The Anthropology of Religion


The purpose of this dissertation is to analyze the roles of women in the indigenous religious system of the Onitsha Ibo of Eastern Nigeria, a society in which women are prominent in ritual activities.   The analysis will center on the roles of women as daughters, wives and mothers.   It will also examine the parts women play in wider community affairs.  Attention will be given to the ritual activities of Onitsha women related related to personal and community shrines, annual ceremonial events, and the most elaborate of Onitsha rituals, Burial and Lamentation.  Witchcraft and sorcery — the negative side of women’’s religious activities — will also be considered.  The question will be posed as to what factors in the Onitsha belief system, social structure and ecology may correlate with the relative prominence of women in Onitsha religion.
In the epilogue, some brief controlled comparisons will be undertaken, concentrating on the roles of women in certain other Ibo-speaking areas and among the Yoruba, in an attempt to account for similarities and differences from the Onitsha data.

1.1.  The Phenomenon of Religion: An Anthropological Definition

The pertinence of anthropological controversy over a definition of religion becomes apparent when one recognizes that the type of data selected and the manner in which it is analyzed depend, to a large degree, on the theoretical viewpoint of the analyst. Therefore, the question of what is meant by “religion” will be treated in some length, in order to clarify my approach to the descriptive data of later chapters.     Current [1960s] anthropological disputes over the definition of religion can be narrowed to two major points of view. The first, which can be traced to the founding anthropologist Edward Tylor without too many modifications, holds that the critical factor in religion is man’s belief in and relationship to supernatural beings or agencies. The second, which owes its intellectual roots to the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, emphasizes the role of religion in making sense out of the totality of the human situation and committing people in emotion and social action to the implications of their beliefs. Two prominent modern representatives of these varying approaches to religion are Jack Goody and Talcott Parsons, and discussion of the alternatives may proceed from a comparison of their views.

1.1.1.    The Position of Goody
Jack Goody proposes to define religious beliefs as present when “non-human agencies are propitiated on the human model”, and religious behavior as that which has references to the existence of these non-human agencies (1961:157-158).  His major argument against Emile Durkheim and his followers is that they differentiate between the “sacred” and “profane” in a manner which implies that the actors themselves recognize this dichotomy, instead of clearly stating that it is an analytic tool imposed by the ethnologists.  Goody maintains that the natives themselves generally do not recognize a distinction between natural and supernatural or sacred and profane (150).  As E. E. Evans-Pritchard has remarked, “Even by the definition of ‘magical’ and ‘empirical’, adhered to in this book [ritual and empirical actions being differentiated by reference to their objective results and the notions associated with them] it is not always easy to classify a simple act as one or the other” (1937:463-464).

Goody’s concern with whether the actors in an indigenous system make the same differentiations as do social scientists can be seen in his dismissal of Talcott Parsons’ negative criteria for a definition of religion.  For Parsons, religious practices fall outside  an intrinsic means-end scheme where the means employed bring about an end by processes of scientifically understandable causation. Instead, religious practices can be regarded as acts based upon theories which surpass experience (1937:429 ff.). Goody contends that within the frame of reference of the actors in many non-European societies, distinctions are not normally made between transcendental and pseudo-scientific theories. For example, the Lodagaa do not clearly separate the spheres of the technological and the mystical (1961:155). Next, Goody discusses the two positive characteristics of ritual (defined as “acts relating to sacred things”, Goody 1961:151) set forth by Emile Durkheim:
1)    that ritual involves an attitude of respect;
2)    that the means-end relationship is symbolic and not intrinsic.

By the latter, Durkheim means that the symbolic reference of religious ritual is society (Goody:152).  These are the critical criteria which, modified somewhat, have provided the bases for the definition of religion by Parsons and Robert Bellah.
Goody dismisses the first of Durkheim’s criteria as not necessarily required in a religious act and not invariably present.  As for the second criterion, he criticizes it not only as originally stated by Durkheim, but also as it has been changed by Durkheim’s successors.  Parsons’ interpretation of this criterion is that the symbolic reference of religious ritual is the “common value attitudes which make up the specifically social normative element in a concrete society” (Parsons 1937:433-4), and Bellah’s is that religion has to do with “what is ultimately valuable and meaningful” and “with the ultimate threats to value and meaning” (Bellah 1957:6).  Durkheim’s, Parsons’, and Bellah’s positions are refuted by Goody, who finds them so broad as to include all “purely rational pursuits in the economic or political sphere” (1961:154).  He questions how these authors decide what are the “ultimate values” of a society.  Clearly they are not “the specific desiderata evinced by members of a society in their actions or in their beliefs” but rather “high level abstractions from such observational data” (1961:156).

Closing his argument against a Durkheimian definition of religion, Goody claims that even to the observer the utility of a sacred-profane dichotomy is extremely limited and tends to be a cul de sac into which the anthropologist throws all otherwise unexplainable behavior that he assumes must stand for something other than it appears, such as attempts by the actor to relate to “ultimate values”, “social structure” etc. (1961:156).

