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nation :" Should his powers decay and his percep-
tions become dimmed, he might in a second precipi-
tate calamities which would ^^I'ove disastrous to
himself and his subjects. The world itself might
be thrown out of place, and projected no one knew
where, for in those days the powers of divine per-
sons were not restricted to " projecting " bits of
flimsy French paper in the form of letters with
indifferent spelling.

There was onl}" one way open by which the danger
could be met, and that was by putting the god to
death while still in the full possession of his facul-
ties or on the first appearance of outward symptoms
of decay, as a grey hair or hollow tooth, and thus
secure the entrance of his soid or divinity into his
successor.* Should lie die a natural death, even in
his prime, and before the dangers of decay appeared,
his soul might be stolen, or stray away into winter
and night to wander for ever. If the world were to
collapse on the King of Congo dying a natural
death, sucli a contingency could only be averted by
dispatching him to the land of shadows by violent
means. So it was that when a king fell ill his heir
and successor entered his house with a rope and
club, and either strangled or clubbed him to death. t
" 41ie King of Quiteva, in Eastern Africa, ranked
with deity,"+ and this continued till one of the
knigs lost a tooth, and feeling no disposition to

* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bomjh. t Labat. J Dos Santos.


follow the practice of his predecessors by quitting
the upper air on the appearance of the first bodily
defect, published to his people that he liad lost a
front tooth, in order that " when they might behold
they might yet be able to recognise him." The his-
torian continues : " He declared at the same time
that he was resolved on livino- and reiOTiine* as lono-

O (DO ti

as he could, esteeming his existence requisite for the
welfare of liis subjects. He at the same time loudly
condemned the practice of his predecessors, whom
he taxed with imprudence, nay, even with madness,
for condemning themselves to death for casual acci-
dents to their persons ; and abrogating this mortal
law, he ordained that all his successors, if sane,
should follow the precedent he gave, and the new
law established by him.""^

This man, whose name is not given, was as l^old a
reformer as was Ergamenes of MeroC; There the
kings were worshipped as gods, but whenever the
priests sent a message that the king must die, he
voluntarily submitted to be put to death. When
the summons came to Ergamenes he replied to it by
putting the priests themselves to the sword, thus
reversing the order, and putting an end to the
practice once for all. In Unyoro the king is killed
by his own wives when seriously ill.

Nor is the custom of killino- the divine king- con-
fined to Africa. The King of Calicut could only
rule twelve years, after which he must publicly com-
mit suicide according to an approved method ; a
method only a little less suggestive of the shambles

* Dos Santos.


than the Harakiri of the Japanese. The first modi-
fication of the Cahcut law of succession was made
towards the end of the seventeenth century, when at
the end of the twelve years a tent was pitched, and
the king had a great feast lasting ten or twelve
davs, at the end of which any one might kill
him and gain the crown. ^^ To do so he must
cut his way, sword in hand, through the king's
bodyguard to reach him in his tent. The des-
perate attempt was at times made but never with

Thev were bold men who ventured on drastic
reforms in far-away days ; bolder still were those
who ventured to curb the power of the j^riests after
the offices of ruler and high-priest came to be sepa-
rated, as not a few European monarchs discovered to
their cost when kept standing, barefooted and bare-
headed, waiting the pleasure of an arrogant ecclesi-
astic. But limitations were not put to the power of
the priesthood without a long period of transition,
during which many expedients were adopted to
preserve time-honoured usage, and adjust that to
the inevitable, as represented by a truculent ruler
who wished to enjoy the upper air as long as nature
])ermitted him to do so, and who acquired aAvkward
habits of answering the arguments of philosopliers
with sword-cut or gallows. To only one of such ex-
pedients can we refer, that of temporary kings or

Where kings were put to death at the end of fixed
pei'iods or on the appearance of the first signs of

* Hamilton, quoted by J. G. Frazer.


