AS with ourselves in the Middle Ages, and, to the best of my belief, among all native tribes, there are more witches than wizards in Ibibio land; partly because there are more women than men, and should she have children a witch always passes her wicked knowledge on to one of her daughters, usually to the youngest born; partly also because it would appear easier for women to place themselves en rapport with the powers of the unseen world.
When a witch is either unwed or barren, she generally seeks out some child whom she may initiate into her secrets. For this purpose she inveigles some little one into her house and sets before it "chop" such as children love, in which "witch medicine" has been mixed. Several cases in which parents have charged suspected persons with putting witchcraft potions into their children's food were brought before my husband in the Native Courts. One such occurred just before we left Oron. The witch, a barren woman, famous for her knowledge of drugs, was accused of having administered "medicine" to a small boy in a dish of plantains mixed with palm oil. The magic having entered into him had caused him, against his will, to sally forth at night and join the unholy revels
of a witch company. How such things are brought about is told in the conclusion of the story of Ekpenyong and Adiaha, the first part of which was given on pp. 101-6. It thus continues:
"Now when the enemy of Ekpenyong had consulted with the latter's discarded wife as to how the power of the guardian juju might be satisfied, she thought for a long time and then said:
"'This juju is a very strong one and would surely kill any of us who are possessed by witchcraft should we try to enter the house in order to harm those within. The safest way, therefore, is to seek to put witchcraft into one of the children. Then, when the latter has joined our company, we can send him to do our work, for the juju will not harm such a one, seeing that he is of the house. Let us therefore choose out the youngest for this service, and having invited Ekpenyong and all his family to a feast, mix witchcraft medicine with the portion of his last born.'
"To this the wicked chief agreed, and sent to beg Ekpenyong to bring Adiaha and all their children to visit his house. Now, the youngest of the family was named Offong, and for him at the feast a fine portion was set aside, in which beforehand a strong medicine had been mixed. Nothing was noticed at the time. The guests ate with enjoyment, and afterwards went home well pleased.
"A few nights later the wicked chief changed himself by evil enchantment into the form of a night bird, and flew hooting round the compound where Offong lay sleepless, for it was impossible for him to rest, because of the strange thing which had entered into him.
"'Come out,' hooted the evil bird. 'Come out, and join those who are awaiting you.'
"On this the witchcraft that was within the boy drove him forth, and to his astonishment he saw a great crowd of people before the house flitting hither and thither in the light of the moon. He cried out in surprise at sight of such a multitude, but the bad chief cautioned him never to tell anyone of what he was about to witness. Then all went together, not walking upon the. ground, but floating a few feet above, until they reached a great cleared space in the bush, such as Offong had never seen before. In the midst of it was a cauldron simmering over a fire, and into this from time to time, to the lad's horror, gobbets of human flesh were thrown by one or other of the witch-company. After all had danced awhile in the light of the flame, they seated themselves in a great circle and the contents of the pot were distributed among them. To Offong was given a large piece of flesh and some yam. He ate the latter, but concealed the former, which he took home, placed in his mother's 'smoking basket,' and then hung over the fire.
"The poor boy dared not speak to anyone of what he had seen, but went in terror of his life, fearing lest any should notice the strange change that had befallen him; for, whenever the witches were playing, no matter how much lie strove to stay in the house, the witchcraft that was within him carried him through locked door or wall-chink to the meeting-place, without so much as foot set to ground.
"Every time that he was thus summoned a feast was held. and each time Offong hid his share of the human
flesh as before. All through the night they danced, from nightfall to cock-crow, but just before dawn-break the unhappy boy always found himself once more safe in bed. By day he went in terror among his own kin; for, whenever Ekpenyong called his family together to make sacrifice before the juju which protected the household from evil powers, Offong feared that the spirit would catch him on account of the witchcraft that was within him. When, therefore, the others crowded round to join in the sacrifice, he kept to the outskirts of the circle, trembling lest what had befallen him should be revealed.
"Thus many moons passed, till at length one night the wicked chief said that it was now Offong's turn to provide a man for the feast. Shaking with terror the boy pleaded that he was too young to have men at his disposal, and that, indeed, he had no one to give.
