The Myth of the Wizard of West Bow by M J Steel Collins

The story of Major Thomas Weir, known also as the Wizard of West Bow or the De’il of West Bow, is one of Scotland’s most famous supernatural legends. Strip back the sensationalist tales of ghostly satanic parties, and what you have is a tragic story of insanity and sexual abuse that surely has to be one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Scottish history. However, it is a story that needs to be told in order to break down the mythology that obscures the injustice, something all too common with Scotland’s mythical witch trials. What follows comes with a trigger warning.

Major Thomas Weir was a strict Covenanter and Presbyterian. He was born around about 1599 or 1600 in Carluke, Lanarkshire. His parents were the Laird of Kirkton, also called Thomas Weir, and Lady Jean Somerville. It is rumoured that his mother was clairvoyant. Major Weir had quite a colourful career in the anti-Royalist Scots army; he served as a Lieutenant in Ulster during the 1641 Irish Rebellion, and in 1643, was a signatory on the Solemn League and Covenant. This was a treaty between the English Parliament (at the time amidst the thralls of Oliver Cromwell), and Scotland, promising to protect reformed religion, i.e. Presbyterianism, in Scotland and to reform religion in England and Ireland, which were distinctly not Presbyterian.

In 1650, Weir became a Major and put in charge of the Edinburgh Town Guard. He gained some notoriety for mistreating James Graham, the First Marquis of Montrose, when he was brought back to Edinburgh for execution during the Covenanting wars. Initially head of the Covenanters army, with whom Major Weir served, Montrose later switched sides to the Royalists, and was captured for his troubles. Over the years, Major Weir obtained a reputation for being a staunch Calvinist and adherent of Presbyterianism. He was known as one of the Bowhead Saints, the term applied to the particularly devout Presbyterians living in Edinburgh’s West Bow, where Major Weir lived with his unmarried sister Jean Weir, better known as Grizel. The Major was well known for his powerful prayers, which usually attracted visitors to his house. Described by Rev Frazer of Wardlaw in Divine Providences (1670), as a tall man who always looked to the ground, Weir was of a dark complexion and constantly wore a dark cloak. He never went anywhere without his large black staff, which, it is noted he always gripped when conducting prayers.

It was during one of those prayer meetings in 1670 that Major Weir scandalized his Presbyterian brethren with a startling confession. A few days prior, one of Edinburgh’s respectable ladies had a terrifying experience when walking by the Weir house with her maid on their way home from helping a relative in labour at Castlehill. It was around about midnight, and the maid was lighting the way with a lantern. Reaching West Bow, they saw three women through a window, laughing, shouting and applauding – most unusual. Then, as they passed the Weir’s door, the bizarre figure of a tall woman, twice the height of a regular woman, emerged before them, cackling and writhing violently. The weird entity remained one step ahead of the mistress and her maid. As they passed by the Stinking Close, real name Anderson’s Close, the being ducked down it. Despite her fear, the woman stopped her maid and looked down the Close. The thin alley was lit up with torches and resounded with eerie laughter. No lights were discerned in the houses themselves. Thoroughly terrified, the two women ran home and told their bizarre story. The next day, their steps were retraced and the house from which the strange happenings seem to focus on was confirmed as Major Thomas Weir’s. The story was documented by George Sinclair in Satan’s Invisible World Discovered in 1685.

It’s unclear if this tale got back to Major Weir by time he confessed at the prayer meeting. However, it wasn’t dealings with the underworld he confessed to, but incest with his sister, bestiality and other ‘fornications’. Those who heard the confessions were keen to keep them a secret, lest they get out and tarnish the name of the Presbyterian Church. They managed this for several months, until a minister informed Andrew Ramsay, Lord Abbotsford, and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Both thought that Major Weir had lost his senses, the Lord Provost reluctant to believe him, but eventually, Bailies were sent to West Bow, and the Major and his sister were arrested and taken to Edinburgh Tolbooth. It seems from a modern perspective, that the Lord Provost was right, and that Major Weir was suffering mental health problems. However, the confessions of Grizel, his sister put a new spin on the matter – and perhaps in our 21st century eyes make Major Weir appear less innocent.

