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^ young person dies the body is placed on a
bier. This is raised on two men's heads, and carried
to a place indicated by the prophet, who accom-
panies the procession. Arrived at the spot, he takes
his stand in front of the corpse. He holds in his
hand a magic reed, which he shakes over the body,
and at the same time asks the question, " Was your
death caused by age and infirmities ? '•" If this is
answered in the aflirmative by the body impelling
the bearers forward, no more is said, and the funeral
proceeds ; if not, the prophet continues : " Was it
caused by your bad actions ? " Corpse answers

* Speke. t Ihkl.


"No" by remaining perfectly still. "By whose
witch was it caused, so and so, or so and so ? "
namino' the head men of the district.* When the


right name is mentioned the dead impels the bearers
forward. It is the duty of the head man indicated,
or rather his magicians, to discover the culprit by
the approved methods.

The danp-ers to the dead are not over when the
soul has left the body, and the Angoni prophet must
see to it that the devil, to use a Highland phrase, is
cheated of his own. Did evil spirits know a man's
grave in that unhappy land, they would undoubtedly
steal his soul to be educated in their own evil
college. So every precaution must be taken for the
repose of the departed. Till burial the soul of an
Angoni hovers near the body, seeking an opportunity
to re-enter its former abode. A soul does not at
first know death. To it death is sleep. " Death
and sleep," said a Kaffir once to me, "are one word."
This being the case, a lay figure is made before the
funeral. At the hour announced this figure is carried
out, followed by a great concourse of people, who
weep and wail, mourning for the dead. As soon as
the corteo-e leaves the house drums are beat, horns
blown, and guns fired to drive away evil spirits.
These, kept back by the noise, hover about the out-
skirts of the crowd, lured on by the signs of mourn-
inp-, till the ^rave is reached. There the figure is
buried with all the respect and honour due to the
departed, and as the crowd disperse the devils swoop
down upon the grave to snatch away tlie soul, but
only to find they have been outwitted and betrayed.

* Winterbotham.


Meantime the corpse has been quietly and expe-
ditiously buried without beat of drum or sound of
horn.* By using such precautions the prophets
outwit the devil, and do an important service to the
dead and the ancestral spirits, who wait the arrival
of their brother spirit with much anxiety.

When a Wahunga chief dies, his prime minister is
killed and buried with him, to be his councillor in the
dangers of the passage. All his wives are also killed
except one. For her a pit is dug in the ground, just
large enough to hold her. In this she is placed and
covered over with earth, a small breathing aperture
being left. A spear is passed down this hole,
which she holds in her hand ; if at the end of
the second day she is alive and holds the spear, she
is taken out and allowed to live. If her fingers
are too nerveless to grasp the spear, no farther
ceremony is needed; she is buried already.t

The Congo natives keep the bodies of their chiefs
for years, wrapping them in successive layers of cloth
till the mass is so heavy as to be hardly portable.
The same was done in the case of the queen-mother
of Uganda, for whom Mackay made the famous
copper coffin, and with whom, within and around her
three coffins, ^^1500 worth of cloth and copper was
buried ; a fact which proves that the Waganda do
not wish royal personages to be restricted in the
matter of apparel in ghostland.

When King Eyambo (Congo) died, the prophets
ordered thirty of his wives to be burned the first
day,j and before the funeral rites were over several

* Dr. Elmslie, MS. notes, I J. Thomson, Tliroiujh 31asai Land.

X AVaddell.


hundreds were sent to accompany him. Should he
have gone without a respectable following, or with
only a few, the spirits would ask, " What poor slave
is this who is coming alone ? " and on the discovery
that it w^as a king, his people would be visited
with every form of calamity for having allowed
their monarch to cro from them like an unknown

Prophets regulate functions of government, and
in some cases determine the succession to the
throne. In TJo-anda three chiefs or councillors, who
are magicians or semi-divine, elect the new king
from among the late monarch's sons, and generally
select a young son — if an infant so much the better —
for the regency is theirs, and the younger the king
the longer will be their term of office. The elder
sons are kept in confinement till the heir is of age,
and then burned, except two or three reserved with
the view of keepmg up the succession should the
young king die without issue.* This, though in
theory an excellent system to prevent disputes, was
apt to lead to awkward consequences for the three
who held the regency. A son, when his father fell
sick, might retire to another tribe, and, returning
suddenly seize supreme power and send the regents
to join their late master. This was done by the
Batetwa chief Dingiswayo.t who fled to the Cape
Colony, to return in a few years to claim his rights
with direst results to his rival's patrons.

