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prosecution of the unlawful art. These are generally
the horns of a small species of antelope which are
par excellence "witches' horns." She finds the
horns by going along the bank of the stream from
which the family of the bewitched person got water.
At intervals she lifts water from the stream, which
she pours upon the ground, and then stoops to listen.
Spirit voices direct her to the wizard's hiding-place.
Arrived there, she begins to dig with a hoe she car-
ries, muttering incantations as she works, and there
she finds the incriminating horns, t

* Kev. Duff ]\Iacdonal(]. f Ibid.


Now, how does the prophetess find the horns?
B\' what devil's art does she hit upon the spot
where they are concealed ? The explanation is to
us very simple, but the African has not yet
discovered it, or if he has, no one has dared
to say so. Wherever she is employed she must
spend a night at the village before she begins
operations. She does not retire to rest with the
other villagers, but wanders about the live-long
night listening to spirit voices. If she sees a villager
outside his door after the usual hour for retiring, she
brings' that up against him next day as evidence
of guilty intention, and that, either on his own
account or the wizard's, he meant to steal away
to dig up the horns. The fear of such consequences
keeps all persons within doors, and leaves the
prophetess free to arrange for the tableau of the
next day. So far is the fear of witchcraft carried,
that whole villages have been known to partake of
the ordeal poison in order to root out evil persons.*
If a man is guilty, he dies ; if not guilty, even if
cauo-ht in the act red-handed, he recovers — he was in
that case not a thief, he was bewitched to make him
steal. Such is the Wayao philosophy of trial by

Amono- the Bonuo on the White Nile no communi-
cation can be had with the spirit world except by
means of certain roots which are known to the
maoicians.t These are of service, not only in hold-
ing communication with the gods, but in warding
off all evil influences. Had the secret been kept, the

* Kev. Duff Macdonald. 1 Schweinfurth.


Bongo would have been the happiest people under
the sun, but m an evil hour some noted wizard
discovered it and made the world unhappy. With
this knowledge in their possession, old peojole may ap-
parently be lying peaceably in their beds while their
spirits range the forest by moonlight in search of the
magic roots.* These spirits assume animal form,
which remind us of the familiar stories of farmers
wounding hares, and hearing of old women in the
next village having broken arm or leg mysteriously,
which they set and dressed without aid of doctor ;
assured sig-n that the fear of his seeing" the bullet-
mark prevented their seeking his aid.

The Bongo jDriest who has obtained the coveted
roots, can only hold communication with the gods in
the approved manner by falling into a trance and
receiving their commands in dreams and visions. The
wizard, wielding equally potent spells, and restricted
by no canons of custom, can leave the visible body,
as the soul does in sleep, his only risk being the
body being stolen during the sjjirit's absence, enter
a hysena, and range over mountain and plain,
working evil as he goes. When a people are
exposed to such dangers, to exorcise ghosts, demons,
M'ood goblins, and all evil spirits and persons, must
ever be their chief religious duty. When the destiny
of a nation depends on guarding against evil in-
fluences of a spiritual nature, that people must
be regarded as deeply religious, however little their
rites may attract the attention of those who visit

■•* Schweinfurth.



Dr. Schweinfurth, who is one of our best authori-
ties on the usages of tribes Hving- on the upper
reaches of the Nile, sa^^s that some of them have
hardly any religion. The Niam-niam, he says, have
no religion, and use for divinity the word for
lightning.* It is curious so observant a traveller
should have been so far misled as to what constitutes
religious observances. We are familiar in Zululand,
Nyassa region, and in Uganda with the use of the
term for lightning — in each case a different word — ■
for heaven, thunder, or the god, and these peoples
are among the most religious communities in Africa.
When a man cannot knock his foot against a tree
stump without attaching to it a supernatural sig-
nificancet that man is religious whether he has a
separate word for his god or not. The statement
seems all the more inexplicable when we find the
doctor himself saying that the same Niam-niam, who
have no religion, "have a word for prayer"; that
they practise augury, and believe in goblins, ghosts,
and witches, the latter of which are treated by them
as they have always been by persons with properly
constituted minds — that is, by getting rid of them in
the manner most approved for the extermination of
the pestilent race. If the Niam-niam have no reli-
gion, to whom do they pray ? Whence came their
goblins ? How do their witches attain their power
except by spirit agency ? These are questions wliich
must be satisfactorily disposed of before we can
accept a general statement that a peo23le have

* Schweinfurth.

t Rev. Duff Macdonald ; Dr. Elmslie, MS. notes.


been found who have no rehgion — that is, no faith in
regard to supernatural powers or agents.