At the Tolbooth, Grizel Weir corroborated her brother’s confessions, saying he had been ‘having relations’ with her from when she was 16, until she reached 50, and participating in other forms of sexual deviancy. In addition, she accused him of witchcraft, describing how in 1651, he had been picked up in a strange carriage and taken to Dalkeith. During the journey Major Weir was informed by a strange man via supernatural means that the Scots had lost the Battle of Worcester, which had taken place that day. In fact, Grizel began indicating her brother’s alleged satanic dealings when the Bailies arrived at the house. She showed them several packets of money, wrapped up in old cloths, and advised them to take Major Weir’s oft-used black staff, but keep it away from him. She claimed had been given to him by the Devil and was the source of the Major’s powers, which he would use against them.

More preternatural events were reported immediately after the Weirs were taken to the Tolbooth. The Bailies returned to West Bow and retired to a local tavern. They unwrapped the money from the ancient cloths, putting the cash together in one bag. The cloths were thrown on the fire, and apparently frolicked strangely in the flames. An unknown root found amongst the rags was also burned, except it made all kinds of strange popping noises before vanishing up the chimney with the sound akin to canon fire, scaring everyone in the bar. One of the Bailies was given the bagged money to store at home. As he placed the sack in a trunk, his wife heard a massive crash coming from the room he was in, and ran to check if he was still alive. Strangely, the man hadn’t heard a thing.

Meanwhile, the Weirs were put on trial. A variety of lurid stories came out. According to one legal historian, Lord Hailes, the Presbyterians were concerned that a charge of witchcraft be attached to one of their better known figures, and instead had the charges set at bestiality and fornication. Not like that would make any difference to protecting the ‘guid name’ of the Kirk. Both Weirs were found guilty and sentenced to death, being executed in 1670. They were kept at the leper colony of Greenside prior to their execution. It is said that Major Weir was told to pray for forgiveness, but he responded, “Let me alone – I will not – I have lived as a beast, I will die as a beast.” He is also alleged to have confessed to witchcraft and dealings with the devil shortly before he was executed. Major Weir was put to death by strangulation and burnt at Gallowlee. Another apocryphal tale is told of the event concerning the infamous black staff; it was apparently thrown on the flames with Weir’s body and began to turn strangely as it burned.

When Grizel was told of her brother’s execution, her response was that he was now with the devils. Her own execution occurred at Grassmarket, and was particularly poignant. She addressed the crowd, and then had to be restrained by the hangman as she tried to take her clothes off. Her only crime it seems is to have been sexually exploited by her brother.

Following the deaths of the Major and Grizel, the salacious ghostly tales spread thick and fast about Edinburgh. Much, if not all, were probably fabrications designed to enthral. The house on West Bow lay empty for over a century because it had a strong reputation of being haunted. Although it was known that nobody lived there, many people reported seeing lights in the windows, and the sound of revelry, replete with cackling, howling, and ‘the hum’ of Grizel’s evil spinning wheel. The ghost of Major Weir was supposed to issue from the small adjoining close, astride a headless black horse, and gallop off in a cloud of flame. Similarly, Thomas Stevenson, a lighthouse designer, and father of author Robert Louis Stevenson, told tales from his childhood where everyone in West Bow was awoken by the sound of the Devil’s carriage arriving outside the cursed house to take Major Weir and Grizel to Dalkeith. The staircase adjoining the house was reputed to be cursed by Major Weir, and people climbing up it would get the uncanny feeling that they were actually going downstairs.

Schoolboys would dare one another to go into the house and risk facing the Major’s ghost, as Sir Walter Scott recalled. Another story relates to the famous black staff that went everywhere with Major Weir. Apparently, it had an afterlife despite being burned, and could be seen tapping about the house, and also going on errands along the street, sometimes with a lantern hanging from its handle of carved heads. The story also expanded to somewhat spurious accounts of the stick being seen tapping along the pavement of its own accord in front of Major Weir during his lifetime as he went about his daily business.

Anyone trying to stay overnight in the haunted house wouldn’t make it to dawn. One ex-soldier, Patullo and his wife rented it, seemingly unaware of the stories. On their first night there, they were awoken by a strange light in the bedroom, which coalesced into the form of a calf. The apparition then put its forelegs on the bed and looked at them quizzically before fading away. The couple left the next morning. Strange stories continued to circulate about the house, until the remnants of it were destroyed during building work in the 1870s. Since then, the stories have entered the Scottish folkloric conscience.