Since he has rejected the sacred-profane dichotomy, Goody is faced with the problem of how he is to differentiate what is religious from what is not.  He proposes, instead, the definition of religion given earlier, i.e. religious beliefs are present when non-human agencies are propitiated on the human model, and religious ritual consists of irrational or non-rational acts involving supernatural beings (1961:159). This essentially behavioristic approach follows from his rejection of a theory of comparative religion based on categories which are not clearly demarcated by the natives themselves.
1.1.2. The Position of Talcott Parsons
Parsons’ position is not, however, as simple as Goody would imply, and it is important to examine it since it has provided the basis from which certain other theories, notably Geertz’s regarding a definition of religion, have developed.
In The Social System ((Parsons 1951)), Parsons does not refer to a universal dichotomy between the sacred and profane, but rather says

…in every system of action there is to be found the equivalent of the line we draw between empirical and non-empirical ideas. Thus Malinowski’s Tobriander, though he believes magic to be essential to the success of his gardening, does not confuse the efficacy of magic with that of empirical technology.  He deos not believe it is possible to make up for bad technology by more and better magic (1951:329).

By empirical ideas or beliefs, Parsons refers to those which concern processes which are defined as subject to understanding and manipulation in a pattern of practical rationality, that is, in terms of what we call empirical science and its functional equivalents in other cultures (1958:328). Further, every culture has empirical lore, no matter how limited. Non-empirical beliefs concern subjects which are defined as beyond the reach of the methodology of empirical science or its equivalents in the culture in question, and these beliefs are neither verifiable nor disprovable by procedures of science (1951:329).  This is not to say, however, that actors in other cultural traditions are aware of and apply our own elaborately developed canons of scientific relevance and validity; but it is affirmed that some standards of selection do exist which tend to approximate such canons.

Clearly a realm of beliefs regarding the non-empirical can be distinguished, but, admittedly, as both Parsons and Goody would agree, concepts having to do with empirical and non-empirical may be less clearly differentiated in some societies than in others. Also there may be interpenetration of the empirical and the magical, as Evans-Pritchard has observed in the simultaneous application of both burning bark and a magical plant to smoke out termites among the Nuer (1937:464). Parsons refers to the Western separation of the supernatural from the order of nature as an analytical model which can be used cross-culturally if one takes cognizance of the fact that “on both sides [of the division] there may be a low level of cognitive organization” (1951:369). Further, the development of conceptions of supernatural and natural and the supposed relationship between the two, may differ in various cultures.

Religious beliefs, to Parsons, are “those which are concerned with moral problems of human action, and the features of the human situation, and the place of man and society in the cosmic, which are most relevant to his moral attitudes and value-orientation patterns” (1951:268).  In addition, religious beliefs, once accepted, impose moral obligations on the actor. (1951:368). This way of viewing religious beliefs will be examined below.
1.1.3.    A critique of Goody’s Position
One of the major difficulties in relating Goody’s critique to Parsons’ actual position on the nature of religious belief is that Goody does not take account of Parsons’ four-fold categorization of belief systems into science, ideology, philosophy, and religion, but rather chooses to deal with a two-fold classification, whether it be supernatural/natural, transcendental/pseudo-scientific, or sacred/profane, as though it encompassed Parsons’ position.  The four-fold classification

(see Fig. 1) [figure 1  — which I just did in Illustrator on the  iMac – it’s in FF Onitsha >Helen’s > Helen’s Dissertation Summer 2011> Figure 1 – mkh May 17 2011]

not only distinguishes the empirical and non-empirical, but adds another dimension separating cognitive orientations concerning the definition of features of the situation in terms of their relevance to the actor’s interests (1951:7) from evaluative orientations concerning the actor’s ordered selections among alternatives (1951:7).

When Durkheim’s distinction of sacred and profane is related to Parsons’ theory, it may be viewed as cross-cutting the empirical/non-empirical distinction,  with “sacred”  relating instead to the evaluative dimension, the category of moral standards, and “profane” relating to the cognitive side of Parsons’ classification.  Therefore, not only science and pseudo-science which concern the non-empirical, could be placed on the cognitive or “profane” side of the Chart, while ideology, which involves the evaluation of primarily empirical beliefs could, I believe, be regarded as “sacred”, since it concerns, as does religion, a commitment to a moral standpoint (Parsons 1951:349).  Ideology shades into religion “at the points where justification of the ultimate goals and values of collective action become involved”, but contrary to religion, ideology rests primarily on empirical premises (1951:350). Whether or not one wishes to superimpose the categories of sacred and profane (which have, perhaps, been so misused as to have outlived their usefulness) onto Parsons’ schema, it can be shown that the latter’s classification of belief systems is capable of encompassing Goody’s distinctions and articulating with his three types of ritual activity.  That is, 1) Magical ritual, which is “essentially irrational, since it has a pragmatic end which its procedures fail to achieve” (Goody 1961:159-60), corresponds to Box B on the chart. 2) Religious ritual, irrational or non-rational, but involving supernatural beings (Goody) 1961:159) (though this type covers a more limited range than Parsons’ category of evaluative, non-empirical beliefs) can be placed in Box D. 3) Public ceremonial, and rituals of family living, both of which are neither religious nor magical nor aimed at empirical ends (1961:159-160) correspond to Box C, along with ideology.  This latter correspondence indicates, as both Parsons and Goody would agree, that the moral factor does not by itself distinguish religious beliefs or behavior from all other kinds.

