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Chapter I

AFRICAN OPHIOLATRY

Edward B. Tylor writing as long ago as 1871 observed: "Serpent worship unfortunately fell years ago into the hands of speculative writers, who mixed it up with occult philosophies, Druidical mysteries, and that portentous nonsense called the 'Arkite Symbolism,' till now sober students hear the very name of ophiolatry with a shiver.'[1] Yet it is in itself a rational and instructive subject of inquiry, especially notable for its width of range in mythology and religion."[2]

Dr. C. F. Oldham, Brigade Surgeon of his Majesty's Indian Army, tells us in the Preface of his interesting little volume, The

[1. Note:--Cfr. C. Staniland Wake, Serpent-Worship and other Essays, London, 1888, p. 105 f.: "The facts brought together in the preceding pages far from exhaust the subject, but they appear to justify the following conclusions:--

"First. The serpent has been viewed with awe or veneration from primeval times, and almost universally as a re-embodiment of a deceased human being, and as such there were ascribed to it the attributes of life and wisdom, and the power of healing.

"Secondly the idea of a simple spirit re-incarnation of a deceased ancestor gave rise to the notion that mankind originally sprang from a serpent, and ultimately to a legend embodying that idea.

"Thirdly, This legend was connected with nature--or rather Sun-worship--and the Sun, was, therefore, looked upon as the divine serpent-father of man and nature.

"Fourthly, Serpent worship, as a developed religious system, originated in Central Asia, the home of the great Scythic stock, from whom all civilized races of the historical period sprang.

'Fifthly, These peoples are the Adamites, and their mythical ancestor was at one time regarded as the Great Serpent, his descendants being in a special sense serpent-worshippers." This of course, would presuppose that Adam was the founder of only a family and not of the human race that long antedated Adam.

Wundt, on the other hand, with equal assurance, suggests as a reason for the fact that spirits are so often depicted as assuming the shape of snakes, since the serpentine form naturally suggests itself to the primitive mind through the association of ideas with the maggots that commonly infest dead bodies during the process of decay.--Cfr. C. Meinhof, Die Dichtung der Afrikaner, Berlin, 1911, p. 18. This is perhaps about as reasonable as the claims of those who connect the snake with phallic worship.

2. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, Boston, 1874, p. 239.]

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Sun and the Serpent:[3] "This work, which is based upon papers read before the Royal Asiatic Society in 1901, was at first intended to refer only to Indian serpent worship. It was soon found, however, that the serpent worship of India did not originate in that country but was, in fact, a branch of the worship of the Sun and the Serpent, which was once well-nigh universal. It became evident, therefore, that a history of the Indian cult would go far to explain the nature and origin of serpent worship, in other countries and in other times." While we cannot accept many of the views expressed in the course of this work, his final conclusion is most important, coming as it does from such a source. He says: "It would seem, moreover, that the deification of totems, of kings, of ancestors, and of the heavenly bodies, which furnish so many of the divinities associated with the Sun-god; as also the human sacrifices and other abominations, which occurred in some Sun-worshipping countries, all arose from the corruption of the earlier worship of a supreme deity who was believed to reside in the Sun. The Gayatri--the most sacred text of the Veda, which must not be uttered so as to be overheard by profane ears, and which contains the essence of the Hindu religion, is a short prayer to the Sun-god, who is addressed as Savitri, the generator or creator. The early Egyptians, and other ancient peoples also, seem to have worshipped the Sun-god as the Creator."[4]

[3. London, 1905, p. 5.

4. Ditto, p. 206 f. Note:--Dr. Oldham also states, p. 183: "It seems in the highest degree improbable that this close connection between the Sun and the serpent could have originated, independently, in countries so far apart as China and the west of Africa, or India and Peru. And it seems scarcely possible that, in addition to this, the same forms of worship of these deities, and the same ritual, could have arisen, spontaneously, amongst each of these far distant peoples. The alternative appears to be, that the combined worship of the Sun and the serpent-gods must have spread from a common centre, by the migration of, or communication with, the people who claim Solar descent." This is Elliot Smith's theory which would derive the entire cult from Egypt. Oldham, however, differs from Elliot Smith in as much as he would make Asia and not Egypt the point of origin. Thus, p. 197: "The social customs and religious rites of the Egyptians were closely related to those of the Sun-worshipping people of Asia. There can, indeed, be little doubt as to the Asiatic origin of the Pharaohs and their followers." Nevertheless, {footnote p. 3} Wilfrid D. Hambly, in the case of serpent worship, at least, rejects the whole explanation. He finds in zoological evidence, sufficient reason for spontaneous origins of the serpent cult in various parts of the world.--Cfr. Wilfrid D. Hambly, Serpent Worship in Africa, Chicago, 1931, Chapter VII, p. 68 ff.

Cfr. also, John Bathurst Deane, The Worship of the Serpent, London, 1830, who states in his Preface, p. xii f.: "The plan of this treatise is simple. It professes to prove the existence of Ophiolatreia in almost every considerable country of the ancient world, and to discover in the mythology of every civilized nation, evidences of a recollection of the events in Paradise. If these facts can be established, the conclusion is obvious--that all such traditions must have had a common origin; and that the most ancient record, which contains their basis, must be the authentic history. The most ancient record containing this basis is the Book of Genesis, composed by Moses. The Book of Genesis, therefore, contains the history upon which the fables, rites, and superstitions of the mythological serpent are founded." The Reverend Mr. Deane, M.A., F.S.A. is recorded in the first edition of his work as "Late of Pembroke College, Cambridge: Curate of St. Benedict Finck; and evening preacher at the Chapel of the Philanthropic Society." His avowed purpose, the support of the Biblical narrative and his unquestioning acceptance of the Mosaic origin of Genesis, etc., effectively excludes him from the consideration of most so-called critical scholars. However, while admitting his partiality and bias, and even his lack of modern scientific methods, there is much that he has to say that is really worthy of serious consideration.

Reference should also be made to Professor Clemen of Bonn, who after stating: "Every possible kind of animal is regarded as a higher being by both primitive and civilized peoples, and it is not always easy to give a reason in the various cases," adds: "Especially frequent is the worship of the snake, whose power of locomotion without feet, as well as its repeated sloughing of its skin, its fixed gaze and its poisonous fangs, no doubt attracted special attention." Carl Clemen, Religions of the World, New York, 1931, p. 30.

