men" as its approved form and witchcraft as its disapproved form. Wilson reminds us that Henri A. Junod, in his classic study of the Tsonga of southeast Africa, first published in 19121913, came to the tentative conclusion that these people believe that the power of the magician, who protects the interests of society, and that of the witch, who destroys them, is derived from the same source (Junod, 1927, pp. 504505, 516).

Alan Harwood (1970) has found a belief parallel to that of the Nyakyusa among the neighboring Safwa. Like the Azande, the Safwa distinguish between the power derived from medicine (onzizi ) and a power that they refer to as itonga and that they believe to be inherited and hidden in its operation. But unlike the Azande (according to Evans-Pritchard's account) and like the Nyakyusa, the Safwa subdivide not only medicine but also "hidden power" into approved and disapproved forms. As to hidden power, "good itonga," according to Harwood, is believed to be used in divination to protect members of the community from external attack and to punish some of them for uncooperative behavior; "bad itonga " is used to introduce foreign substances into another person's body or into his gardens to diminish their effectiveness and is said to enable its possessors to "consume" members of their own lineage (Harwood, 1970, pp. 5960). Itonga is thus conceived of as a neutral spiritual power and, since it is innate and can harm people, its bad (antisocial) form can reasonably be equated with the witchcraft of other societies. Harwood believes that, "appearances to the contrary, the Safwa are not alone with their neighbours the Nyakyusa in believing that the mystical power of 'witches' is morally neutral, and that perhaps the ethnocentric preconceptions of ethnographers are responsible for the dim light in which African 'witches' have traditionally been painted" (Harwood, 1970, p. 69). In particular, after carefully reexamining Evans-Pritchard's account of Zande witchcraft, Harwood concludes that Evans-Pritchard's finding that the Zande word mangu denotes an exclusively antisocial powerand should therefore be translated as "witchcraft"is mistaken and comes from his having taken the perspective of the witch doctor (diviner) rather than that of the ordinary villager.

Theoretical Approaches to African Witchcraft

With its rich variety of social structures and belief systems, Africa has provided useful material for the development of theories that account for the continued existence of witch beliefs and contribute to our understanding of the dynamics of society in general.

Evans-Pritchard's approach (1937) explains Zande witch beliefs mainly by showing their concordance with the basic assumptions and modes of reasoning, or philosophy of life, prevailing in the society and, somewhat incidentally, by relating them to social conditions, including stratification. The theoretical approaches to witchcraft taken by J. D. Krige (1947) in reference to the Lovedu, Monica Wilson (1951) in her comparison of the Mpondo of South Africa with the Nyakyusa, and Siegfried Frederick Nadel (1952) in his comparison of four West African peoples are of a more psychological orientation, showing varying degrees of similarity to Clyde Kluckhohn's analysis of Navajo witchcraft (1944). These writers explain witch beliefs as giving expression to the stresses, strains, and predilections that arise in the particular circumstances of the society concerned. The basic defect in these psychological approaches is that, based as they are on speculative propositions, for example, those of depth psychology, they do not generate hypotheses that are testable. More recently this approach has developed into, or been displaced by, a Lévi-Straussian structuralist model in which a society's cognitive system is taken to be a logical system in its own right rather than just a secondary reflection of social relations. This approach is found in Edwin Ardener's analysis of the witch beliefs of the Bakweri of west Cameroon (1970) and in subsequent studies by W. David Hammond-Tooke on the Cape Nguni of South Africa (1974) and by Michael D. Jackson on the Kuranko of northeast Sierra Leone (1975).

A more sociological orientation is found in the approaches of James Clyde Mitchell (1956), Middleton (1960), and Marwick (1952, 1965). By comparing the incidence of accusations and believed attacks of witchcraft in different categories of relationship, these writers relate witch beliefs to periodic social processes, such as the division of lineages into segments as their size increases in successive generations. Associated with this approach is a reemphasis of the principle, implicit in the writings of most students of witchcraft, that a society's conception of the characteristics of the witch reinforces its norms by providing a negative example.

All three types of approach try to make sense of what in modern society are regarded as bizarre and fallacious beliefs, and because they provide functionalist justifications of the continuance of witch beliefs, they have been criticized. For instance, James R. Crawford (1967) has argued that placing too much emphasis on the idea that an allegation of witchcraft is merely a symptom of social malaise leads to a failure to recognize that the allegation usually embitters social relations and increases social tension by adding a new dynamic dimension to them, for example, making a previously private quarrel public. Similarly Douglas (1963) has pointed out that, though an accusation of witchcraft may facilitate developmental processes, such as lineage segmentation, "it is also an aggravator of all hostilities and fears, an obstacle to peaceful co-operation " and "orderly social relations."

