Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
FOR many years good fortune has granted to my sister and myself the happiness of living amid scenes of indescribable beauty and peoples of peculiar interest. The novelty of being the first white women to visit any particular spot has indeed long worn off by reason of the frequency of the experience, but the thrill of penetrating to places as yet unvisited by any European is still a matter of unmixed joy. Time and again our little party has been so fortunate as to happen upon peoples never studied before, who have been induced to confide to us traditions, beliefs, and legends of unexpected charm.
That all this came into our lives, a golden gift from the gods, without hardship worth the name, is due to the fact that, unlike Mary Kingsley and the small band of women travellers who followed in her footsteps, my sister and I were not alone. A never-failing watchful care has always surrounded us, smoothing each difficulty, and, as far as is humanly possible, providing against every discomfort and
danger--at what cost of personal sacrifice one hardly dares to think.
During this time we were naturally anxious to do something in return for all that was done for us, and soon discovered that the chief way in which we could be of use was by making clear copies of rough notes jotted down in spare moments by my husband, and by writing out information which there was no time to collect save orally, thus putting upon paper page after page of description, incident or legend, which pressure of official work must otherwise have kept unrecorded.
When therefore a kind request came from England for a paper embodying "the woman's point of view" of scenes and happenings so different from those to which most of us are accustomed, the idea of separate authorship seemed to one who, up till then, had only acted as an unofficial secretary, almost as startling as if a pen from the inkstand had been asked to start writing on its own account. On thinking the matter over, however, it really appeared that, since the women of these regions had never yet been studied by a white woman, a paper dealing with the question from this side might have a certain interest.
It was not, however, until the mail brought a letter from one of the kindest and most brilliant literary men of our acquaintance, pointing out that, although men have taught us much of late years concerning primitive man, primitive woman is still unknown save through the medium of masculine influence, that the importance really struck us of making use of the chance which a kind fate had given us.
Only a few weeks before this letter was sent, Mr. Walter Heape, F.R.S., had written:
"From the biological point of view the crux of the whole matter lies in Dr. Frazer's convinced belief that the Central Australian women do not know anything of the part played by the father. . . . This is indeed a case when a woman's help would be of the greatest value. I venture to think it is not improbable a woman would have discovered something more from the female members of these Central Australian tribes." 1
On this suggestion, therefore, and that of the friend already mentioned, we determined, in default of those better fitted for the task, to take up this branch of research. Yet, when we realised then for the first time that, for the friendly controversy at present waged between ethnologists--concerning exogamy, for instance-not one word of information is available from the woman's point of view, on a matter so nearly concerning her--"without some man intervening either as inquirer or interpreter"--my sister and I seemed at a loss. We felt much as two sixteenth-century women might have done, who, hitherto following easily along paths made smooth for them by their men-folk, suddenly found themselves, at a turn of the road, standing alone--Nunez like--"Silent upon a peak in Darien," gazing out over the waves of an unknown ocean.
As is usual in such cases, once the study had been begun, difficulties, which at first loomed so large as to appear almost in the light of impossibilities, faded
away of themselves. Although during the ten months of our sojourn among the Ibibios of Southern Nigeria, my sister and I were able to pick up but the merest fragment of the language, yet careful inquiry brought out the fact that a few native women in the district were capable of speaking intelligible English, and were willing, for a certain compensation, to act as interpreters. Among the Ibibios, surely, if anywhere, there is a chance to study primitive woman living to-day in all essentials as she lived, moved and had her being while Greece and Rome lay in the womb of Time.
This strange race, consisting of some three-quarters of a million souls, inhabits the south-eastern part of Southern Nigeria. Before our arrival in the Eket District, which forms the southernmost stretch of the Ibibio country, we had been informed, on all hands, that the natives of these regions were of the lowest possible type, entirely devoid of ethnological interest, and indeed, to quote the expression of our informant, "mere mud-fish." Saving the more civilised Efiks, it is indisputable that the Ibibios occupy a low rung on the ladder of culture, and are perhaps as bloodthirsty as any people throughout the length and breadth of the Dark Continent. Yet, to our minds at least, it would appear that their present condition is due to gradual descent from a very different state of things. Fragments of legend and half-forgotten ritual still survive to tell of times shrouded in the mists of antiquity, when the despised Ibibio of to-day was a different being, dwelling not amid the fog and swamp of fetishism, but upon the sunlit heights or
a religious culture hardly less highly evolved perhaps than that of Ancient Egypt.
