Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book on Kindle

Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, [1915], at

p. 15



FOR Ibibio women motherhood is the crown of life, and therefore "jujus" thought to have the power of granting fertility or removing the curse of barrenness are held in greater reverence than all others.

Juju is beyond all else the force which dominates the lives of people such as these. The word itself is said to be taken from the French joujou, and was given to the fetish images everywhere seen because early traders of this nationality looked upon them as a kind of doll.

Many West-Coasters use the terms juju and fetish as if they were interchangeable, yet there would seem to be a distinct difference between the two. The latter appears to apply only to objects inhabited by the indwelling power of juju, which "includes all uncomprehended mysterious forces of Nature. These vary in importance from elementals so powerful as to hold almost the position of demi-gods, to the 'mana'--to use a Melanesian term--of herb, stone, or metal. In another sense the word also includes the means by which such forces may be controlled or influenced; secrets wrung from the deepest recesses of Nature by men wise above their fellows, or mercifully

p. 16

imparted to some favoured mortal by one or other of the deities." 1

The word fetish is "derived through the Portuguese feitico from the Latin facticius--facere, i.e. to do. This shows the original conception at the root of the word." . . . . (It) "was probably first applied to images, idols or amulets made by hand, and later includes all objects possessing magical potency, i.e. bewitched or 'faked.'" 2

Holy pools and rocks, many of which are regarded as the earthly manifestation of Eka Abassi, and are often connected with the rites of her son and spouse, Obumo the Thunderer, hold first place among jujus, in the opinion of the greater number of Ibibio women. True it is that her fame and glory have--save to a few initiates--long since been eclipsed by his. Yet "water, earth and stone, the three great 'Mothers,' are almost always to be found within the grove of the All-Father. Each of these is thought to symbolise a different phase of motherhood. The first, for instance, may perchance be taken as a representation of the Ibibio Aphrodite. She is all that is soft and alluring, while the fish which teem in her waters are the sign of boundless and inexhaustible fruitfulness. She never grows old or parched, neither may she be roughly used, burnt by fire, nor torn and cut by hoe and spade, as is the case with her homelier sister the Earth. This second member of the trilogy may perhaps be described as the working mother. She it is who produces the crops to nourish her children

p. 17

in life, and provides their last long resting-place when work is done." 1

A term in common use for expressing the approach of death is to speak of the time "when my mother shall take me," because all men are laid to sleep in her gentle arms. It is for this reason, above all others, that Ibibios cling with such jealous tenacity to their land and so fiercely resent the least hint at a change of tenure. The proudest landowners of our own northern climes, who, at no matter what cost of poverty or hardship, hold to ancestral acres, can hardly be moved by so intense a passion at the thought of their loss as are these poor sons of the soil at the merest hint of a change in the land laws. Such a thought seems like outrage aimed at a loved one; for to them, Isong, the Earth Mother, is, in a way, nearest and dearest of all.

Stones and rocks again are also looked upon as givers of fertility; mostly in conjunction with Obumo himself. The genius of the stone is sometimes named Abassi Ma, and is looked upon in a special sense as the consort of the Thunder God. She it is who, more than all other manifestations of Eka Abassi, is thought to have the power to remove the curse of sterility from barren women, or send new babes to desolate hearths. It is naturally hard to induce primitive peoples to explain fundamental ideas such as these, yet, from what could be gleaned in the matter, it seems not over-fanciful to think that the trilogy of motherhood symbols may be taken to represent three aspects of womanhood--mistress, attracting and alluring;

p. 18

house-mother, drudge and provider; and consort, the sharer of dignities and honours.

Of the sacred pools, some two score in number, which we were privileged to be the first "white men" to view, that of Abassi Isu Ma, near Ikotobo--a rumour of which was first brought to my husband's notice by Mr. Eakin of the Kwa Ibo Mission, who, later on, induced a guide to lead us thither--is perhaps the most famous. In his company, one Sunday afternoon, we set out, and at length, after passing along a narrow path through thick "bush," reached the farthest point to which ordinary mortals had hitherto been allowed access. Beyond this only the head priest had been permitted to penetrate, in order to lay offerings within a hole in the sacred rock which faces the entrance and is the outward visible sign of the Great Mother herself.