If the Nile tribes conduct their witch prosecutions,
and religious services generally, in so perfunctory a
manner as to attract the attention of travellers but
slightly, their deficiency is more than made up by the
Bullom tribes of the West Coast. When they drink
beer they pour out a few drops as a religious act ;
when they eat, particles of food are allowed to
fall on the ground for the same purpose. "^^ They
can neither walk nor sit, sow nor reap, hunt nor
fish, without performing acts of devotion and duti-
ful obedience to the gods. They move among
divinities, and these may be disturbed by loud
laughter, by improper movements, or by words which
can imply disparagement of the gods or their works.
Each day has its ow^n religious duties, but it is
in the " witch palaver " their true devotion and
fidelity to the will of the gods is seen to best

Their three great palavers are, " sauce palaver,"
"woman palaver," and "witch palaver." t In
the first, w^hich refers to all ordinary offences, the
case is conducted according to the ordinary rules
of evidence, either by witnesses or the ordeal. The
accused is held as guilty, and he must prove his
innocence. If he have witnesses, good ; if not, then
the poison bowl. The same remarks apply to
" woman palaver," only that in this case the accused
must submit to the ordeal. What that ordeal is we

* Walker. t Winteibotham.


shall see in another connection ; our present business
is with the " witch palaver." In this case the
accused can prove his innocence by no other means
than the ordeal. When the offence was committed
he may have been on a journey, at sea, asleep, sick
and unable to move, on the war path ; in any con-
dition or circumstances. None of these things can
be admitted in evidence nor in mitigation of sentence.
Persons who have the power of transforming them-
selves into animals or insects, feigning sleep, or even
death, so perfectly as to deceive the very elect — that
is to say, the authoritative religious guides of the
community — are not to be trifled with. So it is,
when a suspect is on trial for specific acts of witch-
craft, a red hot-iron is ajDplied to his skin, partly to
jog his memory, but principally that the brand may
be examined to determine how" much skin adheres
to the hot metal, whether the wound bleeds, and
how its edofes "curl.""^ To each of these signs o-reat
importance is attached in determining presumption
of guilt. This ordeal may be final and satisfactory,
but the probabilities are against it. The show is
too good to be over so soon, and the red-hot poker
is succeeded by a jar of oil, which is j^laced on the
fire till it boils. Into this boiling oil a stone, made
red hot in the fire, is now dropped and the culprit
directed to fish it out with his naked hand.t
Accordinof to the condition of the hand after the
ordeal is the presumption of guilt or innocence. If

■* Winterbotham.

t Ibid.; Rev. Duff Macdonald.


these means do not conclusively prove the case, he
must drink " red water." ^ This is a decoction which
is prepared by the priest in public from poisonous
substances. After the preparation is made the priest
washes his hands, as well as the mortar and pestle
used, as a ceremonial act. The accused for a similar
reason must rinse his mouth with clean water. He
is then given a quantity of boiled rice which he must
eat ; after it he drinks the poison. If the red water
acts as an emetic, and that vomiting continues till
he brings up particles of rice, he is innocent and
escapes ; the red water ran away from him. AVhen
it does not act as an emetic, even if the man does not
die from the effects of the poison, he is guilty ; the
red w^ater clung to him. Sometimes the drug causes
purging. In this case the culprit has " spoiled the
red water " ; the augury is doubtful, and to remove
all difficulties he is sold — out of the territory, it is
needless to say.

