Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
FROM the moment when the death of a great Efik chief was announced his widows came under the care of the Ndito Than society, known among Ibibios by the name of "Iban Isong," i.e. Women of the Soil. Should an unfortunate widow offend against custom in any way, such as by washing face or feet, or plaiting her hair, the society at once fined her; for members were continually passing in and out of the house of mourning to watch that the rules were observed. At cock-crow each day the women of the household had to wake and start crying for an hour or two, and should one of them not be thought to perform her part of the ceremony in a sufficiently energetic manner, external aids were applied of sufficient strength to remedy any lack of naturalness. Widows were not allowed to leave the compound on any pretext, but were forced to stay, each in her own house, sitting upon a small mat in a dark corner. No covering was permitted, save the narrow strip usually worn round the waist beneath the robe and called the "woman's cloth."
When women from other families came, the visitors seated themselves just before their hostess. No sooner had they settled down than the widow
started to weep anew, and the guests joined her in lamentation. After a certain time spent in this way they went on to another wife, and so on till all had been condoled with. Sisters and cousins of the dead man usually received visits in the room beneath the floor of which the corpse was buried.
Only legal wives were thus secluded. Other women of the household, no matter how near or dear they might have been to the dead, were not expected to stay in their little corners, but were free to come and go within the compound. The time of seclusion was called that of the "Mbuk Pisi" house, i.e. house of mourning.
When a very great chief dies his widows make a certain offering to the Ndito Than Society. For this purpose they prepare long wrappings of silk, and, after having presented these, send to inform their families of the bereavement which has befallen them. In olden days a year or more was usually spent in this seclusion. Now it is only a week or two, or at most a month.
As the time of mourning drew to an end, about nine o'clock one night a cry was heard coming from the Egbo house. This was the signal for the beginning of what was called a very "strong night" at Calabar. All the widows stepped, one by one, out of the compound where they had so long been confined, and proceeded to the Egbo shed, each with her family walking round her like a fence The building was full of the great chiefs of the town, while crowds of spectators stood outside. After all the wives had been stationed before the entrance, the name of each was called in turn, from the lowest to the highest, with the words:
"You must 'cry' your husband before the Egbo, that Egbo may hear."
Then, in the stillness, the poor woman raised her voice bewailing her loss, and the Egbo answered the cry from within, "a very thick and heavy sound amid the silence." After awhile came a pause, then all began again as before. Seven times the wail rose; but the seventh was the last. All this time the family of the first woman stood in readiness to pass her along from one to another. Suddenly bells were heard ringing, and the widow started to run, sheltered always by her kinsfolk. The same happened to all in turn, and, should some unfortunate woman have no strong family to encircle and save her, Egbo caught her and she died there and then.
After having "cried their husband before the Egbo," the widows went back once more to the house of mourning, and early next day Idemm Ikwaw (i.e. lesser Egbo) came out and went round the town. All the principal chiefs followed him, holding in their hands twenty to forty young palm stems, each about four feet long, from which the hard skin had been stripped off, so that only the soft inner part was left.
When these had gathered in the courtyard, the women came out from the Mbuk Pisi house one by one with folded arms and stepping backwards "softly, softly"; for they might not turn their heads. Each was shaking with terror, for none knew what was coming and they feared "too much." All around them bells were ringing with deafening clang and bang. The Egbo image struck at each, as she came forth, and, if the woman was lithe and nimble of mind as
well as body, at the first stroke she sprang back into the house, but many were too bewildered to know where to turn. For each blow a new stick was used, the others being thrown away immediately. After every widow had been struck in turn, the ceremony was over. "The minds of the women could rest in peace now. There was nothing more to fear."
Later in the day all went down to the river to bathe. There they washed the little cloths which had so long been worn unchanged, and shaved their heads. "Each widow was laved by the women of her family and those who were her dearest friends. No man could see them walking unrobed because of the press of women about each. After bathing they dressed themselves in cloth woven of plaited grasses, the fine kind called Ofon Ndam, black, red, and yellow in colour, which is as soft as linen." Then the "woman's cloth," and every spoon, calabash and other utensil used during the time of mourning was thrown into the river; were this not done it was thought that their continued possession would entail barrenness upon their owner. After these had been cast away the widows returned for the last time to the house of their late husband. They did not enter, however, but only sat on the veranda.
Next some of the principal women of the town and five or six chiefs went thither as witnesses that all had "cleansed themselves," and now wished to go back to the homes of their fathers. The household juju was brought out and set upon the ground, and before it each widow took oath:
"During my husband's lifetime if I was unfaithful
to him or did any bad thing against his family may the juju punish me! If not, may I go clear!"
After this each woman's kin surrounded her. She raised her clasped hands above her head, resting them with interlocked fingers upon the crown, and cried, "My husband divorces me to-day!" The spectators took up the cry, calling in chorus upon the dead man by his "fine names" such as "Helper of the Town," etc.
After each widow had thus set herself free, the household dependents came forward and "cried" in much the same manner. Then the "free born" amongst them all went back to the homes of their fathers.
