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Section _..^S!\\>^,



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"light in AFKIf'A," KTC. ETC.













Thj8 volume is an effort to put into popular form a
number of facts connected with the religious ob-
servances and social customs of African tribes. No
attempt is made to treat the subject exhaustively,
and those who have made Ethnology a study will
find in it little that is absolutely new. But the
ordinary reader, w^ho is interested in questions affect-
ing a people slowly emerging from barbarism, may
have his sympathies quickened.

When I first began the stud}- of Ethnology it
opened to me a new world of thought. Reading Mr.
J. G. Frazer's Golden Bough last winter, I found it
touched so many subjects which long residence in
Africa had made familiar to me, that the idea of
putting the results of my own observations into
permanent form took shape. This has been supple-
mented by facts gleaned from such authorities as
were at hand, and the result is the present volume.

I have, in foot-notes, acknowledged my indebted-
ness to various authors.


The facts have l:)een gathered chiefly from Mr.
Frazer's volumes ; Bishop Callaway's Nursery Tales,
Traditions anel Histories of the Zulus ; Miss C. G.
Gordoii-Cummiiiof's In the Neiv Heh rides ; W.
Mannhardt's Antike Wald-und Feld KvJte and his
other works ; Wiiiterbotham's Tlie Niger and Laire
Tribes; Rowley's Africa Unveiled; Dufl:' Macdonald's
Africana ; Schweinfiirth's The Heart of Africa ;
Chalmers' Tiyo Soga; Brownlee's MS. notes; Felkin's
Four Tribes of Central Africa; Ramsey er's and
Ktihne's Four Years in Ashantee ; Ashe's Two Kings
of Uganda ; Arnot's Garanganze ; the missionaries
New and Krapf, G. M. Theal, and several others,
without whose works my book could not have been

ThougVi living " at the back of the north wind,"
I still feel the African fever ; that is to say, tlie
charm which it has to draw back to itself all who
have tasted its l^itters and sweets.

My object throughout has been to stimulate an
interest in African peoples.

If the book serves this purpose, I shall be am23ly

rewarded for the labour bestowed upon it ; in the

fullest sense a labour of love.


Reay Free Manse,

Christmas, l<Si)2.