Prophets experiencing such vengeance now and
then, sought to secure their order against untimely
accidents by organising guilds or colleges, the

* Wilson. t G. M. Theal, Boers and Bantu.


members of which were reo-ardecl as sacred m virtue


of their otHce. Under such a svstem a kino- mio-ht be
slain bv a rival, but the maoficians were sacred, and
their divinity would be respected. The rules of
their order permitted them to be the supporters of
the, de facto king, apart from oaths of allegiance to
one who mio^ht be a fuo-itive. Thus the BuUoms
have an institution binding its members to keep the
sacred mysteries secret for ever, and to yield prompt
and unquestioning obedience to the superior of the
order ; ^ rules which raise a doubt as to whether
Loyola's conceptions were marked with that degree
of originality which is generally attributed to them.
New members are admitted after a long novitiate,
during which the most severe tests are put upon
their loyalty and resolution. Even then they can-
not be admitted till friends of theirs, already
members, bind themselves by an oath to put the
novice to death instanter, should he make known
anv forbidden secret. The manner of execution is
as secret as it is expeditious and effective. There
is no escaphig the ordeal of the giiild. Similar
institutions, with local modifications, exist among
the Soosoms, Timmanes, Basutos, and many other
tribes. Among the Timmanes a woman prophetess
is general of the order, and a kind of inquisition or
confessional exists among them. To the care of this
hag fathers and husbands confide their daughters
and wives, and the methods pursued by her and her
college is highly characteristic. When a penitent
appears she is smeared witli Avhite clay, and asked

* Winterbotham.


to confess, on pain of death. If her confession is
deemed satisftictoiy she is dismissed with an admoni-
tion, and injunctions to perform certain acts, unless
her sin is witchcraft, in which case she is sold into
slavery. If any one refuse to confess, nothing more
is heard of her. Should the confession be unsatis-
factory in itself, a decoction is given to force a fuller
statement from the penitent. This, if the confession
was not full, causes intolerable pains which can only
be relieved by the priestess. If pains follow, she
proceeds to discover the concealed crime by means of
divination. The penitent is then charged with it,
and asked to plead. If she deny the crime, she is
sold ; if she refuse to plead, she is poisoned.^^

These guilds exist wherever religion has deve-
loped into a system. The chief priest assumes
functions to himself which belong to royalty, and
so reduces the kingly office to a shadow. This is
the case with the Egbo of Calabar,t the Lubare of
Uganda,! and the Moro of the Waneka.§ The same
abnormal development of the power of the priestly
office took place in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The temptation and danger of all religious systems
is to claim power and authority over men's lives and
actions outside its own proper sphere. The result
in such cases has always been a degrading of the
sacred office, and ultimate disaster to the system

But there is another permanent function of pro-
phecy, important in itself, and universal among
savage men, which has been touched upon only

* Winterbotham. t Waddell. t Mackay. § New.


incidentally, and that is foretelling the future.
When a tribe goes to war a great many details
cannot be arranged by the chief and his councillors ;
they must be determined by augury. Such details
seem to us to be of the very essence of practical
affairs, to be decided by generals, but to savage men
the case presents itself in an entirely different
aspect. The prophet must decide the strength of
the expedition, the clans who are to send their
contingents, the sacred place where the army is to
be charmed, and the route that is to be taken. Nor
can a general go into action, even against a handful,
should the oracles be unfavourable. In 1879, during
a period of disturbance in South Africa, a chief,
Umhlonhlo, was marching leisurely across country
with his whole army. The day was hot, and not a
cloud could be seen. Presently the magicians, ever
on the alert for omens, noticed a peculiarly shaped
cloud on the horizon. It rose rapidly in one mass,
and was observed " to roll upon itself." Its progress
was intently watched till it reached the zenith and
passed over the sun. This was an evil omen. The
spirits were offended, and had passed in shadow
over the chief and his army. Their backs were
turned upon their children. There was, however,
no immediate danger, for their scouts had reported
that no soldiers were within many miles of
their line of march, and they could retire to some
sacred spot to have their warriors re-charmed.
While they were discussing which place to resort
to, the van of a small column of cavalry appeared
unexpectedly over a rising ground. Dismay was