With the passage of almost 350 years, we’re not exactly in a position to find out exactly what happened. One thing we can conclude is that something was drastically wrong to cause both the Major Weir and his sister to make such confessions. Modern retellings of the affair posit that both were mentally unstable. Speculation on the matter is fruitless. However, it seems to be apparent that Jean ‘Grizel’ Weir was executed for the ‘crime’ of being the victim of alleged sexual abuse. That, I believe, to be the true horror.

Main Sources:

Robertson, James (1996) Scottish Ghost Stories Sphere

Brown, Raymond Lamont (1994) Scottish Witchcraft Chambers Reference


The Ghost Road, A75, Dumfries and Galloway/Wigtownshire by MJ Steel

One clear dry evening in April 1963, two brothers stopped to refuel their car before continuing their drive home to Annan. The pair, Derek Ferguson, 22, and Norman, 14, had just spent the previous week on holiday touring Scotland in their father’s car. They had 15 miles to go before reaching their home in the South of Scotland. It was probably the most memorable 15 miles they ever traveled.

Just outside Dumfries, a large chicken like bird suddenly flew through the air, seemingly hitting the car windscreen and causing Derek to swerve. The brothers scarcely had to time to breathe, when suddenly the shrieking figure of an old woman with outstretched hands ran at the moving car, disintegrating into thin air at the point she would have been hit. Following this, an unearthly cavalcade of ghoulish figures appearing on the road as Derek drove. Cats, strange dogs, goats, other weird animals and the apparition of a longhaired, screaming old man preceded the car on its journey. Derek swerved this way and that trying to avoid them, but each one vanished when the car was about to collide with it.
Thinking his imagination had run riot, Derek cast a glance at his brother in the passenger seat next to him. Norman was silent; a look of terror plastered on his face, convincing Derek that what he saw was real. The temperature in the car dropped rapidly, but both brothers were covered in sweat. It seemed to Derek as though something was trying to take control of the car as he felt inexplicable pressure on his hands as he held the steering wheel.
The two opened the car windows because they felt as though they were suffocating, but got little relief. The sound of screaming and loud laughing came from outside. Feeling as though something was trying to force them off the road, Derek stopped the car. And they were instantly attacked by an invisible force. The car was bounced violently up and down on the road, like a basketball, and rocked violently from side to side, making the brothers dizzy.