"On this the evil beings rose gibbering around him, and with harsh voices and menacing hands cried that he must bring father, mother, brother or sister for them to devour; else, should he fail to do so, they would rend him in pieces and fling him into the pot.
"Offong knew not to whom to turn in his trouble, but at length decided to tell all to Akpan, his eldest brother, by whose side he slept at night. To him, therefore, amid bitter tears, he confided how he had been drawn into the witch-company against his will, and forced to attend meetings where human beings were devoured, although up till that time no morsel of the accursed food had passed his own lips.
At first Akpan could not believe so strange a tale,
but Offong went out and brought in proof the meat which he had concealed and preserved in his mother's drying basket. When the elder brother had examined this he could no longer doubt, but comforted the boy as best he could, bidding him seem to consent to the demand of those evil beings, and plead for a few days' grace in which to provide a victim. Then he himself went out to a lonely place in the bush and sat down to consider the matter. After thinking for awhile he decided to seek out the juju man to whom his father had gone before his own birth. At once he set forth, and after marching for many miles reached the dwelling of this wise adviser. After laying the whole trouble before him, the suppliant was given a medicine so strong that no evil thing could withstand its power.
"Armed with this, Akpan returned home and bade Offong go to the head of his witch-company and say that he was now ready to sacrifice his elder brother, but, as he himself was too small to carry so heavy a body to the meeting-place, he begged that the chief himself would come at the head of the witch folk to bear it away. To this all gladly consented, suspecting nothing.
"Then Akpan strewed the strong medicine upon the ground and made sacrifice to the guardian juju, by which its power was increased, so that when at nightfall the evil creatures gathered round the compound, the charm held them and they could not flee away.
"At break of dawn the lads woke their father and bade him come forth with all his family. There,
before the house, the witches were found naked and trembling. No sooner did these perceive that their evil nature could no longer be hid than they started screaming like bats and ill birds of night, running round and round seeking a hiding-place, yet could not escape because the juju held them. Then Ekpenyong beat upon the great drum, and summoned all the townsfolk together, and they bound those evil creatures, both witches and wizards, and dragged them forth to the juju house. There they sat in judgment and pronounced sentence that all the witch company should be burnt to death save their chief alone. Him they bound to a tree, and, while still alive, tore small pieces from his body, which they roasted before his eyes, then forced him to eat, crying:
"'Because he was more evil than all the others and has devoured the flesh of many innocent people, now he shall eat his own meat!'
"After awhile he also died in great agony. Since that day the townsfolk have shunned the spot, for in the tree to which he was bound night birds have made their nests and may often be heard hooting and crying through the darkness with ill-boding voices."
Many witchcraft rites are carried out by jealous fellow-wives, and especially by barren women in order to steal away the babe which a rival is about to bear. The means to this end are carefully guarded secrets, but several such cases were related to me by women informants, and the following may perhaps be quoted as typical:
"A barren wife says to herself, 'Why should
I have this pain at my heart because our husband gives his love and his gifts to another woman! Why have I no piccan to hold in my arms while this other has already borne a babe and is about to bear again?
"Then the unhappy woman goes to a powerful witch-doctor, usually some ancient crone who has grown old in the study of secret things such as these. There she buys a strong medicine, and at night-time enters into the room where her happy rival sleeps by the side of their common husband. By magic arts she draws out the 'dream body' of the piccan, and bears it off to the bush, where a company of witches, brought thither by the witch-doctor, are waiting to devour it. Witches by their magic can feed upon the essence of things, leaving the tangible forms apparently unaltered. Next morning the babe lies dead within the womb, because it has no soul. Then the mother begins to cry 'Who killed my piccan? The barren woman sits in her house laughing low to herself, and her rival hears her laughter.
"After the small dead body has been laid in the ground beneath the earthen bowl which custom has decreed for such burials, the bereaved woman goes in her turn to a juju man and asks 'Who killed my piccan?' He is almost sure to know the circumstances, and usually answers, 'If a barren woman dwells in your house she it is who stole your babe's dream shape to devour so that the child died.'
"Then the mother comes home and goes round the compound perpetually wailing, 'Who killed my piccan? Let whosoever did this come before me!'