For seven days only the native grass cloth "Ofon Ndam" might be worn by the bereaved women, and, when this was laid aside, custom ordained that a kind called "Isodoho" should be substituted.
Sisters, cousins, and women "members" of the deceased's family wore a blue cloth two fathoms long, knotted over the left shoulder and hanging straight down like the usual farm dress. As a further sign of mourning they used to grind charcoal and mix with a little oil to form a black pigment, with which they painted a mark from temple to temple across the forehead, much in the shape of a crescent moon. It is quite probably from this circumstance that the "house of mourning" among the Ibibios is termed "the moon house," though, when the supposition was mentioned, some of my informants disclaimed all knowledge of the point.
Male members of the family or household were
supposed to wear black or dark blue cloth, sometimes for as much as a year and a half, until a date was fixed upon by the principal men among them, who said, "On such and such a day we will finish mourning." They liked to arrange so that this "throwing off of mourning" took place about Christmas time, before the planting of new farms.
It would seem that the period of mourning is purposely made as disagreeable as possible for the widows, in order to deter these from the temptation to poison their husbands so as to clear the way for another suitor.
As with the Greeks of old, both men and women shaved their heads in sign of mourning. Like the widows, some of the dependents wore Isodoho cloth, and some a kind dyed a lighter shade of blue called "Utan Okpo."
From the day when the widows "took oath before the juju" and returned to their fathers' homes they were free to marry again. 1
On the occasion of the funeral rites of the head chief of Ikotobo, the cattle offered to the "Manes" of the dead were laid out to the left of the throne upon which the corpse sat in state; while on the right, as if to balance the slaughtered sheep, which in this case were twenty in number, crouched the deceased's twenty wives with their children, all wailing and wringing their hands. But for the presence of the "white man," 2 most, if not all, of these unfortunate women would have been sacrificed also and buried with their lord. Even as
it was their fate was sad enough. They were painted over with black pigment and forced to go into mourning for six months, though in the case of lesser men the period is sometimes shortened to as little as seven days. During this time they were obliged to observe the strictest seclusion. On such occasions none is allowed to wash either body or clothes. They are even forbidden to stand at the door of their prison while rain is falling, lest a single drop should touch them and thus cleanse a fractional part of the body. During this time the wretched women exist under conditions too hideous for description. At the end of their seclusion the Egbo "images" come with attendants and drive them forth from the dead man's house, which is then broken down. Images and attendants bear sharp machets, with which they slash the arms of the terrified women, who run weeping to seek out former friends and beg them to bind up their wounds. After this they remain homeless until parcelled out among the heirs of the dead man.
The wives of even poor Ibibios must remain secluded for a week after their husband's burial. During this time they may wear no garment save a small loin cloth and a piece of goat's skin tied over the right hand. 1 Before coming forth they are allowed to dress their hair, bathe and resume their customary garments. The first use they make of freedom is usually to go and pluck themselves boughs of ntung leaves, which they wave to and fro "to drive away the scent of the ghost," for Ibibios, like the ancient Babylonians, believe that ghosts have a very evil smell. Thus
protected, the women approach the grave and lay upon it, folded into a small roll, the cloth and piece of skin which they have worn during the time of their seclusion. After this has been duly done they may return to their ordinary mode of life, mixing with their fellows and going to market as before.
In the neighbourhood of Awa when a chief fell sick his nearest kinsmen used to go to the Idiong priest and ask the cause of the illness. Should the oracle declare, as was usually the case, that this had been brought about in consequence of a wife's unfaithfulness, Idiong was next asked to point out the guilty woman. So soon as her name was pronounced she was called upon to confess and give the name of her lover. Should she refuse and as a result, according to general opinion, the husband died, the oracle was consulted once more, and, on the almost invariable pronouncement that the woman was guilty of the death, a meeting of the townsfolk was called to decide upon her fate. By ancient custom this might be meted out in two ways; either she was buried alive by the dead man's side, in place of a female slave usually sacrificed on such an occasion, or forced to sit above the grave. In the latter case a slender pole of hard wood was brought, sharpened to a fine point before the eyes of the wretched woman, and then driven into the skull, right through the body, and deep down into the earth, in such a manner as to impale her above the place of burial.
Before killing such victims the people used to gather round and order them to pronounce a blessing upon the town. "Make plenty piccans be born to
us," they would cry; "plenty girls and plenty boys." Should the victim refuse to repeat the words they coaxed her, and said:
"If you will but speak this blessing we will let you go free."
Should she again refuse they beat her very cruelly, crying, "Now speak." If, despite the pain, she still refused, the "fearful Egbo" would come out--hideous beyond description--and threaten nameless tortures till she yielded.
In some rare cases the woman has still been known to hold out, as is also recorded of one or other of the slaves ordained by custom to share the grave of their lord, and from whom a like "blessing" was demanded. Under such circumstances the victims were never sacrificed, since to do so would have been to draw down a period of barrenness and poverty upon the town. Instead of killing such steadfast souls, therefore, they were sold into slavery, while a victim who could be forced or cajoled into pronouncing the necessary formula was offered instead.
