Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 




EGUNGUN really means "bone," hence "skeleton," and Egungun himself is supposed to be a man risen from the dead. The part is acted by a man disguised in a long robe, usually made of grass, and a mask of wood, which generally represents a hideous human face, with a long pointed nose and thin lips, but sometimes the head of an animal.

Egungun appears in the streets by day or night indifferently, leaping, dancing, or walking grotesquely, and uttering loud cries. He is supposed to have returned from the land of the dead in order to ascertain what is going on in the land of the living, and his function is to carry away those persons who are troublesome to their neighbors. He may thus be considered a kind of supernatitral inquisitor who appears from time to time to inquire into the general domestic conduct of people, particularly of women, and to punish misdeeds. Although it is very well known that Egungun is only a disguised man, yet it is popularly believed that to touch him, even by accident, causes death.

A crowd always stands round watching, at a respectful distance, the gambols of an Egungun, and one of the chief amusements of the performer is to rush suddenly towards the spectators, who fly before him in every direction in great disorder, to avoid the fatal touch. To raise the hand against Egungun is punished with death, and women are forbidden, on pain of death, to laugh at him, speak disparagingly of him, or say he is not one who has risen from the dead. "May Egungun cut you in pieces," is an imprecation often heard.

Egungun is thus at the present day a sort of "bogey," or make-believe demon, whose chief business is to frighten termagants, busybodies, scandalmongers, and others, but it seems probable that originally he was regarded as the incarnation of the dead, and that the whole custom is connected with manes-worship. In June there is an annual feast for Egungun lasting seven days, during which lamentations are made for those who have died within the last few years. It is a kind of All-Souls festival, and resembles the Affirah-bi festival of the Tshi tribes, described in the first volume of this series.[1] Moreover, Egungun also appears in connection with funeral ceremonies. A few days after the funeral an Egungun, accompanied by masked and disguised men, parades the streets of the town at night, and, as in the Roman conclainatio, calls upon the deceased loudly by name. A superstitious and half -frightened crowd follows, listening for any response that may be given to the weird cries of

[1. See 61 The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast," p. 227.]

the Egungun. A few days later the Egungun, again accompanied by several followers, proceeds to the house in which the death took place, and brings to the relatives news of the deceased, usually that he has arrived in Deadland safely, and is quite well. In return for the good news the family set food, rum, and palm-wine in a room of the house, and inviting the Egungun to partake of it, themselves retire, for to see Egungun eating is death. When Egungun and his followers have consumed everything loud groans are heard to issue from the room, and, this being a sign that be is about to depart, the family re-enter and entrust him with messages for the deceased.

A large proportion of the slaves landed at Sierra Leone, at the beginning of the present century, from slave-ships that had been captured by British cruisers, were Yorubas, and their Christian descendants have preserved the practice of Egungun, who may often be seen performing his antics in the streets of Freetown. There, however, his disguise is less elaborate than in Yoruba country, and he appears in a long robe of cotton-print, with a piece of cloth, having apertures for the eyes, covering the face and head. Spectators soon gather round him, and though, if asked, they will tell you that it is only "play," many of them are half-doubtful, and whenever the Egungun makes a rush forward the crowd flees before him to escape his touch.


The word Oro means fierceness, tempest, or provocation, and Oro himself appears to be personified executive power.

Oro is supposed to haunt the forest in the neighbourhood of towns, and he makes his approach known by a strange, whirring, roaring noise. As soon as this is heard, all women must shut themselves up in their houses, and refrain from looking out on pain of death. The voice of Oro is produced by whirling round and round a thin strip of wood, some 21/2 inches broad, 12 inches long, and tapering at both ends, which is fastened to a stick by a long string. It is, in fact, the instrument known to English boys as the "bull-roarer," and which Mr. Andrew Lang has shown to have been used in the mysteries of Ancient Greece, Australia, New Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa.[1] No women may see the "bullroarer" and live, and all women are obliged, under pain of death, to say that they believe Oro to be a powerful Orisha, and to act up to that belief.

In Yoruba country Oro is manipulated by the Ogboni Society. Criminals condemned to death are sometimes given to Oro, in which case they are ordinarily never seen again, but their clothes are shown entangled in the branches of a lofty tree, where Oro is said to have left them when flying through the air. In such a case Oro is said to have devoured the bodies. Sometimes, however, the headless corpse of the criminal is discovered in the forest on the outskirts of the town, but nobody is allowed to bury it. Unlike Egungun, Oro only appears on his feast-days, or, to use the native expression, when a town has an

[1. "Custom and Myth," Art. "The Bull-Roarer."]

Oro-day. The voice of Oro heard from morning to night, -and all women are closely confined to their houses, while Oro himself, in a long robe hung with shells, and a wooden mask painted white, with the lips smeared with blood, parades the town with a numerous following.