Finally, M. Oldfield Howey, The Encircled Serpent, Philadelphia, 1928, p. 17, asserts: "The origin of Egyptian Ophiolatry is lost in the mists of antiquity, but it is said to have been derived from Chaldea, which country is thought to have given it birth, and certainly produced enthusiastic adherents of its tenets. Put the serpent is everywhere in the mythologies and cosmogonies of Eastern lands, so that to trace out the ultimate source of its appearance in so ancient a civilization with any certainty is probably impossible."]

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in speaking of Africa, however, Egypt, at least for the present must be excluded from our consideration. For our question now deals with rites distinctively belonging to the black tribes, whether we class them as Bantus or Negroes in the strict sense of the word. And while at first glance it seems but natural to assign an Egyptian origin for the cult, as far as the dark continent is concerned, Wilfrid D. Hambly, Assistant Curator of African Ethnology at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, the first to produce a strictly scientific work on the question of serpent worship in Africa[5] after a prolonged and careful study, has adduced strong and convincing reasons to the contrary. Hence his conclusion: "Examination of African Python worship in relation to cults and beliefs from other parts of the world provides

[5. Field Museum of Natural History Publication 289, Chicago, 1931, Anthropological Series, Vol. XXI, No. 1.]

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no evidence that Africa received Python worship from extraneous sources. On the contrary, the evidence is strongly in favour of an indigenous origin of Python worship."[6] And again: "There is nothing more than a superficial resemblance between the snake beliefs of Africa and those of ancient Egypt."[7]

In any case, the subject does not really come within the scope of the present work. We are, it is true, in quest of the origin of Voodoo as a serpent cult, but precisely, as we shall see later, under the particular aspect of worshipping the non-poisonous python. We have nothing to do here directly with rainbow-snakes, or other like variants of the serpent cult.[8]

Canon Roscoe furnishes us with a description of the principal centre of serpent worship in East Africa. He tells l-is: "The python god, Selwanga, had his temple in Budu, by the river Mujuzi, on the shore of the lake Victoria Nyanza. . . . The appearance of the new moon was celebrated by a ceremony extending over seven days; for this the people made their preparations beforehand, because no work was done during the festival. A drum was sounded as soon as the moon was seen, and the people gathered together to make their requests and to take part in the ceremonies. Those who wished to make any request brought special offerings, whilst the rest brought beer and food as they pleased. The priesthood of this deity was confined to members of the Heart Clan; the chief of the. state upon which the temple stood was always the priest. His dress was the usual priestly dress, that is, it consisted of two barkcloths, one knotted over each shoulder, and two white goat-skins as a. shirt; round his chest he tied a leopard-skin decorated with beads and with seed of the wild banana, and in his hand he carried two fly-whisks made from the tails of buffalo. The priest first received the offerings for the

[6. Ditto, p. 74.

7. Ditto, p. 75.

8. Note:--Hambly remarks, p. 55: "My general conclusion is that Python worship is an indigenous factor of Negro culture; but on the contrary African ideas of rainbow-snakes, snake-monsters, and birth-snakes, are derived from Hamito-Semitic beliefs of southwestern Asia." And again, p. 64: 'I am reluctant to accept any statement with regard to. the Egyptian origin of snake-sun beliefs. There are, however, many Egyptian serpent beliefs, both ancient and modern, which may assist in tracing the origin of African beliefs and customs."]

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god and heard the people's requests; then, going into the temple to the medium, he gave the latter a cup of beer and some of the milk from the python's bowl mixed with white clay. After the medium had drunk the beer and milk, the spirit of the python came upon him, and he went down on his face and wriggled about like a snake, uttering peculiar noises and using words which the people could not understand. The priest stood near the medium and interpreted what was said. During the time that the medium was possessed the people stood round, and the temple drum was beaten. When the oracle ended, the medium fell down exhausted, and would lie inanimate for a long time like a person in a deep sleep."[9]

To further clarify our position, we may at the outset accept Hambly's distinction between worship and cult as a scientific working basis. Thus he says: "The difficulty of supplying a rigid and logical definition of an act of worship is indisputable, but in practice confusion of thought may be avoided by using the word in connection with certain beliefs and acts. These might reasonably include ideas of a superhuman being, a priesthood, provision of a special house or locality, and also the employment of sacrifice and ritual procedure. The word 'cult' may be used to designate beliefs and acts whose nature is less clearly defined than is the case with concepts and ceremonies surrounding an act of worship. . . . The subject of serpent worship has suffered from hasty generalizations and a lack of classificatory treatment. Consequently there have been assumptions of similarities and identities where they do not exist."[10]

Of Africa in general, Hambly says: "The distribution of Python worship is clear. The main foci are the southwest shore of Lake Victoria Nyanza; also several centres in the coastal regions of the west, from Ashanti to the south of the Niger. Python worship was probably indigenous to an ancient possibly aboriginal Negro population, which was driven to the west by

[9. John Roscoe, The Baganda, An Account of their Native Customs and Beliefs, London, 1911, p. 320f.

10. Hambly, l. c., Preface, p. 8.]

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racial pressure in the cast. Eventually the python-worshipping people were forced into unfavourable situations in the Niger delta, where they are found at present. Around the main centres of python worship are python cults; also python and snake beliefs."[11]

Let us now follow Hambly's argument and see in a general way what facts have led him to this conclusion. "West Africa," he remarks, "undoubtedly yields evidence of python worship, especially in Dahomey and southern Nigeria. There is also supplementary evidence with regard to python cults and beliefs. . . . A geographical survey through the Congo, South Africa, and up the east is negative with regard to the existence of python worship.[12] Not until the region of Lake Victoria Nyanza is reached is there evidence of a definitely organized python worship with a sacred temple, a priesthood, and definite ritual acts including sacrifice. There appears to be no definite evidence of python worship in Cameroon, but the serpent design is often employed in wood carving and the equipment of medicine-men."[13]

[11. Ditto, p. 75. Cfr. also p. 48: "Python and snake worship were undoubtedly more firmly established in Africa years ago than they are at present." And, p. 55: "Python worship of West Africa is found to be strongly intrenched among people of Negro blood who speak non-Bantu languages, and of these the Ijaw are the best example. In East and West Africa the python is associated with success in agriculture and fishing. These occupations were followed by Negroes who were driven out by pastoral immigrants."