decay, rulers would anxiously endeavour to discover
a means of evadino^ the letter of the law while trivinii'
such obedience to its spirit as would satisfy theii-
subjects and worshippers. Some boldly set the law
at defiance by refusing to submit to its requirements.
Others sought out substitutes, and introduced to
men's minds the idea of one takinof, in a PTave
crisis, the place of another, and being regarded as the
person he represented ; his own individuality being
lost in the act of self-surrender and substitution.
He became the king, the very man-god whom people
worshipped, in his office and act. The real king in
fact died, and in resuming the government it was a
new king who ascended the throne to reign for
another stated period. At first a relative of the
king would act as substitute, but this could not
continue long without the sense of justice inherent
in man revolting against such a barbarous practice,
and a slave or condemned criminal would be sub-
stituted for a brother or son. This substitute,
whether son or slave, was for a time clothed with
kingly authority and lived in regal state, while the
king retired into private life. Even the royal harem
might be invaded by the temporary king, a fact, when
we consider the extraordinary jealousy with which
they were guarded, which shows clearly that only for
the most weighty reasons could such a thing be per-
mitted. It could only be in order that the temporary
king should be invested with full regal authority
without restriction or limitation. At the end of the
time allowed, the temporary king was put to death —
killed as a god — the king resuming office. The


custom Is in some places softened down still more,
and the substitute is not actually put to death, a
mock execution being sufficient. This latter custom
is observed in Cambodia, where the temporary king
receives the revenues during his three days of office,
as is also done by the same functionary in Siam, only
the latter seizes ships entering harbour, and holds
them till redeemed. At the end of his term of office
he o-oes to a field and draws nine furrows, where seed
is sown by old women. When the nnith furrow is
finished, the spectators rush to pick up the seed just
sown to mix with tlieir own, and so secure a
plentiful crop. This temporary king is known as
" Lord of the Heavenly Host."* These customs, and
especially the killing of the king or his substitute,
introduce us to the earliest form of human sacrifice,
a system which developed to such gigantic propor-
tions as men's conception of the supernatural ad-
vanced from the ideas of human divinities to personal
spiritual existences, whether as the spirit of corn or
vegetation generally, the powers of nature or the
souls of departed ancestors. To the development
of this form of religion and worship we shall now

* J. G. Frazer, quoting Pallegoix.



To form a correct conception of African and other
primitive peoples, it is necessary to have some
acquaintance with the doctrine of souls, as that is
understood by savage men. This throughout Africa
is vague, and the results of inquiry are far from
satisfactory. One hears accounts of souls, differ-
ing in all essentials, from men who observe the
same forms of worshijj and are subject to the same
system of government. The facts on which all are
agreed are few and easily enumerated. All men
have souls, even idiots, though some deny this, and
the departure of the soul from the body is death.
The soul is air, breath, wind, spirit, or it may be
regarded as being all these, or having their essence.
It is invisible, but in miniature an exact re23roduc-
tion of the man. It is his shadow, reflection, what
speaks in him. During sleep, or when a man is in a
faint, his soul is absent from the body, but returns
with restored animation. Should a person in a faint
be removed from one place to another, as taking him
out of his house into the oj^en air, he could not
recover, as the soul would return to the spot where
the man fainted, and not finding him there, would
go away. Again, a sleeper must not be rudely or



hurriedly awakened, lest his soul, like Baal of old,
should be on a journey, and have no time to return
to re-enter the body. In that case the man might
not die, but he would cease to be human, and go to
wander for ever in the forest like those corpses
raised l^y the art of witchcraft, and who are doomed
to an eternal wandering in mist and rain. The
spirit or soul, in the case of temporary absence,
leaves the body by the natural openings, especially
the nostrils, and must re-enter by the way it went ;
hence placing a handkerchief over the face of a
sleeper would be highly reprehensible, as it might,
probably would, lead to certain death. So would
closing the mouth, should the soul have left by that