Indeed, if, as is held by so great an authority as Dr. Wallis Budge, much of the magic lore of Egypt may have originally come from the West, it is most probable that these very Ibibios formed a link in the long chain by which such knowledge was passed across the continent. In this case, the likeness in ritual or legend still occasionally to be traced between those of present-day West Coast tribes and of ancient Egypt would not appear to have been borrowed from the latter and borne across the Continent from east to west, but rather, contrariwise, from the Niger to the Nile. In any case, the Ibibios would seem to be a people of hoar antiquity, and so long have they dwelt in this region, that no legend of an earlier home can be traced among them.
By one of those strange coincidences which are always happening, it had come to our knowledge, some little time before the arrival of the letter asking us to undertake an independent study of the women, that here, at least, many customs of great ethnological interest still obtain which are not only unknown to men, but must always remain beyond the ken of male inquirers. For, by the unwritten law bequeathed to Ibibios from times so remote as to be almost forgotten, it is forbidden for any man to be allowed even a glimmering of mysteries which custom has decreed should be confided to women alone.
To mention one instance--when a man is slain in flight, only married women of his kin or town may
bear the corpse to its last resting-place. There, in a part of the "bush" set aside for the purpose, and screened from all eyes, the last strange rites are carried out; but nothing that passes within those mysterious shadows may be revealed to man or maiden, whether white or black.
So much my husband had learned, and, as the matter seemed likely to prove of interest, I undertook further investigations, since it was probable that information denied him by ancient law might be given to me. After some difficulty, and on the promise that the name of my informant should never be given, an ancient woman consented to reveal to me rites surely as strange as any on earth. These will be dealt with more fully later, but it seems well to mention the matter here, because it was owing to this discovery that we first learned of the existence of the so-called "women's mysteries," and thus stumbled upon the knowledge that, in West Africa at least, and possibly among primitive peoples the world over, a vast field for research, untrodden as yet, lies open to women which to men must ever remain hopelessly barred.
On this point, Herr Gunter Tessmann, who was fortunate enough to witness the rites of the principal male secret societies among the Pangwe, writes in his excellent monograph: 1
Die Schwierigkeiten, welche allgemein zu überwinden waren, ehe ich auch nur einen flüchtigen Einblick in das Kultwesen der Männer bekan, die sich auszudenken
habe ich dem Leser überlassen. Hinsichtlich der Weiberkulte häuften sich diese Schwierigkeiten eben durch den Ausschluss des männlichen Geschlechts und die natürliche Scheu der Frauen derart, dass es mir nicht möglich war, persönlich zu ihnen Zutritt zu erlangen." 1
Since our eyes have been opened to the value of data collected from such women with no intervening male influence, it is a matter of deep regret to my sister and myself that we made no independent attempt on a former tour to learn the inner secrets of the great Ekoi cult of Nimm--the woman's secret society, which in the Oban District is strong enough to hold its own against the dreaded Egbo Club itself, and the secrets of which, though closed to all men, might, and probably would, have been revealed to us. It is the more unfortunate that, so far as we could learn, among Ibibio women only two exclusively feminine societies still exist, those of "Ebere" and "Iban Isong," both comparatively small and insignificant. The knowledge of what we had formerly missed, however, naturally made us the more anxious to lose no scrap of information which yet remains to be gleaned concerning those feminine mysteries which have survived to the present day.
In attempting to put upon paper some account of what was thus garnered, the first difficulty confronting so unpractised a writer, was to decide at which point of the life cycle to begin. At first we
thought of starting this little study of primitive woman at the time when, as a tiny piccan, so fair as to seem almost white, an Ibibio girl-babe first opens her eyes upon the light. Soon, however, we found that the true beginning must be made still farther back. So far, indeed, that little more than a faint echo has floated down through the ages from those remote and distant times.
One evening my husband was seeking information as to the existence of sacrificial altars from a man belonging to the household of Chief Daniel Henshaw, who is head of one of the seven ruling families of Calabar and Native Political Agent for the Eket District. The man questioned on this particular evening was well known for his knowledge of secret things forgotten by, or hidden from, the common herd. He chanced to mention that the only case, in which, to his knowledge, altars were actually built, was on the occasion of sacrifices made to the Great Mother, Eka Abassi (Mother of God).