No one answers. So she walks up and down,
to and fro, before the door of her rival, continually calling, 'Who killed my piccan?' At length the witch-wife grows weary of the constant repetition, and asks, 'You speak to me?' Whereon the mother, pointing against her an accusing arm, replies, 'You killed my piccan!'
"Whenever they meet the accusation is repeated until at length the witch-wife can bear it no more, so she takes money and goes to the Native Court, or before the chiefs, saying, 'Stop this woman from asking about the death of her babe.' Whereon they answer, 'If you are guiltless, why should you try to prevent her from crying?' Often a husband thus learns who it is who has killed his unborn child, and casts out the barren woman from his house."
One evening just as dusk was falling, one of my women informants began of her own accord, to speak of the belief in a ghoul, or elemental, whose principal object it is to destroy babes in the womb. She spoke in a low, nervous voice, glancing furtively every now and then over her shoulder into the deepening shadows, as though she feared that some evil thing might be lurking within them, ready to spring forth and punish her for revealing so dread a secret. To quote her words:
"There is a kind of devil which never sleeps at night time nor is seen by day. In the depths of the bush or in waste places he may be met gleaming from out the darkness with a pale light, but should one see him it is best to flee away lest one die of terror.
"At first he seems no taller than a man, but after awhile he swells and grows very big, as if made of
smoke which rises higher and higher, and through which at times flames can be seen to gleam. I myself once saw such a one in the bush near Ndiya. There was a light amid the trees and I asked my companion, 'What is that?' But he answered, 'Let us run. It is the evil thing seeking unborn babes.' So we fled.
"After the smoke body has grown so high and broad that it reaches even to the tops of the great cotton trees, the spirit can condense at will till it becomes so small that it can creep through the narrowest door-cranny or wall-chink.
"When a woman lies sleeping with a babe near birth beneath her heart, this devil enters softly, softly, in the night time when all is very still. He draws from her that which was within, and bears it into the depths of the bush to devour in part, and partly to make a strong medicine from which his evil power is obtained.
"The woman sleeps on and knows nothing of the loss which has befallen her, but when she wakes at dawn pain rends her. Afterwards she finds out her misfortune, so her heart is very sore."
At Ikotobo some time ago a man died under strong suspicion of having perished as the result of a spell wrought by a woman of the same town. The dead man's friends sallied forth and captured the supposed witch. They bound her by strong ropes round wrists and ankles, then bore her forth to a place in the bush where there is a deep gully, shouting at intervals, "Abassi will punish you for what you have done! You are going to die to-day!"
When the top of the bank from which they meant to throw their captive was reached, they made her call upon the name of Abassi, saying, "If I killed the man of whose death I am accused, may I die also! If I did not do so, may Abassi save me!"
After this, bound and helpless as she was, they flung the woman down the steep bank, watching till the bush closed over and hid her from sight. Then all went home again, saying that they had rid their town of an evil thing. Next morning, however, as they went on their way to farm work, lo! the same woman was seen going quietly about her house as if nothing had happened.
Then all the people rejoiced, saying, "This was no witch. She is cleared from all guilt. Abassi has helped her, as she prayed, therefore she is proved blameless."
Here, as in most parts of the world, the task of weaving evil spells is greatly simplified to witch and wizard if something closely connected with the intended victim can be secured. Such things are laid before the shrine of some bad juju, while prayer is made that the spirit will follow the trail of him to whom the relic belongs and destroy him utterly.
This course was much resorted to in the old days to prevent the escape of slaves, for many who would have run the risk of capture by their earthly masters dared not face the dread of being "caught" by the juju, upon whose shrine a lock of hair, nail parings, or a rag from a long-worn cloth had been laid as an aid to possible tracking.
An excellent example of the power attributed to
such things is given in Dr. Haddon's "Magic and Fetishism":
"The potency of the hair," he says, "is shown beaded band in the beliefs about the long, narrow which is used to tie up the hair of a Musquakie woman. This, though a talisman when first worn, becomes something infinitely more sacred and precious, being transfused with the essence of her soul; anyone gaining possession of it has her for an abject slave if he keeps it, and kills her if he destroys it. A woman will go from a man she loves to a man she hates if he has contrived to possess himself of her hair string; and a man will forsake wife and children for a witch who has touched his lips with her hair string. The hair string is made for a girl by her mother or grandmother, and decorated with a 'luck pattern,' it is also prayed over by the maker and a Shaman."