12. Cfr., however, Thomas J. Hutchinson, Impressions of Western Africa, London, 1858, p. 197. Writing from Fernando Po, where he was his Britannic Majesty's Consul, having spent eight years in West Africa, Hutchinson says: "The coronation of a king is a ceremonial that I have not yet had the pleasure of witnessing; but it has been reported to me as one possessing interesting features. It is so bound tip with their notions of a spirit or devil, that I deem it necessary to explain the peculiarity of their belief on this latter point. 'Maaon' is the title given to the devil, and the Botakimaaon (his high priest) is supposed to have influence with him through communication with the cobra-capella, the 'Roukarouko.' Their faith in God, to whom the name of 'Rupe' is given, is a loftier aspiration than that of the devil; but they believe that the Deity's favour can be only obtained by intercession through the 'Botakimaaon' with his master. At the ceremony of coronation, the Botakimaaon steps into a deep hole, and pretends to hold conversation with one of the Roukaroukos at the bottom; the candidate for regal honours standing alongside, and all his subjects, in futuro, being about. This conference is, I believe, carried on by means of ventriloquism,--a faculty with which many of the Fernandians are reported to me to be endowed. The Botakimaaon then delivers to the king the message from the Roukarouko for his guidance in his high station." The "Maaon" referred to is probably not the devil, but some ancestral or other spirit as happens elsewhere in the serpent worship.

13. Hambly, l. c., p. 18. Hambly further observes, p. 69: "Pythons of various kinds have a distribution ranging from the southern Sahara to Natal. The {footnote p. 7} Python sebae, the largest of all, may be found almost anywhere through the Sudan from Senegal to Dafur. Pythons of some species attain enormous size, have great crushing power, are non-poisonous, are easily tamed, seldom attack human beings, and are slow to bite if handled gently. With these points in view it is not difficult to understand why the python should have been selected as a suitable snake for captivity in temples. The reptiles are easily controlled by priests, and at the same time are harmless to those who come with petitions and sacrifices." He had already said, p. 44: "Most observers have remarked on the fearlessness with which priests and priestesses handle large pythons. These snakes are, however, non-poisonous, and their general harmlessness and domesticability are well attested. Very seldom do they attack human beings. The question of immunity in handling poisonous snakes is another problem, but in this connection it must be admitted that many poisonous snakes, unless disturbed suddenly and startled, are reluctant to strike."]

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Again: "There are two unquestionable areas of python worship, namely West Africa and a smaller region in Uganda, but there is no definite evidence of similar institutions in the great extent of country between the two centres. There are, however, usages which may be the residue of a decadent python cult. . . . The following factors are common to the East and West African forms of python worship: (1) The python only, but no other snake, is selected for definite worship. This choice may be due to the impressive size of the large species of python. The reptiles are tractable and non-poisonous. All observers are agreed that the python rarely attacks a human being. (2) Hut structures (temples) contain internal arrangements for feeding the reptiles. (3) The python embodies a superhuman being, god of war, spirit of the water, patron of agriculture, or goddess of fertility. (4) The king sends messengers and offerings. He asks for prosperity. (5) Sacred groves are found in addition to temples. (6) Acts of worship bring people who offer sacrifice and make requests. (7) Priests and priestesses are employed; the latter are wives of the python. Both dance themselves into ecstatic trance in which they make oracular utterances which are given in a language not understood by the worshippers."[14]

Hambly later returns to the same point: "One of the most important questions is the possible relationship between the python worship of Uganda and that of West Africa. The points of comparison between these two centres have already been given in

[14. Hambly, l. c., p. 29 ff. Note:--He has already observed: "In Uganda the main ceremonies of supplication are carried out at new moon; to this I have found no parallel in the ceremonies reported from West Africa."--l. c., p. 21.]

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detail. Briefly they are: The acceptance of the python as a supernatural being; the honouring of the reptile, which is fed and generally cared for; the appointment of priests and priestesses who undergo special preparation; belief in the python as a source of productiveness in relation to human fecundity, agriculture, and fishing; making of petitions and the offering of sacrifice; ecstatic dances of priests and priestesses. These go into trance during which they prophesy and answer the requests of worshippers. These points suggest relation rather than independent origin, though it has to be admitted that the points of resemblance are of a rather general nature. Zoological observations prove that the python is likely to be accepted anywhere as an object of adoration."[13] Despite the last assertion, then, Hambly would trace the python worship of Uganda and West Africa at least to a common source rather than ascribe them to independent origin.

He continues; "Knowledge of racial migrations in Africa points to the probability that python worship passed across the continent from east to west.[16] To a certain extent the movement of African races are understood; the defect of our knowledge lies in the absence of a chronology for the mass movements of races. It is known, however, that under Hamitic pressure in the Horn of Africa the primitive Negro of the Lake Region moved across the continent from east to west, sending branches of the migratory stem into the Congo area, in which the movement was from north to south and from east to west. There is not a fragment of evidence to suggest that the intrusive Hamites brought python worship with them. The most reasonable suggestion is that the worship is indigenous to the early Negroes of Uganda though the ritual is now practiced by people who are somatically and linguistically Hamitic. The migration of python worship was probably of a purely racial character. The forms of worship are found in their fullest structure and activity at both ends of the main racial

[15. Hambly, l. c., p. 49.

16. Note:--Later he states, p. 75: "Within the African continent itself migration of ideas has probably played a more important part than has independent invention. Easy communication from east to west, and from north to south; known Hamitic and Semitic movements; also the appeal made by transmigration and fecundity ideas in all grades of society, have assisted a ready diffusion."]

