Edward Evans-Pritchard’s book, published in 1937 under the title Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, remains one of the most remarkable works in anthropological studies. Fundamental in the validation of the ethnographic model, this book is the result of twenty months of fieldwork carried out in Southern Sudan between 1926 and 1929. It is a work of enormous theoretical and ethnographic relevance, where the idea of “witchcraft” occupies a central place in dealing with a vital category in the framework of Azande community life. According to Evans-Pritchard, the Zande belief in witchcraft constitutes an explanatory model for misfortunes. Contrary to the postulates of the founders of anthropology such as Lewis Morgan, who saw in the religions of non-Western societies grotesque and fanciful principles, Evans-Pritchard shows how witchcraft actually belongs to a coherent and racial system of thought and action, which involves oracles, “magic”, “sorcery”, among other elements, composing an explanatory model of objective events and chance. Each element of the system (in chain) explains and validates the other. Even in cases where ritual or divination failures occur, they are explained from a framework of autochthonous mystical and idiomatic references.
In general, the Azande conceive “witchcraft” as a hereditary biological condition that is activated by often involuntary psychic states (impulses), such as envy, hatred, greed, and jealousy, which trigger a series of misfortunes in the person targeted. As these misfortunes range from the simplest situations to death, recourse to the oracle is a daily practice, and the various types of oracles available reveal the identity of the witch, as well as resolve doubts on a wide variety of subjects, which otherwise would be impossible to assess. In opposition to “witchcraft” is “magic”, which is a resource in combating the evils caused by the other, curing illnesses, positively controlling agriculture and hunting (sources of livelihood), as well as acting as a form of revenge against the witches and wizards identified in the oracles. While “witchcraft” among the Azande is involuntary, resulting from natural and unconscious impulses, “magic” is a conscious act, manipulation of the elements by means of specific drugs for each purpose and the performance of “incantations”. A further distinction occurs on the ritual level: “good magic”, i.e., that which is socially accepted, is opposed to “sorcery”, which would be malignant, anti-social and immoral since it has a deliberate intention to harm another person physically and economically.
By identifying a rational logic in Zande “witchcraft”, Evans-Pritchard gives an enormous boost to the study of reasoning in the so-called “primitive” societies of the time, ahead of his predecessor Lucien Lévy-Brühl. The work brings new data and contributions to various social sciences by showing the sociological dimension – conflicts and power relations – produced by accusations of “witchcraft” and “sorcery”, as well as to studies of social change in colonial and post-colonial contexts.