In Ondo there is an annual festival to Oro, called Oro Doko. It lasts for three lunar months, and every ninth dav women are obliged to remain within their houses from daybreak till noon, while the men parade the streets, whirling the bull-roarer, dancing, singing and beating druims and killing all stray dogs and fowls, on which tbev afterwards feast. A large boulder of granite, cailed Olumo, on the summit of a hill in Abeokuta, is sacred to Oro, and no one may ascend it.

Just as Egungun is now used for social purposes, and to preserve order in private life, so is Oro used for political purposes, to preserve order in the communitv at large; yet, from. the analogy of other peoples, and from the fact that it is death for a woman to see the instrument which produces the voice of Oro, there can be no doubt that originally Oro was the spirit that presided at the celebration of male mysteries, such as are found among the Kurnai of Australia, and he has perhaps been diverted from his proper purpose by the influence of the Ogboni.


Abiku, abi, "that which possesses iku," "death"; hence, "predestined to death" is a word used to mean the spirits of children who die before reaching puberty, and also a class of evil spirits who cause children to die; a child who dies before twelve years of age being called an Abiku, and the spirit, or spirits, who caused the death being also called Abiku.

The general idea seems to be that the uninhabited tracts of country abound with numbers of evil spirits or demons, who suffer from hunger, thirst, and cold, since nobody offers sacrifice to them and they have no temples, and who are constantly endeavouring to improve their condition by entering the bodies of new-born babes. Only one Abiku can enter and dwell in the body of the same child, and, as there is great competition amongst the Abikus for such a position, an Abiku is only suffered by his companions to enter peaceably, and, in fact, to be recognised as having vested rights in a child, on condition of his promising them a share of the comforts he is about to obtain.

When an Abiku has entered a child he takes for his own use, and for the -use of his companions, the greater part of the food that the child eats, who in consequence begins to pine away and become emaciated. If an Abiku who had entered a child were not bound to supply the wants of other Abikus who had not succeeded in obtaining human tenements, no great harm would ensue, since the sustenance taken could be made sufficient both for the child and his tenant. It is the incessant demands that are made by the hungry Abikus outside, and which the indwelling Abiku has to satisfy, that destroy the child, for the whole of his food is insufficient for their requirements. When a child is peevish and fretful it is believed that the outside Abikus are hurting him in order to make the indwelling Abiku give them more to eat; for everything done to the child is felt by his Abiku. The indwelling Abiku is thus, to a great extent, identified with the child himself, and it is possible that the whole superstition may be a corruption of the Gold Coast belief in the sisa.[1]

A mother who sees her child gradually wasting away without apparent cause, concludes that an Abiku has entered it, or, as the natives frequently express it, that she has given birth to an Abiku, and that it is being starved because the Abiku is stealing all its nourishment. To get rid of the indwelling Abiku, and its companions outside, the anxious mother offers a sacrifice of food; and while the Abikus are supposed to be devouring the spiritual part of the food, and to have their attention diverted, she attaches iron rings and small bells to the ankles of the child, and hangs iron chains round his neck. The jingling of the iron and the tinkling of the bells is supposed to keep the Abikus at a distance, hence the number of children that are to be seen with their feet weighed down with iron ornaments.

Sometimes the child recovers its health, and it is then believed that this procedure has been effective, and that the Abikus have been driven away. If, however, no improvement takes place, or the child grows worse, the mother endeavours to drive out the Abiku by making small incisions in the body of the child, and putting therein green peppers or spices,

[1. Tshi-Speaking reopies of the Gold Coast," chap. xi.]

believing that she will thereby cause pain to the Abiku and make him depart. The poor child screams with pain, but the mother hardens her heart in the belief that the Abiku is suffering equally.

Should the child die it is, if buried at all, buried without any funeral ceremony, beyond the precincts of the town or village, in the bush; most other interments being made in the floors of the dwellinghouses. Often the corpse is simply thrown into the bush, to punish the Abiku, say the natives. Sometimes a mother, to deter the Abiku which has destroyed her child from entering the body of any other infant she may bear in the future, will beat, pound, and mutilate the little corpse, while threatening and invoking every evil upon the Abiku which has caused the calamity. The indwelling, Abiku is believed to feel the blows and wounds inflicted on the body, and to hear and be terrified by the threats and curses.


Several varieties of trees are believed to be inhabited by indwelling spirits, which are not exactly gods, but answer more to the hama-dryads of Ancient Greece, or to the elves of mediaeval Europe. From the analogy of the Tshi tribes there is little doubt but that these tree-spirits were once gods of the Srahmantin type, i.e., of the type of those which on the Gold Coast are believed to animate the gigantic silk-cotton trees; but now, owing to the great increase in the number of general objects of worship, which makes the propitiation of the local object a matter of less importance, they have been shorn of a great deal of their power, and pushed more into the background.