"Low down on the face of the stone, beneath its veil of moss, and about a foot above the surface of the water, loomed a circular hole, partially filled by offerings laid there by the Chief Priest."

"A strange superstition has grown up around the rock. To it, or rather to the place of sacrifice just below, for, as has already been mentioned, the spot itself is too sacred for the near approach of ordinary mortals, come wedded couples to pray that babes may be born to them. Barrenness is regarded, not only as the greatest curse which can fall to the lot of man or woman, but also as a sign that the bride was a disobedient daughter. When a maid refuses to obey her mother, the latter says:

"'Because you have been a bad daughter to me

p. 19

no child shall be born to you, that thus atonement may be made for your undutiful behaviour.'" 1

This idea is surely near of kin to the warning voiced in the "Maxims of Ani":

"Give thy mother no cause to be offended at thee, lest she lift up her hands to the god, who will surely hear her complaint and will punish thee." 2

A little earlier in the same interesting document a man is bidden "to be most careful how he treats the mother who suckled him for three years and carried bread and beer to him every day when he was at school."

When an Ibibio woman has transgressed in such a manner, and punishment has in consequence befallen, her husband leads her down to the sacred pool. At the place of sacrifice they give offerings to the priest. Thence the woman wades up stream almost to the entrance of the sacred pool, where she makes obeisance and prays:

"O Abassi Ma! Keeper of souls! What have I done to anger Thee? Look upon me, for from the time I left the fatting-room in my mother's house I have never conceived, and am a reproach before all women. Behold! I bring gifts, and beg Thee to have pity upon me and give me a child. Grant but this prayer, and all my life I will be Thy servant!"

The priest then takes an earthen bowl, never before used, dips it into the sacred water, and pours some over the woman, who bends down so that face, arms and body may be laved by the stream.

p. 20

When she rises again the little party climb up the steep bank to the place where the rest of the offerings lie. These are cooked and eaten by husband, wife and priest; after which the suppliant returns home, strong in the hope that Isu Ma will take away her reproach. . . . When a child is granted in answer to such a prayer, custom ordains that he or she shall be named 'Ma,'" 1 in gratitude to the Great Mother. This fact alone would appear sufficient refutation of the charge that love and gratitude play no part in West African religions.

So soon as an Ibibio woman discovers that she is about to bear a babe, old wise women of the race gather round her to teach the thousand and one things which she must or must not do in order to secure the well-being of the new-comer.

All over this part of the country grows a herb with blue flowers, the spikes of which bear blooms in shape like those of a giant heliotrope, but of vividest cobalt, while the stems look as if stained with indigo. The under sides of the leaves, too, are often blue veined, and, from a distance, stretches of this plant, which springs up upon old farm-land or any cleared space, look like a splash of summer sky caught in the green of the bush. Large posies of this flower are picked by the friends of the mother-to-be and rubbed over her body that her pains may be lightened.

The greater number of tabu imposed at such times relate to food. For instance, no snail, especially the great Acatina marginata, may be eaten, lest the babe

p. 21

should be afflicted with a too plentiful flow of saliva. Nor may an expectant mother eat pig, lest the skin of her child should become spotted in consequence, nor of the fat white maggots to be found in palm trees, lest its breathing powers should be affected. The tabu on pig, which is strictly observed here for mothers, is much like that reported from Guiana as imposed upon fathers, whose "partaking of the agouti would make the child meagre, or eating a labba would make the infant's mouth protrude like the labba's or make it spotted like the labba, which spots would ultimately become ulcers." 1 So far as could be learnt, however, an Ibibio father is not under the necessity of abstaining from any kind of food.

