Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/October 1884/Fetichism of the Bantu Negroes

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



THE African negroes, like all primitive peoples, are great children. Too much should, therefore, not be made of their mental acts. That wonderful system of mystic conceptions which closet theologians believe they can discover among them can not stand the test of serious, unprejudiced examination. More time and sharper acumen than many writers on the subject possess are needed for the formation of a valid idea of the religious conceptions of these people. A five-year-old girl playing with her doll is a better medium for studying primitive mythologies than the heaviest volumes of anthropologists and ethnographists.

I believe that much that is said about fetich-worship rests on no solid foundation; neither a kind of worship nor any serious service is addressed to the harmless toy we call a fetich, but only a mysterious good or evil spirit is fancied to dwell within it.

A negro, as is his habit, is sitting and thinking about nothing. Casually he casts his eye upon a knotted limb of strange growth that may bear some indistinct resemblance to a human face. Amused at it, he takes his knife and makes an effort to help out Nature by scratching the nose, mouth, and eyes into plainer prominence. At last the thing appears so curious that he concludes he will take it home and set it up before his hut. It becomes his "fetich," and grins to-day pleasantly, to-morrow with a cross air, at him. To heighten the effect, he paints it red around the eyes, or adorns it with bright ornaments. In some such way as this, I believe, we may explain the origin of the first images of the gods, new illustrations of which we may still observe to be brought before us from time to time. I do not regard the process as a religious one, but rather as an instance of the development of the first idea of art.

It is not, however, the pleasure of contemplating new forms that secures their preservation and the attention that is afterward given them. In the feeling of the need of some protection against evil the objects become associated with the events that happen to their owner, and endowed with a power to influence their course. Then they are copied, and a fixed type is established; but the utilization of them for religious purposes is, in my opinion, a secondary matter. Instead of fetiches or idols, such objects might be called amulets or medicines. In the course of time great numbers of religious medicinal structures have been formed, all of them originating in some such way as we have outlined, representatives of which may be found everywhere, most curious figures, in the towns, in the fields, at the cross-roads, and in the most out-of-the way and lonesome places. If we ask what they are for, we shall generally receive some indefinite answer. They may be "for a dead man," "to kill witches," "battle-charms," or "to keep thieves away." Intelligent negroes will sometimes laugh in making such communications, as if they were ashamed at being caught indulging in silly conceits.

Without going into an elaborate account of African fetiches, it will be enough for our purpose to give a few examples that may illustrate the way some of them have been developed and the purposes to which they are applied. The first figure represents a specimen of the most primitive character that may be very readily imagined to have originated in the way we have indicated. Between two vine-stocks that have been intertwined in double spirals around slender stems is

Fig. 1. Fig. 2.

standing, firmly set in the ground, a knotty stump that has been helped out into the caricature of a face. I found the original of this in a Luba village. Of a similar grade is Fig. 2, a round mass from a termite's nest, about twice the size of a man's head, the porous fungoid substance of which has been set off with carved suggestions of mouth, nose, and eyes. This is a very common ornament of the corners of the manioc-fields. A fetich of a more complicated character is shown in Fig. 3—a little straw hut, about twenty inches high, shaped so as to suggest some fabulous beast. The original, which belonged to an Ovambo village, looked more formidable than the picture. Some dirt was heaped up under the middle of the tent, in which snail-shells,Fig. 3. bones, and roots were found when it was stirred with a stick, and which was probably designed to represent the entrails of the creature. I could not get any explanation of the design represented in Fig. 4. We found it one day in a wood in Minungoland—a cross-road large enough for a ten-pin alley, beginning near the regular path, with a kind of a gallows of slender sticks, and ending at a miniature hut about a yard high. Nothing was found in the hut besides an empty pot; but two interlinked straw rings were hanging from the cross-beam of the gallows. When I asked my interpreter Pedro what it was for, he replied that it was to catch men. I did not press him with any more questions, for I knew he would answer me with the first lie he could think of.

Numerous grave-marks are characteristic of all the roads and paths of Angola; they are, according to the degree of civilization and the

Fig. 4.

social importance of the deceased, either large earthen catafalques with towers at the corners, such as are erected by the Africo-Portuguese, simple long mounds of the form everywhere used, or a little stone-heap. Graves of the first two classes are generally sheltered by a hut or roof. Graves of the last kind, which are very often the graves of porters that have died on the road, are frequently found fresh and adorned with the staff, the belt, the provision-bag, the water-gourd, or the cooking-pot of the dead man. The best finished catafalques of earth are whitewashed and painted with pretty colored arabesques and flowers. Vessels in which food has been brought to the deceased at various times may be found scattered around the grave, together with burned clay figures of the most curious character.

Sometimes the graves contain nothing but the hair and nails of the persons to whom they are erected; for the man may have died on a journey, and have been buried among strangers. But, in order that a place may be provided near his home where his spirit may linger, and enjoy the food and drink that are regularly brought to it, one of his friends will cut off some of his hair and nails, and present them to the family to be formally buried as a symbol of the whole body, which it is not convenient to remove. The little relics are then mourned over and buried just as if they were the body itself, which is, however, moldering far away. Such a monument was the pile of wood which I found near Malansh, a copy of my drawing of which is given in Fig. 5. It may, however, be a hunter's medicine, for that was one among the explanations that were given me of its purpose. Four rough-hewed tree-trunks served as posts to hold up the structure of logs and limbs and straw. In front of the structure was a carved idol, on both sides of which stood limbs of trees garnished with skulls and antelopes' jaws, while near the idol lay a pot containing pieces of meat in a brown sauce. The corner posts and the idol were painted with white and red spots.

