Fetchism in West Africa
FETICHISM —ITS PFIILOSOPHY —A PHYSICAL SALVATION — CHARMS AND AMULETS
EVEN during the while that man was still a monotheist, as seen in a previous chapter, he had eventually come to the use of idols which he did not actually worship, by the making of images simply to represent God ; he had not yet become an idolater.
Subsequently, in his farther lapse away from God, when he began to render worship to beings other than God, fashioned
images to represent them also, and actually worshipped them, he became a polytheist and an idolater.
When he had wandered still farther, and God was no longer worshipped, the knowledge of Him being reduced to a name, a multitude of spiritual beings were substituted in place of God, and religion was only animism.
Farther on, when it seemed desirable to provide local residence for these spirits, as had been done for God Himself
In temples and costly images, the material objects used for that residence were no longer matter of value and choice;
anything and any place was sufficient for a spirit's habitat.
Neither dignity, beauty, nor strength was any longer a factor in the selection. For these objects did not represent the
deities in any way whatever. They were simply local residences. As such, a spirit could live anywhere and in anything. This is bald fetichism. The thing itself, the material itself, is not worshipped. The fetich worshipper makes a clear distinction between the reverence with which he regards a certain material object and the worship he renders to the spirit for the time being inhabiting it. For this
reason nothing is too mean or too small or too ridiculous to be considered fit for a spirit's locum tenens ; for when for
any reason the spirit is supposed to have gone out of that thing and definitely abandoned it, the thing itself is no longer
reverenced, and is thrown away as useless.
The selection of the article in which the spirit is to reside is made by the native "uganga" (doctor), who to the Negro
stands in the office of a priest. The ground of selection is generally that of mere convenience. The ability to conjure a free wandering spirit into the narrow limits of a small material object, and to compel and subordinate its power to the
aid of some designated person or persons and for a specific purpose, rests with that uganga.
Over the wide range of many articles used in which to confine spirits, common and favorite things are the skins and
especially the tails of bush-cats, horns of antelopes, nut-shells, snail-shells, bones of any animal, but especially human bones and among the bones are specially regarded portions of skulls of human beings and teeth and claws of leopards. But, literally, anything may be chosen, —any stick, any stone, any rag of cloth. Apparently, there being no limit to the number of spirits, there is literally no limit to the number and character of the articles in which they may be localized.
It is not true, as is asserted by some in regard to these African tribes and their degraded form of religion, that they
worship the actual material objects in which the spirits are supposed to be confined. Low as is fetichism,it nevertheless
has its philosophy, a philosophy that is the same in kind as that of the higher forms of religion. A similar sense of need
that sends the Christian to his knees before God to ask aid in time of trouble, and salvation temporal and spiritual, sends the fetich worshipper to offer his sacrifice and to ejaculate his prayer for help as he lays hold of his consecrated antelope horn, or as he looks on it with abiding trust while it is safely tied to his body. His human necessity drives him to seek assistance.
The difference between his act and the act of the Christian
lies in the kind of salvation he seeks, the being to whom he appeals, and the reason for his appealing. The reason for his
appeal is simply fear ; there is no confession, no love, rarely thanksgiving.
The being to whom he appeals is not God. True, he does not deny that He is ; if asked, he will acknowledge His existence. But that is all. Very rarely and only in extreme emergencies, does he make an appeal to Him ; for he thinks
God so far off, so inaccessible, so indifferent to human woes and wants, that a petition to Him would be almost in vain.
He therefore turns to some one of the mass of spirits which he believes to be ever near and observant of human affairs,
in which, as former human beings, some of them once had part.
As to the character of the salvation sought, it is not spiritual it is a purely physical salvation. A sense of moral and spiritual need is lost sight of, although not eliminated. This is an index of the distance the Negro has travelled away from Jehovah before he finally reached the position of placing his trust in a fetich. By just so much as he seems to himself living in a world crowded with unseen but powerful spiritual beings (with whom what a Christian calls " sin " has no reprehensible moral quality), by just so much he seems to have lost sight of his own soul and its moral necessities.