Offerings to this goddess are always laid upon altars built of logs set crosswise in alternate layers one above the other. When less than breast high, dry twigs are piled above, and upon these the body of a white hen is placed. This must be such a one as has laid many eggs, but by reason of age can lay no more. Fire is set to the twigs and the whole consumed, forming a burnt offering "sweet in the nostrils of Eka Abassi." Subsequent inquiries brought out the fact that the last-named deity is the mother not alone of the Thunder God, Obumo, whom we had hitherto been assured was the head
of the whole Ibibio pantheon, but also of all created things.
From out the strange vague twilight of the gods therefore, beyond Obumo's self, looms, mystic and awful, the great dim figure of "The Mother"--recalling with startling vividness those dread presences met by Faust on his journey through the realms of the dead in search of the shade of Helen; the "Great Mothers," whose power was so vast as to overawe Mephistopheles himself--recalling, too, whole crowds of myths, lovely or awful, at the root of ancient religions. For Eka Abassi is at. once mother and spouse of Obumo, and between her and the other gods there is a great gulf fixed. To quote the Ibibio phrase, spoken in hushed accents, as was every mention of her--"She is not as the others. She it is who dwells on the other side of the wall."
Nameless, therefore, this Mother of gods and men looms, misty and vast, at the very fount of Ibibio religion. To none now living would the true name of the goddess appear to have been entrusted. Possibly only to a small band of initiates was it ever revealed, in accordance with the old belief that the names of supreme gods may only be confided to a chosen few, lest, by means of these dread names, men, and even lesser gods, might be tempted to conjure. Thus Ra explained the reason why the name given him by his great parents "remained hidden in my body since my birth, that no magician might acquire magic power over me." So Lilith, to avoid the consequences of disobedience to her husband Adam, is said to have uttered the "Most Great Name," by virtue of which
she was enabled to flee away to a place of safe refuge, and indeed gained such power that even Jehovah Himself was unable to coerce her.
Eka Abassi may not be spoken of among the other gods because she is so far beyond them all. From her has sprung all which exists-from Abassi Obumo "the Thunderer," her son and consort, to the least of living things and every twig, stone or water-drop. In all there dwells some fraction of her. According to those to whom the esoteric teaching has been handed down from times when her cult was as yet unobscured by the fungus growth of fetish and juju worship which has since grown up to hide it, of her might be quoted the words, long hidden beneath the sands of Oxyrhynchus:
"Cleave the log and thou shalt find me. Break the stone, and there am I."
Perhaps most nearly of all does Eka Abassi manifest herself in the unhewn stones set amid sacred waters which are to be found scattered over the length and breadth of the land, or in the great trees, "the givers of babes." Her supreme attribute is "Bestower of Fertility," for, since from her all things have sprung, to her appointed dwelling-places creep barren women, to pray that their curse may be taken from them; while those with hearths left desolate by the silencing of lisping voices, lay before her curls clipped from dead heads, praying that the small feet may soon be set once more upon the earthward road to gladden the hearts of parents untimely deserted.
All babes born in this part of the world are sent by her; while, of the dead, save those who met a to
violent end, men say "Eka Abassi has taken our brother."
Her eldest-born, Obumo "the Thunderer," once dwelt upon earth, but later went to join "the Sky People." Earth folk have lost the road by which he went, so cannot climb thither, but the Sky People sometimes, though rarely, come down to mix with the children of men. One such story is told of a family in Kwa Town, near to Calabar, who claim to be descendants of no earthly forbears.
"Long ago," so the legend runs, "a big play was being given. All the people were dancing and singing, when suddenly they noticed a stranger going up and down among them. He was very tall and splendid, but answered no word when questioned as to whence he came. All night long the festival lasted, and at dawn a strange woman was seen to have joined the guests. She, too, was finely made and beautiful, but sad looking, and, when asked of her town and parentage, kept silence for a time, but at length after much questioning said:
"'This "play" sounded too sweet in my ears, in the place where I dwelt on high; so I climbed down to hear it more clearly. Half way, the rope broke, and I fell. Now I can never go home any more, since there is no other way by which to climb thither--and I fear! I fear!'