Feeling sick, Derek leapt out the car, and at once, everything stopped.  The road was quiet. However, once he got back inside the car, it started again, with disembodied laughing, a strong wind and fists pounding the car all over. He decided it would be best to go on, and started to drive. The strange figures reappeared in the road. This time, Derek drove straight through them as they vanished. He felt the pressure return upon his hands and he kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, his hands in pain. Norman still sat glued to the spot in horrified silence.
The red light of a furniture van appeared in front, much to both Derek and Norman’s relief – something normal after all the madness! However, it was short-lived; Derek realised they were closer than he thought to the van and they were about to crash into the back of it, with no time for evasive action. He screamed at Norman to prepare for the impact, when the van disappeared. After this, the car slowed to a crawl, the brothers exhausted. Their strange experience stopped when they reached the outskirts of Annan, Derek thanking the stars he had topped up the petrol tank in Dumfries and that they hadn’t become stranded.
This was the first experience anyone in the Ferguson family had ever had of the paranormal. Later, discussing the incident with a friend who was stationed outside Annan during World War Two, Derek was told that the area had a history of witchcraft. Another friend had also read about a phantom van haunting the vicinity.
The A75, the road where the Ferguson brothers had this experience, has a history of motorists reporting strange things going back over 50 years. The road itself follows the Scottish south coast from its junction with the A74 and Gretna, travelling through towns such as Castle Douglas and Gatehouse of Fleet, as well as Dumfries and Gretna. It carries on into Wigtownshire, past Newton Stewart and ends at Stranraer. As the link up road between the M6 and M74, and the main route to the ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan, it also sees a lot of heavy freight traffic heading to the Irish ports. The Scottish Government has put in place some ‘road improvements’ in recent years to accommodate the heavy freight – and to alleviate the frequent fatal traffic accidents that occur there. As a teenager, I attended school in nearby Kirkcudbright. My family visited Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Gatehouse of Fleet on a regular basis; so the A75 is a road I know well. I got quite a chill to find out that it is considered the most haunted road in Scotland, known to many as simply “The Ghost Road”.
Other motorists have reported experiences akin to what the Fergusons’, albeit not quite as extreme. As a teenager, I remember travelling on the A75 late at night. I didn’t know of its haunted reputation at the time, which is probably just as well. I daresay my aunt wouldn’t have been amused if I had told her of its haunted reputation when we travelled along it in the wee small hours enroute to Ireland for my 16th birthday! When I was younger, I can recall my grandfather, who took great pleasure in scaring us all with his ghost stories, telling me of a haunted road. It was one we used often travelling to my grandparents’ caravan. Once, he said saw the ghost of a woman who had been murdered float over the road when driving past late at night. He certainly got a kick when, every time we drove past it, I closed my eyes in case I saw the woman’s spirit. I can’t help but link this with the A75. In between the towns, it’s rather lonely road – just pitch black with fields, the odd set of trees and the cat eyes to mark out the road surface – not especially different from many of the roads around Dumfries and Galloway. Except not many of them have the haunted reputation that might have killed my deep rooted passion for ghosts early on if I’d seen anything…
The earliest recorded sighting occurred in 1957, though it wouldn’t be surprising if there were experiences going back further than this on the A75. In 1957, a lorry driver drove into a couple who crossed the road arm in arm. He stopped, but on looking, the couple had vanished. During the 1970s, women from the town of Eastriggs reported seeing a weird ‘phantom figure’ in the middle of the road, one of the many reported out there. There are also notable encounters from the mid to late 1990s, when I lived in the area. In March 1995, Garson and Monica Miller from Annan were driving east, just outside their hometown at a speed of 60 miles per hour. The figure of a middle-aged man appeared in front of their car, wearing a folded hessian sack over his head. His hands were stretched out towards the Millers and he held a rag. At the speed they were driving, the Millers thought they had struck the man. Reversing back, they found nothing, and reported the incident to the Annan police.
Two years later in July 1997, Donna Maxwell, 27, was driving on the A75 with her two children near Swordwelling when she was convinced she had run over someone. A man in his 30s dressed in a red top and dark trousers stepped out in front of her car. Donna hit the brakes and closed her eyes on reflex, getting ready for the impact. However, no one was there when she opened her eyes. She contacted the police, who made a thorough search, but found no one. A week later, a report was made of the incident in the local press, but this failed to gain any more information on what had happened.
Motorists commonly report the figure of the red-topped man. Other figures include the screaming old woman encountered by the Fergusons in 1962, an aging woman in Victorian clothing and varying descriptions of the Fergusons’ long haired, screaming man. In some reports, he has no eyes. Of course, many people have encountered the phantom furniture van. The couple, as reported in 1957, are also of varying description.  Some describe them as also being in Victorian clothing, with the male missing his eyes. In addition, there are reports of the unearthly screams, cackling and unearthly creatures similar to what the Fergusons saw. It is interesting to note that Annan is also the site of Spedlins Tower. Centuries ago, violent poltergeist activity tormented the family there after the Laird locked a local miller in the dungeon and forgot about him, leaving the hapless prisoner to starve to death. Some maintain it’s still haunted.
Locals are convinced there is something strange about the A75, some refusing to travel there after dark. When the Scottish Government announced its plans to improve the road in recent years, many locals said it would stir up the ghosts. Haunted or not, it is still a road to take great care on because of its many accidents.

Glamis Castle, Angus, Tayside – by M J Steel

It’s hard to decide where to begin when it comes to Glamis Castle, so notorious for it’s ghosts and dark legends. Alone, it’s history makes for very impressive reading. It is also a very important place to the British Royal Family as it is the family home of the late Queen Mother and birth place of the Queen’s younger sister, the late Margaret Rose.

Glamis is the official seat of the Earls of Strathmore, the Bowes-Lyons, who have held it since 1372 when King Robert II of Scotland granted the lands to Sir John Lyon. The original castle was demolished and replaced in in the 1400s. Since then it has been added to and remodelled to suit the fashions of the times, the current style dating back to restorations carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, spent a lot of her childhood in Glamis, and it remained important to her. It’s mistakenly believed that she was born there in 1900, but the truth is, it’s not clear where she was born! Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was the ninth child of Claude and Nina Bowes-Lyon. When Elizabeth was four, her father became the 14 Earl of Strathmore. Throughout her childhood at Glamis,  Elizabeth and her younger brother David enjoyed playing pranks around the castle. During the First World War, she got involved in the care of injured soldiers, when Glamis Castle was used as a military hospital. In 1916, a fire broke out, and the teenage Elizabeth played a huge role in alerting the authorities and getting Glamis’ treasures to safety; not surprising when you consider the highs and lows she encountered as the Duchess of York and later Queen! She gave birth to her younger daughter, the current Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret at Glamis during a stormy night in August 1930.