To return to Goody’s critique of Durkheim’s two positive characteristics of religion, a few points should be noted.  First, with regard to Goody’s statement that an attitude of respect is not necessary in relation to the “sacred”, it must be admitted that individual actors vary greatly in terms of their motivations during religious ceremonies. However, the anthropologist who is not a complete pragmatist will ask what is the appropriate  attitude in this situation, thus obtaining some idea of the ideal role expectations for individuals intimately involved in religious ceremonies, as contrasted with those immediately involved in technical, primarily cognitively–oriented activities.  In most cases, I would imagine that respect would be one of the ideal criteria for behavior guided by religious standards, i.e. those involving evaluative, non-empirical belief orientations as well as for behavior guided by ideological standards, i.e. those concerning evaluative, empirical belief orientations.1

More importantly, one cannot dismiss the aspect of respect in religious beliefs and behavior by saying that sentiment is not uniquely religious.  We are not speaking of religious sentiments but of configurations of beliefs, and on the social action level, role expectations, which, taking all factors together, can be broadly classified according to an analytical model.     Secondly, while Goody argues that a definition of religion that has to do with the “common ultimate-value attitudes of a society” (Goody 1961:153) is too broad, he ignores the fact that religious beliefs, according to both Parsons and Bellah, commit the believer to acceptance of moral obligations and are not just vague statements about values (Parsons 1951:368).

Perhaps the core of Goody’s argument with the Durkheimian-Parsonian points of view is that the reference of symbolic religious ritual must always be inferred by the observer and that therefore it cannot be said to be part of the actor’s system of orientation.  When Jack Goody, however, actually studies religious beliefs and actions, he does not bind himself to such a materialistic position, but rather uses what I presume he would classify as “lower level abstractions” such as when he acknowledges that the interpretations of ritual meanings, though based on the meanings given by the actor, go beyond this by “viewing individual acts as part of a total system of social relationships” and “in seeing customs in a wider setting than the experience of one culture alone provides” (1962:38).  Goody is willing to accept inferences concerning the cognitive orientations of the actors, but not the evaluative ones.

Some light may be thrown on this problem by noting the manner in which Victor Turner determines the meaning of ritual acts.  First, he ascertains the indigenous interpretations, including those of differing statuses.  Second, he observes not only what people say about a ritual system, but equates its meaning with its use.  Also he considers the composition of the group using the ritual symbol, and the emotional qualities of the acts.  Third, he observes the symbols in a totality, the different senses of a symbol being interpreted by its position in different phases of ritual activity (1965:82-83).  In contrast to Goody, Turner views ritual symbols as having referents which are both emotional and normative – a “single symbol represents both the obligatory and the desirable” (1965:87). This point will be elaborated upon later.
Also in regard to the “meaning” of ritual, John Beattie has demonstrated that there are “levels of awareness” of symbols, and more abstract meanings can frequently be elicited (1966:67). Also different actors have varying degrees of knowledge concerning religious acts, and I would agree with Beattie that it is not a valid principle in social science to assume that nothing may be imputed to a people which is not present in the mind of every one of them (1966:67).

Goody appears to deny the utility of inferring an actor’s orientations and then matching these against the scientific observer’s analytic framework concerning possible dimensions of such orientations.   Others, however, affirm that more than practical, cognitive orientations can be distinguished and that inferences can be made about the emotional and evaluative orientations of the actors.     Related to this is the problem of whether the belief system is a reflection of ritual action, or whether it can be granted analytical independence.  Goody thinks of religion in terms of ritual action and de-emphasizes the possibility of belief systems having autonomy of their own.  He is very wary of inferring motivations behind ritual acts except at their most pragmatic level.

A basic question that arises from this previous discussion of the two major viewpoints in anthropology today [1970] on a definition of religion is not whether individuals relate to non-human agencies, but whether these entities may be said to make demands upon the worshipper of more than a purely pragmatic nature, that is, whether they can be thought by the actor to clarify for him questions of meaning and the worth of his own life, and to point out to him moral paths to action.  We are trying to determine how important is the evaluative aspect of religious behavior.  Clarification of the problem of a definition of religion in anthropology will occur if we take a more sophisticated proponent of Goody’s viewpoint, Robin Horton, and then contrast this perspective with the Parsonian one as exemplified by Geertz.
1.1.4.    Robin Horton’s Views on a Definition of Religion
According to Horton, religion may be seen as the “extension of the field of people’s social relationships beyond the confines of purely human society” (1960:211).  This extension involves the human beings in a dependent position vis-à-vis their non human alters (1960:211).  Unlike Goody, however, he does view “ritual man” as attempting to explain and influence his world by understanding the principles that underlie it.  For him a primary goal of most African ritual behavior is explanation and prediction (1964:97).  As we shall see below, Geertz’s discussion of religion and ritual takes account of the explanatory and model-building aspects of religion, but also shows their limitations as bases for a definition of religion.
A further point is important here.  Horton believes that man-to-god relationships can be placed, for the purpose of analysis, on a continuum from manipulation to communion, and that “those religions with a highly manipulative emphasis are found in conjunction with human social systems whose communion aspects are balanced” – “whilst those religions with a very strong element of communion occur where there is a similarly strong imbalance in the human social system” (1960:222).  As he sees it, the manipulative aspect is primary in technologically backward communities (1964:99).

These issues have bearing on the problems of routinization of religion.  Although religious innovators may be individuals with strong needs for communion with a deity, their followers are more interested in the promised milk and honey.  In time the latter manipulative view (which is less concerned with meeting evaluative and expressive needs and more with gaining empirical goals) trumphs (1960:224).  This point will be discussed after examining Geertz’s position.
1.1.5.    The Position of Clifford Geertz
In a recent article, Geertz defines religion as

…a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, persuasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic (1966:4).