When a woman on the verge of motherhood chances to pass along a path crossed by a line of ants, she may not step over them, lest her unborn babe should be marked with a bald line round the head, supposed to resemble the "ant road." To avoid such a catastrophe she must first pick large leaves and lay these over the spot where she means to cross. Next she should collect sand and strew it over them, for only when the leaves are thus almost covered may she step across.

Mr. Elphinstone Dayrell informed us that among the natives of the Ikom District, of which he was Commissioner, the curious superstition obtains that should a man or woman chance to tread upon a millipede no further children would be born to them. Among Ibibios, too, these creatures axe regarded as the harbingers of misfortune.

p. 22

Amid both Efiks and Ibibios the ancient custom still obtains that locks should be undone and knots untied in the house of a woman who is about to bear a babe, since all such are thought, by sympathetic magic, to retard delivery. A case was related of a jealous wife, who, on the advice of a witch doctor versed in the mysteries of her sex, hid a selection of padlocks beneath her garments, then went and sat down near the sick woman's door and surreptitiously turned the key in each. She had previously stolen an old waist-cloth from her rival, which she knotted so tightly over and over that it formed a ball, and, as an added precaution, she locked her fingers closely together and sat with crossed legs, exactly as did Juno Lucina of old when determined to prevent the birth of the infant Hercules.

Sir James Frazer, in the "Taboo" section of his wonderful book "The Golden Bough," gives many examples of similar beliefs. To quote a few instances:

"In north-western Argyllshire superstitious people used to open every lock in the house at childbirth. The old Roman custom of presenting women with a key as a symbol of an easy delivery perhaps points to the observance of a similar custom."

"Thus, among the Saxons of Transylvania, when a woman is in travail all knots on her garments are untied, because it is believed that this will facilitate her delivery, and with the same intention all the locks in the house, whether on doors or boxes, are unlocked." 1

"The Lapps think that a lying-in woman should

p. 23

have no knot on her garments, because a knot would have the effect of making the delivery difficult and painful. In ancient India it was a rule to untie all knots in a house at the moment of childbirth. Roman religion required that women who took part in the rites of Juno Lucina, the Goddess of Childbirth, should have no knot tied on their persons." 1

The temptation to quote from Sir James Frazer, which besets one at every turn, must, however, be resisted as far as possible, since, did one but yield to it, even to a comparatively small extent, such is the charm of style and vast learning of this great anthropologist that one could no longer venture to claim for this little record that it was written without intervening male influence."

*    *    *    *    *

Throughout the whole of her life no Ibibio woman may eat of a double yam or double plantain lest she bear twin children--the dread of which misfortune looms so large as to darken the existence of Ibibio women. Wretched indeed, in the old days, was the lot of any unfortunate mother of twins, since, though most of the men now deny this, averring that twin babes were only hated and feared as something monstrous and unnatural, a considerable number of women confessed that they, like those of many neigbbouring tribes, believed that one of the pair at least was no merely mortal offspring but that of some wandering demon.

Till a comparatively short time ago such a birth was followed by the death of both mother and babes,

p. 24

and, except where the fear of the white man is too strong, twins are not allowed to live even now. The custom is either to fling both little ones into the bush to be devoured by leopards or other fierce wood-folk, to offer them up on the beach to be eaten by vultures, or to kill one of them outright and starve the other, the bodies being then flung into bush or river.

Of late years this cruel custom has been modified to the extent that, after bringing about, or at least consenting to, the death of her babes, the woman is allowed to seek refuge in a town set apart for twin mothers. There she is still obliged to undergo "purification" for a period of twelve moons before being allowed to mix again with her fellows. In such circumstances it is customary, in some parts, for the husband to build a but for her and take food thither once a week.