This latter form of ordeal is common in cases of
supposed adultery among many tribes of the West
Coast, as well as throughout the whole of the Lake
region of Central Africa, and is specially worthy of
note because of its close lesemlDlance to, if not
identity with, the practice of trial by ordeal for the
same offence among the Jews : " If a man's wife go
aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man
lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes
of her husband, and be kept close .... And the
spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous
of his wife, and she be defiled ; or, if the spirit of

* Winterbotham.


jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his
wife, and she be not defiled, then shall the man bring
his wife unto the priest .... And the priest shall
take holy water in an earthen vessel ; . . . . And
the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water
that causeth the curse .... And the priest shall
Avrite three curses in a book, and he shall blot them
out with the bitter water, and he shall cause the
woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the
curse .... And when he hath made her to drink the
water, then it shall come to pass, if she be defiled,
and have done trespass against her husband, that
the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her
and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her
thio-h shall rot, and the woman shall be a curse
among her people. And if the woman be not defiled
but be clean, then she shall be free."^"^ The connec-
tion between this enactment in the Mosaic legisla-
tion and the practice among primitive men, it is not
my province to trace in the present essay, but the
resemblance is so striking that the inference seems

plain enough.

Turning to the history of witchcraft among
civilised peoples, we have in it perhaps the best
illustration of the persistency in popular imagina-
tion of the belief in the supreme power of evil
spirits, and in man's power to influence the course of
nature by necromancy and magic. It would be easy
to cite examples from every country in Europe to
show how the same belief in the power of evil,
personified in wizards and witches, influenced the

* Numbers, v. 12-28.



whole domestic and social life of the people. In Jut-
land a rowan growing out of the top of another tree
is exceedingly efficacious against witchcraft.* This
tree has the same virtue in Scotland, and I knew a
worthy farmer's wife, who died only a few years ago,
and who annually, in early summer, had a St.
Andrew's cross made of rowan twigs, which she
placed in the cowhouse as a talisman against the
arts of witches. German farmers use the mistletoe
for a similar purpose. In the island of Rum it was
believed that if one of the family of Lachlin — a local
family of note — shot a deer on the mountain of
Finchra, he would either die on the spot or contract
a distemper from which he could not recover. t
This may belong to the class of totems rather than
to witchcraft. Traces of clan totems are frequently
met with in the north and west of Scotland.

Confining ourselves to this country, we have ample
evidence, in the witch and fairy cult still current,
of the ancient belief in man's power to influence
nature and the lives of his fellow-men. And not the
least curious thing is, that the persons accused of
witchcraft often claimed to possess the power
ascribed to them, though this meant an alternative
between faggots and a deep pool. Among savage
men, on the contrary, denial is all but universal
when one is accused of having communication with
evil spirits, or exercising the art of witchcraft.
Among Scottish witches and fairy folk we get
glimpses of persons of diflerent grades, some of them
holding high office and directing the afl'airs of the

* Kamp. t Martin.


peculiar community to which they belong. Thus, in
the confessions of Isabella Gowdie, indicted for witch-
craft at Nairn in 1662, we have a King and Queen of
Fairyland. " I was," said Isabella when in the
dock, " in Downie hill, and got meat from the Queen
of the Fairies, and more that I could eat. The queen
is brawly clothed in white linen and in white and
brown cloth ; and the king is a braw man, well-
favoured and broad-faced. There were plenty of
elf bulls, rowting and skoyling up and down, and
affrighted me."* Mr. Kirk, from whom I quote,
adds, that on the authority of local tradition, fairy-
land is well supplied with musical instruments and
books of history, travel, plays, novels, biography,
but no Bibles — the lack of the latter owing to the
fairy folk being in league with the devil, from whom
they receive their government and power.

Before our familiar fairy cult was evolved, the evil
spirits of primitive man had crystallised into a
personal devil, supreme and all-powerful, with
numerous attendant angels or messengers, and it is
curious to note that something very nearly akin to
this is met with in Ashantee, where the king has a
thousand " Kra," or souls.j The Kra are the king's
spies, a kind of secret service guild, and are called the
king's souls, because when he dies they are all put
to cleath that they may attend upon him in the land
of shades. To strike, or even touch a Kra, is not
only a deadly insult, but a serious capital crime. It is
doino" it to the king himself; and it is quite consistent
with savage thought to regard a powerful king and his

* Kirk. t Klihne and Rameyer.