Geertz argues that religious beliefs not only refer to the transcendental and cosmic, but even more importantly, they encourage faith that there is meaning to the universe which cannot be established empirically. He describes three points at which chaos threatens man, so that he may be brought to doubt that his experience has any intrinsic meaning.  These crises concern (1) the problem of bafflement; (2) the problem of suffering; and (3) the inequities of fortune (1966:14).  First, religious symbols can be used to explain the otherwise inexplicable; secondly, contrary to Malinowski’s pragmatic theory that religion helps one endure emotional stress by opening “escapes” (1955:89), religion deals more with the problem of how to suffer than how to avoid suffering (1966:23).  To those who accept its premises, religion teaches that the world and one’s experiences in it are comprehensible and part of a larger, cosmic scheme.  Faith and commitment, not systematic inquiry and deliberate doubt, are part of the believer’s religious perspective.
1.1.6.    Assessment
Geertz’s argument highlights some of the critical elements in religious belief and makes it possible to assess critically various points of view concerning a definition of religion.  For example, when Horton proposes that African religious systems “can be seen as the outcome of a model-making process which is found alike in the thought of science and in that of pre-science” (1964:99), he ignores the importance of faith in religious beliefs.
Also, Horton has over-emphasized the “instrumental-manipulative” aspects of “primitive” religions and de-emphasized the expressive, evaluative ones.   Although routinization of religions undoubtedly occurs, the very fact that conventional worshippers do follow revitalization movements and answer the appeals of new religious leaders indicates that these leaders are appealing above the purely manipulative aspects of religion (which should be satisfied by the convert’s former routinized beliefs) to the level of often inchoate values and expressive needs.  That this high pitch is not consistently maintained by the majority of the people concerned does not, in any way, invalidate the importance of the evaluative, expressive elements in religion to the average person.

Although renouncing the over-emphasis on the manipulative, it is equally inadequate to argue that both religion and magic are primarily expressive and symbolic like art, and unlike science (Beattie 1966:60).  Science and religion cannot be separated simply on the basis that the former is cognitive, based on observation and trial and error, while the latter is expressive and symbolic.  Such a position ignores the evaluative aspect and views religion simply in its gratificatory component, but not in the sense which gives meaning to individual acts by putting them within a wider framework and orienting the actor to a course of action based on moral criteria.

Raymond Firth has arrived at a definition of religion which partly resembles Geertz’s.  He defines it as a concern of man in society with basic human needs and standards of value, seen in relation to non-human entities or powers.  This concern includes not only the question of human welfare, but also the more general problem of giving meaning to existence (1959:139).  Answers are achieved through the use of concepts relating to non-empirical existence.  Although Firth sees religion in the same creative, non-empirical order as the arts, he realizes, as Beattie apparently does not, that the solutions provided by the former involve one in a deeper degree of commitment than do those of the latter (1959:136).     From Geertz’s perspective both religion and science offer answers to problems of meaning, but faith is vastly less valid a criterion for acceptance of scientific explanation than it is in religion.  Furthermore, in science, an explanatory model which does not meet standards of prediction or which conflicts with other analytic models is much more likely to be discarded than is a religious explanatory model upon which much more faithful commitment is centered.     To say that some scientists become so committed to their models that they refuse to change them regardless of available information is not to deny the validity of an analytic distinction between scientific explanatory models and religious ones.  Rather it shows that it is possible for individuals to form a religious commitment to models which were formulated without religious intent.
There is explicit in Geertz’s definition of religion, a difference between religious symbols as expressed in the belief system and in ritual, consecrated behavior (1966:28).  This is a difference often overlooked by other writers, some of whom equate religion with its ritual aspect, as Horton does when he refers to religion as the “the extension of the field of men’s social relationships’ beyond the confines of purely human society (1960:211).
Instead of ignoring the differences between belief and ritual action, Geertz maintains that it is through ritual that “the moods and motivations induced by sacred symbols” are reinforced and the ceremonial acts become not only a model of the religious ideal but also a reason for believing in it (1966:28-29).  He stresses that it is the enactment of the ritual itself with its implicit restatement of the ethos and world view that makes the acceptance of religious authority – and consequently, faith – possible (1966:28).  “In these plastic dramas, men attain their faith as they portray it” (1966:29).  Indeed, the moods and motivations aroused by ritual have effects outside the ritual context itself if they then shape men’s behavior in the everyday world by “coloring the individual’s conception of the established world of bare fact” (1966:35).

Geertz does not, however, proceed to analyze the nature of religious symbols themselves, nor does he emphasize that the powerful motivations developed by ritual are, in part, due to qualities of the symbols.  This matter has been dealt with recently by Turner in an article on color classification among the Ndembu where he gives examples of the multidimensional character of this type of abstract symbolism.
Among the earliest symbols produced by man are the three colors representing products of the human body whose emission, spilling, or production is associated with a heightening of emotion – in other words, culture, the super-organic, has an intimate connection with the organic in its early stages, with the awareness of powerful physical experiences (1966:80).