I. Peimitive Man and the Supernatural

1. Keligion defined .....

2. Incarnate gods .....

3. Sympathetic magic ....

4. Rain-making .....

5. Dangers of seeing divine persons

6. All property and subj ects owned by ruler

7. Lubare of Uganda ....

8. Departmental kings ....




II. Guarding Divinity

1. Danger to man-god from exposure

2. The Mikado

3. Kings of Shark Point and Congo

4. Divine king may be deposed

5. Restrictions placed on king and heir to throne

6. Separation of civil and divine functions

7. Killing the god .

III. Evolution of Deity

1. Doctrine of souls .

2. Dangers of the soul

3. Worship of ancestors .

4. Other spirits than souls

5. Fetish ....

6. Sengero selling of women

7. Confusion of seasons .

8. Offerings to spirit of vegetation

9. Oft'erings to goddess of fecundity






in. Evolution of Deity — rontinued.
lo. Muansa

11. Rites at puberty .

12. Souls dwelling in objects

13. Toad day

14. Origin of national festivals

15. Khond sacrifices to Tari

16. Story of Balder .

17. Midsummer fires .

IV. Sacrifice ....

1. Putting- king to death .

2. Substitution

3. Soul of ancestor entering person .

4. Kaffir methods of directing course of nature

5. Propitiation .....

6. Thanksgiving .....

7. Substitution for murderer

8. Ofl:'erings to Lubare

9. Parading victim before sacrifice .

10. Festival and sacrifices of Bantama

11. Messages to spirit-land .

12. Descent of priest to the lowei- world

V. Taboos

1. Charms against witchcraft

2. Banning by curses .

3. Sprinkling to exorcise evil

4. Eating in private .

5. Position of divine persons

6. Power of superstition .

7. Ceremonial purity .

8. Objections to iron .

9. Power of iron against evil
10. Sanctity of objects belonging to sacred persons



v. Taboos — continued ■

1 1. Dangers of barber's art

12. Rise of evil spirits .

VI. Expulsion of Demons ....

1. Taboos insufficient protection

2. Animals messengers of evil .

3. Stone-throwing and cursing .

4. Expulsion of guile ....

5. Expulsion by carrying out in wicker basket

6. " Raising " the devil

7. " Laying " the devil

VII. Witchcraft ......

1. Crime of witchcraft

2. Persons presumed to practise the ait

3. Power of witchcraft

4. Methods of practising the art

5. Witch-doctoring ....

6. Prophetess as discoverer of witches

7. Magic roots .....

8. Witchcraft prosecutions by ordeal

9. Mosaic trial by ordeal .

10. History of witchcraft .

11. Fairyland

12. Growth of idea of supreme spirits

VIII. Harvest Festivals

1. Yam festival ....

2. Pondo festival of first-fruits

3. Honour done to powers of nature

4. Maize mother ....

5. The "Maiden " a survival

IX. Prophecy

I. The office and its development







1 13-135





IX. PliOPHECY — continued.

2. Causes of its gradual decay .

3. False prophets

4. Converse with the unseen

5. Second sight ....

6. Foretelling events .

7. Guarding against soul-snatching

8. Funeral rites

9. Guilds and sacred orders

10. Heading omens . . .

11. Heresies ....

12. Reforms among the order

13. Prejudices against religious teachers

X. Social Usages ....

1. Ceremonial acts

2. Seeking a lady's hand .

3. Succession to the throne

4. Courtesies to guests

5. Sanctuaries

6. Eating and drinking

7. Friendship

XI, Acts op Devotion — Myths .

1. Acts of ordinary life — religious

2. Caring for the soul

3. Soul dwelling apart from body

4. Giants and their souls .

5. Sacred animals and objects .

6. Mermaids ashore .


1. Woman's position .

2. Woman as regent .

3. Danger of touching woman's blood

4. Dangers of girlhood








• 194

• 195

• 19s

• 197



XII. Woman — continued.

5. Uncleanness ... ...... 198

6. Woman's influence 199

7. Aggressiveness ........ 200

S. Dog language . i02

9. Public morality ........ 203

XIII. Courtesies OF Life — Dress 204-213

1. Hospitality 204

2. Loyalty to chief . 205

3. Right and wrong ........ 206

4. Cannibalism ......... 208

5. Clothing 209

6. Ceremonial courtesy 210

7. Tein-egin 212

S. Juju and the fairy bull . . . . . . .213

XIV. Reforms 214-234

1. Man's tenacity in holding all he started with . 214

2. How wide a gulf between savage and civilised . . 215

3. Blankets, Bibles, or work .215

4. Claims of commerce . . . . . . .216

5. Influence of clothing 219

6. Work and conditions of soil 220

7. Missions and how conducted 224

8. Jews and ancients 225

9. Difficulty of understanding new ideas .... 229
10. Ideas become common as thought advances . . 232

Index 235-240




Religion in the widest sense may be defined as
man's attitude towards the unseen, and the earhest
forms of human thought furnish the clue from which
/ must be traced the development of those great
^ systems of religion that have at different j^eriods
been professed by the majority of men. Under the
term religion we must include, not only beliefs in
unseen spiritual agencies, but numerous customs,
superstitions, and myths which have usually been
regarded, by both travellers and students, as worth-
less and degrading, till within a comparatively recent
period. Only by taking account of such, and com-
paring usages common among tribes far removed
from the influence of civilisation with survivals in
other parts of the world, can we arrive at any definite
knowledge regarding the world's earliest systems of

In both ancient Greece and Italy the union of


royal title with priestly functions was common. At
Rome the tradition was, that the sacrificial king had
been appointed to perform sacred functions formerly
belonging to the ruling monarch, after the overthrow
of the ancient dynasty and the exjDulsion of the
kings.* In republican Athens the second magistrate
of the city was called King, and his wife Queen. The
functions of both were religious.! Other examples
will occur to readers familiar with the classics.
Such traditions and usages leave no doubt but in
very early times kings were not only civil rulers,
but also the priests who offered the sacrifices and
stood between the worshippers and the uiiseen