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migratory line; that is, in Uganda at the eastern end, and southern Nigeria and Dahomey at the western end of the line. . . . When the main masses of migrants had passed across the continent, they were fifteen degrees north of the equator, that is, to the north of Dahomey, Ashanti, and Nigeria. Owing to pressure from the Fulani and the Hausa, these Negro tribes from East Africa had to move south into the unfavourable coast regions of the area from Liberia to the mouth of the Niger. It is precisely in these non-Bantu regions that python worship, cults, and beliefs are found at present. They were exceptionally strong at Brass, the terminus of some of the oldest of these racial migrations."[17]

This theory of Hambly is amply supported by independent observations. Thus as regards East Africa, we may quote one or two in passing." A. L. Kitching published a work in 1912 of which he says himself: "This book embodies the experiences and observations of ten years spent among the outlying tribes of the Uganda Protectorate."[19] In the chapter on "Superstition" he writes: "While some of the tribes in Uganda may be said to know God in a certain sense, and to look to and pray to a Supreme Being, whose influence is expected to be benign and helpful, the religion of the majority . . . consists largely, in common parlance, of dodging evil spirits."[20] Then, speaking of the Gan' people of northwest Uganda, he states: "In the same vague fashion sacrifices are offered to demons on the rocks that abound throughout the district; the spot usually preferred is one where there is a hole in which dwells a snake. The demon, so I was informed, is supposed to reside in the body of the snake, a statement which has decided Biblical flavour, although there was no suspicion of Christian knowledge about my informer."[21]

Canon Roscoe writing of the Banyoro, or as he prefers to call

[17. Hambly, l. c., p. 50 f.

18. Note:--The fact that among the Lango only the wizards eat snakes might indicate at least a vestige of serpent cult.--Cfr. J. H. Driberg, The Lango, a Nilotic Tribe of Uganda, London, 1923, p. 105.

19. A. L. Kitching, On the Backwaters of the Nile, London, 1912, Foreword, p. xi.

20. Ditto, p. 256.

21. Ditto, p. 259.]

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them the Bakitara, located along the eastern shore of Lake Albert in Uganda, stresses the point that in the common estimation rivers and waterholes are usually under the guardianship of snakes to whom sacrifices are offered. Thus, for example, "At the Muzizi there was a medicine-man, Kaupinipini, who was in charge of the river and cared for the snake, to which he made offerings when people wished to cross. He affirmed that it was useless to attempt to build a bridge over the river for the snake would break it down, and the only means of crossing was by large papyrus rafts on which the people, after giving offerings to the medicine-man for the snake, had to be ferried over. The king sent periodical offerings of black cows to this snake and the medicine-man presented them to it with prayers that it would not kill men."[22] And again: "Pythons were held to be sacred, and in some places offerings were made regularly to them to preserve the people. A few men kept pythons in their houses, taming them and feeding them on milk with an occasional fowl or goat. It was said that these pythons did not kill children or animals in their own villages but went further afield for their prey. The king had a special temple at Kisengwa in which a priest dwelt with a living python which he fed on milk."[23]

[22. John Roscoe, The Bakitara or Banyoro, Cambridge, 1923, p. 42

21. Roscoe, l. c., p. 44. Note:--After twenty-five years of missionary work in Africa, Canon Roscoe undertook an ethnological expedition there in 1919. He tells us, John Roscoe, The Soul of Central Africa, London, 1922, Preface, p. vii: "For some time funds for such a purpose were not available, but Sir James G. Frazer, who first aroused in me an interest in anthropology, was unceasing in his attempts to find some means of financing the work. At length, owing to his efforts, Sir Peter Mackie, of Glenreasdell, became interested in the project, and most generously came forward and shouldered the whole financial burden, handing over to the Royal Society ample sums for the purpose." It is interesting then, to find Frazer writing from Cambridge on Feb. 5, 1908, to his friend Sir Spencer Gillen in Australia, Spencer's Scientific Correspondence Sir J. G. Frazer and others, Oxford, 1932, p. 107: "I wish if possible to relieve J. Roscoe of his mission work in Central Africa, and set him free there entirely for anthropology. We should learn very much from him. I know no keener anthropologist than he." Particular value, then, is attached to the following testimony of Roscoe, taken from the very book that we have quoted in the text, The Bakitara or Banyoro, p. 21: "Though the Bakitara had a great number of objects of worship, there was but one god, Ruhanga, the creator and father of mankind. With him were associated the names Enkya and Enkyaya Enkya, whose identity it is not easy to separate from that of Ruhanga. One man asserted that they were a trinity and yet one god; but as he had been for some years a devout Christian, in constant attendance at the Roman Catholic Mission Station his statement may have {footnote p. 11} been coloured by Christian ideas. The general impression gathered, however, was that their belief was entirely monotheistic, and that, if the three were not one deity, then Enkya and Enkyaya Enkya were subordinate gods whose appearance in their theology was later than that of Ruhanga, and more frequently, Enkya and Enkyaya Enkya were called upon by the people in distress or need; prayers were made to them in the open, with hands and eyes raised skywards."

In connection with East African Ophiolatry, the following citations might be noted.

"The only disquietude to a stranger in their houses arises from the snakes which rustle in the straw roofs, and disturb his rest. Snakes are the only creatures to whom either Dinka or Shillooks pay any sort of reverence. The Dinka call them 'brethren' and look upon their slaughter as a crime. I was informed by witnesses which I have no cause to distrust, that the separate snakes are individually known to the householder, who calls them by name, and treats them as domestic animals."--Georg Schweinfurth, The Heart of Africa, London, 1874, Vol. I, p. 158.

"When a medicine-man or a rich person dies and is buried, his soul turns into a snake as soon as his body rots; and the snake goes to his children's kraal to look after them."--Masai saying recorded by A. C. Hollis, The Masai: Their Language and Folklore, Oxford, 1905, p. 307.

"Under ordinary circumstances a snake is killed at sight. A snake is also killed if it enters a house, and a hole has to be made in the wall in order to eject the body, as it may not be thrown out of the door. But if a snake goes in to the woman's bed, it may not be killed, as it is believed that it personifies the spirit of a deceased ancestor or relation, and that it has been sent to intimate to the woman that the next child will be born safely."--A. C. Hollis, The Nandi: Their Language and Folklore, Oxford, 1909, p. 90.

"According to the belief of a great many Bantus, especially in South Africa, the dead appear chiefly in the form of snakes."--Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, The "Soul" of the Primitive, New York, 1928, p. 292.

"The Zulu . . . recognizes the soul of an ancestor in the snake which visits his kraal."--Frank Byron Jevons, An Introduction to the History of Religion, London, 1896, p. 303.