Thus, Turner argues, the colors black, red, white, which are originally associated with excreta, blood, and milk or semen, take on generalized abstract meanings which become the basis for further classifications (1966:83). Images used in religious ceremonies may have many levels of meaning and may be perceived not only cognitively, but also “orectically”, that is, they may “elicit emotion and express and mobilize desire”(1965:87).   As Turner views the problem, the components of meaning of ritual symbols can be seen on a continuum with the physiologically based, emotional referents at one pole, and the evaluative, moral ones at the other (1965:87).  Turner maintains that there is an interplay of orectic (relating to the physiological and emotional) and moral symbols in any complex ritual whereby the normative rids the orectic of its purely infantile character, and the orectic adds a pleasurable aura to the normative (1965:87).
The type of analysis employed by Geertz and Turner, in which the symbolic system is carefully considered and the evaluative aspect of religion is not overlooked, appears to me much more useful than Goody’s.  The latter’s position ignores just those factors which Parsons, Geertz, and Turner deem crucial to the understanding of the subjective aspects of human action, that is, the features that make the religious system meaningful to the actors involved, not only cognitively, but also through expressive and evaluative symbols which serve to orient their motivations.2

1.2.  Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft  

Two final issues are relevant before leaving definitional problems:  how may magic be differentiated from religion as here defined, and how does witchcraft fit into this definition of religion?
1.2.1.    Magic and Religion
The separation of magic from religion has a long history which can only be dealt with briefly here.  Robertson Smith, in The Religion of the Semites, made this distinction:

Religion is not an arbitrary relation of the individual man to a supernatural power; it is the relation of all members of a community to a power that has the good of the community at heart, and protects its law and moral order (1889:55).
In better times the religion of the tribe or state has nothing in common with the private and foreign superstitions or magical rites that savage terror may dictate to the individual (1889:55).

Durkheim followed Robertson Smith in viewing as magic those rites which did not concern the cult of community gods, defining the magical sphere as beliefs, practices, and persons not operating within the communion of the church and often hostile to it (1947:42-45).  However, Durkheim was primarily interested in the idea of primitive religious beliefs as expressions of the collectivity and did not develop these concepts of magic.
While looking for information to fit his evolutionary scheme, Frazer re-introduced Roberston Smith’s distinction between magic and religion and concluded that primitive man had only magic, which was not concerned with morals; while in more advanced stages man had religion and finally science (Douglas 1966:23).  He promulgated the view that magic is a manipulation of mechanical symbols devoid of ethical content (Douglas 1966:28).

Malinowski further elaborated this separation and set forth notions concerning the nature of religion and magic which until recently have been taken as definitive.  Although he emphasized that both religion and magic serve psychological functions in that they tend to relieve anxiety, and that both are based on mythological tradition and concern the “sacred”, they differ in that magic is a “practical art consisting of acts which are only means to a definite end expected to follow later on”; while religion is “a body of self-contained acts being themselves the fulfillment of their purpose” (1955:87-88).  Unlike magic, religion has no “simple technique” involving spell, rite, and the condition of the performer, but rather involves complex mythology, a world of faith, a concern with morality, a vision of the afterlife which creates “a second supernatural reality for primitive man” (1955:88)3.  Further, magic is in the hands of specialists, while religion is shared by all.

Recent writers on the subject have tended to criticize the rigid separation of magic from religion.   Goody  disputes the contention of Robertson Smith and Durkheim that religion is public, involving a congregation, while magic is private and individual in its activities.  He argues that magic also has its “church” in that the effects of its acts depend on the commitment of a clientele, which thus constitutes a moral community (1961:146).  Magic, he claims, is thereby no less social than religion, depending similarly on value consensus and common understandings of moral norms (1961:146-147).  Mary Douglas, in a recent book, also views magical as well as religious ritual as symbolic of social processes (1966:22).

Contrary to Malinowski, it is also argued that “magic is not the matter-of-fact application of empirically grounded laws about observed causal connections, but that it is, or may be, the dramatic assertion of something and that this dramatic assertion may be in some measure an end in itself” (Beattie 1966:68).
The implications of the absence of an analytic distinction between magic and religion can be seen in Horton’s treatment of religious relationships (human dependency relationships vis-à-vis non-human alters (1960:211) as being either skewed toward the manipulative or the communion dimension (1960:219).  Religious relationships, he claims, may be used instrumentally to gain any desired ends exactly as would be non-empirical objects of a secular nature such as charms and medicines which are usually classified as magical (1960:218-219).  Such an argument is supposed to refute the Durkheimian classification of religion in terms of collective social action towards approved goals and magic as those individualistic practices, often anti-social, and not operating within the communion of the church (1960:219).

The fallacy in Horton’s position lies in his definition of religion as “an extension of the field of men’s social relationships beyond the confines of purely human society” (1960:211).  He is trapped, therefore, into regarding all relationships, whether in the nature of communion or of manipulation that involves non-human others, as religious by definition.  If, however, religion is viewed as dealing primarily with evaluative beliefs, the term “magic” may be applied to those beliefs concerned more with the manipulative instrumental aspects of the belief system.  In this case, the analytic distinction between magic and religion is still useful.  Also if can be recognized that, in many systems, there is a degree of interpenetration of the manipulative/instrumental with the expressive/evaluative.

The nature of the definitional problem has been summed up neatly by Mary Douglas in her discussion of differentiation in primitive and modern society. The pre-Copernican world is a personal one where the individual’s fortune is bound up with the cosmos, where world view and physical environment are not clearly thought of as separable by an autonomous agent (1966:83).   Impersonal powers are thought to be responsive to symbolic communications “as in the case of the magician who tried to transform the path of events by symbolic enactment” (1966:86).  Though the belief system may be very complex, the actors rarely attempt to objectively examine their own world view (1966:91).  In the Western world, our concepts of magic, science, and religion can be much more clear cut than they are in the “primitive world”; we have segmented, specialized our belief systems, with science taking over the explanatory aspects and religion those of communion (Horton 1964:103).  Magic is less valued for explanatiory purposes and consequently is less institutionalized.