The future is so vague that in the thought of most tribes it contains neither heaven nor hell ; there is no certain reward
or rest for goodness, nor positive punishment for badness.
The future life is to each native largely a reproduction, on shadowy and intangible lines, of the works and interests and
passions of this earthly life. In his present life, with its savagery and oppression and dominance of seifish greed and right of might, goodness has no reward. It is badness which in his personal experience makes the largest gains. From this point of view, while some acts are indeed called "good" and some
"bad" (conscience proving its simple existence by the use of these words in the record of language), yet conscience is not much troubled by its possessor's badness. There is little
sense of the sinfulness of sin. There is only fear of possible human injury by human or subsidized spiritual enemies. This
is all the salvation that is sought.
It is sought by prayer ; by sacrifice, and by certain other ceremonies rendered to the spirit of the fetich or to other
non-localized spirits ; and by the use of charms or amulets.
These charms may be vocal, ritual, or material.
(1) The vocal are the utterance of cabalistic words deprecatory of evil or supplicatory of favor, which are supposed in
a vague way to have power over the local spirits. These words or phrases, though sometimes coined by a person for
himself or herself (and therefore like our slang having a known meaning), are often archaisms, handed down from
ancestors and believed to possess efficiency, but whose meaning is forgotten. In this list would be included long incantations by the magic doctors and the Ibata-blown blessing.
(2) Certain rites or ceremonies are performed for almost every child at some time during his or her infancy or youth, or subsequently as occasion may demand, in which a prohibition is laid upon the child in regard to the eating of some
particular article of food or the doing of some special act. It is difficult to get at the exact object for this "orunda." Certainly the prohibited food or act is not in itself evil; for all but the inhibited individual may eat of the food or commit the act as they please. Most natives blindly follow the "custom" of their ancestors, and are unable to give me the raison d'etre of the rite itself. But I gather from the testimony of those best able to give a reason that the prohibited article or act is literally a sacrifice, ordained for the child by its parents and the magic doctor, as a gift to the governing spirit of its life. The thing prohibited thus becomes removed from the child's common use and is made sacred to the spirit. It is therefore a sacrament. Any use of it by the child will thenceforth be a sacrilege which would draw down the spirit's wrath in the form of sickness or other evil, and which can be atoned for only through expensive ceremonies and by gifts to the magician interceding for the offender.
Anything may be selected for an orunda. I do not know the ground for a selection. Why one child, perhaps a babe too young to have eaten of the to-be-prohibited thing, should be debarred forever from eating a chicken, or the liver or any other particular part, or any portion at all, of a goat or an ox or any other animal, I do not know. But that orunda
is thenceforth faithfully complied with, even under pangs of hunger. It is like a Nazarite's vow.
I have a strong suspicion that where the orunda laid on a woman is a matter of meat, superstition has played into the
hands of masculine selfishness, and denies to women the choice meat in order that men may have the greater share. My suspicion rests on almost positive evidence in the case of some prohibitions to the women of the Bulu and other Fang tribes of the interior.
On a boat journey in the Ogowe River, about 1878, I camped on the edge of a forest for the noon meal. My crew of four, members of the Galwa and Nkami tribes, had no meat. They needed it, for they had rowed hard and well. For myself, I had only a small chicken. I was satisfied with a portion of it, and gave the rest to the crew. It would make at least a tasty morsel for each, with their manioc bread. Three of them thanked me ; the fourth did not touch his share. I felt slightly vexed, thinking my favor was not appreciated, and I asked the cause of his apparent sullenness.
He said he did not dare to eat of the fowl, as it was orunda to him.
On another journey, in 1876, a young man whom I had picked up as extra hand in my boat's crew, when at the noon
mealtime we stopped under the shade of a spreading tree by the river's bank, instead of respectfully leaving me alone
with my lunch in the boat, and going ashore where the others were eating, wanted to remain in the boat, his orunda being that when on a jotirney by water his food should be eaten only over water.
