The Humbugs of the World/Chapter XLVIII

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The Humbugs of the World by P. T. Barnum
Chapter XLVIII
Footnotes have been added for this publication. The original text had no footnotes.

CHAPTER XLVIII.

Modern Heathen Humbugs. — Fetishism. — Obi. — Vaudoux. — Indian Powwows. — Lamaism. — Revolving Prayers. — Praying to Death.

A scale of superstition and religious beliefs of to-day, arranged from the lowest to the highest, would show many curious coincidences with another scale, which should trace the history of superstitions and religious beliefs backward in time toward the origin of man. Thus, for instance, the heathen humbugs, whether revolting or ridiculous, which I am to speak of in this chapter, are in full blast to day; and they furnish perfect specimens of the beliefs which prevailed among the heathen of four thousand and of eighteen hundred years ago; of the Chaldee and Canaanite superstitions, and equally of those of the Romans under Augustus Cæsar.

The most dirty, vulgar, low, silly and absurd of all the superstitions in the world are, as is natural, those of the darkest minded of all the heathen, who have any superstition at all. For, as if for the humiliation of our proud human nature, there are really some human beings who seem to have too little intellect even to rise to the height of a superstition. Such are the Andaman Islanders, who crawl on all fours, wear nothing but a plaster of mud to keep the musquitos off, eat bugs, and grubs, and ants, and turn their children out to shift for themselves as soon as the little wretches can learn to crawl and eat bugs.

These lowest of superstitions are Fetishism and Obi, believed and practiced by negro tribes, and, remember this, even by their ignorant white mistresses in the West Indies and in the United States, to-day. Yes, I know where Southern refugee secessionist women are living in and about New York city at this moment, who really believe in the negro witchcraft called Obi, practiced by the slaves.

A Fetish is anything not a living being, worshiped because supposed to be inhabited by some god. In some parts of Africa the Fetishes are a sort of guardian divinity, and there is one for each district like a town constable; and sometimes one for each family. The Fetish is any stone picked up in the street — a tree, a chip, a rag. It may be some stone or wooden image — an old pot, a knife, a feather. Before this precious divinity the poor darkeys bow down and worship, and sometimes, sacrifice a sheep or a rooster. Each more important Fetish has a priest, and here is where the humbug comes in. This gentleman lives on the offerings made to the Fetish, and he “exploits” his god, as a Frenchman would say, with great profit.

Obi or Obeah, is the name of the witchcraft of the negro tribes; and the practitioner is termed an Obi-man or Obi-woman. They practice it at home in Africa, and carry it with them to continue it when they are made slaves in other lands. Obi is now practiced, as I have already hinted, in Cuba and in the Southern States, and is believed in by the more ignorant and foolish white people, as much as by their barbarous slaves. Obi is used only to injure, and the way to perform it upon your enemy is, to hire the Obi man or woman to concoct a charm, and then to hide this, or cause it to be hidden, in some place about the person or abode of the victim where he will find it. He is expected thereupon to fall ill, to wither and waste away, and so to die.

Absurd as it may seem, this cursing business operates with a good deal of certainty on the poor negroes, who fall sick instantly on finding the ball of Obi, two or three inches in diameter, hidden in their bed, or in the roof, or under the threshold, or in the earthen floor of their huts. The poor wretches become dejected, lose appetite, strength, and spirits, grow thin and ill, and really wither away and die. It is a curious fact, how ever, that if under these circumstances you can cause one of them to become converted to Christianity, or to become a Christian by profession, he becomes at once free from the witches dominion and quickly recovers.

The ball of Obi — or, as it is called among the Brazilian negroes, Mandinga — may be made of various materials, always, I believe, including some which are disgusting or horrible. Leaves of trees and scraps of rag may be used; ashes, usually from bones or flesh of some kind; pieces of cats’ bones and skulls, feathers, hair, earth, or clay, which ought to be from a grave; teeth of men and of snakes, alligators or other beasts; vegetable gum, or other sticky stuff; human blood, pieces of eggshell, etc., etc. This mixture is curiously like that in the witches caldron in Macbeth, which, among other equally toothsome matters, contained frogs’ toes, bats’ wool, lizards’ legs, owlets’ wings, wolfs’ teeth, witches’ mummy, Jew’s liver, tigers’ bowels, and lastly, as a sort of thickening to the gravy, baboon’s blood.

A creole lady, now at the North, recently told a friend of mine that “the negroes can put some pieces of paper, or powder, or something or other in your shoes, that will make you sick, or make you do anything they want!” The poor foolish woman told this with a face full of awe and eyes wide open. Another lady known to me, long resident at the South, tells me that the belief in this sort of devilism is often found among the white people.

The practices called Vaudoux or Voudoux, are a sort of Obi; being, like that, an invoking of the aid of some god to do what the worshipers wish. The Vaudoux humbug is quite prevalent in Cuba, Hayti, and other West India islands, where there are wild negroes, or where they are still imported from Africa. There is also a good deal of this sort of humbug among the slaves in New Orleans, and cases arising from it have recently quite often appeared in the police reports in the newspapers of that city.

