African mythology


AFRICA  is the land of superstition,—dark, cruel, ghastly superstition. It accompanies its victim from the cradle to the grave; throws its fell shadow over every scene and incident of life. We cannot attempt, nor do we desire, to paint it in all its horrors. For our purpose it will be sufficient to glance at some of the ceremonies, hideous or grotesque, which are practised by the Equatorial Savage.

In his childhood he has to be initiated into certain mysteries. What those are Mr. Winwood Reade learned from a negro steward, who informed him that he was taken into a fetich, or idol house, severely flogged, and plastered with goat-dung: this ceremony, like the rites of masonry, being conducted to the sound of music. Afterwards from behind a kind of screen or shrine issued uncouth and terrible sounds such as he had never before heard. These, he was told, emanated from the spirit called Ukuk. He afterwards brought to Mr. Winwood Reade the instrument with which the fetich-man produces the noise. It may be described as a whistle made of hollowed mangrove wood, about two inches long, and covered at one end with a scrap of bat's wing. For a period of five days after initiation the novice wears an apron of dry palm leaves.

He is next instructed in the science of fetich; and afterwards he learns what kinds of food are forbidden to his tribe, for one tribe may not eat crocodile, another hippopotamus, nor a third buffalo. He learns to reverence and dread the spirit Ukuk, which dwells, it is said, in the bowels of the earth, and visits the upper world only when he has some business to perform. On the occasion of his visits, he abides in the fetich-house, which is built in a peculiar form, roofed with dry plantain leaves, and always kept in darkness. Thence strange dread sounds, like the growling of a tiger, are heard to proceed, so that the women and children shudder as they listen. When the mangrove-tube is thus at work, the initiated hasten to the house, and a “lodge” or “council” is held.

“The natives of Equatorial Africa worship also the spirits of their ancestors; a worship for which their minds are prepared by the veneration which they pay to old age. Young men never enter the presence of an aged person without curtseying (a genuine curtsey like that of a charity-school girl), and passing in a stooping attitude, as if they were going under a low door. When seated in his presence, it is always at a humble distance. If they hand him a lighted pipe, or a mug of water, they fall on one knee. If an old man, they address him as rora —father; if an old woman as ngwe —mother. It is customary for only the old people to communicate bad news to one another; and it is not to be wondered at that we find the negroes such perfect courtiers, since it is the etiquette of the country that the aged should only be addressed in terms of flattery and adulation.

“When they die their relics are honoured. In the Congo country their bodies are dried into mummies. Here, their bones are sometimes stored up and visited at set periods. Or, when a person noted for his wisdom has died, his head, when partially decomposed, is often cut off and suspended, so as to drip upon a mass of chalk placed underneath. This matter is supposed to be the wisdom which formerly animated the brain, and which, rubbed upon the foreheads of others, will communicate its virtue.”

It can easily be understood how this reverence paid to the relics of one's ancestors would develope into the worship of their spirits. The Equatorial Savage believes that the manes of his forefathers influence his life and fortunes entirely to his advantage, and by a dying friend or relative will often send messages to them. Mr. Reade adds that a son has been known to kill his aged mother from a conviction that her spirit would be of more service to him than her substance; a reason for matricide which would hardly be accepted as conclusive in civilised countries! The savage lives, however, in constant communion and sympathy with the spirit-world. The visions which come to him in his dreams, and the sounds which he fancies himself to hear, are those of the Unseen. And as he is always brooding upon his dreams and relating them to his friends, he necessarily dreams the more, until it becomes difficult for him to draw a line between the dream and the reality.

When any calamity befalls the tribe, or at the approach of any imminent danger, they gather together on the brink of some lofty bluff, or on the forest's haunted threshold, and stretching their arms towards the sky, while the women wail and the children weep, they call upon the spirits of the departed to come and help them.

They have a remarkable ceremony which illustrates the force and vividness of their belief in spirits:

When the dead are weary of staying in the bush, they come for one of their people whom they most affect. And the spirit will say to the man: “I am tired of dwelling in the bush; please to build for me in the town a little house as close as possible to your own.” And he tells him to dance and sing too; and accordingly the man assembles the women at night to join in dance and song.

Then, next day, the people repair to the grave of the Obambo, or ghost, and make a rude idol; after which the bamboo bier on which the body is conveyed to the grave, and some of the dust of the ground, are carried into a little hut erected near the house of the visited, and a white cloth is draped over the door.

It is a curious fact, which seems to show that they have a legend something like the old Greek myth of Charon and the Styx, that in one of the songs chanted during this ceremony occurs the following line: “You are well dressed, but you have no canoe to carry you across to the other side.”

