Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1902-1973) British social anthropologist who conducted extensive fieldwork on the Azande and the Nuer of the Sudan, including the religious dimensions of their respective cultures. Although E. E. Evans-Pritchard initially wrote in the functionalist tradition of Bronislaw Malinowski, his mentor, he eventually adopted an approach that Morris (1987:189) characterizes as "at once hermeneutic, structural, comparative, and historical."

Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (Clarendon 1937) represents a work that marks a shift between these two theoretical orientations. According to Evans-Pritchard, witchcraft beliefs enable people to feel that their misfortunes are not due to their own ignorance, incompetence, or bad luck but are due to people who can be identified and then influenced. Since the accused witch is someone who is perceived to exhibit antisocial behavior, the witchcraft beliefs function to uphold the moral standards of Zande society. Evans-Pritchard argues that Lvy-Bruhl's argument that indigenous people exhibit a "pre-logical" mentality was mistaken. Evans-Pritchard also argues that Zande thought integrated mystical and natural conceptions of causation.

Nuer Religion (Clarendon 1956) fully represents the interpretive approach that Evans-Pritchard's work took in the latter part of his academic career. Evans-Pritchard maintains that religious ideas are sui generis and that the essence of Nuer religion cannot be understood by reference to the functions it performs in relation to larger society. He critiques writers such as Radcliffe-Brown and Durkheim who regarded religion as illusion and whose theories attempted to account for this illusion.

In many ways, Nuer Religion constituted a study of religious symbolism that anticipated the development of symbolic anthropology, particularly as it came to be expressed in the works of Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, and Clifford Geertz. Evans-Pritchard gives considerable attention to sacrifice among a cattle pastoral people. In his view, the nature of this rite expresses the great importance of cattle in Nuer society, especially as the rite exists in the relationship between men and their herds, because, ideally, the sacrificial victim is an ox.

Hans A. Baer


M. Douglas, Edward Evans-Pritchard (New York: Penguin, 1980)

B. Morris, Anthropologies of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

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