Kra as still actively engaged in connection with the
world's affairs long after they have quitted the upper
air. He is chief dictator, and each of his souls do
his behests in the affairs of men. This is the
common doctrine of witchcraft as that lives in
popular imagination. The black art is something
carried on under the direction of a supreme evil
spirit, who is assisted by a countless host of minor
devils or angels ; that is to say, messengers, Kra, or
souls. This doctrine must have been developed
when man reached the conception of a supreme
spirit of good, opposed by a supreme spirit of
evil. But in tracing the growth of the idea of
one supreme spirit of good, or god, we are met by
greater difficulties than in tracing the doctrine of
devils, for the latter took shape and colour from the
former. When man found a supreme spirit among
the e-ods, he had to account for the fact that he did
not, or could not, at all times order events for the good
of man. Evil still persisted ; so he concluded there
must be a supreme and personal devil, who com-
manded such agencies in the unseen world as were
at the disposal of the good god himself

The difficulty of tracing the growth of the idea of
a supreme god arises from the impossibility of deter-
mining with certainty what was originally a local
or tribal deity, and what a spirit regarded
generally as supreme. We have seen that the Zulu
term Mlungu, and its equivalents may mean, great
ancestor, lightning, the powers of nature generally,
or pfod, and we have at least one instance which
seems to show how such ideas as that of Mlungu first


take hold of the popular imagination, and become
almost universal myth, for myth it is when all has
))een said, but myth which describes a sober fact of
human faith and the progress of thought. The Rev.
I )uff Macdonald, a careful observer, who lived several
years in Central Africa, says of the Wayao, that
they not only worship their own ancestors, as is
common to most Africans, but also invoke by prayer
and sacrifice the gods of the country who were
worshipped by the people they expelled. The older
inhabitants were compelled to retire before the
advance of the Wayao, but their great god Kan-
gomba remained undisturbed on Mount Socki, nor
would he be displaced by the newer divinities,
or the arts of magic* So it is that the j^resent
chief, Kapeni, when making annual supplication and
sacrifice, asks some noted Wanyasa priest to-
come to his assistance. The Wanyasa are related
to the people whose god Kangomba originally was,
and their presence is acceptable to him. Such a god
as this, though originally a local tribal deity — some
remote ancestor of a chief — gradually gathers more
than a local reputation. The Wanyasa priests
ofiiciating at his annual festivals will carry his fame
to their own people, and bring the Wanyasa tribe,
through association with the Wayao at his festivals,
to worship him in times of stress and trial at
their own homes. If he grants their prayer his
reputation will speedily spread as both powerful and
good. Besides, every African who returns from a
journey exaggerates all his experiences, and adorns

* Rev. Dull' JIacdonald.


his narratives with gorgeous imagery. In this way
Kangomba will lose nothing of his glory and power
by distance. He will be spoken of in every Wanyasa
village as great beyond all local deities, and may,
in a few generations, occupy a place second only to
Mlungu himself.

Such probably was the origin of Mlungu when
first men worshipped him, and if so, it furnishes us
with the key we have been striving to find as to how
primitive men arrived at the idea of a supreme god,
and from that deduced the doctrine of a supreme
devil, on which he hangs all the traditions he has
reofardinof witchcraft and kindred evils. It will also
help us to understand much with which we have
long" been familiar, though we may not have under-
stood the relation of facts to one another. Sucli
conceptions of deity and of evil ai'e consistent with
the acknowledgment of Nebuchadnezzar, that the
God of Daniel was supreme among the gods — greater
than those of the mighty empire itself