On one occasion not very long ago a wretched twin mother, driven out of her town, made her way to the nearest "twin village." It happened that most of the inhabitants had almost "cleansed" themselves, that is to say, had passed through the greater part of the twelve moons during which they were forbidden to mix with their fellows. Contact with another woman who had but just borne twins would have rendered them unclean once more, so they drove forth the wretched mother, who, weak and almost despairing, managed to reach the town where Mr. Eakin, of the Kwa Ibo Mission, was staying at the time. The unfailing charity of this good friend provided all that was necessary for the moment; then,

p. 25

as soon as the woman was sufficiently recovered, they set out together for the nearest "twin town."

It was midnight when they arrived, and none of the inhabitants would open their doors to this sister in misfortune. So soon, however, as they understood that she was no longer alone, but accompanied by one whose word they had long since learned it was best to obey, a great clatter arose. A woman, whose time of "purification" was almost at an end, turned out every pot, pan and chattel from her dwelling, lest they might be contaminated by the new-comer, and bore them to the house of a neighbour whose year of seclusion was also all but over. The sick woman was then allowed to take possession of the deserted dwelling.

At stated intervals markets are held by the unhappy outcasts, to which, under certain restrictions and precautions, others may come to buy or sell. On the way to one of these markets, should a "twin woman" meet one not defiled like herself, she must spring into the bush and remain hidden till her more fortunate sister has passed by, so that the "clean" woman may not be soiled by contact with one so befouled. Perhaps one of the saddest effects of this cruel superstition is the dread with which "twin mothers" regard their own offspring. Mr. Eakin told us that once, on entering a house to which he had hastened on learning of the event which had just taken place there, he found a pair of new-born twins lying in a little basket. The wretched mother shook with fear whenever her glance fell upon them. It is difficult indeed to persuade such women to

p. 26

nourish their unfortunate babes, which are often only kept alive by the charity of Christian natives, or of women from other tribes who have come to settle in the neighbourhood. Such a case happened near Awa, in the western part of the district, where Mrs. Etete, a Christian woman from the Gold Coast, brought up to us twins and their mother, whom she had saved from death the year before.

Sad indeed is the lot of girl twins rescued from the fate ordained by the law of their race; for, unless some fortunate chance takes them away from their own country, they are shunned through life. No matter where they may strive to hide their secret it somehow gets known that they are "twin women," and no man would dream of approaching such with thoughts of love or marriage, save those who have absolutely no regard for their reputations. Only a short time ago a libel case was brought before my husband in one of the native courts. In this the plaintiff claimed heavy damages for defamation of character. During the course of the evidence it transpired that the words so bitterly resented had been--"He said that I was such a man as would be willing to marry a 'twin woman'!"

The gravity of this statement from the native point of view can readily be understood when one remembers that, by Ibibio law, any man found guilty of intercourse with a "twin woman" could be put to death. Even now it would be looked upon as sufficient cause for granting divorce to a wife if she could prove that her husband was keeping a "twin woman" as his sweetheart.

p. 27

Also, should such a charge be proved against a member of the Idiong Society--one of the most powerful secret cults of the region--he was immediately expelled. On August 21st, 1913, a case in point was brought up before the Native Court at Ikotobo. In this, Ekkpo Akpan, son of the head priest of Idiong, stated on oath:

"The Idiong Society has a law that if any member should take a 'twin woman' as sweetheart he must be expelled. It was found out that Nwa Adiaha Udo Ide was a 'twin woman,' and therefore we decided that her husband should be turned out for having married her. In revenge for his expulsion the woman came and said that I also had been her sweetheart. She made this charge because my father is the head priest of Idiong, and she wished to be revenged upon him, through me. Formerly she had accused my brother of the same offence. The case was tried in this Court, and the members decided that her statement was false. Judgment was therefore given in my brother's favour."

With great difficulty and after much persuasion a woman of the tribe was induced to impart to me the secret reason which lies at the root of this dread of taking a girl twin in marriage. Shaking with fear at the thought of even mentioning so abhorrent a thing, my informant said in a voice so low as to be barely audible:

"Since the girl herself is not as other women, but part offspring of a demon, so the souls of children born to her go, sooner or later, to join their kindred, the evil devils. When the husband dies also, and

p. 28

comes to the ghost town, he finds the spirits of his accursed brood waiting to claim him as their father, and shame him in the sight of all the shades."

