African Science

Witchcraft, Vodun, and Healing in Southern Benin

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Douglas J. Falen
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In African Science: Witchcraft, Vodun, and Healing in Southern Benin, Douglas J. Falen presents a thick description of popular conceptions and rhetoric of àzě and , spiritual forces and practices (often translated into English as “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” or “magic”) that can be used to both heal and harm. This book is not only a welcome, scholarly contextualization of Beninese practices and beliefs on their own terms, but also a useful resource for non-scholars and scholars alike who find African witchcraft unfamiliar and may wonder why and how West Africans “believe” in it.

Chapter 1 is a preliminary definition of àzě and . The author uses E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s framework for understanding the difference between “sorcery” and “witchcraft” as a model for distinguishing between àzě and : àzě is like witchcraft in that Beninese sometimes describe it as involuntary, possessed by women, and used to harm others. can be understood as the analog of sorcery in that it is a skill learned—not passed on—by men who may use it to harm or help. This framework is at best a heuristic device because, as Falen goes on to acknowledge in later chapters, understandings and practices of both àzě and are diverse and contingent, depending on the person, time, and place.

Because of its fluid and amorphous nature, Vodun and sorcery are difficult to explicate. As depicted in chapter 2, local descriptions are often vague, nebulous, ambiguous, contradictory, and/or incomplete. This is because Vodun and witchcraft are practices meant to achieve individual desires rather than established sets of rituals and doctrines. Chapter 2 introduces concepts that show us just how blurry the line between àzě and really is. The dual concepts of black and white àzě, for example, demonstrate that while some Beninese might describe àzě as categorically evil and malicious, others claim that àzě can be used to help (white àzě) as well as harm (black àzě). Fundamental characteristics of black àzě overlap with those of bǒ, according to the framework described in chapter 1. This chapter demonstrates that witchcraft “defies definition” (81), qualifying and problematizing any hard categorization of àzě or bǒ, which is why it is perplexing that the bulk of chapter 1 establishes categories and definitions that are dismantled and all but abandoned in the rest of the book.

In chapter 3, Falen examines the philosophical, ontological, and epistemological quandaries that often arise when confronting unfamiliar (to many Westerners) concepts and phenomena such as Vodun, magic, and sorcery: Whose reality is “real”? In addition to addressing anthropologists’ methodological and theoretical approaches to this challenge, Falen draws on his own encounters with witchcraft. He thereby shows that the possibility of witchcraft may not be a question of steadfast belief, but rather of the necessity of negotiating potential threats, enemies, and challenges at various crossroads in one’s life. As Falen analyzes one instance of his own fear of a potential witchcraft attack against his family back home, sometimes the stakes are too high to not believe in witchcraft (107-108).

Chapters 4 and 5 outline the relationships between “the occult” (i.e., witchcraft and/or secret, malicious forces) and Christianity and Vodun in Benin as well as other secret societies and mystic religions around the world. As described in chapter 4, although Beninese Christians and vodunistes (practitioners of Vodun) will adamantly declare that their practices are the opposite of witchcraft, fear and talk of witchcraft is central to their growth. Much of the appeal and raison d’être of both is the promise of protection from witchcraft attacks. However, the ability to combat witchcraft simultaneously implies an intimate knowledge of how to do it, potentially raising suspicions of pastors and vodunistes themselves.

Finally, in the last chapter of the book, Falen explains how many Beninese describe àzě in terms of a common, “universalist discourse” (174). Beninese understand àzě as an all-encompassing, spiritual reality into which spiritual, religious, and mystical concepts (e.g., those of Indian spiritualism, the Kabbalah, and the Freemasons) from all over the globe easily fit.

One aim of this book is to make comprehensible phenomenon of witchcraft—long exoticized and denigrated by the West—to a Western audience while relying on the accounts, definitions, and experiences of Beninese. To this end, àzě and are shown to be a kind of science. For example, specialists and local researchers of àzě and are privy to methods by which they both decipher causes of events and produce desired effects in response—just as a doctor conducts tests to diagnose and treat an illness. Furthermore, Beninese often display a healthy skepticism of ritual methods and, just as scientists do, observe and test different techniques to determine which are effective.

One of the potential pitfalls of categorizing witchcraft as “science,” despite best of intentions, is to diminish it as an ultimately inferior, imitation of the West’s supposedly prototypical and superior empirical knowledge and reason, just as Evans-Pritchard did in his seminal study of the Azande. However, Falen deftly avoids this inference. He reiterates Beninese’s own ubiquitous depictions of àzě and as scientific methods that could perhaps even be harnessed for the “development” of the country. Moreover, Falen points out, it would be misguided to think of the West as the bastion of pure, rational, post-enlightenment, rational thinking. After all, how can Westerners “explain that we continue to visit doctors and buy medication, even when it fails? In such cases, why do we believe in microscopic pathogens rather than in supernatural forces? These are the same types of questions leveled at African witchcraft and sorcery, but they might be disquieting when directed at our own beliefs” (117). This skepticism of the West’s position of superior reason is increasingly apposite in this so-called “post-truth” era in which what is “real” is no longer agreed upon. Falen successfully draws readers into the contextual reality of witchcraft fears and dangers in Benin, simultaneously reminding his audience that the West’s monopoly on rationality and reality is perhaps more akin to Beninese ways of thinking than we might imagine.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kayla Kauffman is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Birmingham-Southern College.


Date of Review: 
April 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas J. Falen is Professor of Anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.


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