"The townsfolk tried to comfort her, but she would not listen; only went up and down, wringing her hands and weeping. After a while, however, she saw the other stranger and, recognising him for a countryman, was comforted. He, too, had come down
to view the 'play,' but had lost his road and could not go back. So lie set to work building a home for the Sky woman, where they two might dwell together. Later, children began to come to them 'softly, softly' (i.e. gradually and gently), and these were the ancestors of the present family."
* * * * *
In many ways the belief of Ibibio women as to the origin of the souls of their babes is much the same as that of Central Australians, whose theory, according to Sir James Frazer, is that a "spirit child has made its way into the mother from the nearest of those trees, rocks, water-pools or other natural features at which the spirits of the dead are waiting to be born again." That some such belief is held by Ibibios is clearly shown by the action of bereaved parents who, as already mentioned, bring curls, clipped from the heads of dead babes, to be placed in a hole in the rock, dedicated to Eka Abassi, here known as Abassi Isu Ma, i.e. "the goddess of the Face of Love"--or, since by a beautiful connection of thought the word for love and motherhood is the same, the name may also be translated "the Face of the Mother"--praying that she will speedily set the feet of their little ones upon the road back to life. In the sacred fish, too, with which all holy pools and streams abound, the souls of dead ancestors are thought to dwell, waiting for reincarnation. Unlike Central Australians, however, as reported by Sir James Frazer, Ibibio women--like their far-off sisters of Banks Island--are well aware that without mortal father no earth-child can be born. Yet, while the body of the new-comer is clearly
attributed to natural causes, its spirit is thought to be that of the "affinity," either animal or vegetable, with which one or other of its parents was mysteriously linked; or of an ancestor, returned to earth in this new guise.
Among those few, however, who still keep in their hearts, jealously guarded, the secret which has come down from times when woman, not man, was the dominant sex--that not Obumo, but Eka Abassi herself, is the great First Cause--one ancient crone was persuaded to explain to me, after considerable hesitation and obvious nervousness at the thought of confiding so intimate and sacred a matter to a stranger, that the laws which bind mortal women could not apply to the Great Mother of All.
"My grandmother once told me," she said, "that the Juju Isu Ndemm ("the Face of the Juju"), which lies in our town of Ndiya, is the mouthpiece of Eka Abassi. So great is the latter, that no husband was needed for the birth of her babes. By her own might alone, did the first of these, Obumo, spring forth; but to none of her descendants was this power transmitted. When, therefore, she saw that all the first earth-women were barren, long she pondered; then sent down to them a great white bird, which, on reaching earth, laid a gleaming egg--(the symbol of fertility).
"Old women tell that, after showing the people how, by honouring eggs and oval stones, and making sacrifice to the Great Mother, the gift of fruitfulness might be won, the magic bird flew back to its home in the sky; whence, with folded wings, soft brooding,
she still watches over the children of men. Mortals call her 'Moon' and sometimes, when people are sleeping, the Moon-bird floats down from her place in the sky and pecks up grains or other food, which she finds lying about. She looks round to see that all is well with the earth-folk, and that the tabu on fowls and eggs is still observed; for in our town neither may be eaten, and, were this command broken, sudden death would fall upon the offender, by means of the great Juju Isu Ndemm. Should the hens have any complaint to make on this subject they would tell the Moon-bird, and she would bear their plaint before Eka Abassi, who would not only exact the death of the actual offenders, but withdraw her gift--thus sending barrenness upon all the countryside."
(It is because of this service that the goddess, as already mentioned, forbids the offering to her of any fowl, save such as has borne many eggs in its day, but, by reason of age, has ceased from bearing.)
The ancient woman naïvely added:
"That this is the simple truth and no fable, can be proved even to white people. For when you look up into the sky on a clear night, many or few, but plain to be seen, are the little star eggs--and how could these get there, if it were not that the great white Moon-bird had laid them?
3:1 "Sex Antagonism," p. 80.
6:1 Die Pangwe. Völkerkundliche Monographie eines westafrikanischen Negerstammes. Von Gunter Tessmann. Vol. ii.
7:1 "The difficulties to be overcome in general before I obtained even a glimpse into the secrets of male cults I have left to the imagination of the reader. With regard to feminine cults. these difficulties were so increased, through the exclusion of the male sex and the natural timidity of woman, that it was impossible for me to gain personal access to such."