The Ashorin tree is, one which is inhabited by a spirit who, it is believed, would, if its attention were not diverted, drive away anyone who attempted to fell the tree. The woodman therefore places a little palm-oil on the ground as a lure, and when the spirit leaves the tree to lick up the delicacy, proceeds to cut down its late abode.

The Apa, frequently called the African mahogany, is inhabited by an evil spirit, and is commonly seen encircled with palm-leaves, and with an earthen pot at its foot to receive the offerings of woodcutters. It is believed to emit a phosphorescent light by night. The wood of this tree is in some demand for the construction of drums, which are hollow wooden cylinders covered with hide at one end; but before it can be out down the spirit must be propitiated by an offering, usually consisting of a fowl and some palm-oil. The Apa is the emblem of vengeance.

The Iroko (silk-cotton tree) is also inhabited by a spirit, but it is not very powerful or malicious, and when a man desires to fell such a tree it is sufficient protection for him to invoke the indwelling spirit of his own head by rubbing a little palm-oil on his forehead. The Iroko is used chiefly for building, whence probably it comes to be the emblem of refuge.

A proverb, referring to the risks a man runs in cutting down trees inhabited by spirits, says "The axe that cuts the tree is not afraid, but the woodman covers his head with etu" (a magic powder).

These customs may be compared with those of the modern Greeks of Siphinos, one of the Cyclades. Mr. Bent says [1] that when the woodcutters have to cut down a tree they suppose to be inhabited by a spirit (hamadryad), they are exceedingly careful when it falls to prostrate themselves humbly and in silence, lest the spirit should chastise them as it escapes. Cato also [2] instructs a woodcutter that, in order to escape the consequences of thinning a sacred grove, he must sacrifice a hog, and beg permission to thin the grove in order to restrain its overgrowth.

As is the case among the Ewe tribes of the Slave Coast, wizards and witches are by the Yorubas believed to hold nocturnal meetinus at the foot of trees tenanted by spirits, more especially the Apa, whose indwelling spirit is believed to assist them in their malpractices. Here, too, the owl again appears, but now, instead of the bird being the messenger or agent of the tree spirit, it is the wizard (Aje) himself, who metamorphoses himself into an owl and proceeds on the mission of death.

Witchcraft is, in the minds of the natives, the chief cause of sickness and death. They cannot, they think, attribute these evils to the gods, unless they occur in some way special to a god; as, for instance, when a man is struck by lightning, in which case the event would be attributed to Shango-or contracts small-pox, when the disease would be attributed to Shanpanna; for they are very careful to keep on good terms with the gods, by scrupulously

[1. "The Cyclades," p. 27.

2. "De Re Rustica," 139.]

observing their religious duties. They consequently attribute sickness and death, other than death resulting from injury or violence, to persons who have for bad purposes enlisted the services of evil spirits, that is to say, to wizards and witches. Witches are more common than wizards, and here, as elsewhere in the world, it is the oldest and most hideous of their sex who are accused of the crime.

Properly speaking, a person charged with witchcraft should be subjected to trial by ordeal, and then, if found guilty, immediately executed; but the excited populace, filled with superstitious terror, frequently acts without waiting for proof, and puts the accused to death without trial. Curiously enough, the phenomenon that so frequently occurred in England, when a belief in witchcraft was an article of faith, appears here also; and old women, accused of being witches, very often acknowledge that they are, and charge themselves with deaths which may have recently occurred in the community.

Amulets and charms (onde) are numerous and of various kinds. Some, like the vo-sesao of the Ewe tribes, are really the badges of different gods, such as the ajude, or iron armlet worn by hunters, who are the servitors of Ogun, god of iron, and possess no virtue of themselves, being merely useful as serving to remind the gods that the wearers are under their protection. Others are amulets proper, and are believed to derive a protecting power from the gods, from whom they have, through the agency of the priests, been obtained. Amulets are generally sewn up in leather cases; those obtained from Mohammedans, and which usually consist of a verse from the Koran, always are.

The name onde means "one in bondage," and is compounded of eni, "a person," or "one who," and ide, "the act of being confined." This name seems to point to the former existence of a belief similar to that now held by the Tshi-tribes in regard to the Suhman; namely, that the amulet is animated by an indwelling spirit, who has been confined therein by a superior power. At the present time, however, the onde cannot be regarded in any way as being animated, or an orisha. Prayers are never addressed to it, nor are offerings presented to it; it is merely the instrument or vehicle through which the god from whom it was obtained acts, and by means of which events which affect the wearer of the onde are brought to the knowledge of the god.