In the following pages, religion will be considered as involving cognitive, expressive, and evaluative elements, being not only an explanatory system, but one to which people become committed.  The term “magic” will refer to non-empirical beliefs which are more concerned with the instrumental than with the evaluative.  This cannot be an absolute matter since African religion has a strong instrumental component, and magic, itself, also involves at least a minimal sharing of common values.   But I would maintain, however, for the purposes of analysis, that magic is more concerned with what can be achieved through non-empirical assumptions and means and how to achieve it than with the problem of whether what to be achieved is good or evil.  Although magic can be used for ends which may be defined as good or evil, unlike religion, it has as a basic premise, moral neutrality.  Of course, no religion is completely concerned with moral issues nor is it an object of total faith constantly; elements of any religious system may be primarily expressive or instrumental.   However, we are speaking analytically, and discussing the emphases in belief systems .

In an undifferentiated society, it is more difficult to isolate religion from magic or from science; nonetheless it is possible to focus on religious aspects as here defined.  Such a focusing depends on the use of Parsons’ concepts of the differentiation of belief systems, as to whether they are emphasizing the empirical or non-empirical, the cognitive or the evaluative orientations.

1.2.2.  Witchcraft and Sorcery

The classic definitions of witchcraft and sorcery were given by Evans-Pritchard in his discussion of Azande beliefs and practices:  “a witch performs no rite, utters no spell, and possesses no medicines”. “An act of witchcraft is a psychic art” (1937:21).  A sorcerer, on the other hand, has to depend on medicines to achieve his immoral ends (1937:10).  His acts are always conscious for he must knowingly purchase the medicines and learn the rites.  This basic definition has served to generate two recent sets of hypotheses concerning women and witchcraft, those of Middleton and Winter (1963) and those of Leach (1961).
Middleton and Winter have used the criterion of mystical, innate power to differentiate witchcraft from sorcery, the magical means for which are available to anyone (1963:3).  Witches also are identified with such superhuman qualities as the ability to leave their bodies while asleep or metamorphose into animals and birds (ibid).  Furthermore, witchcraft is said to be always associated with a certain category of persons within a society, and is never ascribed to everyone.  They assert that witchcraft accusations against women as wives are most  likely to be found in patrilineal societies with the house-property complex where the role of wife is highly “ascribed” while accusations of sorcery are found where the role is highly “achieved” (1963:16).     Middleton and Winter’s assumptions concerning witchcraft and its relation to the position of women will be reviewed in light of the Onitsha data.  It will be shown that the witchcraft accusations do occur in a patrilineal society which lacks the house-property complex and which affords women marital roles possessing significant achieved aspects.  Onitsha wives may, however, also be accused of sorcery.     Leach’s hypothesis linking “uncontrolled mystical influence” (pertaining to witchcraft) to members of groups related to ego through “alliance”, and “controlled super-natural attack” to those related to ego through “incorporation” will also be considered (1961:25).  As will be shown, his categories are too simplistic to deal with the Onitsha data.     Witchcraft is not only a theory of causation, but also a theory of morality (Gluckman 1965:218).  Therefore, by the definition followed here, it is part of religion.  For example, among the Azande, where a man may have witchcraft within him but not know it, greedy vicious feelings will set the witchcraft to work.  Thus when a man is condemned for practicing witchcraft, he is condemned for “sins” which we, ourselves, would recognize (Gluckman 1965:220).  However, in some societies, it is assumed that the victim has been attacked by the witch because of his own  lustful, selfish, greedy behavior – i.e. behavior contrary to the moral values of the community (Wilson 1951:308).     Among the societies mentioned in this dissertation, there are configurations of beliefs which approximate the foregoing definitions of witchcraft and sorcery.  The acts which are then described as “witchcraft” are concerned with unquestionable supernatural powers that either stand contrary to the basic values of the society and thus constitute a theory of evil, or that directly reinforce these basic values by punishing those persons whose behavior falls outside the accepted moral code.
The goals pursued by a sorcerer may be either deemed legitimate, as, for example, the killing of a non-kin political rival, or may fall within the sphere of religious sanctions when they violate accepted morality.  The magical means, however, are morally neutral.     Before setting rigid criteria for witchcraft and sorcery, it is important to take into account the fact that by forcing beliefs into boxes labeled “witchcraft” and sorcery”, it is possible to distort the data and prevent examination of actual components of supernatural beliefs in a given society (Turner 1964:324).  Turner has noted that “many African societies recognize the same range of components: ‘innate’, ‘acquired’, ‘learnt’, ‘inherited’ skills to harm and kill; power to kill immediately and power created by medicines; the use of familiars, visible and invisible, the magical introjection of objects into enemies; nocturnal and diurnal hostile magic; invocation of ghosts by a curse…” (1964:324).  However, in different societies the components are clustered in various ways.     For the Onitsha data, and I suspect for much other material, Turner’s point is well taken.  Onitsha people distinguish between two major categories of mystical attack: amosu and ikunsi, which could be roughly glossed as witchcraft and sorcery; however there is a third category, ogboma, which possesses qualities in common with amosu though it is believed to be used less and less frequently and is acquired only by males.  This third category could easily be overlooked unless the data are approached through the use of indigenous classifications.
Therefore, when we examine the Onitsha data, we shall first look for indigenous clusterings of meanings, not expecting that they will necessarily fit into Evans-Pritchard’s or Middleton and Winter’s classifications of witchcraft and sorcery, but aware of the range of components of mystical attack  such as ascribed versus achieved supernatural powers, psychic power versus the use of medicines, etc. that have already been explored in the literature.  Once significant clusterings have been determined, they will be given the minimal definitions, if applicable, of Evans-Pritchard and Middleton and Winter.  Where not applicable, indigenous terms will be used.  An attempt will be made to determine whether the acts loosely translated as witchcraft, sorcery, etc. are regarded by the community as evil, good, or morally neutral.