The kiug would thus be revered as the ruler and
father of his peo23le who protected and cared for
them. He would be also alternately feared and
loved as the ghostly intercessor of men, and re-
garded as himself partaking of the ghostly nature,
for the divinity which hedged a king in those days
was no empty title, but a sober fact. He was re-
garded as able to bestow or withhold blessings ; to
bring blight and curse, and remove them ; and so,
being above and beyond the control of his subjects,
reverence and fear would easily pass into adoration
and worship. To us this may appear strange, but it
is quite consistent with savage thought. To the
savao-e African or South Sea Islander the world is
largely, if not exclusively, worked by supernatural
agents, and these act on impulses similar to those
which move and influence men, and with which he

* Livy. + J. G. Frazer, Golden Bowjh.


is familiar in himself and others. Where the forces
of nature are under the control of the khig-priest,
the worshipper sees no limit to his power and the
influence he can exert on the course of nature, or
even upon the material universe itself, as when a
man's father's spirit shakes the earth because the
kino^ hurt his toe. He holds converse with the i-'ods.
From them come abundant crops, fecundity, success in
war, and kindred iDlessings, and the king who bestows
these is regarded as having the god residing in his
own person ; to the savage man he is himself divine.
There is another way by which the idea of a man-
god may be reached. In all countries we find traces
of a system of thought which attributed to sympa-
thetic magic events which can only happen in the
ordinary course of nature, but which are supposed to
be i^roduced by will-power through some object. One
of the leading principles of this sympathetic magic
is, that any effect may be produced by the imitation
of it.* Perhaps the most familiar illustration of this
is the Highland " Corp Creadh." This consisted, or
consists — for it is said the practice is not extinct — of
a clay image of the person to be bewitched being
made and placed on a door, taken off the hinges,
before a large and constantly replenished fire.
Sharp thorns, pins and needles, were pushed into
it ; oaths and imprecations were uttered over it,
the victim writhing in agony the while ; elf arrows
were darted against it, and the fire stirred to a
blaze as the image was turned and toasted to make
the sufferer feel all the torments of the damned.

■ J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.


Filially, the "Corp Creadh '' was broken to pieces,
when the patient died a horrible death, blue flames
issuing from his mouth. In Africa a small bundle,
with a charm, tied to a pigeon's leg, keeps the per-
son bewitched nervous and restless as the bird flits
from twig to twig. If no accident happens to the
charm or the bird that carries it, there is no hope
for the patient's recovery ; he will simply be worried
to death.

This magic sympathy goes farther. It is supposed
to exist between a man and any portion of his per-
son that may be severed from the body, as cut nails,
hair, saliva, or even the impression left Avhen he sits
down on the grass. The same sympathy exists
between persons hunting, Ashing, on a journey, or
at war, and those left behind. If those who remain
at home break any of the prescribed rules, disaster
or failure overtakes those of their friends who are
absent. According to the same superstition, animals,
fowls, and crops may be influenced through tufts of
hair, feathers, or green leaves of corn as the case
may be, and among savages elaborate precautions
are taken for their protection and preservation.
"Medicine" poured out on the path by which a
man usually approaches his dwelling affects him,
should he return by that path, as if he had swal-
lowed it. A hair from a cow's tail steeped in the
virus of any disease prevalent among cattle will
affect the animal from w^iich it was taken, and
through it the herd. A green leaf of corn scorched
against a Are, or i)laced where it will mildew, will
produce drought or l)light in the held or district


from which it was taken. These are illustrations of
the evils that may be produced by sympathetic
magic, but it is capable of l^eing applied to good
purposes also,

A South African, in calling a village to a hunt,
cfoes from hut to hut imitatinof the movements of
some Avell-known animal of the chase. The villagers
pelt him with cow-dung, which he does his best to
avoid. Should he be well bespattered when he has
finished his rounds, the hunt will be successful ; if
not, it will be entered upon in a heartless manner,
as all will expect failure. In Niass when a wild
pig falls into a snare it is taken out and rubbed with
nine fallen leaves, the l^elief being that this will
cause nine other pigs to fall into the pit.* A South
Sea Islander when unsuccessful with his nets walks
about as if ignorant of their existence, till caught
himself, after which he goes home assured of success ,
on the morrow. As a bov, when hshinof about Loch
Aline, we often, when luck went against us, used to
make pretence of throwing one of the fellows over-
board and haulino- him out of the water. After
that trout or sillock began to nibble, according as
we were on fresh water or salt. These superstitions
are world-wide. Actions are performed or avoided
by all peoples because they entail results similar to,
or in some way connected with, the action. So it is
that a fashionable lady will throw a pinch of salt
over her shoulder when any has been spilled.