Glamis’ royal connections go farther back, however, forming an important part of the Castle’s mythology. It’s thought that King Malcolm II of Scotland was murdered at Glamis, long before the current castle was built. This particular tale forms the basis of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the cursed Scottish Play, albeit with liberal use of artistic license. Maybe Shakespeare was inspired by the story of the bloodstain left on the stone floor of Malcolm’s room as a result of his brutal death. Peter Underwood states, “No amount of scrubbing and cleaning would remove it, so in the end the whole floor was boarded over!”

When it comes to ghost stories and dark history, Glamis is a veritable pick n mix. The Queen Mother was believed to have seen a few ghosts herself. In fact, some of the rooms associated with her have spooky tales attached. For instance, the Queen Mother’s Bathroom was formerly a bedroom where no one could get a peaceful night’s sleep. And the ghost of a little boy has been seen in the Queen Mother’s Sitting Room, believed to be a young servant treated badly two centuries ago. A tongueless woman looks out from a barred window, or runs across the Castle park pointing to her bloody mouth.

Some bedrooms have strange, inexplicable rings worn into the stone floor, which are now covered by fitted cupboards. They are kept full, as Peter Underwood notes. A White Lady flits about the place, and was once encountered at the same time by three separate people. There is a room called The Hangman’s Chamber, believed to be the room where a butler hung himself.

Children down the centuries have run screaming to their parents after seeing the wraith of a giant man with a beard bear down upon them after bedtime at Glamis. It seems that this is the ghost of Earl Beardie.  This is either Alexander Lyon, 2nd Earl of Glamis, or Alexandar Linsday, 4th Earl of Crawford. The gist of the story is that one Sabbath day, the Earl Beardie wanted to play cards, but was refused. He went in a huff, declaring, “Well, I’ll play with the Devil himself”. Then a mysterious figure suddenly appeared and began to play. It is said that the stranger was Satan. The end result was that the Earl lost his soul to the Devil and will continue to play that card game again Auld Nick until doomsday. The old part of the Castle where the game was (and is!) supposed to happen was locked off, but servants and others have reported hearing the sounds of an ongoing card game, the rattle of dice, cursing and stomping coming from that area.

Lady Janet Douglas, was the widow of the 6th Lord Glamis. She was burnt at the stake for witchcraft by James V.  She was a well liked woman of good character, but had the misfortune of being in a family that was hated by James V, who persecuted many of her relatives.  In 1528, Janet was summoned by James V for treason. Her husband, John Lyon, 6th Lord Glamis, died that year, leading to her being accused of poisoning him. Charges against her were dropped and in 1532, she married her second husband, Archibald Campbell. She wasn’t left alone for long, as in 1537, she was accused of attempted to poison the King and charged for unlawfully communicating with her brothers. James V then charged her with Witchcraft, many believe falsely. By this point, she had been kept imprisoned in the darkness of Edinburgh Castle dungeon for so long that she was nearly blind when she was led out to to be burnt at the stake. Her teenage son was forced to watch her die, as was her second husband, who threw himself to his death shortly afterwards.

Lady Janet is believed to be the Grey Lady who has been seen praying at the pews of the Glamis Castle Chapel by a number of people in recent decades, including Lady Granville, the Queen Mother’s elder sister, and a former Earl of Strathmore.  Inexplicable banging has been heard in the chapel, which is thought to be the sound of Janet’s Pyre being built for her burning. A seat is kept reserved for Janet in the Chapel.  Her ghost has also been seen from the Clock Tower turret. It has sometimes been reported as being tied to a stake and surrounded in flames. Her ghost is supposed to warn the Bowes-Lyon family of oncoming danger.