An almost identical belief clings round the long, plaited bags which we found among the women of the Banana tribe on the Logone river, in French Central Africa. For each girl babe one such is woven by her mother or grandmother, and with it her life's thread is thought to be mysteriously linked. No bribe would induce a living woman to part with one, since with its departure her soul must leave her, but we were fortunate enough to purchase several which had belonged to dead members of the tribe.
A curious superstition concerning rags as an instrument of witchcraft was confided to me by an Ibibio woman, on the usual pledge that under no circumstances should her name be disclosed, for this also is among the women's mysteries which no man may learn.
"When one of us hates a rival very bitterly," said my informant, "she desires above all things either to take the life of her enemy or render her barren. One of the surest ways of bringing this about is to touch the body of the intended victim with a piece from an old cloth long worn by one now dead, or if that should be found impossible, to lay some fragment of such a cloth among the garments or utensils used by the woman whom it is sought to injure, or to bury it just beneath the surface in some spot over which she is sure to tread."
A kindred belief as to the power of such rags to inflict the curse of sterility is recorded from our own northern climes. To quote Dr. Haddon, "In Germany and Denmark . . . to hang rags from the clothing of a dead man upon a vine is to render it barren." 1
Such beliefs are hardly to be wondered at when one considers that the dread of witchcraft is still so powerful in out of the way parts of the British Isles, that people suspected of having entered into league with the powers of evil are even now occasionally done to death. Comparatively recently, too, Father Praniatis, the "expert" called in to give evidence in court during the Beiliss trial at Kieff, calmly stated "That there was perhaps more witchcraft in the twentieth century than there had been in the Middle Ages."
Many superstitions which show a strong family likeness to those of the West Coast of Africa are still rife among us. In 1913, for instance, a verdict of manslaughter was returned at the Ulster Assizes against
a man named Thomas Flynn, who had been charged with the murder of John Prior near Ballyconnell, County Cavan. Upon the neck of the corpse were found two gashes inflicted after death, in consequence of the superstition that were such wounds made upon the body of a man killed by accident, his ghost would not be able to return to plague those responsible for his death.
Among the Ibibios, also, elaborate precautions are taken to prevent the return of ghosts. Before burial the bodies of those suspected of witchcraft have nose, mouth, eyes and ears filled with native pitch extracted from a cactus thought to be an object of dread to beings possessed by evil powers.
More particularly do widows who have been consoled for the loss of their husbands, or such as had wished to be freed from the marriage yoke, fear the return of the shades of former spouses.
"Young men cut off before their time," so one of my women informants explained, "are often forced to leave their 'best wife' behind." To quote her words, spoken in quaint, halting English:
"The dead husband loved his wife so kind that he did not want to leave her in this world, since without her he was very lonely among the ghosts. So he strove to kill her that she might follow him to Obio Ekkpo," i.e. the Ghost Town.
When the thoughts of a widow have already turned to another wooer she is terrified lest the spirit of her former husband should return and seek to draw her after him to the ghost realm. Should she have reason to suppose that such is the case, she goes to an Idiong
man who has a great reputation for second sight. By his advice, "chop" is cooked and placed in one comer of her room. The priest takes up a position immediately before this, and stands calling upon the name of the ghost. Close to the place where the food is laid some member of the family crouches, holding a strong pot, preferably of iron, tilted forward ready to invert over the one in which the food is served. When the Idiong man makes a sign that the ghost is busy eating, and that, in enjoyment of the feast, the latter has temporarily forgotten to look after his safety, the second pot is clapped over the first, and both are then bound firmly together, thus keeping the spirit imprisoned between.
If, on the contrary, a widow loved her husband very much, she will cook "chop" for him after his death and place it secretly in a comer of her room so that his spirit may be induced to return and enjoy it.
173:1 "Magic and Fetishism."