Another form of this superstition is securing
certain desirable qualities of animals or objects

* J. G. Frazer, Gohhu Boufjh.


for oneself. A Kaffir warrior twines tufts of rat
hair with his own, as this will give him a rat's
chances of escape from the enemy's spears. Bechu-
anas use ferret-skins for a similar purpose, or it may
be hair from a hornless ox, as being hard to catch
and harder to hold. Thieves in South Africa affect
the skin of the common wild cat, which is hardly
ever caught when making descents on hen-roosts.
There is not a savage who does not believe that he
can influence nature in some direction, or secure
qualities by means of sympathetic magic, and when
any one obtains more than a village reputation for
his gifts and powers, his deification is merely a
question of time or of local accident. He by degrees
ceases to be the receiver of divine communications,
or the medium through which divine power is exer-
cised, for divinity dwells within him ; he is himself
divine, and can by a touch or look, or even a wish,
produce effects which result from divine power only,
and which in their results go vibrating to the
farthest confines of the universe.

The savage ruler who has attained to the honour
of divinity is expected to give such evidence of his
power as his people need for material prosperity
and comfort, but not more than that. Of these,
health and strength, victory in war, fecundity and
abundant crops, may be regarded as the chief
necessities of primitive man. A shrewd ruler might
kee[) his reputation unimpaired for a lifetime, as
regards l^oth health and success in l^attle amono- a
hardv race of })eople, nor A\'ould he be very much
troubled by those desirous of issue in a land the


inhabitants of which are notoriously prolific. But
the question of crops in seasons of drought, or when
there is too great a rainfall, comjolicates the situa-
tion considerably. And when to these are added
hailstorms, tornadoes, insect plagues, and the occa-
sional frosts of tropical lands, it becomes manifest
that the divine king sits on an uncertain throne,
for all these phenomena he must direct and control
for the benefit of himself and his people. '^

When the sky, for example, indicates the ap-
proach of a tornado accompanied by hail, the
magician repairs to an eminence, where he collects
as many people as can be hastily summoned to his
assistance. These, under his direction and guid-
ance, shout and bellow in imitation of the wind,
when with hurricane force it swirls and eddies round
the houses and among the forest trees. Then at a
signal they imitate the crash of the thunder, after
which there is a dead silence for a few seconds ;
then another screech, more piercing and long-con-
tinued than any that preceded, dying away in a
tremulous wail. The priest fills his mouth with his
own urine, which he squirts in defiant jets against
the approaching storm, as a kind of menace or
challenge to the wind spirit, the shouting and wail-
ing being intended to frighten the storm spirit from
approaching those who resist it. This is continued
till the tornado bursts or passes away in another
direction. In the former case more powerful magic
sent it on the course it took ; nothing more could
have been done to avert it. This belongs to a more
developed system of thought after the ofiices of


ruler and priest have been separated. I have
scores of times watched South African magicians
fiii-htinof the storm, and when successful the tone of
})roud arrogance assumed by the priest was most
amusing, especially to those who did not believe in
liis power, and who at times included his own
])atron and chief.

This same belief in regard to the power of man to
influence the wind by means of magic is found in
all parts of the world. The Yakut takes a stone,
found inside an animal or fish, and ties it to a stick
with a horsehair. This he waves again and again
round his head, and a cool breeze springs up.* The
New Briton throws burned lime into the air when
he wishes to make wind. Highland witches sold wind
to credulous skippers in knots : one knot opened and
a gentle wind blew ; a second brought a snoring
breeze ; the third a full gale. A simple method of
raising wind to retard the progress of a vessel was
to draw the cat through the fire.t How it came to
he, supposed tliat the suftering of poor pussy had an
effect on the wind the author quoted failed to ascer-
tain. It is well known that a cat scratching table
or chair legs is raising wind, and I once heard a
Scotch matron order her daughter to " drive out
that beast : do ye no see she's making wind, and
we'll no get a wisp o' hay hame the day gin she
goes on." Our Highland friends, too, could sink a
shi]) at sea by placing an egg-shell in a tub of
water and raising tiny wavelets to sink it. By
sympathy the doomed ship sank.