According to Mr. Reade, these savages have their Naiads and Dryads; their spirits of the mountains and the forests, the lakes and the streams, and the high places. They have also their Typhon and their Osiris, their Good and Evil Genius; thus recognising, in common with almost every other race, the enduring antagonism between the Principles and Powers of Good and Evil. The Evil Spirit, Mbwiri, they worship with a special homage; his might is to be dreaded, and his anger, if possible, averted. He is the lord of earth; and before him, as before a tyrant whose hand can grasp their lives and fortunes, they bend in humble adoration. But as the Good Spirit will do them no injury, they conceive it unnecessary to address to it any regular or formal prayer. “The word by which they express this Supreme Being answers exactly to our word of God. Like the Jehovah of the Hebrews, like that word in masonry which is only known to masters, and never pronounced but in a whisper and in full lodge, this word they seldom dare to speak; and they display uneasiness if it is uttered before them. Twice only,” says Mr. Reade, “I remember having heard it. Once when we were in a dangerous storm, the men threw their clenched hands upwards and cried it twice. And again, when I was at Ngambi, taking down words from an Ashira slave, I asked him what was the word for God in the language of his country. He raised his eyes, and pointing to heaven, said in a soft voice, Njambi.”

Epileptic diseases, in almost all uncivilised countries, are assumed to be the result of demoniac possession. In Africa the sufferer is supposed to be possessed by Mbwiri, and he can be relieved only by the intervention of the medicine-man or fetich. In the middle of the street a hut is built for his accommodation, and there he resides until cured, or maddened, along with the priest and his disciples. There for ten days or a fortnight a continuous revel is held; much eating and drinking at the expense of the patient's relatives, and unending dances to the sound of flute and drum. For obvious reasons the fetich gives out that Mbwiri regards good living with aversion. The patient dances, usually shamming madness, until the epileptic attack comes on, with all its dreadful concomitants—the frenzied stare, the convulsed limbs, the gnashing teeth, and the foam-flecked lips. The man's actions at this period are not ascribed to himself, but to the demon which has control of him. When a cure has been effected, real or pretended, the patient builds a little fetich-house, avoids certain kinds of food, and performs certain duties. Sometimes the process terminates in the patient's insanity; he has been known to run away to the bush, hide from all human beings, and live on the roots and berries of the forest.

“These fetich-men are priest doctors, like those of the ancient Germans. They have a profound knowledge of herbs, and also of human nature, for they always monopolize the real power in the state. But it is very doubtful whether they possess any secrets save that of extracting virtue and poison from plants. During the first trip which I made into the bush I sent for one of these doctors. At that time I was staying among the Shekani, who are celebrated for their fetich. He came attended by half-a-dozen disciples. He was a tall man, dressed in white, with a girdle of leopard's skin, from which hung an iron bell, of the same shape as our sheep bells. He had two chalk marks over his eyes. I took some of my own hair, frizzled it with a burning glass, and gave it to him. He popped it with alacrity into his little grass bag; for white man's hair is fetich of the first order. Then I poured out some raspberry vinegar into a glass, drank a little of it first, country fashion, and offered it to him, telling him that it was blood from the brains of great doctors. Upon this he received it with great reverence, and dipping his fingers into it as if it was snap-dragon, sprinkled with it his forehead, both feet between the two first toes, and the ground behind his back. He then handed his glass to a disciple, who emptied it, and smacked his lips afterwards in a very secular manner. I then desired to see a little of his fetich. He drew on the ground with red chalk some hieroglyphics, among which I distinguished the circle, the cross, and the crescent. He said that if I would give him a fine ‘dush,' he would tell me all about it. But as he would not take anything in reason, and as I knew that he would tell me nothing of very great importance in public, negotiations were suspended.”

The fetich-man seldom finds a native disposed to question his claim to supernatural powers. He is not only a doctor and a priest,—two capacities in which his influence is necessarily very powerful; he is also a witch-finder, and this is an office which invests him with a truly formidable authority. When a man of worth dies, his death is invariably ascribed to witchcraft, and the aid of the fetich-man is invoked to discover the witch.

“When a man is sick a long time,” said Mongilombas, “they call Ngembi, and if she cannot make him well, the fetich-man. He comes at night, in a white dress, with cock's feathers on his head, and having his bell and little glass. He calls two or three relations together into a room. He does not speak, but always looks in his glass. Then he tells them that the sickness is not of Mbwiri, nor of Obambo, nor of God, but that it comes from a witch. They say to him, ‘What shall we do?' He goes out and says, ‘I have told you: I have no more to say.' They give him a dollar's worth of cloth; and every night they gather together in the street, and they cry, ‘I know that man who witch my brother. It is good for you to make him well.' Then the witch makes him well. But if the man do not  recover, they call the bush doctor from the Shekani country. He sings in the language of the bush. At night he goes into the street; all the people flock about him. With a tiger-cat skin in his hand, he walks to and fro, until, singing all the while, he lays the tiger skin at the feet of the witch. At the conclusion of his song the people seize the witch, and put him, or her, in chains, saying, ‘If you don't restore our brother to health, we will kill you.'”