Turner warns against the use of any single explanation of the complex circumstances leading to an accusation of witchcraft, arguing that "each instance or set of accusations has to be examined within a total context of social action, which includes the operation of biotic, ecological, and intergroup processes, as well as intra-group developments" (Turner, 1964, pp. 315316).

In the light of the criticisms that have been made of prevailing theories, we would do well to adopt a more comprehensive model for the analysis of African witchcraft. Ecological circumstances, including the prevalence of disease vectors and the level of medical understanding and associated hygiene, contribute to morbidity and mortality rates and thus provide the raw material of misfortunes requiring explanation; social structure and associated tradition lay down the general direction that the explanations (including accusations of witchcraft) will take. But far from resolving the tensions that cause them, accusations may often exacerbate them.

Witchcraft under Modern Conditions

The colonial authorities in Africa banned many divinatory practices such as the poison ordeal and smelling-out ceremonies, and they usually declared the imputation of witchcraft legally punishable. This led Africans to adopt alternative, and usually secret, ways of identifying those whom they believed to be witches. Antiwitchcraft cults developed and often recurred in many African societies, and some writers attribute their rise to the suppression of the traditional means of detection. Some of the African churches independent of the missions include witch finding among their activities.

The impression of most ethnographers has been that Africans' preoccupation with witch beliefs has increased in modern times and that this is to be explained by the conflict between the values of the economically egalitarian indigenous societies and the more individualistic ones of the intruders. Certainly people who have advanced educationally and financially are often concerned about protecting themselves from the witchcraft of those retaining a more traditional way of life.

This majority view was contested by Godfrey and Monica Wilson (1945, p. 120), who believed that the relative importance of witchcraft was declining and that of science increasing. Some statistical evidence has come forward recently (Mitchell and Mitchell, 1980; Hammond-Tooke, 1970), and this supports the Wilsons' view in that it demonstrates that modern social changes tend to be accompanied by a progressive, if slow, secularization of the beliefs that traditionally explained misfortunes.

See Also

Nyakyusa Religion; Southern African Religions, overview article; Tswana Religion.


Note: Asterisked items are particularly recommended for further consultation.

Ardener, Edwin. "Witchcraft, Economics and the Continuity of Belief." In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, edited by Mary Douglas, pp. 141160. New York, 1970.

*Crawford, James R. Witchcraft and Sorcery in Rhodesia. London, 1967. Based on more than a hundred records of court cases, supplemented by sound knowledge of the cultures of the persons involved. The author is well acquainted with the literature and has a refreshingly independent stance in theoretical debates. Excerpted in Marwick (1982).

Douglas, Mary. "Techniques of Sorcery Control in Central Africa." In Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa, edited by John Middleton and E. H. Winter, pp. 123142. London, 1963.

Douglas, Mary. "Witch Beliefs in Central Africa." Africa 37 (1967): 7280.

*Douglas, Mary, ed. Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. New York, 1970. A diverse, somewhat uncoordinated collection of papers, half of which are concerned with African societies.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. "The Morphology and Function of Magic: A Comparative Study of Trobriand and Zande Ritual and Spells." American Anthropologist 31 (1929): 619641. Reprinted in Middleton (1967).

*Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford, 1937. A skilled analysis of the thinking behind Zande witchcraft-related behavior. The starting point for any serious study of witch beliefs and, apart from Margaret Murray's romantically misleading works, quite the most influential study of witchcraft yet written. For an appreciation of Evans-Pritchard's work, see Max Gluckman's review, "The Logic of African Science and Witchcraft," Human Problems in British Central Africa 1 (1944): 6171; reprinted in Marwick (1982).

*Gelfand, Michael. The African Witch: With Particular Reference to Witchcraft Beliefs among the Shona of Rhodesia. Edinburgh, 1967. Shona witch beliefs and practices related to them, especially divination. Based on long medical experience among the Shona.

Hammond-Tooke, W. David. "Urbanization and the Interpretation of Misfortune: A Quantitative Analysis." Africa 40 (1970): 2539. Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

Hammond-Tooke, W. David. "The Cape Nguni Witch Familiar as a Mediatory Construct." Man, n. s. 9 (March 1974): 128136. Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

*Harwood, Alan. Witchcraft, Sorcery and Social Categories among the Safwa. London, 1970. A thorough study of beliefs in their social context, involving a searching inquiry into the theoretical issues they raise. Excerpted in Marwick (1982).

Jackson, Michael D. "Structure and Event: Witchcraft Confession among the Kuranko." Man, n. s. 10 (March 1975): 387403.

Junod, Henri A. The Life of a South African Tribe. 2d ed., rev. & enl. 2 vols. London, 1927. First published as Les Ba-Ronga (1898; reprint, New Hyde Park, N. Y., 1962).