At death the soul leaves the body to return no
more. Its leaving is not regarded as voluntary, as
death — that is, the expulsion of the soul — is most
frequently the work of wizards ; but in any case it
cannot re-enter that body " whose eyes shall never
see the sun again." Where does the soul go when
it leaves the body, either temporarily or perma-
nently ? During the absence of sleep it may " visit
the sleeper's friend in a dream," or it may " flit about
the roof ; " in either case its return is prompt the
moment the slumberer begins to move his limbs.
" The soul hears even a long breath, should it be
with my friend far away," said a Kaffir once to me
in a moment of unwonted confidence. At death the
soul hovers near the body till the latter is buried,
and then takes up its abode in the great world
of spirits, except in those cases in which it enters


an animal or object to watch over the dohio-s of

But souls are almost as liable to clanu-er from
external circumstances as human divinities are.
They may be stolen, like a man's purse ; snatched
away in a wdiifF of whirlwind, or lost throug-h care-
lessness or neglect. Should a South African native
see an Incante, his soul would be snatched away and
he would die on the spot. When a " river calls," he
must enter it, but only to drown in its deep waters.
The Hili living there demands his soul. He may be
bewitched by wizards, and his soul stolen, leaving
him a ghostly wanderer in fen and forest. A Zulu
will not look into a dark pool, as there is a creature
" behind the reflection " that will steal away his
shadow, and he dies. To all mirrors and reflecting
surfaces there is the same objection. In either case
the soul is snatched away by the devil. So it hap-
pens that mirrors being " expressly invented by the
devil for his purposes," people in civilised countries
cover up theirs whenever there is a death in the
house. To this day, in the Highlands of Scotland,
all mirrors are carefully covered over with white
cloths the moment a person expires. The same is
done in Madagascar ; the custom is not extinct in

Such beliefs regarding the nature and habits of
souls linger in odd corners of Europe in a much
more distinct form tlian the custom of coverino-
mirrors. In Greece, when a new house is being
built, they have a peculiar method of giving sta-
bility to the building. For this purpose a cock Is


killed and its blood allowed to flow on the founda-
tion-stone. Another and a more effectual method
is for the builder to entice a man, on some pretext,
to enter where the builders are at work and then
measure his shadow by stealth. This measure
placed under the foundation-stone, gives the house
absolute stabihty. The person whose shadow was
measured " dies within a year," but that is a second-
ary matter with the contractor.* This is beyond
doubt a survival of an ancient custom, and a belief
that a man's soul and his shadow were identical,
or in any case indissolubly bound to one another.
I remember hearing my father tell of an old High-
land tradition that those who practised the black
art cast no shadow. They had sold their souls to
the devil for supernatural power, and their immor-
tal part being his by right and possession, the
body cast no shadow from the sun, soul and shadow
being one. Another danger of the soul was slow
expulsion by sorcery, but this belongs rather to the
subject of witchcraft, under which it falls to be

Havino- thus seen the nature of the soul and a


few of its dangers as these are conceived by savage
men, we can the more easily proceed to the study
of spiritual divinities as distinguished from, or
evolved out of, incarnate gods. We shall begin with
South Africa. There every man worships the spirits
of his departed ancestors, especially those recently
deceased. In Africa, as elsewhere, old ghosts are
not of much account. The father's spirit must

* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.


be worshipped and his wants suppUed by sacrifice ;
the trrandfather's must be honoured and his known
wishes regarded, but the poor old great-grandfather
may sit in his horn in the corner and no one pay
any special regard to him, unless, indeed, he hap-
pened to be a noted man, as the founder of a family
or sept. The clans worship in the same manner the
spirits of their departed chiefs, and where all the
clans composing a tribe are supposed to be descended
from a common ancestor, the spirits of departed
tribal chiefs are a kind of supreme, or at least su-
perior, deities. When a tribe is composed of differ-
ent clans this powerful element of union, the worship
of a common ancestor, is wanting, as each clan looks
to its hereditary chief as its true divinity. They
have no very definite idea of the mode of existence
of their deities, only they inhabit the old places and
are always at hand. A man cannot perform an
action unknown to the gods, though thieves disguise
themselves to deceive divinity. This, however, is
never effectual, as the wise men will say, "A thief is
always known, though we cannot say his name."