It was of the utmost importance to the well-being of the spirits of parents in the Ghost Realm that a son should be left behind who would carry out the burial rites with all due observances. The straits to which good sons were sometimes put in order to make sure that the necessary ritual was performed are illustrated by the story of the sham burial of the mother of the head chief of Ikot Okudum--a town not far from Ubium Creek.
Many years ago when the present head chief, Etuk Udaw Akpan by name, was a young man, he
was very strong and brave. For a certain reason his fellow-townsmen wanted to kill him. They tried their best, and set many snares, but lie always escaped them.
One day he went to visit the house of a friend in the Ubium country. His host prepared "chop" and set it before him, with palm wine and all things necessary for the refreshment of an honoured guest. During the meal his enemies heard that he was within, so they sent a message to the owner of the compound, saying:
"For a long time we have wanted to kill this man but could never catch him. We beg you, therefore, to give him into our hands, and in return we will pay you a great sum."
The host said, "I agree, provided the amount you offer is large enough!" So they brought much money, whereon he said, "It is good. Do to him what you will."
Then the people surrounded the house and fastened the doors of the encircling fence so that Etuk might not escape them. When all was ready they called:
"Come out. We wish to ask you a word." He, however, answered, "No. If you have anything to say, it can be said while I am within." The people replied, "You must come out." Then when they found that he would not do this, they tried to force in the door and fall upon him.
On that Etuk drew out a sharp machet which was hidden beneath his gown, and springing through the door shut it suddenly behind him, and stood facing his foes. So unexpected was his appearance, and so
fierce his blows, that momentarily the people all gave way before him. At a glance he saw that the gates were barred, so, as he was an excellent climber, before anyone could stop him, he sprang upon the mud wall of the veranda and thence to the roof. Along this he rushed till he came to a place where the building was very near the fence, cleared this at a bound, and alighted safely on the other side. Then he ran for his life toward the bush, crying out, "If you want me, follow me now!"
It was some time before those within the enclosure could unbar the gate which they themselves had so carefully fastened, and by the time this was done Etuk had disappeared.
All day he hid, but after nightfall managed to reach his home unnoticed. There he said to his mother:
"To-day I went to a house in the Ubium country, whither the townsmen followed to kill me. I was very sorry for myself and also for you, because you are my mother and, unless I am killed, you will probably die before me. In that case it would be my duty to bury you. Now that they want to kill me so soon I fear that you may be left with no grown-up son to perform the rites for you, since my brothers are still very young. I think, therefore, it is best, while there is yet time, to call all the townsfolk together and do that which is proper for a son to do for a dead mother."
To this the woman answered, "Do as you say, for the people want to kill you, and leave me alone in the world with no one to bury me when my time shall come."
Then Etuk sent one of his small brothers to summon the townsfolk. Goats, cows and much mimbo had been provided, together with everything necessary to do honour to a dead woman.
When all were assembled before the house Etuk said to his mother, "Go now and bathe." Then when the bath was finished he robed her as is done with a corpse. Afterwards he went outside and placed a chair for his mother, who sat thereon in the sight of all the people, as the dead are used to sit in state.
Next all the beasts were slaughtered, and Etuk Udaw took the blood and poured it out before the feet of his mother, as is customary for women who leave behind them a son of fitting age to carry out the burial rites. When this was finished he ordered the people to play the death play for his mother, and at the end bade her go back into the house while he addressed the company.
First he told them to keep silence for a while, and then asked:
"Do you know what I mean by dressing my mother like a dead woman and holding her burial rites while she is still alive?" They answered, "No, we cannot even guess, though we question much among our selves on this very matter." So he continued:
"You want to kill me, and should I die before her she would be left in the world without a son old enough to bury her properly when the time comes. Therefore I have done all this before you slay me, that everything may be performed in due order and she may not suffer in the Ghost Realm."
They answered, "We have drunk all this mimbo
and eaten these sacrifices to no purpose as it appears! Never have we seen such a thing as this!" So they went away, much amazed. Nevertheless, from that time they left the man in peace, and did not strive to harm him as they had before.
Not long afterwards one of the small brothers fell ill, so Etuk went to the Idiong man and asked the reason. The diviner consulted the oracle, and replied:
"It is because you have carried out the death rites of your mother, and the evil spirits grow impatient, watching for her to die. As she has not yet reached the ghost town, they are trying to take one of your young brothers."
On hearing this, Etuk went home and bought many medicines, he also offered sacrifices to save the boy, but in spite of all that was done the little one died.
The mother herself lived for many, many years. Indeed, it is only about four years since she went to the ghost town, but the son still lives, and has become head chief over all those who formerly wished to kill him, and he now sits as a "member," judging cases in the Eket Native Court.
230:1 A full description of the obsequies of Iboibo chiefs will be found in my husband's book, "By Haunted Waters." Only so much as directly concerns the women is attempted here.
230:2 Mr. W. W. Eakin, of the Kwa Ibo Mission.
231:1 We could learn no reason for this last, seemingly inconsequent, tabu.