1.3. Methodological Approaches to the Study of Religion
There are three basic ways in which a religious system can be studied.  The first emphasizes religion as a cultural system wherein the beliefs are viewed in terms of their logical integration and symbolic components.  There is concern with the historically transmitted patterns of meanings embodied in symbols with which people communicate with one another and deal with the world.   Examples of this can be found in some of the work of Geertz, Turner and Bellah.  In Chapter Two (Below), some of the major themes in religious belief in West Africa will be surveyed, following which the religious belief system of the Onitsha Ibo will be examined.  Also, in the sections on religious ritual, attempts will be made to relate behavior patterns to the religious ritual system, especially in regard to the role of women.  However, due to limitations of the data, the primary focus here will not be on religion as a cultural system.
The second approach involves a concentration on the relationship between psychological factors and religious beliefs.  Although religious belief systems will be examined here in the light of what they can tell us about indigenous theories of personality, the psychological emphasis will be minimal.  The problem of the relation of specific religious beliefs to given child training practices will not be dealt with at length4, nor will the problem of the role of the individual in certain positions in the social structure in shaping aspects of the religious belief system through the idiosyncracies of personality5.     The analytical approach most prevalent among anthropologists today and the one around which much of this dissertation will be phrased is the third, which relates the belief system and ritual behavior to social-structural processes.

This approach has recently been characterized by Geertz as an attempt to prove the indubitable, e.g. in showing that “ancestor worship supports the jural authority of the elders” – or “that ritual groupings reflect political oppositions” (1966:1-2).  Although this attack overlooks the many complex, subtle interpretations which have been made through the social structural approach, it does serve to stress that one dimension of religious belief and ritual has been overemphasized in relation to the other two, i.e. the study of religious symbol systems themselves, and the relation of religion to personality.

1.3.1 Some Social Structural Approaches to the Role of Women in Ritual
In West African studies, where the role of women has been of interest to the anthropologist, the social structural approach has usually been used.  Furthermore, witchcraft, more than any other religious activity, has often been the focus of such interest.  This is probably due to the fact that witchcraft accusations always have a limited range and frequently focus on women.  Since Western observers do not believe there is any scientific basis for witchcraft beliefs, these beliefs are easily viewed as consequences of social structural tensions. Unfortunately, the dramatic role of women as witches has overshadowed their equally important roles in the more legitimate aspects of religion.
Gluckman, Nadel, and Goody are among those African scholars whose works are especially relevant to the analysis of women’s roles in religion.  Gluckman has related the reversals of roles by women in certain Zulu rituals to the ambivalent way women are regarded in that society, where they are thought not only to have good qualities, but unlike men, to possess an inherent evil power (1966:225).  By examining the social roles of women and their consequences in the general social structure, he is able to provide an explanation of these ambivalent beliefs.  He hypothesizes that women provide a basis for many disputes which eventually lead to the fragmentation of the social unit simply by fulfilling their proper role of child-bearers in a society where the house-property complex determines inheritance (1965:223-224).     Nadel, in an analysis which deals not only with social structural but also with psychological factors, shows that the model for the organization of witches is the actual market organization of Nupe women, the leader of whom is believed to be a powerful, but rather benign, witch, capable of controlling the others.  Witches are described as middle-aged or old married women whose victims are affinal males (1954:173-174).  To achieve their ends, Nupe witches need the assistance of male diviners.  Nadel locates the nexus of the witchcraft problem on the level of adult social relationships, pointing out that men in real life are often in debt to their wives and financially dependent on them.  Also the ideal role of wife and mother does not mesh with the view many men have of their trading wives as promiscuous and purposely barren.  Witchcraft beliefs occur in relation to the projection by men of the internal conflicts and frustrations they incur in their social relationships with women, and make them not only the victims of women, but their masters, as diviners, on a fantasy level (1954:179-180).