These instances refer rather to serpent cult than to formal Ophiolatry.]

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it is well to note here what has been remarked by Hambly: "The Wa Kikayu regard the snake and some other animals as having a mysterious connection with spirits. When a snake enters the village the people offer it milk and fat. These snakes are not exactly the spirits themselves, but their messengers, who give warnings of future evils and come to indicate that an offering to the spirits will be opportune.[24]

Having thus sufficiently established the fountain-head of Negro Ophiolatry at Uganda, we may turn to West Africa for a more intimate and detailed study of its development at what Hambly calls the western end of the racial migratory line.

Major Arthur Glyn Leonard, writing in 1906, after ten years of personal contact with the natives of South Nigeria, came to the conclusion that here at least the Ophiolatry practiced was a

[21. Hambly, l. c., p. 34.]

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form of ancestor worship. In his opinion the Nigerian venerates the snakes precisely because he believes that the spirits of his ancestors are embodied in them. Thus he states: "In Benin City, at Nembe, Nkwerri, and in various localities all over the Delta, Ophiolatry, so-called, exists and flourishes, as it has always done ever since man taught himself to associate the spirits of his ancestors with the more personal and immediate objects of his surrounding. And as snakes-living as they did in the olden days in caves and trees, and as they now do not only in the towns, but inside the houses, underground as well as in the thatched roofs-were very closely associated with man, it is no wonder that they were early chosen to represent ancestral embodiment."[25]

[25. Arthur Glyn Leonard, The Lower Niger and its Tribes, London, 1906, p. 327. Note:--In a Preface to Major Leonard's work (p. xii) Professor A. C. Haddon thus explains the author's general animistic theory. "We learn that the religion of the Niger delta natives is based on the adoration of ancestral spirits, materially represented by emblems, the latter being nothing more nor less than convenient forms of embodiment which can be altered or transferred according to circumstances. These objects, rude and senseless as they may be, are regarded as vehicles of spiritual influence, as something sacred because of their direct association with some familiar and powerful spirit, and not as objects which in themselves have, or carry with them, any so-called supernatural powers. It is not the object itself, but what is in or is associated with it. The object accordingly becomes nothing more nor less than a sacred receptacle, and its holiness is merely a question of association. The thing itself is helpless and powerless. it cannot do harm, just as it cannot do good; the spirit, which is invariably ancestral, even when deified, alone does the mischief and wrecks the vengeance in the case of neglect or impiety, or confers the benefits and the blessings when the ancestral rites are performed with due piety by the household."

According to Major Leonard, ancestor worship eventually postulated a Supreme Being. Thus he argues, p. 89: "Surrounded on all sides by evil, i. e. by people who were inimical to him, and spiritual influences, who sought his life on every opportunity, the family looked to its head for protection. But he, poor man, was to a greater extent then this family circumvented by enemies on all sides, and in spite of his skill, his strength, and his prowess, he felt himself powerless in the face of them all. So in his misery he turned to the spirit of his father, whom during his lifetime he had honoured and revered, and to whose spiritual aid, when he was victorious, he had once attributed the victory. But victory did not always shine upon him, for the race was not always to the swift, nor was the battle always to the strong. Therefore it was in these moments that be looked beyond his father to the first or spirit ancestor who had made every man and everything, good or evil. A moment this of supremest exaltation, arising out of the lowest depths of despair. Of supremest triumph also, for the Supreme One had once more asserted his power and given him the victory. Having recognized the existence and presence of a Creator, and evoked his aid, the next stage in the process was the formation of a system by which the victory of the Supreme One and his great influence were to be commemorated and kept alive." We cannot accept the Major's process of reasoning on the part of the so-called primitive. But it is sufficient for our purpose that he does require a Supreme Being in the present-day belief. To all appearances, Major Leonard is {footnote p. 13} only following Frazer who says: "The theology of the Bantu tribes, especially of such of them as have remained in the purely pastoral stage, appears generally to be of the most meagre nature: its principal element, so far as we can judge from the scanty accounts of it which we possess, is the fear or worship of dead ancestors, and though these ancestral spirits are commonly supposed to manifest themselves to their descendants in the shape of snakes of various kinds, there is no sufficient ground for assuming these snakes to have been originally totems."--J. G. Frazer, Totemism and Exogamy, London, 1910, Vol. IV, p. 32.

In his chapter on "The Gods of the Priests and People," Major Leonard states; p. 416: "This system of religion is based fundamentally--that is, purely and entirely--on the close and naturally inseparable ties and associations of family or ancestral relationships, which is regarded by these natives as a natural order, direct from the Supreme God."]

{p. 13}

To one observation of Major Leonard we must draw particular attention. It is this: "Irrespective of tribe and locality, one fact in connection with these natives impressed me very forcibly, and that was that in every case, with regard to snakes, the emblem revered is the python, and not one of the poisonous varieties, such e.g. as the cobra or horned viper. . . . The snakes whose bite means death are looked on as representing the spirits of evil."[26]

In Northern Nigeria there are comparatively few vestiges of the serpent cult, which may formerly have existed there, as indicated by certain finds. Thus C. K. Meek reports in connection with the Bauchi Plateau:[27] "From a surface deposit at Rop there was discovered a representation in tin of a coiled snake. This evidently had some religious or magical significance, and once again points to the presence of a former people who knew how to work in tin, who had a developed artistic sense, and among whom the cult of the serpent was perhaps a feature of their religion."[28] And again, "The Hausa states were foreigners from the East and all belonged to the same racial stock. . . . The legend further suggests that the ancient people of Hausaland reverenced the snake. This we can readily believe, as certain snakes are still regarded as sacred by the Angas, whose language is closely allied to Hausa, and representations of snakes have been dug up on the Bauchi Plateau."[29] Later he adds: "Before the introduction of Islam, among the early peoples of the Hausa states various snakes were apparently common totem animals, especially among

[26. Leonard l. c. p. 328.