Krige, J. D. "The Social Function of Witchcraft." Theoria (Pietermaritzburg, South Africa) 13 (1947): 821. Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

Kluckhohn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. Boston, 1944. Excerpted in Marwick (1982).

Marwick, Maxwell Gay. "The Social Context of Ceŵa Witch-Beliefs." Africa 22 (1952): 120135, 215233.

*Marwick, Maxwell Gay. Sorcery in Its Social Setting: A Study of the Northern Rhodesian Ceŵa. Manchester, 1965. Sorcery related to traditional matrilineage segmentation, wider social tensions, political organization, and modern changes. Based on nearly two hundred explanations of misfortunes, which, critics say, came from too few informants. Comparisons of informants' general statements with the summation of specific cases in statistical tables. Reviewed in Douglas (1967).

*Marwick, Maxwell Gay, ed. Witchcraft and Sorcery: Selected Readings. 2d ed. Harmondsworth, 1982. A collection of forty-two papers and excerpts from the writings of anthropologists, historians, and others, eighteen of which have reference to African societies.

Middleton, John. Lugbara Religion: Ritual and Authority among an East African People. London, 1960.

*Middleton, John, ed. Magic, Witchcraft and Curing. Garden City, N. Y., 1967. Six of the sixteen papers included are concerned with the social setting of African witchcraft, sorcery, or divination.

*Middleton, John, and E. H. Winter, eds. Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa. London, 1963. Makes a brave if not foolhardy attempt to link witchcraft with unilineal societies and sorcery with others, but, as these two categories are in dispute and as contributors show no uniform deference to the editors' thesis, the reader may remain unconvinced. For an excellent critical review, see Turner (1964).

Mitchell, Hilary Flegg, and J. Clyde Mitchell. "Social Factors in the Perception of the Causes of Disease." In Numerical Techniques in Social Anthropology, edited by J. Clyde Mitchell, pp. 4970. Philadelphia, 1980. Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

Mitchell, J. Clyde. The Yao Village: A Study in the Social Structure of a Nyasaland Tribe. Manchester, 1956.

Nadel, S. F. "Witchcraft in Four African Societies: An Essay in Comparison." American Anthropologist 54 (1952): 1829. Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

*Parin, Paul, Fritz Morgenthaler, and Goldy Parin-Matthèy. Fear Thy Neighbor as Thyself: Psychoanalysis and Society among the Anyi of West Africa. Translated from German by Patricia Klamerth. Chicago, 1980. Gives an interesting comparative glimpse of a former French territory in regard to both traditional witch beliefs and modern conflicts of values.

*Reynolds, Barrie. Magic, Divination and Witchcraft among the Barotse of Northern Rhodesia. London, 1963. A thorough account of witch beliefs and practices related to them, such as divining. Includes an analysis of court records arising from a sudden spate of witchcraft cases in Rotseland in the mid-1950s. Illustrated with useful drawings of related material culture.

Turner, Victor. "Witchcraft and Sorcery: Taxonomy versus Dynamics." Africa 34 (1964): 314325.

Wilson, Godfrey. "An African Morality." Africa 9 (1936): 7599.

Wilson, Godfrey, and Monica Wilson. The Analysis of Social Change. Cambridge, 1945.

Wilson, Monica. Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-Villages. London, 1951. Cited in the text as Wilson (1951a).

Wilson, Monica. "Witch-Beliefs and Social Structure." American Journal of Sociology 56 (January 1951): 307313. Cited in the text as Wilson (1951b). Reprinted in Marwick (1982).

New Sources

Bastian, Misty L. "The Daughter She Will Eat Agousie in the World of the Spirits: Witchcraft: Confessions in Missionised Onitsha, Nigeria." Africa, 72 (2002), 83111.

Cristoph, Henning, and Hans Oberländer. Voodoo: Secret Power in Africa. Kohl, 1996.

Delius, Peter. "Witches and Missionaries in Nineteenth Century Transvaal." Journal of Southern African Studies, 27 (September 2001): 429444.

Geschiere, Peter. Peter Geschiere and Janet Roitman, trans. The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. Charlottesville, 1997.

Lemert, Edwin. The Trouble with Evil: Social Control at the Edge of Morality. Albany, 1997.

Monter, William. "Reconceptualizing British Witchcraft." Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 35 (Summer 2004): 105112.

Niehaus, Isak A. "Witch-Hunting and Political Legitimacy: Continuity and Change in Green Valley, Lebowa, 19301991." Africa, 63 (1993): 498531.

Sweet, James. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 14411770. Chapel Hill, 2003.

Maxwell Gay Marwick (1987)

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