Two Ogowe chiefs, near whose villages was anchored the small river steamer "Pioneer," on which I was passenger,
in 1875, came aboard, and in drinking a glass of liquor with the captain, one of them held up a piece of white cloth before his mouth, in order that strangers' eyes might not see him swallow. That was his orunda, probably. Perhaps also the hiding of his drinking may have had reference to the common feart)f another's "evil eye."
The other, having taken a mouthful, wet his finger in his mouth, drew the wet finger across his throat, and then blew
on a fetich which he wore as a ring on a finger of the other hand. I do not know the significance of his motion across
his throat. The blowing was the Ib^ta-blessing, — an ejaculatory prayer for a blessing on his plans, probably of trade.
This word "orunda," meaning thus originally prohibited from human use (like the South Sea " taboo "), grew, under
missionary hands, into its related meaning of sacred to spiritual use. It is the word by which the Mpongwe Scriptures
translate our word "holy." I think it an unfortunate choice; for the missionary lias to stop and explain that orunda, as
used for God, does not mean the orunda used by mankind. In the translation of the Benga Scriptures the word "holy"
was transferred bodily, and we explain that it means something better than good. To such straits are translators sometimes reduced in the use of heathen languages!
(3) The charms that are most common are material, the fetich, — so common, indeed, that by the universality of
their use, and the prominence given to them everywhere, in houses and on the person, they almost monopolize the religious thought of the Bantu Negro, subordinating other acknowledged points of his theology, dominating his almost entire religious interest, and giving the departmental word "fetich" such overwhelming regard that it has furnished the name distinctive of the native African religious system, viz. fetichism. "Fetich" is an English word of Portuguese origin.
"It is derived from feitico, 'made,' 'artificial' (compare the old English fetys, used by Chaucer) ; and this term, used of
the charms and amulets worn in the Roman Catholic religion of the period, was applied, by the Portuguese sailors of the
eighteenth century, to the deities they saw worshipped by the Negroes of the West Coast of Africa.
" De Brosses, a French savant of the last century, brought the word 'fetichism ' into use as a term for the type of religion of the lowest races. The word has given rise to some confusion, having been applied, by Comte and other writers, to the worship of the heavenly bodies and of the great features of Nature. It is best to limit it to the worship of
such natural objects as are reverenced, not for their own power or excellence, but because they are supposed to be occupied each by a spirit." 1
The native word on the Liberian coast is "gree-gree in the Niger Delta, "ju-ju" in the Gabun country, "monda"; among the cannibal Fang, "bian"; and in other tribes the same respective dialectic by which we translate "medicine."
To a sick native's thought the adjuvant medicinal herb used by the doctor, and its associated efficiency-giving spirit invoked by that same doctor, are inseparable. In the heathen Negro's soul the fetich takes the place, and has the regard, which an idol has with the Hindu and the Chinese.
A fetich, strictly speaking, is little else than a charm or amulet, worn about the person, and set up at some convenient
place, for the purpose of guarding against some apprehended evil or securing some coveted good." In the Anglo-African parlance of the Coast fetiches are called by various names, but all signify the same thing. Fetiches may be made of anything of vegetable, animal, or metallic nature, and need only to pass through the consecrating hands of a
native priest to receive all the supernatural powers which they are supposed to possess. It is not always certain that
they possess extraordinary powers. They must be tried and; give proof of their efficiency before they can be implicitly
A fetich, then, is any material object consecrated by the "oganga," or magic doctor, with a variety of ceremonies and
1 Menzies, History of Religion, p. 33.
2 Wilson, Western Africa, p. 212.
t processes, by virtue of which some spirit becomes localized in ^ that object, and subject to the will of the possessor.
Anything that can be conveniently carried .on the person may thus be consecrated, —a stone, chip, rag, string, or bead.
Articles most frequently used are snail-shells, nut-shells, and small horns of gazelles or goats. These are used probably
because of their convenient cavities ; for they are to be filled by the oganga with a variety of substances depending, in
their selection, on the special work to be accomplished by the fetich. Its value, however, depends not on itself, nor solely on the character of these substances, but on the skill of the oganga in dealing with spirits.