Besides these fixed amulets are also to be reckoned in the category of art-works smaller toys that are worn as ornaments. Among these are some kinds to which superstition has attributed particular powers, made of antelope-horn, snail-shells, and small turtle-shells, the hollow parts of which are filled with a magic salve, made of coal-dust and Fig. 5. palm-oil. One of the most potent amulets is the pemba, a fine, white clay resembling kaolin, which is brought from some distance, and forms an article of trade. It is used much in the same manner as the holy water of the Roman Catholics, and the expression "pemba" has a similar significance with our "good-luck" or "blessing." The term to "give pemba" is used to designate the application of the moistened substance to the arm or the breast. Feeble or sickly persons or beggars, who wish to accomplish an object with a higher personage, besmear their whole faces with it. A master, hunting his runaway slaves, paints with it a white ring around his right eye, in the belief that he will thereby be able to see more sharply.

Although the negroes possess no real writing, they seem to have the beginning of it in the shape of tally-sticks and proprietary marks. Creditors and debtors are accustomed to note the number of objects of value, pieces of cloth, etc., on sticks; and traveling merchants and porters perpetuate the number of their night-camps on their walking-canes, on which important events are also emphasized by larger or differently shaped marks. If a gourd of unusual size or beauty is growing anywhere, the owner of it cuts a peculiar mark on it, by the aid of the mysterious influence attached to which he is able to keep it as his own. Some of the best designed proprietary marks we observed are represented in Fig. 6.

The musical capacity of the negroes is higher than their aptitude for imitative art. The most complicated trumpet-signals can not be given more clearly and correctly than is done by the black soldiery of Angola. The melodies of these Africans are very touching and resonant. The antiphone of a large file of porters going out in the morning was a real treat to my otherwise little appreciative ears. It usually began with a lively recitative by the best-voiced man of the company, with which the others fell in in harmonious refrain. The simple, endlessly repeated text was constantly taken up anew, and related to a fact not very interesting in itself:" "We are carryingFig. 6. Souza's goods to Kulamushita, cloth, pearls, powder, and brass wire; Souza is rich, Souza will give us good schnapps." Refrain: "Yes, Souza will give us good schnapps." Regular songs do not appear to exist, and the airs that are sung of evenings over the camp-fires are of the same improvised character.

Besides his voice, the negro makes music with whatever will make a noise—two sticks, old fruit-cans, iron articles, or stones. He also has a number of musical instruments that are not to be despised, the best of which, the maximba, would not be unworthy to be called a clavier.

Besides music and songs, the evening circles are enlivened with stories of adventure and occasional animal fables, which I am not able to recall. One story, which was told me by a mulatto woman in Malansh, was evidently an adaptation of a Portuguese nurse's story. In these tales the interposition of an interval between two events is expressed in a very curious manner, as, "And now he waited a month, r-r-r-r-r-. . . and he waited another month, r-r-r-r-r," each trilling with the tongue, which generally lasted about half a minute, answering for the designated interval.

There is not much to be said about the scientific conceptions of the negroes. Most of our clews to their character are derived from their verbal expressions. Among the heavenly bodies they distinguish the sun and moon, the larger planets, and the fixed stars, the latter only in general, without taking consideration of individual stars or particular groups. The larger planets are called wives of the moon, whence it proceeds that chaste Luna is regarded as a man. Little use is made of the rising and setting of the sun to express direction, which is usually described as "up" or "down," according to the course of the streams.

Of minerals, the natives distinguish between stone and earth, and the latter as dry (sand) and moist (mud). Of earths, they speak of red earth, or laterite, and white or gray earth, alluvium. Bog-iron ore, which is abundant, is "the great stone." Among the metals, copper is known; and the word signifying copper is in some of the dialects applied to the moon. Their vocabulary is rich in names of animals and plants. Not one of the plants growing in the plains is without its name, but the flora of the ravines is less well provided for. Separate class-names are, however, given to the broad-leaved ever-green vegetation of the ravines and the vegetation of the plains, as a whole. Swamps are called "bad brooks." Carnivorous animals, the lion, the leopard, and the hyena, and night-birds, are regarded as evil spirits or magicians. In the stories, the lion is always spoken of as "Mr. Lion." Three color-names are known, to distinguish between white or light colors, blue or dark ones, and red, green being considered a variety of red. Notwithstanding this poverty of names, their conceptions of colors appear to be as diversified and distinct as those of other men. They have no words for sweet and sour, but whatever tastes to suit them is "piquant." They are very ingenious in the invention of nicknames and descriptive terms, which have generally some direct reference to peculiarities in the appearance, history, or character of the persons to whom they are applied. Some of the instances of their coinages in this category, which I met in my travels, were comical.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.