One evening, as Mr. Reade was sitting in a mission house at Corisco, with the windows open, he heard a wild and piteous cry rising from a village at a short distance. A sudden silence fell upon his friends. The school was in the next room, and two girls who belonged to that village lifted up their voices and wept. It was the death-knell, and the knell of more lives than one. A chieftain for some time had been lying in a hopeless condition, and a woman had been denounced for having bewitched him. She had a son of about seven years of age, and fearing lest when he reached manhood, he should become her avenger, the accusers included him also in their denunciation. Both had been made prisoners, and on the death of the chief would be killed.

The following day was Sunday, and Mr. Reade accompanied Mr. Mackay, the missionary, to the village. The man was not dead; but he had suddenly become speechless, and his attendants had concluded that the spirit had departed. Entering the house, Mr. Reade found him lying on the bamboo bedstead in a state of stupor. The house was thronged with women, who had stripped off their garments and shaved the heads in token of mourning, and were “raining tears” in their purchased and admirably acted grief. Sometimes one of them would sit by his side, and flinging her arms around him, would shriek—almost in the very words of the Irish death-wail,—“Why did ye die, darling? why did ye die?” For they regarded him as really dead, when he could neither look at them nor speak to them.

In contrast to their loud sorrow was the silent mourning of the men who, hushed and fasting, sat in the chief house of the town. In their midst crouched the seven years old boy, the marks of a severe wound visible on his arm, and his wrists securely bound together. The dogged expression of the child's face was something wonderful. It wore that look of stolid endurance which seems natural to the negro. One of the men with horrible pleasantry held an axe below his eyes; but the boy contemplated it without emotion—he displayed all the cold indifference of the ancient Stoicism. When his name was first mentioned, his eyes flashed; but this indication of passion was only momentary. He showed the same indifference when a plea was put in for his life, as when, just before, he had been threatened and taunted with death.

Mr. Reade did not see the unfortunate mother, but was afterwards told that she had been flogged into confessing that she and she only had bewitched the man. Her son had acknowledged the crime as soon as he was charged with it. It is well known that such confessions amount to nothing. During the witch epidemic in Mediæval Europe, scores of unhappy creatures confessed to the practice of witchcraft, though by so doing they doomed themselves to death. The imagination in some way or other is powerfully excited, and completely overcomes the judgment; or it may be from a fear of torture or a thirst for notoriety that such confessions are made.

Mr. Mackey, the missionary, said that he had come to speak to Okota, the nearest kinsman of the dying chief, upon whom, in all such cases, the responsibility rests. Okota came out from the throng, placed his stool near the feet of the missionary, and listened to him attentively.

“Death,” said the missionary, “must come to all. It is foolish to think that because a man dies he has been bewitched.”

“Yes,” replied Okota, “death must come to all, but not always from God. Sometimes it comes from the hand of man.”

“But how do you know that in this instance it comes from the hand of man?”

“The woman has been given quai  (the drink of ordeal) to drink, and the quai  says that she bewitched him.”

“But the quai  is not always right. When Cabinda went to the Muni, he was a long time lost. All people said that he was dead. A man you declared was the witch, you gave him quai quai  said that the man had killed Cabinda, but Cabinda came back alive, and quai  was wrong.”

A roar of laughter acknowledged the force of this pertinent reply.

“It is not only quai,” said Okota, “the woman confesses that she has used the arts of witchcraft. Will any man come to you and say, ‘I have stolen your fowl,' if he has not stolen it? This woman is killing my brother, when my brother is dead I will kill her.”

After so decisive a declaration, further argument was useless, and Mr. Mackey was compelled to retire, unsuccessful.

The ordeal drink of Equatorial Africa is not identical with the “red-water” of Northern Guinea. It is prepared from the root of a small shrub called Nkazya, or Quai. Half a pint of the decoction is given to the accused, and small sticks being laid down on the ground at a distance of two feet apart, he is compelled to step over them five times. If the potion act upon him as a diuretic, he is pronounced innocent; but in some persons it produces vertigo. The sticks before his dizzy eyes rise like great logs, and in his awkward efforts to stride across them, he reels, falls to the ground, and is immediately assumed to be guilty.

Ultimately the chief died, and the woman and boy both suffered death. The woman was taken out to sea in a boat, killed with an axe, and thrown overboard. The boy was burnt alive, bags of gunpowder being tied to his legs to shorten his sufferings.

Apart from these superstitions, Mr. Reade asserts that the negroes possess the remnants of a noble and sublime religion, though they have forgotten its precepts, and debased its ceremonies. They still retain their belief in God , the One, the Supreme, the Creator. He has made mankind and the world; He thunders in the air, He destroys the wicked with His bolts. He rewards the good with long life; He gives them the rain, the fruits of the earth, and all things that are good. He is far above all the other gods.

In some parts of Guinea the daily prayer is, “O God , I know Thee not, but Thou knowest me, Thy aid is necessary to me.” At meals they say, “O God , Thou hast given me this, Thou hast made it grow.” And when they work, “O God , Thou hast caused that I should have strength to do this.” And another of their prayers runs, “O God , help us, we do not know whether we shall live to-morrow; we are in Thy hand.”[40]

[40] This chapter is adapted from Mr. Winwood Reade's “Savage Africa,” (Edit. 1863.)