There is a relation between these selected substances and the object to be obtained by the fetich which is to be prepared of them, — for example, to give the possessor bravery or strength, some part of a leopard or an elephant; to give cunning, some part of a gazelle ; to give wisdom, some part of a human brain; to give courage, some part of a heart; to give influence, some part of an eye; and so on for a multitude of qualities. These substances are supposed to
lure some spirit (being in some way pleasing to it), which thenceforward is satisfied to reside in them and to aid the possessor in the accomplishment of some one specific wish.
In preparing a fetich the oganga selects substances such
as he deems appropriate to the end in view,—the ashes of certain medicinal plants, pieces of calcined bones, gums, spices, resins, and even filth, portions of organs of the bodies of animals, and especially of human beings (preferably eyes, brain, heart, and gall-bladder), particularly of ancestors, or men strong or renowned in any way, and very especially of enemies and of white men. Human eyeballs (particularly of a white person) are a great prize. New-made graves have been rifled for them.
These are compounded in secret, with the accompaniment of drums, dancing, invocations, looking into mirrors or limpid
water to see faces (human or spiritual, as may be desired), and
are stuffed into the hollow of the shell or bone, or smeared over the stick or stone.
If it be desired to obtain power over some one else, the oganga must be given by the applicant, to be mixed in the
sacred compound, either crumbs from the food, or clippings of finger nails or hair, or (most powerful !) even a drop of
blood of the person over whom influence is sought. These represent the life or body of that person. So fearful are natives of power being thus obtained over them, that they have their hair cut only by a friend; and even then they
carefully burn it or cast 'it into a river. If one accidentally cuts himself, he stamps out what blood has dropped on the ground, or cuts out from wood the part saturated with blood.
Sitting one day by a village boat-landing in the Benita region, about 1866, while my crew prepared for our journey, I was idly plucking at my beard, and carelessly flung away a few hairs. Presently I observed that some children gathered
them up. Asking my Christian assistant what that meant, he told me: "They will have a fetich made with those hairs; when next you visit this village, they will ask you for some favor, and you will grant it, by the power they will thus have obtained over you.
The water with which a lover's body (male or female) is washed, is used in making a philter to be mingled secretly in the drink of the loved one.
While, as I have already stated, it is true that anything portable may be used either as the receptacle in which the spirit is to be located or as the substance or " medicine " to be inserted in it, I wish to insist that in the philosophy of fetich
there is always a reason in the selection of all these articles, a reason which it is often difficult for a foreigner to discover, —an apparent fitness for the end in view.
Arnot 1 refers to this: Africans believe largely in preventive measures, and their fetich charms are chiefly of that order.
In passing through a country where leopards and lions abound,
1 Garenganze, p. 237
they carefully provide themselves with the claws, teeth, lips, and whiskers of those animals, and hang them around their
necks, to secure themselves against being attacked. For the same purpose the point of an elephant trunk is generally
worn by elephant hunters. The bones from the legs of tortoises are much valued as anklets, in order to give the wearers
endurance, reminding one of the fable of the tortoise. The lower jaw-bone of the tortoise is worn by certain tribes as a
preventive against toothache. The spine bones of serpents are strung together with a girdle as a cure for back-ache.
A recent visitor to the Gabun country, in the " Journal of the African Society," makes this criticism: "When a white
man or woman wears some trinket strung about them, they call it an amulet or charm. They ascribe to it some virtue,
and regard it as a sacred (?) thing ; but when an African native wears one, white men call it 'fetich,' arid the wearer
a savage or heathen." This defence of the Negro is gratifying, but the criticism of the white man is not quite just.
There is this radical difference : to the African the " fetich is his all, his entire hope for his physical salvation; he does
not reckon on God at all. The civilized man or woman with a "mascot" is very foolish in his or her belief in luck, but
their mascots never entirely take God's place.