written on every countenance ; black fear was in every
heart. The war minister, one of the bravest of men,
urged the troops to form into order of battle. No
one answered his summons. A fatal paralysis had
crept over chief and people. He did his best to
organise an orderly retreat, but in vain ; not a blow
was struck ; every man took to his heels, and the
army never reassembled.

On another occasion a chief, Oba, led an army
against some people of the Fingoe tribe. He knew
their place of encampment, and sent a trusted spy
to find out all he could and report. This man crept
up close to their camp fires, and there saw a diviner
pronouncing an incantation against Oba and his
army. This was reported to the chief who paid no
regard to it. But on the following morning two
ospreys flew over the army uttering piercing cries.
This the prophets declared to be an evil omen which
boded defeat, but Oba was not to be frightened
by Fingoe curses or the screams of birds, and
advanced boldly. From the crest of a hill they
saw the Fingoe camp, and a number of cattle
grazing between. Six men tended the herd, and
these advanced shouting "Basolieve," meaning " they
are cursed." Qwarana was ordered to advance,
which he did at the head of his men. When quite
near the Fingoes fired a volley, shooting Qwarana
through the body. This was enough ; the army
turned and fled. Oba did his best to stay the
panic ; he begged his soldiers to act like men, he
called them cowards and women. It was in vain.
They had been warned by the ospreys, and now a


body of nearly two thousand warriors fled in panic
before six cowherds.

But the future cannot be left to such acci-
dents as a midday shadow, or the flight of eagles.
Methods that can be resorted to at any time must
be found. These difier among most tribes, but the
following may be taken as illustrative. The Bongo
consult the oracle thus : — A stool of a particular
wood is made, the surface of which is rubbed per-
fectly smooth, a block of the same wood is then
prepared to lie flat on the stool. When a response is
wanted a few drops of water are placed between the
stool and the block, the latter is then moved back-
wards and forwards. If it moves easily, and begins
to o-lide without friction, the oracle is favourable ; if
not, the undertaking proposed cannot prosper. Or
an oily fluid from the bengeye-tree is given to a
hen. If the bird dies there will be misfortune ; if
not, success.* Another method, which the same
observer records, is to dip a cock again and again in
water till it is senseless. It is then left in the sun,
and should it revive the augury is favourable. By
such means men determine war and peace, as well as
the guilt or innocence of accused persons.

The BuUom tribes determine the future by " cast-
ing the sand." t This may be to discover if a sick
person is to recover or not. The diviner takes a goat-
skin on which he carefully spreads a layer of fine dry
sand ; he then shuts his eyes, and with the three first
fino-ers of his rioht hand makes lines and dots in
the sand. According to the position of these, the

* Schweinfurth. t Winterbotham.


patient will live or die. The same result may be
obtained by taking a number of palm nuts, and
arranging them in groups with the eyes closed.
Gallas divine from the appearance of the entrails of
slaughtered animals,* while almost every action a
Basuto or Baralong performs is determined by the
fall of dice. So it happens, that when a man goes
to commit a crime, he lays aside his fetish, and
does not consult the oracle, as he could not in that
case obtain a favourable response. He covers his
god with a cloth, that he may not know what the
worshipper is doing.t The Wayao determine the
future by a flour cone. When a man has determined
on an undertaking, as a journey, his magician takes
a quantity of flour, and lets it fall in a steady stream
at the head of his bed. If it forms a perfect cone as
it falls, the omen is good ; if not, that is an end of
the matter by the flour-cone test. Should the cone be
perfect, it is covered by an inverted pot and left for the
night. In the morning, when the pot is removed,
the cone is examined, and if found perfect, there is
nothing further needed beyond oflering the custo-
mary sacrifice. But if there has been a falling down
of the flour, even a small slip, it is a sign not to be
disregarded. An equally eflective method is to pour
out beer on the ground, which if it sinks at one spot
is a good omen, but if it runs along the ground, bad.|
Three bits of stick may be laid on the ground, two
parallel and one across. If found, after an interval of
some hours, in position as left, the oracle has granted
the worshipper's prayer.

