With numerous movies, sitcoms and books on superstitions and magic, you start wondering why people ever believed in the like and still do, and whether there might be any truth behind it all.
I want to give you an example of a society that holds on to their beliefs, for whom witchcraft is a central part in their lives. Though their witchcraft is probably very different from what you’ve got in mind just now.
The Azande (a society in north central Africa) have a belief system that involves witchcraft (“mangu”), magic, witchdoctors, oracles and sorcerers.
Witchcraft is a ‘substance’ found in some people’s belly. Its act is psychic and witches may be unaware of it, i.e. they may not know that they are actually witches. Usually, witchcraft leaves the body at night to attack the witch’s sleeping enemy. It eats the soul of the victim’s organs – bit by bit, returning every night, leading to death by slow stages. The attacked person experiences this through illness and immediately thinks that they were bewitched – because witchcraft explains (more or less) everything for the Azande. Next, they consult oracles to figure out who the witch is. The most important oracle is the ‘poison oracle’. A fowl is asked a question and administered poison. Depending on how the question was formulated, the fowl either dies or survives to answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Usually you would suspect an ‘enemy’ to be the witch. Women generally only bewitch women. Men only have little contact with other women – if a man consulted an oracle about another woman he would be suspected of adultery. Men usually don’t bewitch wives, but wives often hate their husbands (or the husband’s other wives)…
If the witch is found, they will try to convince their witchcraft to cool down (otherwise sorcerers can do them harm by performing magic rites with bad medicines).
As witchcraft is a ‘substance’ and can be ‘inherited’ it can be revealed through autopsy of post-mortems. If there’s any sort of inconsistency, i.e. if not all autopsies of unilinear descent have a consistent result, Azande don’t see the contradiction. Witchcraft has nothing to do with ‘proof’ or ‘scientific experimentation’. It provides them with a natural philosophy, with a system of values to determine right and wrong behaviour and it keeps their society and culture intact.
But who are we to say that magic or superstition don’t exist anyway? In science, we can never prove anything, we can online disprove hypotheses. Hence, there might be anything out there that we don’t know yet or just don’t (want to) believe because we don’t have any ‘evidence’. Maybe there is something like a ‘frequency’ on which ghosts are stuck, or there might be different frequencies for every year – so if we managed to figure out how to move from one to another frequency, we could time travel. No one knows yet, but maybe someday we will. That’s the purpose of research, isn’t it, to explore the wonders of our world!
(this article was also published in Auckland University’s Student Magazine Craccum, Issue #19 2012)