Jack Goody (who did his fieldwork in Ghana), has discussed the difference in sacrifices to the matrilateral side in a double descent system and in a patrilineal one.  In the double descent system, where movable property is inherited through the mother, misfortunes are frequently attributed to the uterine lines.  However, though a man may be directed to his mother’s mother’s home, once there, the sacrifice is made to the shrine of the deceased woman’s brother (1962:404).  Among the patrilineal group where the role of the socializer and holder of ritual power were centered in the father, Goody found no instance of misfortune being attributed to a man’s mother’s ancestors and observed no case of a man sacrificing to the shrines of his mother’s patrilineage (ibid: 199-400, 408).     The range of witchcraft among the double descent group parallels that of the matrilineal Ashanti  with the witch’s activities being centered within the wealth-holding corporation (Leach 1961:22).  Among the patrilineal Lowilli, however, where witch-mothers are thought to kill their own children, Goody attributes accusations of witchcraft to women’s weak, inferior social position and to the belief that they must resort to mystical rather than jural forms of action (1962:59-60).
1.3.2.    Some Unanswered Problems in Regard to Women and Religion
The above synopsis of some of the relevant studies of social structural aspects of the roles of women in religion raises some of the problems that will be dealt with more explicitly in this dissertation.  For example, one of the major concerns here is the distinction between women’s ritual activities and those ritual activities merely concerning women (such as sacrifices to distant matrilateral shrines).
Study needs to be directed towards the circumstances that give rise to both positive and negative rituals performed by wives and/or daughters of the descent group.  Analysis should seek to ascertain what, if any, social structural corollaries persistently occur where the roles of women in religion are elaborated.  For example, does this elaboration tend to occur where there are high divorce rates, strong attachments by women to their natal lineages, and inheritance of some significant movable or non-movable property by or through women?     The comparative data does not provide a simple answer to these problems.  Among the LoDagaba, who have a double descent system, and where there is much more trustworthiness between sisters and brothers due to the situation of uterine inheritance of property, the affective bonds between brothers and sisters are very strong (Goody, K. 1962:432), but there appears to be no more positive ritual elaboration of the position of women than among the neighboring patrilineal LoWilli.  Among the Tallensi, who in many respects resemble the LoWilli, and who have no inheritance of property through women, spirits of female ancestors are especially cruel and capricious and (unlike the LoWilli) matrilateral ancestors have important influences on an individual’s life (Fortes:1949:174-175).     The differences in ritual roles of women or in ritual allegiance to matrilateral ancestors in different societies cannot be adequately explained merely by examining the domestic authority and holder-heir situations, although the former category may prove more fruitful than the latter.  If the holder-heir situations were an adequately explanatory factor, more ritual elaboration of the role of women would be expected among the double descent Afikpo Ibo,  where property is transmitted through the uterine line rather than among the patrilineal Onitsha Ibo, yet such is not the case (see Chapter Eight). And, where women are not significant “holders” or “heirs”, the question must be posed as to what conditions are responsible for the maintenance of their descent-group affiliations.

In considering the data, Faller’s hypothesis that divorce rates are low in patrilineal systems where the wife is absorbed into her husband’s group and high where she remains a full member of her natal lineage must be taken into account (1957:106-124).  Ashanti material provides an interesting case in support of this hypothesis since the women are strongly affiliated to their descent groups, have weak marital ties, and are not dependent on their husbands for critical economic support.  Data relevant to this argument will be presented later.
The problem of the strength of a woman’s lineal and affinal ties has recently been dealt with for matrilineal systems and hypotheses generated in that study will be utilized in the search for correlates to women’s ritual activities (Schneider and Gough 1961).  It has been argued that in patrilineal societies, the higher the productivity from subsistence cultivation, the tighter will be the control by the descent group and the stronger its authority.  Hence in patrilineal societies of highest productivity there would be weak matilateral and affinal ties and women would be absorbed into their husbands’ descent groups (Schneider and Gough 1961:597).  In matrilineal descent systems, such the the Ashanti, however, high productivity correlates with strong matrilineal groups and unstable marriage (Schneider and Gough 1961:596).     The presence or absence of a state organization may also affect the role of women in religion.  For example, Gough has hypothesized that in matrilineal systems of low productivity, old women of the descent group share in the male head’s authority, especially in matters involving women.  With an increase in productivity and state centralization, however, women become more subordinate to men and are often regarded as legal minors (Schneider and Gough 1961:519-520).

The question of to what degree, if at all, these hypotheses are applicable to patrilineal systems will be briefly examined in the conclusion.     Another important variable in a consideration of the ritual roles of women is their economic position in relation to their own lineages and those of their husbands.  In examining this, it is important to differentiate the type of economic activities pursued and the degree of independence in regard to disposal of goods and profits.  Where women have strong, relatively independent economic functions, they tend to form associations which reflect both political and religious factors6.  Elaborations of personal cults will frequently occur, though this is not necessarily the case7.

As many as possible of the above mentioned variables will be used to try to account for the relatively prominent role of women in Onitsha religious affairs.  In the epilogue, hypotheses  generated from the Onitsha data will be used to explore women’s ritual position in other parts of the Ibo-speaking area and among the Yoruba.

  1. The extent to which a non-Western worshipper may be aware that he is not dealing with empirical reality has been amusingly shown by Horton. If an informant is asked questions about a go as though the latter were a living man, such as “What kind of house does he live in? Is he handsome? How tall is he? Is he kind to his wives?” One only has to go a little way along this road before getting the sort of blank stares which indicate that one has been asking entirely meaningless questions. Probably one will be told curtly: “We are talking about the spirits, not about men” (1964:100). [Return ↩]
  2. See Geertz 1966:1-56; Turner 1965:79-95; 1966:47-84, Bellah 1957. [Return ↩]
  3. This definition largely coincides with Parsons’ and Geertz’s thinking on the subject. [Return ↩]
  4. Examples of this approach are to be found in Spirio and d’Andrade 1958; Whiting and Child 1953. [Return ↩]
  5. See Field 1960; Wallace 1956. [Return ↩]
  6.  Little 1951:181, 163-165; Lloyd 1963; Nadel 1954:181, 163-165. [Return ↩]
  7. Nadel 1954:112 [Return ↩]