* Krapf. t Tucker. t Duff Macdonald.


When prophecy descended to such trivialities as
those represented by the auguries and observances
referred to, it was doomed as a system. While it con-
tented itself with exposition, purgation of demons,
expanding philosophic conceptions and the enuncia-
tion of principles in an abstruse form, it commanded
men's respect, and the prophet was regarded as a
divinely commissioned messenger. But when it de-
scended to the petty details of village life, it could
not escape the fate of any great institution which is
hopelessly vulgarised. When the prophet became
little better than the court fool he could only receive
a fool's treatment. When a man who hurt his toe
against a stump could command the services of the
expounders of the supernatural to explain the fact,
it was not surprising that other men, despising at
once tree stumps and prophets, should introduce a
new and more vigorous, if less reverent, form of

As men's conception of divinity expanded from
the crude unformed idea of a divine king to local
deities, reaching gradually towards one supreme god,
the world needed a philosophy to correspond with
the new-born faith. This, prophecy did not as a
system supply. Instead of advancing with the
growth of thought to a higher and truer conception
of life, it pursued a course which could only lead to
deterioration and final extinction. But though
prophecy as a system became moribund, and so
continues among savage men, it was from it the new
philosophy took its rise. This philosophy springing
out of what was once a system in advance of current


thought, led to the development of the great
religious systems which at different periods became
world wide. While the old-world prophet " cast the
sand," or fumbled among the entrails of an expiring
cock, there were men among his disciples who con-
ceived bolder notions, and only waited for a favour-
able opportunity to give practical effect to their
thoughts. They had to wait many weary years,
generations, centuries, but their opportunity came
at last. Such men in the early days could do little
beyond raising a protest against the most glaring
abuses among their own order and in society. Even
in this they would meet with treatment similar to
that experienced by the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah,
and many of them would share the fate of all bold
reformers — the gallows or the fire. One after
another would quietly disappear as unworthy of their
office and subverters of the faith of men. But the
ashes of such men do more to fertilise the soil of
human thought than their wisdom while they live.
Like the dragon's teeth, they produce a fresh and
ever-increasing number of souls with like thoughts
and aspirations. The words of such men are
treasured by a few. They are pondered, digested,
made fruitful of new thoughts. As the years pass,
and the angry passions raised by the heretic's teach-
ing- die awav, men first view him as one who meant
well, next as a true prophet, and finally as a sacred
being whose memory is cherished as a divine heri-
tage. Posterity places him among the gods. He
was incarnate.

No sooner is the popular mind led to regard such


men as saints and martyrs, than a web of romance
is woven round their hves, and the philosophy they
taught becomes a new reHgion. Those of their suc-
cessors who cherish their memories and keep their
teaching ahve, seize the opportunity, and boldly
claim divine sanction for their doctrine. This is one
way. There is another. All such reformers do not
share the martyr's fate. A powerful king, weary
of the inanities taught and practised by his college
of magicians ; weary too of the endless sacrifices
and the ever-deepening stream of human blood ;
blood it may be, as in the case of a king of Ashantee,
in which to float the royal canoe,* throws the pro-
tection of his stronof arm over the reformer, as the
king of Babylon did to Daniel, and so encourages
the movement. Or, it may be, the reformer, finding
the current too strong, retires to a lonely place
where he lives a life of meditation and privation.
Such a man, especially after the invention of writing,
formulates doctrines into aphorisms. These, brief,
wise, practical, as they must be in his circumstances,
he communicates to the few faithful disciples
admitted to his sanctuary and confidence. They
carry them from hamlet to hamlet, thence from
house to house, where they pass into the current
language of the people. These, when received with
favour, the popular imagination connect with a
direct revelation from the gods ; ultimately it deifies
the man who utters them.

