Azande Witchcraft and the Evil Eye


by Mary Tzoannou

Chief Editor


The study and desire to understand magic within human society has been a driving force behind anthropology since the earliest works of Tylor and Frazer. The “father” of modern ethnographic methods, Bronislaw Malinowski, produced Magic, science and religion, a seminal work, which made anthropologists turn their gaze towards the social functions of magic within the day-to-day lives of their research communities and, in particular, led to Evans-Pritchard writing what has become the “bible” of modern understandings of this “supernatural” phenomenon, Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande.

Unlike the Azande society studied by Evans-Pritchard in the late 1920s (and which has changed significantly since then), I have nonetheless, experienced another form of “magic”, the evil eye, while growing up in a “rational” and “modern” Greek society. The popular understanding is that witchcraft is a deliberate practice, in which its practitioners intentionally direct and cause harm to others, whereas, the evil eye is thought to be within all of us, causing unintentional harm based on our uncontrollable inner emotions. Both, however, psychically attack their victims and cause physical harm by draining their life essence. In this article, I seek to better understand the practices of witchcraft, and the evil eye, as well as the social functions they imply.

Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande of central Africa (between the Nile and the Congo), resulted in what is the seminal ethnographic study of witchcraft. “A witch performs no rite, utters no spell, and possesses no medicines” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976), but they deliberately direct psychic acts to harm others, a capacity made possible by the presence of a physical “substance” in their bodies, “attached to the edge of the liver” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). As the only way to prove this is through autopsy, it is usually impossible to tell a witch by their physical appearances. A witch may choose not to use the power of the witchcraft substance, which remains “cool” in their body, making the capacity for witchcraft an individual choice.

Evans-Pritchard claims the Azande are rational about witchcraft. If a known witch is in his hut when an act occurs, this is rationalized since it is actually the witch’s soul that travels to attack the victim. This mbisimo mangu (soul of witchcraft) operates over short distances, usually at night, and “sails through the air emitting a bright light” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). The one time that Evans-Pritchard witnessed such a light was followed by the death of an old man in a hut on the path of the light. The mbisimo mangu travelled to his victim where it devoured his organs’ “soul” (mbisimo pasio). The mbisimo mangu is not autonomous but must be intentionally guided by the witch to its actual physical destination, allowing people who believe themselves to be targets of witchcraft to hide in places unknown to the suspected witch.

Witchcraft is “ubiquitous” within Zande life; any time something goes wrong, it is presumed to be the result of witchcraft. It can be something as simple as a minor accident in the bush or a “sulky and unresponsive” wife, or something graver such as the failure of game hunting or the groundnut crop (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). Certainly, almost all illnesses and deaths are the result of witchcraft. Witchcraft is most powerful when performed at close distances, suggesting that any time something “bad” happens to a Zande, it must be the result of an envious or jealous local person (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). The Azande recognize the same “obvious” causes for misfortunes as do those who think with “Western” “rationality”. They know the symptoms and causes of many diseases, but there is always the possibility of witchcraft contributing to the illness. When witchcraft is suspected, the usual course of action is to consider which neighbors are holding a grudge and then consult the poison oracles to confirm the witch’s identity (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). Consulting the oracles actually reveals “histories of personal relationships”, for the suspected witches’ names provided are the people with whom the accuser has known social problems. When Azande evoke witchcraft, they are simply “foreshortening the chain of events and in a particular social situation are selecting the cause that is socially relevant and neglecting the rest” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976). A Zande, then, will rationalize that a man might be sick for natural causes, but if he dies, it will be due to the umbaga of a witch. Thus witchcraft explains unfortunate events by providing the missing link in a chain of causation, filling in the gaps so that the whole of life, and death, is imbued with meaning” (Evans-Pritchard, 1976).

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 The evil eye is a phenomenon common throughout Europe, especially across the Mediterranean region, as well as the northern parts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and other areas of the world colonized by Europeans (Dundes, 1981). The evil eye is often linked to envy and jealousy; within the Orthodox Church it is known as vaskania, an envy born of the devil (Chrysanthopoulou-Farrington, 2008). This link between the evil eye and envy is also supported etymologically, for “envy”, associated with jealousy, derives from the Latin in videre, “to see”. The assumption is that to see something is to consciously or unconsciously desire it. Christina Veikou, the foremost anthropologist of the evil eye in Greece, defines it simply as “the harmful power which the insistent and penetrating gaze has on admirable persons and objects” (Veikou, 2008). She adds that, vision is the most social and penetrating of the senses; it “knows because it sees, and for this reason it has a possessive power over the objects it views” (Veikou, 2008). This power of the eye to possess is precisely what makes the evil eye so dangerous. People in the village of Eleftherna, in Crete, believe the evil eye is an “involuntary” action or reaction by the person casting it, and is not intended to cause any harm: “it just happens” (Veikou, 2008). The actual harm caused by the evil eye derives from the “intense emotions” associated with admiration, lust, and envy, that reside in the “heart” which is uncontrollable. The only way to control such feelings and avert the effects of the evil eye is to resituate them from the heart to the mind, the rational self.

Linking the evil eye to their Orthodox belief system allows Greeks to rationalize their personal misfortunes arising out of social interactions. Indeed, in what has become the seminal Greek ethnography, based on the Sarakatsani transhumant herders in northern Greece, John Campbell noted that these people (like many modern Greeks) are predominantly Greek Orthodox with a strong belief in God but do not attend Church regularly (Campbell, 1964). They also fear the Devil, believing that “sudden or extraordinary material success can only be the result of communion with the Devil” (Campbell, 1964). The Sarakatsani view human nature as sinful, prone to jealousy, but caused by the diabolic effects of the evil eye. Key to the rationale of the evil eye is the notion of limited good. Alan Dundes argued that many people believe there is a finite amount of health, wealth, and happiness that must be shared by society as a whole: therefore, when an individual is particularly fortunate or successful, the assumption is that this is at the expense of someone else (Dundes, 1981).