We have now arrived at an advanced period of
the world's progress in thought. If the theory
suggested is correct, the African, starting with the
crude idea that men could influence the course of
nature, and that the power to do so was vested in
his king, who was god — the personification of nature
herself — advanced a long way when he conceived
his chief, whose body he had buried or burned, still
living and taking an active interest in the world's
affairs. As thought progressed and man began to
difterentiate more accurately, he reached the doctrine
of all human souls living in a land of spirits, thus


making his way towards the conception of
immortahty, and that instead of the world's forces
being regulated by caprice, there were good and evil
spirits at work. To secure success to the good, good
men sought for means of thwarting the evil. The evil,
on the other hand, not to be baulked of their object,
sought out agents on whom they conferred super-
natural powers. This war of good and evil could
not long continue before certain of the good spirits,
or evil, attained to a place of supreme power. In
tracing the history of witchcraft and the methods
adopted to eradicate its votaries, we hnd how naturally
man came to believe in persons possessing super-
natural powers for evil. We have also seen, casually,
the growth and development of another order,
magicians and prophets; but before endeavouring to
trace the history of prophecy among primitive
peoples, it may be best to consider some of their
festivals, as those of first-fruits and harvest, where
magicians or prophets are seen to best advantage in
the exercise of their functions ; after which we can
the better understand the development of the order
and the importance attached to the office.



The festivals and ceremonial acts of any people
o-ive a clue to the original form of their institu-
tlons, and when these can be compared with what
still exists, in its original form, among untutored
nations, it affords evidence which is of the first im-
portance in tracing the develoj)ment of religion and
the growth of civilisation.

The Yam festivals, as observed in Ashaiitee, were
referred to in considering substitutionary sacrifice,
and we saw how closely bound up with the religious
life of the people are all the facts relating to the
ripening of crops and the gathering in of the harvest.
Nor is this peculiar to Ashantee. Everywhere the
feasts of first-fruits are intimately associated with
the religious observances of the people and the
homage which they render to the gods. Among
savages this homage is to the powers of nature,
whose efibrts are crowned with success when the
creative and reproductive spirit of vegetation yields
its increase to man. When a Pondo chief is to hold
tlie feast of first-fruits, some of his people 2:)rocure
a ripe plant of the gourd family, pumpkin or cala-
bash, from another tribe. This is cooked ; the
inside cleaned out, and the rind made ready for use


as a vessel. It is then presented to the chief with
much ceremony.* The first-fruits are now brought
forward, and a sacrifice, generally a young bull, is
offered, after which the feast commences. The
chief issues certain orders for the conduct of the pro-
ceedino-s, tastes the fruits which are served in the
gourd dish with which he has been presented, and then
abdicates all his functions while the festival lasts.

The cattle from all the neighbouring villages are
collected in the vicinity, and now they are brought
together, and the bulls hicited to fight to determine
which is to be king among them for the next year.
The young people engage in games and dances, feats
of strength and running. After these are over the
whole community give themselves over to disorder,
debauchery, and riot. In their bull-fights and games
they but did honour to the powers of nature, and
now, as they eat and drink, the same powers are
honoured in another form and by other rites. There
is no one in authority to keep order, and every man
does what seems good in his own eyes. Should a
man stab his neighbour he escapes all punishment,
and so too with all other crimes against the person,
property, and morality. People are even permitted to
abuse the chief to his face, an offence which at any
other time would meet with summary vengeance
and an unceremonious dispatch to join the ancestors.
While the feast continues a deafening noise is kept
up by drumming, shouting, hand-clapping, and every
kind of instrument that can be made to emit sound.
Men advance to the chief and explain their origin,

*■ J. Sutton, MS. notes.


and also the object they hold sacred, b}" imitating
the sounds and movements of their most sacred
animal. This is the person's totem. Others imitate
the gurgling- made by an enemy when stabbed in
the throat. Those who adopt this latter emblem are
known as " children of the spear,"

When the ceremonies, revels, and munnneries are
ended, the chief repairs to his accustomed place, and
sitting down there, by that act resumes his kingly
functions. He calls the bravest of his braves before
him, who is immediately clothed and decorated with
skins of animals suggestive of courage and strategy.
He performs a dance amid the frenzied shouting of
the multitude, after which the chief declares the
festival at an end and harvest commenced."^

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 9 of 18)