I met at Gabun about 1895 the same criticism from the mouth of a partly educated Sierra Leone Negro, who, though
a professing Christian, evidently was wearing Christianity hypocritically. His well-educated Mpongwe wife was a
member of my church. It was discovered that she had a certain fetich suspended in her bedroom. It was necessary to summon her before the church session ; she explained that it was not hers, but her husband's, and disclaimed belief in
it. She was rebuked for allowing it in her room. The husband, hearing of the rebuke, wrote me an angry letter justifying his fetich. He said in substance:
"You white people don't know anything about black man's fashions. ' You say you trust God for everything, but in your
own country you put up an iron rod over your houses to protect
yourselves from death by lightning ; and you trust in it the while that you still believe in God ; and you call it electricity
and civilization. And you say it 's all right. I call this thing of mine —this charm — 'medicine'; and I hung it over my wife's bed to keep away death by the arts of those who hate her; and I trust in it while still believing in God. And you think me a heathen! " It was explained to him that in the use of the lightning-rod white men reverently recognized God in His own natural forces, but that his fetich dishonored God, ignored Him, and was a distinct recognition of a supposed power that was claimed to be able to act independently of God; that I trusted to the lightning-rod under God, while he trusted to his fetich outside of God.
For every human passion or desire of every part of our nature, for our thousand necessities or wishes, a fetich can be made, its operation being directed to the attainment of one specified wish, and limited in power only by the possible
existence of some more powerful antagonizing spirit.
This, hung on the plantation fence or from the branches of plants in the garden, is either to prevent theft or to sicken the thief; hung over the doorway of the house, to bar the entrance of evil; hung from the bow of the canoe, to insure a successful voyage; worn on the arm in hunting, to assure an accurate aim; worn on any part of one's person, to give success in loving, hating, planting, fishing, buying, and so forth, through the whole range of daily work and interests.
Some kinds, worn on a bracelet or necklace, are to ward off sickness. The new-born infant has a health-knot tied about
its neck, wrist, or loins. Down to the day of oldest age, every one keeps on multiplying or renewing or altering
these life talismans.
If of the charge at Balaklavait was said, "This is magnificent, but it is not war," I may say of these heathen, "Such faith is magnificent, though it be folly. The hunter going out, certain of success, returns empty-handed; the warrior
bearing on his breast a fetich panoply, which he is confident
will turn aside a bullet, comes back wounded ; every one is some day foiled in his cherished plan. Do they lose their
faith? No, not in the system, — their fetichism; but in the special material object of their faith —their fetich — they do.
Going to the oganga whom they had paid for concocting that now disappointing amulet, they tell him of its failure. He
readily replies : " Yes, I know. You have an enemy who possesses a fetich containing a spirit more powerful than yours, which made your bullet miss its mark, which caused your opponent's spear to wound you. Yours is no longer of use; it 's dead. Come, pay me, and I will make you a charm containing a spirit still more powerful.
The old fetich hitherto jealously guarded, and which would not have been sold for any consideration, is now thrown away or sold to the foreign curio-hunter.
A native heathen Akele chief, Kasa, my friend and host in the Ogowe, in 1874, showed me a string of shells, bones, horns, wild-cat tails, and so forth, each with its magic compound, which he said could turn aside bullets. In a friendly
way he dared me to fire at him with my sixteen-repeater Winchester rifle. I did not believe he meant it; but, on his
taking his stand a few paces distant, he did not quail under my steady aim, nor even at the click of the trigger. I, of
course, desisted, apparently worsted. Two years later, Kasa was charged by an elephant he had wounded, and was pierced by its tusks. His attendants drove off the beast; the fearfully lacerated man survived long enough to accuse twelve of his women and other slaves of having bewitched his gun, and thus causing it only to wound instead of killing the elephant. On that charge four of the accused were put to death.
Both men and women may become aganga on voluntary choice, and after a course of instruction by an oganga.