So what effects can the evil eye have? Dundes suggests that an evil eye attack results in one’s vital liquids and, therefore, one’s life essence, being drained (Dundes, 1981). However, the effects of the evil eye can also be socially structural. The Sarakatsani observe that their animals, the source of family and community sustenance, can be negatively affected by the evil eye cast by a neighbor or even their own wives when they are menstruating (Campbell, 1964). In fact, the evil eye negatively affects the appearance, health, and fertility of community members, specifically, “whatever is of value for the survival and reproduction of a community” (Veikou, 2008).

Vassiliki Chryssanthopoulou studied the concept of the evil eye among Castellorizian Greeks. These people mostly emigrated from the island of Castellorizo to Perth, Western Australia, between the two World Wars. Such is the cultural weight of the evil eye, that many of these “Cazzies”, as they are known in Australia, still maintain their beliefs in its effects. The evil eye, to mati or to matiko, is particularly revealed through their modern pre-wedding rituals, where lavender and mousoukarfia cloves are used to protect the couple and to assure fertility (Cryssanthopoulou-Farrington, 2008). Likewise, the groom carries a pair of scissors to “cut the evil tongues”, another form of the evil eye, in order to protect himself from the jealousy of another woman whose gaze is capable of impeding his ability to sleep with his new wife (Cryssanthopoulou-Farrington, 2008).

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Although Evans-Pritchard’s study of Azande witchcraft is almost a century old, and the practices he describes have certainly adapted and changed to modernity, I feel that we can nevertheless draw certain similarities between witchcraft of that earlier time and the evil eye as it is experienced in today’s Greece. One of the first obstacles that could impede such a comparison is the inevitable understanding that Azande witchcraft is intentional and physically directed by the witch, whereas on the surface, the evil eye is quite the opposite. Indeed, Veikou, from who, I have drawn heavily, states the “randomness and the indeterminacy” of the evil eye “are precisely the features that differentiate it from ‘sorcery’” (Veikou, 2008).

From this perspective, it is clear that the evil eye affects everyone, but in the same manner, so does Azande witchcraft. The key difference here is that the witch must direct the evil, whereas the evil eye is presumed to act autonomously from the person casting the gaze. However, this seems too simplistic. Firstly, the person must gaze upon the victim, in effect directing the ‘evil’, so this then becomes a question of conscious or unconscious intent. Acknowledging both witchcraft and intentionality Campbell argued that “the witchcraft or the sorcery of the evil eye is recognized by the Church as one of the Devil’s weapons” (Campbell, 1964).  Moreover, he added that the Sarakatsani recognized that certain individuals were known to possess and use the evil eye; that they had “an eye infected by the Devil. Therefore, I see a direct analogy between this diabolical essence of the evil eye and the “substance” that resides within the Azande witches’ bodies and which attacks and consumes the “innards” of the victim.

Finally, to return to Veikou’s choice of word, “sorcery”, the Azande clearly differentiate between it and witchcraft. A witch uses no spells or rites to inflict harm, but rather depends on “psycho-physical powers”. This entire description can be equally applied to the “practitioner” of the evil eye. Furthermore, Azande sorcery is just bad “magic” as opposed to the good magic of magicians who fabricate medicines and spells to heal witchcraft attacks (Evans-Pritchard, 1976) . In Greece, this role is played by cherikarides who use spells and ritualistic performances to heal victims of the evil eye. In addition, Campbell indicates that opposing the evil eye first requires identifying its possessor, which of course, is precisely the objective of the poison oracles in Azande society. Symbolically, these two social functions are the same.

Probably the most important parallel is that witchcraft in Azande society and the evil eye in Greek society are both important cultural constructs which highlight the expected values of social relationships and community cohesion (Chrysanthopoulou-Farrington, 2008).  In both cultures, intense emotions, especially those linked to envy or jealousy, can cause social frictions, resulting in a witchcraft or evil eye attack. While it is important to identify the competitive parties, the associated rituals help restore order and calm to the community. Such transgressions of social norms are, of course, common and quite normal within small communities, as are misfortunes and good luck, and despite witchcraft and the evil eye being illogical and irrational by “modern” standards, they can still play a significant role in reducing inevitable friction.


Illustrations provided by the author.


Campbell, John K. Honour, family and patronage: a study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1964. Print.

Chryssanthopoulou-Farrington, Vassiliki. “The evil eye among the Greeks of Australia: Identity, continuity and modernization.” In, J.C.B. Petropoulos. Greek Magic: Ancient, medieval and modern. London, New York: Routledge. 2008. Pp. 106-118. Print.

Dundes, Alan. “Wet and dry, the evil eye: An essay in Indo-European and Semitic worldview.” In, Dundes, Alan (ed.). The Evil Eye: A Folklore Casebook. Pp. 257–312. London, New York, 1981. Print.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft, oracles, and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1976. Print.

Veikou, Christina. “To Kaku Mati: I Kinonkiki Kataskevi tis Optikis Epikinonias.” Athens. 1998. P. 144. Print. Cited in Chryssanthopoulou-Farrington, Vassiliki. “The evil eye among the Greeks of Australia: Identity, continuity and modernization.” In, J.C.B. Petropoulos. Greek Magic: Ancient, medieval and modern. London, New York: Routledge. 2008. Pp. 106-118. Print. P. 109

Veikou, Christina. “Ritual word and symbolic movement in spells against the Evil Eye.” In, J.C.B. Petropoulos. Greek Magic: Ancient, medieval and modern. Pp. 95-105. London, New York: Routledge. 2008. Print.