* J. G. J-'ra/er, (IoIiUr BoikjU. f A. Poison, Gaelic tSociety Memoirs.


Mariners the world over whistle for wind — by
courtesy to Neptune in modern times ; formerly, as
an act or exercise of power. I tried it once but
that was lonof aofo — I am wiser now — and did raise
wind ; a hurricane of it, l^ut it was from the skipper,
who cursed me by all the gods he knew, and a good
many he did not know, for " interfering- with what
ye know nothing about." The fear of that man has
haunted me ever since. Hottentots cause the wind
to drop by hanging a fat skin on a pole. The
Kaffir raises it by exposing his posterior to the
clouds. An Austrian during a storm will open his
window and throw out a handful of meal, saying :
"There, that's for you : stop."^^ Wind-bound fisher-
men in the Western Isles of Scotland believe that
walking sunwise round the Chapel of Fladda, and
pouring water on a particular stone, will bring a
favourable breeze. If a mariner in the same region
ties knots on a cow-hair tether, he may venture to
sea, even during a violent gale, as he can, by means
of his tether and knots, control the wind at will.
Bedouins of East Africa go out to make war on the
desert whirlwind, and drive their weapons into the
dusty column to drive away the evil spirit that is
beheved to be riding on the storm. The Australians
kill their storm-demons with boomerangs ; while the
Breton peasant, when a wisp of hay is lifted by the
wdnd, throws a knife or fork at the wizard that is
supposed to be disporting himself there.

Other powers of nature are similarly treated by
the savage, and the custom is continued by his

* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bowjh.


civilised brother without any clear conception of the
sio-nificance of hisown actions. It is unnecessary to
discuss the details of locust cursing- and the banning
of frosts, but the methods of making and prevent-
ing rain occupy such a large place in savage life that
a detailed account is necessary if we are to under-
stand man's early habits of thought, and how
primitive usages developed into elaborate systems of
ritual and religion.

The approved methods of rain-making vary con-
siderably according to the fancies of the professors
of the art. In Russia, men used to climb lofty trees
with a vessel full of water. While seated on their
airy perch, two firebrands were struck together to
imitate lightning, and a drum beat as a substitute
for thunder, during which the rain-maker sprinkled
water from his vessel on all sides to produce a
miniature shower in sympathy with which rain fell
copiously.* This system of producing rain by imita-
tion and sympathy is common in parts of South and
South-east Africa, as among Hlubies and Swazies.
The rain-doctor goes to a river, from which, with
much mystic ceremony, he draws water, which he
carries to a cultivated field. He then throws jets
from his vessel high into the air, and the falling
spray draws down the clouds and causes raiu to
fall in sympathy. In time of severe drought the
Zulus look out for a " heaven bird," which is
ordinarily sacred, kill it, and throw it into a pool of
water. Then the skies melt in pity for the bird and
rain down tears of sorrow upon the earth. t The

* W. Mannhurdt. f Bishop Callaway.


Luljare of the Wagogo is lord of heaven and of
earth, and gives or withholds rain according as men
conduct themselves towards it. New Caledonians
dig up a body recently buried, and after they have
removed and cleaned the bones they rejoint them
and place the skeleton over taro leaves ; water is
then poured over it, whicli the spirit of the man who
owned the skeleton takes up and showers down in
plenteous rain.* The same motive comes out clearly
in the mode of making rain common among peoples
of South-eastern Europe. " In times of drought,
the Servians strip a girl, clothe her in grass, herbs,
and flowers, even her face being hidden with them.
Thus disguised, she is called the Dodola, and goes
through the village with a troop of girls. Thev
stop before every house ; the Dodola dances, while
the other girls form a ring round her singing one
of the Dodola songs, and the housewife pours a pail
of water over her." t Similar customs are observed
by Greeks, Bulgarians and others.

These illustrations, which might be multiplied to
any extent, show us clearly that the savage does not
place any limitations to his own power over nature,
and that early customs, once firmly rooted in the
tribal or national mind, are observed by civilised

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 1 of 18)