There is generally a special person in a tribe who knows these things, and is able to work them. He has more power
over spirits than other men have, and is able to make them do what he likes. He can heal sickness, he can foretell the
future, he can change a thing into something else, or a man into a lower animal, or a tree, or anything; he can also assume such transformations himself at will. He uses means to bring about such results; he knows about herbs, he has
also recourse to rubbing, to making images of affected parts of the body, and to various other arts. Very frequently he
is regarded as inspired. It is the spirit dwelling in him which brings about the wonderful results; without the spirit he could not do anything."1
Though these magicians possess power, its joy has its limitations; for, becoming possessed by a familiar spirit, through whose aid they make their invocations and incantations and under whose influence they fall into cataleptic trances or are thrilled with Delphic rages, if they should happen to offend that "familiar," it may destroy them by "eating" out their life, as their phrase is. On Corisco Island, in 1863, a certain man had acquired prominence as a magic doctor; he finally died of consumption. His friends began a witchcraft investigation to find out who had killed him. A post-mortem being made, cavities were found in the lungs. Ignorant of disease, they thereupon dropped the investigation, saying that his own "witch " had "eaten " him.
Captain Guy Burrows, a British officer, formerly in the service of the Kongo Free-State, left it unwilling to be a participant in the fearful atrocities allowed by the King of Belgium; and he has recently made a scathing exposure of the doings of Belgian agents that have made the Kongo a slave-ground of worse horrors than existed in the old days of
the export slave-trade. He thus jocularly describes what he saw of fetich at the town of Matadi on the Kongo, where
there is an English Baptist Mission: "Outside the small area, under the direct influence of the mission, there is but one deity, — the fetich. The heathen in his blindness, in bowing down to wood and stone, bows, as Kipling says, to 'wood for choice.' He carves a more or less grotesque face;
and the rest is a matter of taste. I came across one figure
1 Menzies, History of Religion, p. 73.
whose principal ornament consisted of a profusion of tenpenny nails and a large cowrie shell. 1 But anything will do; an old tin teapot is another favorite fetich decoration.
I have generally found that the uglier they are, the more they seem to be feared and reverenced.
The fetich is sometimes inclined to be a nuisance. On one occasion I wanted to build an out-house at the far end of a
plantation, where tools and other implements might be stored. I was told by the chief, however, that this was fetich ground, and that terrible misfortunes would follow any attempt to build on it. I tried to get some closer idea of the fetich, but could get no more material information than a recital of vague terrors of the kind that frighten children at night. So I began building my out-house, during the course of which operation some monkeys came and sat in the trees, highly interested in the proceedings. In some indefinite way I gathered that the fetich power was regarded as being invested in these monkeys, or that they were the embodiment of the fetich idea, or anything else you please. But I could not have my work interfered with by the ghosts of a lot of chattering apes, and the fears of those big children the natives; so I witchdoctored the monkeys after an improved recipe of my own, — I shot the lot. Thereafter the spell was supposed to be lifted, and no farther objections were raised; but the empty cartridge cases were seized upon by the men as charms against any further manifestations in the same place. I am glad to say none occurred; the spell I had used was too potent!
Captain Burrows was probably an efficient administrator. But, like many foreigners, he evidently chose to ride, rough
shod, over natives' prejudices, regarding them as idle superstitions, and unable or unwilling to investigate their philosophy. I see, however, from his story, that he had gotten hold
1 Those nails were not mere " ornaments." They were the records of the number of persons who had been transfixed by death or disease under the power of that fetich idol. A similar custom is known in the West Indies and in the southern United States. For every pin stuck into a wax figure intended to represent the person to be injured, some sickness or other evil will fall on him.
Wilkie Collins also utilized this superstition in his novel, " I say, No."— R, H. N.
of a part of the truth. That ground on which he desired to build was probably an old graveyard. The native chief very
naturally did not wish it to be disturbed. Monkeys that gather on the trees in the vicinity of' a graveyard are supposed
to be possessed by the spirits of those buried there.
An ordinary individual would have been forcibly prevented had he attempted what Captain Burrows did. He had a foreign government at his back, and the natives submitted.
Their dead and their monkeys, sacred ;pro tempore, had succumbed to the superior power of the white man's cartridges.
Their only satisfaction was to retain the empty shells as souvenirs.