Closely connected with the doctrine of divinity
is that of other spirits than the souls of ancestors.
Those most commonly met with are water or river
spirits, inhabiting deep pools where there are strong
eddies and under-currents. These are wicked and
malevolent beings, and are never credited with
any good. Whatever they possess they keep, and
seize on anything which comes within their reach,
especially the souls of men. Other spirits reside
in forests, mountains and rocky caverns. They


frequently leave their haunts and assume animal
form, as baboon, wolf, wild dog-, snake, or lizard. This
is always for pure mischief, and their malevolent
designs can only be averted by the use of charms
prepared by a magician, and sacrifice. Moremo, the
god of the Bechuanas, was malicious and cunning. ^'^
They never hesitated to express their indignation
when he disappointed them, by bitter invective and
cursino". This same method was suo-o-ested to Job
bv his Avife : " Curse God and die," said that virao'o.
When they had good crops, Moremo got all the
credit of it, and Avas patronised as a generous, good-
natured kind of a god after all. Evidently, from
the accounts that have reached us, Bechuana re-
ligion is not very profound, nor is their god very

As we move northwards we find the deities under-
going considerable modification, and along the west
coast we make the acquaintance of Fetish and
Fetish idols, hardly a trace of which is to be found
in east and east-central Africa. These totems or
sacred animals become the clan badges, and from
the animals held sacred we can recoo-uise scattered
remnants of tribes separated by hundreds of miles,
and having hardly any customs in common except
the sacred animal as their clan bado-e. Throuofhout
the whole continent we meet ^^'ith customs, ritual,
ceremonial acts, and other observances which have
at first sight no appearance of being connected with
any religious belief, l)ut which have a religious
sio-nificance. And this is consistent with savage

* Livingstone.


thought, which always connects the most insignifi-
cant action that is unusual with what is supernatural,
as a cock crowing in the evening* or a crane alighting
on a house-top. Actions done by individuals may
influence the whole policy of a tribe for generations
either for good or evil. For example, the natives of
Senjero, Abyssinia, sell only female slaves, never
men or boys, and any one selling a male would
bring upon himself the wrath of the gods, even if
he could hope to escape a visit from the executioner.
The orio-in of the custom is said to have been that a
king long ago, when kings were divine, had ordered a
man to kill his wife and bring him a piece of her flesh
for the cure of an ailment from which he suffered.
The man refused to comply with the king's order,
and saved his wife alive. She was next sent for and
told what had happened, after which she was asked
to slay her husband and bring a piece of his flesh to
the king. This the ungrateful woman did, and
ever since then a Senjero man may sell his daughter,
or even his wife, but a man never.t Human sacri-
fices to their divinities are common among the people
of Senjero. This, so runs the legend, was introduced
lono- affo, when the seasons o-ot confused, summer and
winter being so mixed up that no crops ripened.
The priests " ordered many families to sacrifice their
first-born," and the rulers of the town to raze a huge
iron pillar which stood outside the gate. The base

* A lady living in the highlands of Scotland a few years ago had a cock
that crowed in the evening. Her peasant neighbours urged her to kill it.
She consulted a local gentleman, who replied to her question : " No, no,
Mrs. Brown, there is no harm in the creature, none whatever : but I will
tell you what, if I were in your place I would wring that cock's neck."

t Krapf.


of the pillar, like " the stump of the roots " of the
tree in Nebuchadnezzar's vision, was to be left, and
it and the throne to be sprinkled with the blood of
the victims. After this was done the seasons re-
sumed their normal course ; * l^ut in memory of the
event, and to prevent its recurrence, the sacrifices
are observed annually, and both throne and the spot
where the pillar stood sprinkled with blood. This
myth, the iron pillar apart, is probably a transcript
of what the historian witnessed with his own eyes.
These obscure practices and legends point back to a
time when the spirit of vegetation, or creative energy,
was worshipped and sacrifices oifered to it. The
confusion of the seasons and their readjustment by
sacrifice has undoubtedly a close connection with the
worship of the spirit of growth. Another curious
custom in Senjero is the throwing of a slave into
Lake Umo by dealers in men when setting out on a
raiding expedition. t The sacrifice is to the deity of
the lake, in order that he may, from the victim
given as a seed-corn, give a plentiful crop.