Another Glamis legend is that of a vampire. There are two variations – the first is that a female servant was found sucking the blood from a victim, and was locked in a secret room to die. Of course, as beheading, sunlight or a stake to the heart is more effective in these cases, it’s still believed she’s afoot. The second variation ties in with one of Glamis most famous legends – the ‘monster’ in a secret room. The story is that a vampire is born into every generation of the Bowes-Lyon family, who then is locked away in a hidden room within the Castle. Glamis has quite a few hidden rooms. Once, some guests carried out an experiment and hung a towel from every window. They went outside to count the towels and found that there were several windows without towels. Windows to rooms they couldn’t access.

The monster in a room legend is probably the most notorious of the Glamis tales. Vampires aside, the general gist of the tale is that over two hundred years ago, the first born son of the then Earl was a large, bloated and deformed child who was hidden away in a secret chamber within the Castle. He was also meant to possess superhuman strength. Apart from trusted estate factors, no one was told of the secret. Heirs to the Strathmore Earldom were made aware of it on their 21st birthday. They would be shown the secret room and it’s inhabitant before being sworn to secrecy. One heir apparently went mad on being informed. One day, the secret was nearly uncovered when a servant was doing some maintenance. The man concerned was given a generous pay off and emigrated. In the Gazetter of Scottish Ghosts, Underwood writes that the deformed child lived to a very old age, apparently only dying in 1921. The Queen Mother’s sister recalled she and her siblings were banned from talking about the legend. Their father and grandfather also refused to discuss it. Underwood thinks there is some substance to the story, noting that the ‘last Earl of Strathmore’ (either Timothy Bowes-Lyon or Patrick Bowes-Lyon) thought that there was a huge coffin buried somewhere in the Castle, probably near the Mad Earl’s Walk. This is a place high up in the Castle where the ‘monster’ either tried to escape or was allowed to exercise.

The final legend from Glamis concerns the Haunted Chamber. This dates back to  when it was a regular thing for the different clans of Scotland to be at each others’ throats with murderous intent. In 1486, members of the Ogilvy clan sought shelter from the Lord Glamis as their enemies, the Lindsays, were in pursuit. Lord Glamis duly admitted them and told them to hide in the chamber. What the Ogilvys didn’t know was that Glamis was in fact good friends with the Lindsay clan. He shut the Ogilvys into the chamber and left them to die without food or drink. A few years later, the Earl of Strathmore was disturbed by noises coming from the walled up chamber and broke in to see what the cause was. The sight that met him made him collapse. Inside the sealed chamber were the contorted skeletal remains of the Ogilvys, some had apparently died eating the flesh of their relatives.

Today, Glamis is open to the public, who can tour the Castle and the grounds. The Bowes-Lyon family still live there, making it the longest inhabited castle in Scotland.


Azande Witchcraft – by MJ Steel

Witchcraft might be a slight variation on ghosts and hauntings, but in this case, it offers a delicious introduction to how supernatural beliefs in other cultures can be at great variance with their counterparts in the West. So witchcraft it is!