27. Located about N. 10; E. 10.

28. C. K. Meek, The Northern Tribes of Nigeria, Oxford, 1925, Vol. I, p. 54.

29. Ditto, p. 76 f.]

{p. 14}

the people of Katsina and Daura. The Abayajidu invaders of the Daura traditions would appear to have slain the local snake and substituted their own sacred animal, e. g. the lion (zaki), or some other worship instead."[30]

Percy Amaury Talbot of the Nigerian Political Service published

[30. Meek, l. c., p. 174. Note:--In a later work, Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria, London, 1931, Meek adds further details. Thus, Vol. I, p. 164, we read: "The Melim are natural objects worshipped publicly in the bush, but families and individuals protect themselves with minor objects known as 'habtu' which are amulets or 'fetishes,' according as the efficacy is transmitted from outside or is due to the presence of an indwelling spirit." He is referring to the Bura and Pabir tribes located around N. 12; E. 10. Again, p. 165; "Habtu Pwapu is a striking representation in iron of a snake (pwapu means 'snake') which is commonly seen in houses. Or it may be attached to the leg as an amulet. In the houses they may be seen set in pairs (male and female) in the shell of a baobab nut. They are said to ward off evil influences and appear to have a fertility signification. Their custodians are women, but every householder must at harvest offer benniseed and cotton and the blood of a chicken to his Habtu Pwapu, otherwise one of his household will be bitten by a snake. It may be noted here that the figure of the serpent appears as a personal or house-protecting amulet all through Egyptian history. A specimen of a Habtu Pwapu was obtained."

Writing of the Mumuye, located about N. 9; E. 11, Vol. I, p. 468, Meek states: "The rain cult par excellence for all the Mumuye and surrounding tribes is that centred at Yoro. When a serious drought occurs all the senior priests of the tribe proceed with gifts to the rain-maker Yoro. To this cult even the chief of Kona appeals as a last resort, by sending numerous gifts. The rites are said to be as follows. The priest (the kpanti mi, i. e. rain-chief) removes from a large pot the symbol of the cult, which is a piece of iron fashioned like a snake. It is kept rolled up in a curtain of black string. The priest unwinds the curtain and fastens it to two pegs on opposite walls of the hut. Then taking a blacksmith's hammer in his right hand and a pair of iron scissors in his left, he says: 'What I am about to do my forefathers did before me. Grant that this drought may cease, and that we may have corn to eat.' He then chews a piece of the vitis quadrangularis creeper and spits it out on the implements. which he lays on the ground. Picking up the iron snake he says, 'You we received from Yoro in the East; a drought has come upon us, and if we do not have rain, how shall we obtain food to eat? Grant, therefore, that by your graciousness we may have rain in abundance. and that in due course we may reap a sufficient harvest,' He again takes a piece of the creeper, chews it and spits it out on the iron snake. He then hurls, the snake against the hammer and scissors, and it is said that as soon as this is done the first peal of thunder is heard. It is a sympathetic rite, the clanging of the iron being a simulation of thunder."

As regards the Hausa, C. G. Seligman, Races of Africa, London, 1930, p. 81 f., records the derivation of the word title which now signifies king or chieftain in the Hausa language. The founder of the royal line was said to have been a son of the King of Bagdad. On his arrival at Daura he found the well guarded by a serpent called Ki Serki, who prevented the drawing of water. He slew the serpent, married the Queen of the country, and was thereafter called Mai-Kai Serki, the man who killed Serki. Seligman adds: "This legend is recorded since. on the one hand, it seems to preserve some features of the older organization of the land (matrilineal descent, snake-worship): and on the other emphasizes the constant tendency to borrow and greatly exaggerate Eastern connections, due to the increasing prestige & pressure of Islam."]

{p. 15}

in 1912 the conclusions resultant of five years of intimate contact with the Ekoi who were located on both sides of the boundary between the Cameroons and Southern Nigeria. It is his suggestion that Ophiolatry reached Nigeria from Egypt and had its origin in the introduction "of non-poisonous snakes into granaries, in order to protect their contents from predatory rodents." He writes: "Possibly the cult of the snake and crocodile has come down from very ancient times. It is well known that both were honoured in Egypt as tutelar gods, and if the Ekoi have trekked, as seems likely, from the cast of Africa, it is probable that the original reason for deifying snake and cat, i. e. that these creatures were the principal scourges of the plague-carrying rat, lies at the back of the powerful snake cult, while traces of cat worship are still to be found. Rats are a great pest all over the land, and every possible means is taken to keep them down, though with little result. In Egypt the snake was not only the guardian of house and tomb, but a snake goddess presided over the harvest festival, held in the month of Pharmuthi or April. Doubtless among other attributes she was regarded as the protectress of the garnered grain, and her cult grew from the practice of introducing non-poisonous snakes into granaries, in order to protect their contents from predatory rodents."[31]

Fourteen years after the appearance of his first book, Talbot brought out a truly scholarly work in four volumes entitled, The Peoples of Northern Nigeria.[32] He was still of opinion that "The striking resemblance between the Nigerian cults and those of

[31. P. Amaury Talbot, In the Shadow of the Bush, London, 1912, p. 25. Note:--Of the religion of the Ekoi, Talbot says, p. 13: "The religion of the Ekoi is altogether a fascinating study. Its principal features are the Cult of Ancestors and of Nature Forces.... Of actual Deities there are only two, Obassi Osaw, the Sky God, and the Earth God Obassi Nsi."

Major A. J. N. Tremearne, The Ban of the Bori, London, 1914, p. 413, remarks: The names of many snake-worshipping tribes in the West Sudan consist of sa or so, in combination with other letters. But sa or za alone or in combination, also mean chief and rulers with these names are said to have come from the cast; Sa, a younger son of Misraim or Menes, the earliest historic king of Egypt, being given the district bordering the Fezzan route to the desert." He personally rejects the opinion of those who hold that the Sa in question really stands for serpent.