The Vaudoux worshipers assemble secretly, with a kind of chief witch or mistress of ceremonies; there is a boiling caldron of hell-broth, à la Macbeth; the votaries dance naked around their soup; amulets and charms are made and distributed. During a quarter of a century last past, some hundreds of these orgies have been broken up by the New Orleans police, and probably as many more have come off as per programme. The Vaudoux processes are most frequently appealed to for the purposes of some unsuccessful or jealous lover; and the Creole ladies believe in Vaudouxism as much as in Obi.

In the West Indies, the Vaudoux orgies are more savage than in this country. It is but a little while since in Hayti, under the energetic and sensible administration of President Geffrard,[1] eight Vaudoux worshipers were regularly tried and executed for having murdered a young girl, the niece of two of them, by way of human sacrifice to the god. They tied the poor child tight, put her in a box called a humfort, fed her with some kind of stuff for four days, and then deliberately strangled her, beheaded her, flayed her, cooked the head with yams, ate of the soup, and then performed a solemn dance and chant around an altar with the skull on it.

The Caffres in Southern Africa have a kind of humbug somewhat like the Obi-men, who are known as rain-makers. These gentlemen furnish what blessing and cursing may be required for other purposes; but as that country is liable to tremendous droughts, their best business is to make rain. This they do by various prayers and ceremonies, of which the most important part is, receiving a large fee in advance from the customer. The rain-making business, though very lucrative, is not without its disadvantages; for whenever Moselekatse, or Dingaan, or any other chief sets his rain-maker at work, and the rain was not forthcoming as per application, the indignant ruler caused an assegai or two to be stuck through the wizard, for the encouragement of the other wizards. This was not so unreasonable as it may seem; for if the man could not make rain when it was wanted, what was he good for?

The ceremonies of the pow-wows or medicine-men of the North American Indians, are less brutal than the African ones. These soothsayers, like the Obi-men, prepared charms for their customers, usually, however, not so much to destroy others as to protect the wearer. These charms consist of some trifling matters tied up in a small bag, the “medicine-bag,” which is to be worn round the neck, and will, it is supposed, insure the wearer the special help and protection of the Great Spirit. The pow-wows sometimes do a little in the cursing line.

There is a funny story of a Puritan minister in the early times of New England, who coolly defied one of the most famous Indian magicians to play off his infernal artillery. A formal meeting was had, and the pow-wow rattled his traps, howled, danced, blew feathers, and vociferated jargon until he was perfectly exhausted, the old minister quietly looking at him all the time. The savage humbug was dumbfounded, but quickly recovering his presence of mind, saved his home-reputation by explaining to the red gentlemen in breech-cloths and nose-rings, that the Yankee ate so much salt that curses wouldn’t take hold on him at all.

The Shamans (or Schamans) of Siberia, follow a very similar business, but are not so much priestly humbugs as mere conjurors. The Lamas, or Buddhist leaders of Central and Southern Asia are, however, regular priests, again, and may be said, with singular propriety, to “run their machine” on principles of thorough religious humbug, for they do really pray by a machine. They set up a little mill to go by water or wind, which turns a cylinder. On this cylinder is written a prayer, and every time the barrel goes round once, it counts, they say, for one prayer. It may be imagined how piety intensifies in a freshet, or in a heavy gale of wind! And there is a ludicrous notion of economy, as well as a pitiable folly in the conception of profiting by such windy supplications, and of saving all one’s time and thoughts for business, while the prayers rattle out by the hundred at home. Only imagine the pious fervor of one of these priests in a first-class Lowell mill, of say a hundred thousand spindles. Print a large edition of some good prayer and paste a copy on each spindle, and the place would seem to him the very gate of a Buddhist heaven. He would feel sure of taking heaven by storm, with a sustained fire of one hundred thousand prayers every second. His first requisite for a prosperous church would be a good water-power for prayer-mills. And yet, absurd as these prayer-mills of the heathen really are, it may not be safe to bring them under unqualified condemnation: for who among us has not sometimes heard windy prayers even in our Christian churches? Young clergymen are especially liable and, I might say, prone to this mockery. These, however, are but exceptions to the general Christian rule, viz.: that the Omniscient careth only for heart-service; and that, before Him, all mere lip-service or machine-service, is simply an abomination.

A less innocent kind of praying is one of the religious humbugs of the bloody and cruel Sandwich Islands form of heathenism. Here a practice prevailed, and does yet, of paving money to a priest to pray your enemy to death. For cash in advance, this bargain could always be made, and so groveling was the spiritual cowardice of these poor savages, that, like the negro victim of Obi, the man prayed at seldom failed to sicken as soon as he found out what was going on, and to waste away and die.

This bit of heathen humbug now in operation, from so many distant portions of the earth, shows how radically similar is all heathenism. It shows, too, how mean, vulgar, filthy, and altogether vile, is such religion as man, unassisted, contrives for himself. It shows, again, how sadly great is the proportion of the human race still remaining in this brutal darkness. And, by contrast, it affords us great reason for thankfulness that we live in a land of better culture, and happier hopes and practices.


  1. Fabre Geffrard (1806–1878), Haitian general officer and president. See Wikipedia.