In this there would seem to be an echo of the ancient Babylonian and rabbinical belief "that a man might have children by allying himself with a demon, and although they would naturally not be visible to human beings, yet when that man was dying they would hover round his bed, and, after his death, would hail him as their father." 1

No "twin mother" may pass through, or even near, a sacred water. This prohibition would seem also to apply to their offspring, but, as so few of these latter have hitherto been allowed to live, no case of actual transgression by them has come to our notice.

Once, in passing through the Okkobbor country near the town of Ube, we came to a little dell crossed by a raised path from the higher land beyond. On either side of the road was marshy ground, and, towards the middle of the glen, a stream of water flowed. right through the earth beneath the path.

We were looking at this and wondering how it had been formed, when a group of women and children passed by on their way back to Ube, their native town. When questioned about the water, they threw out their hands with the graceful gesture usual among this people in disclaiming knowledge, and answered, "Mi ifiokka," i.e. "I don't know."

It was quite obvious that they knew but would not tell. The prettiest and most richly dressed among

p. 29

them was wearing four silver bangles, each bearing the emblems of Faith, Hope and Charity; so her reason for disclaiming knowledge was easily read.

My husband asked if she were a Christian; whereon she at once, and proudly, answered in the affirmative. He then said, smiling and holding up an admonitory finger, "But Christians may not tell lies! "Whereon they all burst into laughter, and she began to speak:

"In the old old days long ago, a magic water lay between the little hills, and through this no 'twin woman' might pass. Mbiam Ube was the name of the spirit of the pool, and to him the people of Ube used to bring offerings of palm-wine and rum, white hens and black cocks; for this was a strong juju for the granting of prayers.

"One day there came a 'twin woman' who was proud and of a bad heart, and paid no heed to the old laws. Right through the water she walked, but it shrank away from the touch of her, and since then has only flowed through the earth, beneath the road, that it may no longer be polluted by the feet of such as she. To this day no one drinks of the stream lest he should die, but offerings are still made to the indwelling juju, for fear that he might otherwise grow angry and harm our town."

Fortunately missionary effort and the influence of white rule are now beginning to make headway against this dread of twins.

Once, near the end of our tour, on returning to Eket, the son of the head chief of a neighbouring town came to bring us the news that his wife and

p. 30

sister-in-law had each given birth to twins on the same day, only a few hours before our arrival. He is a Christian, and knew himself and his family secure in the protection of Government; but his dancing eyes and happy air showed that, in his case at least, the old horror of twins was a thing of the past.

How different were matters before the coming of white men, is proved by the fact that one of the first acts of the "African Association" after building their factory at Eket was to establish, on their own grounds, a place of refuge for "twin mothers." This afterwards grew into the Eket "twin town."


16:1 "In the Shadow of the Bush," p. 49. P. Amaury Talbot.

16:2 "Magic and Fetishism," pp. 66-7. Dr. Haddon, F.R.S.

17:1 Edinburgh Review," July, 1914. P. Amaury Talbot.

19:1 "By Haunted Waters." P. Amaury Talbot--to be published shortly.

19:2 "Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection," p. 216. Dr. E. Wallis Budge.

20:1 By Haunted Waters." P. Amaury Talbot.

21:1 "Magic and Fetishism," p. 13. A. C. Haddon, F.R.S.

22:1 "Volksthümlicher Brauch und Glaube bei Geburt und Taufe im Siebenburger Sachsenlande," p. 15. J. Hillner.

23:1 Taboo and the Perils of the. Soul," p. 294. J. G. Frazer.

28:1 "The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia." R. C. Thompson. Vol. i., p. xxvi. See also "Burial Customs."

Next: Chapter 3: Birth Customs (continued)