32. Oxford, 1926.]

{p. 16}

ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean area generally can only be explained by intercourse, direct and indirect."[33]

The following excerpts are of interest: "Minor deities often assume the form--or inhabit the bodies of snakes, some species of which, especially pythons, are held sacred throughout the region of marsh-lands and waters inhabited by the most ancient tribe of all, the Ijaw, while there are traces of Ophiolatry in many other parts."[34]

"The chief juju in the Badagri region used to be Idagbe, symbolized by a large python."[35]

"In some parts of the Brass country, the principal worship is that of Ogidiga which was apparently introduced from Benin by Isalema, the first settler at Nembe. He is represented by a python and is supposed by some to be identical with the Bini and Yoruba Olokun, God of the Sea."[36]

"The Elei Edda worship a male Alose named Aru-Nga, who resides in a very nimble snake, probably Dandrapis augusticeps. If anyone kills this, a chief dies. It lives in a grove near the town and comes out when the priest sacrifices to it; it is supposed to bite and kill any bad person."[37]

"The Ake-Eze Edda chiefly worship Ezi-Aku, 'the property of the Quarter,' to whom sacrifices are offered at the foot of a special tree. Snakes are called her children and no one may touch or hurt them."[38]

"Among the Ekoi the most usual name for juju is some form of Ndeum. . . . The Ejagham appear to confine the word to those spirits, usually female, who live in trees, though they manifest themselves at times in the shape of snake or crocodile."[39]

Finally after another six years, Talbot further enhances his reputation as the leading authority on Southern Nigeria by publishing

[33. Ditto, Vol. II, p. 14.

34. Ditto, Vol. II, p. 83 f.

35. Ditto, Vol. II. p. 93.

36 Ditto, Vol. II, p. 103.

37 Ditto, Vol. II, p. 112.

38 Ditto, Vol. II, p. 112.

39 Ditto, Vol. II, p. 126.]

{p. 17}

his Tribes of the Niger Delta,[40] where we read: "There is a special snake called Adida, which is also worshipped at Tombia. This is said to be the wife of Simingi and may never be slain. Should any Oru-Kuru-Gbaw find one of these lying dead, she would give it burial just as the juju priests do for the Adumu serpents."[41]

That this serpent cult can have its disadvantages at times is evidenced by the following incident related by Talbot: "One evening, when staying in the rest house at Omi-Akeni, an Ibo town in Owerri District, Chief Gabriel Amakiri Yellow came to say that he had heard of a woman's juju named Ogugu, the shrine of which was near at hand. Our informant began: 'Ogugu is the chief juju of the women of this country, and is very powerful for the granting of children. . . . If anyone promises something to the juju and fail to give this, or swear on it name but does not carry out the thing, Ogugu always sends visitors to remind the person. Big snakes she sends to lie across the threshold of the house. At midnight, one will creep into bed, or coil by the head of the sleeper. Never, never does such a messenger leave again until the promise has been fulfilled.'"[42]

Before passing on, it should be remarked that despite the insistance of Mr. Talbot that the serpent cult of Nigeria probably owes its origin to Egypt, as he bases his supposition in great part on the fact that the Ijaws are ultimately from distant East Africa, so far from weakening Hambly's theory, he only strengthens it as the latter has already shown that the Ijaw derive their origin, in all probability, not from Egypt but from Uganda.

Stephen Septimus Farrow, in his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, 1924, tells us: "Among the Ibo tribes of the Owerri District (near neighbours of the Yorubas) the boa-constrictor is worshipped. On the 27th day of each month a white cock is offered to him, with cowries, palm-oil or palm-nuts, white cloth and kola nuts. The sacrifice

[40. London, 1932.

41. Ditto, p. 78.

42. Ditto, p. 92.]

{p. 18}

is deposited at cross roads, away from the town. There is, however, no reptile worship among the Yorubas, except in the case of crocodiles, belonging to Olosa the lagoon-goddess.[43]

Briefly, then, to sum up our present chapter. Prescinding from the question whether African Ophiolatry is a diffusion from abroad or of independent origin, we may accept Hambly's theory that as regards the Dark Continent itself, the local centre from which it eminated was in all probability in Uganda. Further we may accept his assertion that it was indigenous to distinctively Negro tribes which under pressure from Hamitic invasion, trekked across the continent, carrying with them their old tribal beliefs and customs. Thirdly, we agree that while the oppressors in East Africa assimilated in some small degree more or less of its principles, West and not East Africa gradually became its true centre of influence.

While the examples thus far cited in connection with the practice in West Africa have savoured rather of the cult than of the formal worship of the serpent in the strict sense of the word, still the following points are of value. Independently of Whydah, where in the next chapter we will find Ophiolatry practiced in detail, scattered around this centre we have all the requisites to satisfy our definition of serpent worship. True, it is, that they serve as confirmatory evidence and nothing more. But the very fact that they are scattered over many localities and not restricted to one place, adds to the strength of the argument. For local causes may at times lead to some particular introduction of a temporary cult, as in the instance related by Colonel Ellis, who writes: "Djwi-j'ahnu . . . was a god who formerly resided at Connor's Hill. Tradition says that the people of Cape Coast first discovered his existence from the great loss which the Ashantis experienced at this spot on the 11th of July, 1824. The slaughter was so great, and the repulse of the Ashantis so complete, that the Fantis, accustomed to see their foes carry everything before them, attributed the unusual result of the engagement to the assistance

[43. S. S. Farrow, Faith, Fancies and Fetish, or Yoruba Paganism, London, 1926, p. 20.]

{p. 19}

of a powerful local god. They accordingly sacrificed some prisoners to him, and sent to Winnebah to inquire of the priests of Bobowissi if their surmise was correct. The reply being in the affirmative, a regular cult was established, according to the directions of the priests of Bobowissi. At that time Connor's Hill was covered with usually dense bush, which swarmed with snakes. Indeed, even at the present day, when the bush is cleared every year, they are still very numerous, and large numbers are killed by the West India soldiers employed in his work. From this circumstance probably arose the idea that Djwi-j'ahnu ordinarily presented himself to his worshippers in the shape of a serpent--in the shape of the cerastes, one of the most deadly of the ophidia.[44] Other snakes accompanied him, and were regarded as his offspring or dependants. The first sacrifices offered were human victims, but in later times eggs became the ordinary offering. If the god did not present himself to his worshippers in his assumed form., it was imagined that one of their number had given him offence, and the priests then made inquiries to discover the offender. He, being found, would then be mulcted of a sheep, a white cloth, and some rum; and with this special propitiatory offering the worshippers would again proceed to the hill. If the god still remained invisible, it was assumed that he was still dissatisfied, that the atonement was insufficient; and additional offerings were enforced upon the guilty member till the god revealed himself. Djwi-j'ahnu was also believed to assume other shapes; and a leopard, which some thirty years ago haunted the vicinity of the hill, and became by its depredations the terror of the neighbourhood, was believed to be the god who had adopted this form. When undisguised, Djwi-j'ahnu was believed to be of human shape and black in colour, but of monstrous size. He was represented as bearing a native sword in his right hand. His worship has now been extinct for some twenty years, the acquisition of

[44. Note:--Here we should observe that in the case of this local cult the serpent chosen is a poisonous one; which fact immediately distinguishes it from the general acceptation of the non-poisonous python. Indeed if the origin of this local cult had not been preserved for us historically, the instance might have been quoted to weaken the claim that one of the characteristics of the serpent peculiar to African Ophiolatry is that it is of the non-poisonous type.]