E E Evans Pritchard
To begin with, a little background information on the Azande: they are an ethnic group found in Central Africa, primarily in what we could now call the Sudans, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (thanks wikipedia – the textbooks are out of date!). Prior to colonisation by the Brits, they had a huge kingdom, which expanded via the conquest of smaller tribes. The society had a complex social structure, with regional chiefs who answered to a king. Much of this was wiped out by the impact of colonialism, although it suited the colonial Powers-that-be to maintain the chiefs in order to assert their authority, somewhere along the lines of puppet rulers. Another thing that the British colonists, try as they might, failed to wipe out, was the Zande belief in witchcraft.
The major anthropological work on the Azande was carried out by E.E Evans-Pritchard, who went out to study the group during the 1920’s. Among many of the significant areas arising from his work was the nature of witchcraft and magic beliefs among the Azande. His book on this area, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande was ground breaking in that it challenged how we viewed witchcraft in the West.
Traditional view of a witch in the West
Azande witch – ummm?
Now, when we think of witches, we generally think of old hags zipping about on broomsticks, or if we’re being a bit more enlightened, perhaps a Wiccan worshipping the Mother Earth. This isn’t quite the case amongst the Zande, as anyone could be a witch! Also, we might not see much difference between magic and witchcraft in the West, but there is a whole world of difference amongst the Azande. Witchcraft from the Azande perspective is unconscious – anyone can do it without realising. But magic has to be learned, and it can be used for nefarious deeds. During his fieldwork, Evans-Pritchard, lived among the Azande  and he sent out one of his servants, a local, to learn magic. Evans-Pritchard as a white European probably wouldn’t have been taught the ins and outs of Zande magic, whilst it wouldn’t be a problem for his servant. The servant reported back to Evans-Pritchard, allowing him to see how it all worked. Nowadays, this isn’t so much of a problem as anthropologists have since been initiated as Shamans, etc, by their host society or group. Zande witchcraft is a little more complex…
Witchcraft to the Azande is literally a substance found in the stomach. This is passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. Basically, if a man has a reputation for being a witch, then there is a chance his son might also be a witch, but not his daughter. And vice versa for women.  This substance can lie dormant in the belly, but can be ‘awoken’ by jealousy. And the ‘witch’ can be none the wiser to any of this because they don’t realise it’s them that’s causing it. It isn’t possible to simply point the finger and accuse someone of witchcraft because of this, you need to be sure. It takes a bit of investigation. And to do this, the Azande have at their disposal a series of three oracles.
Termite mound in a Zande garden
Let’s take the example of an Azande man who has two wives (the Azande are polygamous).  The wives are ranked by seniority in order of when they married their husband. Suddenly, the older wife becomes unwell. The husband immediately suspects witchcraft as being the cause of this, and he accuses the younger wife as being the cause of this because she is jealous. She will deny it – she isn’t even jealous of the older woman. So now the husband has to find out for definite if it is his younger wife. Time to bring in oracle one, the termite sticks. This is one the husband can do himself.
The husband takes two sticks, asks them if his younger wife is the cause of his first wife’s sickness. Each stick indicates yes or no. Both are placed inside the termite mound and left for a period of time while the termites eat them. Later on, he removes the sticks. The one which the termites have eaten the most give his answer – i.e. it might be the stick indicating no that is the shortest. But this oracle isn’t seen as reliable, so it’s time to bring in oracle number two, the rubbing board, or iwa. This isn’t something the husband can’t do himself and he needs to pay someone to do it for him.
Consulting the Iwa oracle
The rubbing board
The rubbing board basically consists of two boards which are rubbed together. If the board sticks at being asked if the younger wife is the witch, it gives the answer. Like the termite sticks, this is a simple yes and no question.  However! Although the iwa  is seen as more reliable than the termite sticks, it’s still not that reliable. The husband needs to know for sure and get a definite answer. So it’s time to move onto the third and most potent oracle, Benge, or the poison oracle. For this, a witchdoctor is required. And he needs to be paid – he doesn’t come cheap.
Consulting the Benge oracle
Put simply, Benge consists of strychnine being poured down a chicken’s throat, using more than one chicken. To give an idea of how important this oracle is, it can be used in front of a chief to establish a point of law, although it’s use has been decreasing since colonisation. Whether the chicken lives or dies gives the answer to a yes and no question. In this instance, is the second wife a witch? The oracle is asked a more specific question as more chickens get used (about three chickens), for example, is the second wife causing the first wife to be ill? The more the answers swing to a certain the response, the more definite that answer is. So let’s say that this oracle says the second wife is a witch and is causing the first wife to be ill. The younger wife is confronted by the evidence, which she can’t deny. Now she has to cool her witchcraft. She does this by drinking water and spitting it out. The first wife should now get better.
Now, you might be reading this thinking, what a load of nonsense! But think again. Azande witchcraft is significant in anthropology as another system of knowledge and understanding. Primarily it is seen as a way of explaining misfortune. The famous example given in anthropology is the group of Azande men sitting in the shelter of a granary on a hot day to eat their lunch. The granary collapses on top of them. If this happened to a group of men in the West, say the US, they would probably say it was termites in the ground which ate the granary supports, causing it to collapse. Not so the Azande men. They will blame it on witchcraft and not see it any other way.
Collapsed granary – termites or witchcraft – you decide!
In this sense, witchcraft acts as a form of social control. People in an Azande neighbourhood will act in a certain way which won’t cause another person to be jealous of them and attract witchcraft. Conversely, people will also behave so as not to appear jealous and be accused of witchcraft. It has been found to be very pervasive in Azande culture. In fact, witchcraft as a whole plays a major role in general in African societies today.
Other sources to check out for more information:
Ethnographic film (anthropology film) Witchcraft Among The Azande (1982) – it is very good, I saw it at university. Though you’d need to be an academic, or extremely well off to get a copy! This just details the Royal Anthropological Institute record of it.