Witchcraft among the Bantu Tribes of South Africa: Analytical Essay

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In diverse societies, witchcraft is used differently, and its level of importance varies due to this. Our definition of witchcraft is: “the manipulation of powerful substances or words (via magic) to cause harm (only occasionally good)… It can also frequently be an unconscious activity, which means that the “witch” often does not know he/she is bewitching anyone” (McGarry 2016). The Bantu tribes that will be focused on in this paper, the Lobedu and the Chewa, abide by this definition and show the social function of witchcraft within their society. This is proved through how witchcraft and sorcery are used as excuses for shortcomings and to avoid rivalries, to create a just and assured society in comparison to our Western societies, and to deal with emotions that are not displayed due to lack of acceptance within the culture.

The Lobedu and Chewa tribes both use witchcraft and have similar beliefs that span across many Bantu tribes. The Lobedu make major distinctions between witchcraft, which they define as “the wickedness, sometimes without overt reason” which is used by the “night-witch” and sorcery, which they define as “the destructive technique” of the “day-witch” (Krige 1947, 9). They believe that there can be a moral grading of magic that has two extremes of good use of magic and medicine, and of evil use of magic and sorcery, in which in between fall several more grades of magic. The Chewa tribes believe in the same elements as the Lobedu’s witchcraft system, but have a specific emphasis on details, such as that the witch will kill the victim for the purpose of consuming their corpse. Although this detail may vary, other details align with Lobedu’s ideas, such as that the witch kills members of its own matrilineal ancestry, showing how only those close, such as family, can be victims of witchcraft. Now that the beliefs of these Bantu tribes have been outlined, it can be discussed as to why these types of beliefs play important roles within their societies.

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Firstly, witchcraft is typically rare in the type of society that the Bantu tribes are a part of because in hunting and gathering types of societies, there are less likely to be accusations of witchcraft due to the lower amount of impersonal conflict (McGarry 2016). Even so, witchcraft and sorcery are used as explanations of evil in the universe and are used to give reason to the failures of those in the tribes. The Lobedu tribe believes that witchcraft “implies personal relationships with the supernatural, while sorcery means manipulating magic which is not supernatural” (Krige 1947, 9). This distinction is vital to this society, as witches tend to use methods of the supernatural that are a mystery to the rest of the civilization, and that witchcraft is usually maternally born and raised. On the other hand, sorcerers are frequently men who use medicines and incantations and are constricted by natural laws, unlike witches. Since the Lobedu society is “fundamentally cooperative” and “frowns on all forms of rivalry”, witchcraft is used to blame scarce commodities not on the limited resources, but to the shortcomings of men in the society (Krige 1947, 12). This results in a rephrasing that dispels the notions of rivalries over property, and instead stresses the culture’s reliance on cooperation. As discussed in lecture, in many situations, witchcraft’s use heightens in times of stress, meaning that both witchcraft and sorcery occur “only where you find stresses and strains in life” and where “there are tensions, actual or potential, between people” (Krige 1947, 17). This is shown by how the Lobedu society claims that neighbours or relatives may use witchcraft or sorcery against each other, but strangers will not. This relates to Evans-Pritchard’s view that “witchcraft has a function in society to maintain a sense of equilibrium or balance/harmony in society and to reduce the possibility for conflict” (McGarry 2016). This personal connection stresses the need for cooperation within the society and shows how witchcraft is only used when these connections are strained, and therefore is used as an excuse for rivalries occurring in a society that discourages them.

Next, the Bantu tribes use witchcraft to compare their society to ours and to create a justice system that works for them, as they see ours as ineffective. For example, the Lobedu tribe believes that witchcraft can be used as a type of force to apprehend criminals, claiming that “a criminal may be made the victim of an obsessive compulsion to relapse into crime so that he will once more be tried for an offense for which he has…been let off with a light sentence in European courts” (Krige 1947, 18). The way that they view justice is that the modern Western criminal justice system causes “criminals to multiply” and “witches to become more aggressive” because our leniency in trying to rehabilitate offenders presents challenges that result in “magically constraining [the offender] to crime” (Krige 1947, 18). This shows how this society uses witchcraft to create order and sanctions, believing that criminals should be given more serious sentences and that justice will be served through the use of witchcraft. This proves that this society has found it vital to convert the hardship experienced into a social sanction to create order and peace among the tribe.

Another example of how witchcraft is used to deal with conflict within the Bantu tribes compared to modern Western societies is how anxiety motivates the society to use witchcraft, much like anxiety can be used to influence the norms and decisions we make in our culture. For example, in the Chewa tribe, it would be assumed that you would spend a lot of time, effort, and money on trying to apply and obtain positive mankhwala, which is the idea of medicine that has magical properties to be used for good or evil. By trying to obtain it, the Chewa believe they can protect themselves, their families, and their belongings from the evil of witches. This belief shows that contradicting the anxiety they feel about the potential to lose a loved one, or about being robbed, is a force that motivates their beliefs in witchcraft. This can be compared to our society through how anxiety drives us to turn to other means of coping, such as religion or materialism. Marwick claims that “the anxiety-load of modern African society allowed to discharge itself in making possible the uncritical acceptance of witchcraft” (Marwick 1948, 125). This shows that like us, the Bantu tribes of Africa are driven to use witchcraft to contradict the fear they feel around the unknown.

Finally, witchcraft is used as an outlet to rationalize feelings that are not readily accepted or shown within these societies, such as anxiety, anger or jealousy. In lecture, we discussed Malinowski who argues that “man generally resorts to magic when his technology has failed him in his attempts to control his environment” (Marwick 1948, 121). This idea shows that when humans lack a firm grasp on what happens to them, they turn to something like witchcraft to create a rationalization or reason for why that has happened. Oftentimes, the Chewa tribe uses witchcraft as an outlet for their aggression, as they can enjoy the feeling of being a witch and causing misfortune to whatever angers them vicariously through hearing legends and stories about witchcraft rituals. Hostility and jealousy can also be solved within this society through projection, so that members of the tribe take the aggression they feel towards someone else, and turn it into the belief that the other member is instead being aggressive towards them. This projection is resolved through witchcraft as many other societies solve it, through witch-hunts and blame upon others due to witchcraft or sorcery. By rationalizing ill feelings or thoughts that people cannot explain, the use of witchcraft gives them a reason to feel this way. As discussed before, anxiety within a society can be lessened through the use of witchcraft, as it gives the person something to blame their unfounded fears upon.

In conclusion, the people in this society believe in witchcraft to relieve feelings of anxiety, to create societies that function appropriately, and to justify and assign blame to shortcomings and lack of advancement within the society. They do not have scientific explanations for events such as sickness or death, but instead witchcraft functions to provide a reason for these occurrences. Since the Chewa and Lobedu tribes are very similar, their social functions of witchcraft are very comparable, and when connected reveal the ways in which Bantu tribes use magic to create order and understand the world around them. Overall, when analyzing this society’s use for witchcraft, it was interesting to see the comparisons and distinctions with our modern Western society, as it gives context that we can understand while helping to dispel the readers’ bias.

References Cited

  1. Krige, J. D. 'The Social Function Of Witchcraft.' Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political
  2. Theory, no. 1 (1947): 8-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41801323.
  3. Marwick, M. G. 'African Witchcraft and Anxiety Load.' Theoria: A Journal of Social and
  4. Political Theory, no. 2 (1948): 115-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41801350.
  5. McGarry, Karen. 2016. Manipulating the Supernatural: Witchcraft. Lecture given in
  6. Anthropology 1AB3, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, January 28, 2019.
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