{p. 20}

the hill by the Imperial Government, the clearing of the bush, and the building of huts for the accommodation of troops, having proved fatal to the continuance of this particular cult."[45]

Before going on to examine Ophiolatry as it existed at Whydah, we must accentuate one detail that already asserts itself, and that is the prevalence with which the veneration of the serpent, whether as a cult or worship, is associated with what is usually called ancestor worship. But even here, while the reptile may be regarded as the receptacle or dwelling place of the spirits, they in turn are only intercessors or messengers of the Supreme Being to whom the petitions or venerations ultimately tend.[46] It is not, then, idolatry, if we confine ourselves to the strict definition of the word, as was so frequently assumed by the early African travellers who came in contact with it and only too frequently described it in distorted terms.[47]

[45. A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa, London, 1887, p. 40 ff.

46. Note:--Cfr. C. Staniland Wake, Serpent Worship, p. 28: "The fact is that the serpent was only a symbol, or at most an embodiment of the spirit which it represented, as we see from the belief of several African and American tribes, which probably preserves the primitive form of this superstition. Serpents are looked upon by these peoples as embodiments of their departed ancestors, and an analogous notion is entertained by various Hindu tribes." Also, M. Oldfield Howey, The Encircled Serpent, p. 17: 'The religion of ancient Egypt is from the earliest times closely interwoven with the symbolic worship of sun and serpent. Not only was the serpent looked upon as an emblem of Divinity in the abstract, but it was connected with the worship of all the Egyptian gods." And a couple of pages later, p. 19: "Both serpent and sun were emblems of the Celestial Father and participated in the honours that through them were paid to the Supreme Being." And finally, J. B. Schlegel, Ewe-Sprache, p. xiv: "Serpents hold a prominent place in the religions of the world, as the incarnations, shrines or symbols of high deities. Such were the rattlesnake's worshipped in the Natchez temple of the Sun, and the snake belonging in name and figure to the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl; the snake as worshipped still by the Slave Coast Negro, not for itself but for its indwelling deity!' As quoted by Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, p. 241.

47. Note:--In cases where the serpent cult of Africa may actually imply more than the invoking of the intercessory power of ancestors with the Supreme Being, and where seemingly perhaps the Deity himself is venerated in the reptile, before ascribing the act of worship to idolatry, it would be well to weigh carefully Father Hull's explanation of a similar phase of Hindu worship in India, where not serpents but figures of stone are the object of the cult.--Cfr. Ernest R. Hull, Studies in Idolatry, Bombay, 1912, p. 1 ff. He says: "A European just come out to India, if asked what he means by idolatry, will point at once to some Hindu salaaming or prostrating himself in front of a lump of stone. 'That man,' he says, 'is worshipping a stone. He is paying to it that supreme reverence which is due to God alone. Idolatry means worshipping a stock or stone as God, and instead of God.'

{footnote p. 21}

"Now it is difficult to believe that idolatry of this crude kind exists. Could any man short of an idiot believe that a stone--as such--is God?

"Those who think that the uneducated Hindus really regard the material object as God seem to be misled by the crude way in which simple Hindus express themselves. They certainly do call the stone object a God. But they must all know well enough that before certain ceremonies the stone was an ordinary stone; and in one of their festivals they actually drive the God out of the image before throwing it into the sea. This clearly shows that the God is rather an inhabitant of the stone than the stone itself. In short, all the facts we know about Hindu worship are totally against this view. . . .

"A second explanation current among the exponents of Hinduism, is as follows:--The man does not believe that the stone as such is God. What he believes is that a stone, when selected, and set up, and consecrated in some way, becomes the dwelling place of God. In this case, worship is directed, not to the stone as such, but to the God present in the stone, which is merely an outward and visible object marking that presence. . . . Hence the material stone is reverenced or respected as sacred on account of its connection with the divine presence. But no Hindu, they say, dreams of paying divine worship to the stone as such. . . . It is true that the common people do not think metaphysically on the subject. The divine presence is in the material object, and they venerate the object in the rough divine. Still there is. no difficulty in allowing that their worship is far removed from the utterly preposterous idea that God is the stone as such, or that the stone as such is God. The real object to which their worship is directed, is sometimes as it were behind the stone-some preternatural being, real or imaginary, whom they believe to be God, whose special presence has been induced therein by certain religious rites.

"As far as one can see, the normal belief of the mass of Hindus, is of this kind. A fairly educated Hindu layman and a well educated Hindu priest may be quoted for this. The layman said:--'I believe in the divine presence in the image, and I suppose three-quarters of my fellow Hindus do the same.' The priest said:--'The common people believe that the image contains the God, but we educated men do not. What we believe is that the object is a representation of an avatar, i.e. the form under which God has manifested himself on earth; or, if not a representation of the actual form, it is a symbolic representation of some divine attribute manifested to man.' This introduces the third view, according to which the object is a mere stone unendowed with any divine presence; it is at most a symbol or representation embodying some divine fact. The image in this case is respected as sacred, being devoted to a sacred purpose; but worship is not directed to it. An educated Hindu praying towards it is really praying not to it but to his God; that is to say, his worship, which is outwardly directed towards the stone, is internally directed to the God in heaven, and not to the God as specially present in the stone." In the African serpent cult the second explanation holds true in such cases as the serpent itself seems to be venerated. Usually, however, the reptile is merely the habitation of some spirit, ancestral or otherwise, who acts as an intermediary with God and through whom the veneration is actually. given to God himself.]

{p. 22}


Next: Chapter II: Serpent Cult at Whydah