Among the Gallas the priests occupy a position
distinct from the magicians or exorcists. They have
the highest place in all religious ceremonies, and
receive special honour and homage from their
votaries. Here we find trees and vegetation oc-
cupying a prominent place in all religious obser-
vances and acts of worship. So marked is this
characteristic that it is more akin to the worship
and sacrifice of the Khonds of India than what we
are familiar with in most parts of Africa. The

* Krapf. I IhkJ.


Galla priest will sacrifice only under the woda-tree.
Ill it, spirit, " even a higher spirit," dwells, and no
man dare fell a woda-tree. If he does so, he forfeits
his life/^ The tree itself is sacred, and so too is the
woda-mabi, or groves where it grows by the River
Hawash where the great yearly festivals are held.
At these gatherings the tree spirit is worshipped by
ofterings and sacrifice.t Nor is the worship of tree
spirits pecuhar to the Gallas. We meet with it in
Lithuania, in Bavaria, and in Southern Europe.
The Ovaons of Bengal have a festival in spring,
while the sal-trees are in blossom, because they
think that at that time the marriage of earth is
celebrated, and sal-flowers are necessary for the cere-
mony. On the day appointed, the villagers, accom-
panied by their priest, gather the flowers in a forest
where a goddess is supposed to dwell. Next day
the priest visits each house carrying the flowers with
him. The w^omen as he approaches bring out water
to wash his feet and do him obeisance. Then he
dances with them, placing flowers in their hair, after
which they drench him with water. | This ceremony
is supposed to have an influence upon the course of
the weather, especially the rainfall, and the spirit of
the sacred sal-tree is represented by both the flowers
and the priest who brings them, introducing us to
the double representation of the spirit of ^-egetation,
by a person and object, as that survives in the
Grass king of Sommerberg or the May Bride of

•■• Krapf. t J^'"^-

■^- Dalton. S Monnier.


The Gallas have no Idols, but revere objects and
animals, serpents being- specially sacred. One variety
of snake they regard as having been the mother of
the human famih'. This same belief was a prominent
feature of the ancient paganism of Abyssinia. The
supreme Galla deity is water ; under him, or her, are
two subordinate gods, a masculine, Oglie, to whom
cows are sacrificed in June and July, and his consort
Atetie, whose offerings are made in September, and
may consist of animals or fruits. She is the goddess
of fecundity, and women are her principal votaries ;
but as she can also make the earth " prolific," ofter-
ings are made to her for that purpose.* These
divinities represent the creative and fructifying
powers of nature, and this nature-worshij) meets us
under different forms in all parts of the Continent.
Even the Gold Coast moon-dance is an act of homage
done to the mother of all.

Passing from the Gallas to the Waganga, the
same essentials are met with in the national worship.
There a cocoa-nut is hung up at the village gate
while the crops are ripening. This, curiously enough,
is to prevent theft, as any one touching the fruits of
the earth while it is there would be visited with the
vengeance of the earth goddess. A secondary object
served is the protection of the crops from injury.
An empty cocoa-nut shell is placed on graves, and
filled now and then with tembo, for without this the
spirit could not exist. Tembo to them represents
the spirit or essence of the earth's fruits: the
hfe-blood of nature.

* Kiapf.


Of this earth divinity the visible representative is
the Muansa. This is simply a log of wood, hollowed
out in a particular manner, so that when rubbed it
emits sounds resembling the roaring and bellowing
of wild animals.^* It is carried about in solemn pro-
cession at all great festivals, for in it the god resides.
If at such times it were seen by Avomen or children
they would fall down dead. Should a woman, after
seeing the Muansa, survive, she would become barren.
So, when the trod roars, women must hide in the
woods till it is carried back to its house. Besides
the great festivals, as that of first-fruits, the god
roars when the tribe sacrifices for rain, or when men
o-o to the forest to strangle a deformed infant, which
is invariably done, as is the case also with a cross-
birth or abnormal presentation. The Muansa is the
centre of the religious life of the tribe, and is a sur-
vival akin to the Egbo of the West Coast. The
observances connected with it leave no doubt as
to the intention of the institution, that is, the
deification of nature, especially corn and vegetation
o-enerallv. To cut a cocoa-nut tree is equivalent to
matricide : " The mother nourishes her infant ; the

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 3 of 18)