Such a life as this would lead a man to introspec-
tion and a comparison between himself, with his

* Kiihne,


half-uttered wisdom, and the folly of popular beliefs.
There was nothing more natural than for him to
conclude that he was god-possessed, and that his
words and actions were those of the god. When
this was asserted and boldly proclaimed, men in a
primitive age, when the old order and the worship
of ancestral spirits was discredited, and the new still
unsettled and fluctuating, would readily seize upon
the idea as giving a clue to the solution of the per-
plexities with which they were surrounded. The very
multiplicity of ancestral gods complicated the
situation. The presence of demons, as powerful and
more subtle than the gods themselves, made matters,
worse. The great, or one god, was too shadowy
and remote to be approached, and his existence, if
he did exist, gave no relief to the pious. Thus
the incarnation of divinity, in the person of a
prophet, would be hailed as giving a hope that the
mysteries of the spirit world would at length be

But we are now approaching a stage of develop-
ment which carries us beyond the bounds of our
inquiry. In Africa there has been no great incarna-
tion of deity as in Brahmanism and in Buddhism, An
examination of these, however brief, would lead to
the discussion of Vedic religion, which is foreign to
my present purpose. The fact to be noted is, that
earlier forms led to the incarnation of the founders
of the respective systems, and that myth surrounded
them with a halo which makes it impossible to dis-
tineruish the true from the false, so as to get at the
man and the philosophy he taught in its simplicity


and truth. For it is the truth which those systems
contained that has given them vitahty to exist
throug-h so many thousands of j^ears.

Thus, from the rude conception of a divine king
who ruled nature, thoug-ht advanced to a doctrine
of souls, thence to separate and personal divinities,
slowly gravitating towards the idea of one supreme
god, unknown and unknowable. Pursuing its
inquiries, never resting for a moment, the human
mind reached the conce^ition of the one god becom-
ing incarnate in time. And here it is curious to
note, that those in whom deity became incarnate, so
far as we can discover, put forward comparatively
modest claims, and that these were expanded by
their disciples into a cumbrous mass of doctrinal
teaching which, in some cases, fell to pieces by the
very weight of its ritual and ordinances. Men
could not bear the burden.

In Africa, always excepting ancient Egypt and
tlie countries bordering upon it, there is nothing
which corresponds with the Asiatic development of
religion. The art of writing JDeing unknown would,
apart from other causes, have made that impossible.
But our inquiries have, so far, tended in the direction
of a development not unlike that through which the
great systems of the east must have passed. Tradition-
does not preserve tlie words of wise men, as is done
where there is a literature. The words may be said
to remain, or a faint echo of them, but tradition gives
them a local setting and myth adapts them to local
circumstances. Still, the position occupied by the
God of the Wayao, as the God of the original


Inhabitants, and his reputation as a beneficent and
powerful deity, points to a deification of a prophet
whose soul was developed into a principal god.
Mlunou is doubtless such another. A great man
whose memory has waxed dim, and whose words
cannot be recalled as those of Brahma may. Myth
itself has almost died away in the course of ages, yet
Mluno-u lives as a faded memorv though the tradi-
tions of his life have perished.

The sketch attempted of the growth and decay of
the prophetic order is consistent with what we are
familiar with. In a highly developed state of society
the prophetic function ceases to be exercised as we
meet with it in primitive times. But it is still pre-
sent. The wise men of a nation are its prophets.
Its poets, philosophers, preachers, reformers, scien-
tists, and discoverers, are as truly the guides of men's
thouo-hts and actions as were the magicians of Ancient
Egypt or Chaldea. They are the descendants of
humble ancestors who determined the fate of indi-
viduals and nations by casting the sand, or by the
spots found on the entrails of a decapitated cock.
Men may imagine themselves independent of all
external circumstances, but we are the creatures of
our surroundinofs as were those who sacrificed their
god that his spirit might enter his successor. We
may make it our boast that we have freed ourselves
from the thraldom of superstition, but tliere are

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 11 of 18)