Which witch is which?
Zandeland is found in the Western Equatoria province of Southern Sudan. This is home to the Azande, whose conception of witchcraft diverges greatly from traditional Western views.
They believe witchcraft as a physical property. It can reside within some individuals – those who may themselves be unaware of their power – and is considered to be dangerous, destructive and damaging.
This property can be inherited, or passed from parent to child. Azande believe that when the soul of the father is more powerful, the child conceived will become a boy; and if the mother, a girl.
If the parent is a witch, inheriting this power is inevitable. It is an organic property, meaning that it grows as a person grows.
Unlike sorcery, which employs charms and spells, witchcraft is deployed by sheer willpower. A person can send the spirit of their witchcraft entity to their victims. This “soul of witchcraft” travels through the night to deliver harm.
This substance or mangu, however, cannot travel any great expanse. It has “short-range” properties, or a limited threshold. The Azande feel most secure, therefore, living at a distance from their neighbors.
Witchcraft is at the base of all misfortune, great or small. And misfortune has a human cause; in the Azande, there is no such thing as bad luck. All death – despite the cause – is the product of murder.
A witch’s magic is directed by envy or hatred. The victim of any disaster might search for suspected witches among those with whom he has argued, or may have cause for jealousy. He can properly identify this aggressor by consulting an oracle.
Oracles in the Azande provide all sorts of guidance. They are used when planning a marriage, taking a journey, building a home, and so on and so forth. This counsel can determine if a person’s future health is at stake.
The most powerful of these is known as benge, or the “poison oracle.” This ritual is only open to the wealthiest of men.
In the benge ordeal, poison would be administered by an expert in the task, to a very small chicken. The expert must know precisely how much poison to use, how much time between doses, how long and firmly the chicken should be held, and any other intimate details of the custom.
Every detail of the situation is explained, and each individual question may be asked. The benge poison shows its answer by responding through the chicken to the directive, “if this is true, benge kill the fowl” or “if this is not the truth, spare it.”
Another more readily available is the “termite oracle,” which can be used by men, women and even children.
Essentially, two branches are inserted together to form a termite mound. A question is posed, and in the morning, the answer is revealed through whichever of the branches has been eaten.
Least reliable but most convenient is the “rubbing-board oracle,” a device which resembles an Ouija board. Questions are asked as the wood is moved, and where it sticks or catches, the answer is revealed.The aim of this practice is to conjure some sort of resolution in the face of misfortune or death.
It should be noted that witchcraft is ineffectual without a social tie. This means that the curse of a stranger can do no harm.
A postmortem accusation is an indictment which calls for heavy compensation. This can sometimes be paid with one’s own life.
Misfortunes require smaller reparations. As a demonstration of good faith, the accused can take a mouthful of water, and spit on the wing of a chicken. This act beseeches the mangu to become inactive, therefore allowing the victim and his or her family to recover.
Individuals with greater wealth are likely to engender the jealousy of others, and, therefore, the risk of bewitchment. In this way, witchcraft indirectly keeps a balance of wealth in the Azande.