An onde for the protection of the person is worn on the body, being tied round the wrist, neck, or ankle, or placed in the hair. Others, for the protection of property, are fastened to houses, or tied to sticks and stumps of trees in cultivated plots of ground. In consequence of their being tied on to the person or object they protect, the word edi, which really means the act of tying or binding, has now the meaning of amulet or charm, just as in Ewe the word vo-sesa (amulet) is derived from vo and sa, to tie or bind. Another word sometimes used to express amulet is ogun, which, however, more properly means medicinal preparation, poison, or magical drug.

The following are some examples of current superstitions.

(1) The fur of the choro, a kind of hare, is a charm which protects the house from fire.

(2) A house fumigated with the bark of the crun tree is purged of evil spirits and, consequently, of sickness. Charcoal made from the wood of this tree is largelyused as a medicine.

(3) Powder made of the leaves of the sensitive plant, is a charm to make the inmates of a house fall into a deep sleep, and is used by thieves.

(4) To kill an ajako, a kind of jackal, brings misfortune upon the slayer. A proverb says, "He who kills an ajako will suffer for it."

(5) The flocking of vultures denotes impending war. These birds prey on the slain, and so, by an inversion of ideas, are supposed to cause war.

(6) To break the bones of the crane called agufon causes calamity.

(7) Whoever touches the nest of the bird called ogarodo will die.

The Yorubas have the same superstitions in regard to the hooded crow, porcupine, tortoise, and wild cat (ogboya) as have the Ewe tribes.[1]

By country-custom no Yoruba may milk a cow, and in consequence cows are always tended by foreignborn slaves, usually Fulani.

We find a curious example of the manner in which objective and subjective connection are confused in the expression, Abede ni ti okira-" Right through is the cutting of the sword-fish." This saying is used as a charm by warriors, and is believed to ensure success,

[1. "Ewe Speaking Peoples," pp. 95, 97, and 98.]

because it is supposed that the sword-fish (okira) cuts in two all its foes in the sea.

The Yorubas have a superstition which has close points of resemblance to the "changeling" superstition of Northern Europe. It is referred to in many folk-lore tales, and the following is an example.

"There lived at Otta" (a village on the River Ibo, which is a tributary of the Ogun) "a woman named Bola, who had a male child. When the child was small the mother carried him on her back when she went to market, but when he became about nine months old she used to lay him down on a mat in her house, fasten the door, and go to market by herself. After this it always happened that when she returned from the market she found that all the food she had left in the house had disappeared. This seemed to her very strange, and she at first suspected her neighbours, but she always found the doorfastening untouched, and was unable to fathom the mystery.

"One day a neighbour came to her and said, 'I am going to the market at Orichi to-morrow morning early, and therefore must ask you to repay me the string of cowries that you sent your little boy to borrow from me.' Bola, much astonished, declared that she had borrowed no cowries from the woman, and had sent no one to her; but the neighbour persisted that Bola's child had come to her, and had borrowed a string of cowries in the name of his mother. 'Come, then,' said Bola, 'and see my child.'

"The two women went into the house where the child was sleeping on his mat. 'You see him,' said Bola, 'there he is, sleeping. Do you not see that be is yet too young, to walk? How then could he come to you? And how could he ask you for cowries, seeing that he cannot yet talk?

"The neighbour looked closely at the child, and then solemnly declared that it was really he who had come to her, but that when he came he was much big er than he was now, and had the appearance of a child of about ten years of age. "When Bola, heard this she was much distressed. She could not doubt her neighbour's word, and she feared that her child must be possessed by an evil spirit. She paid the neighbour the string of cowries, and begged her to say, nothing; then, when the child's father came to the house, she told him the whole story.

"The father and mother decided to search into the mystery. The father, therefore, carefully hid himself in the house, one day while the mother and child were out. Then Bola returned to the house with the child, put him down on the mat, said to him, 'Sleep good while I go to the market,' and then went out, and fastened the door as usual.

"Scarcely had Bola gone, than the father, from his hiding-place, saw the baby stand up, and begin to grow till he became a big boy. Then he went to the calabashes where the food was kept, and was beginning to eat it, when the father came out from his hiding-place.

"Immediately the child saw his father he became a little baby again, and lay on the floor crying. He was possessed by a spirit. His mother came back, and they beat him to drive the spirit out, so that the spirit fled."

The parallel between this tale and the changeling stories of Northern Europe is close. In the latter, as in the Yoruba version, the changeling, while in the presence of its foster-mother and others, affects to be an infant, but throws off his disguise as soon as he imagines himself to be alone. See, for instance, the tale called "The Father of Eighteen Elves," in Arnason's collection of Icelandic legends.[1] The only difference-an important one, it is true-is in the genesis of the changeling. In Europe it is an elfin child, who is substituted for a stolen human child, but here it is the child himself who is possessed by an evil spirit, just as an Abiku possesses a child, though with different results.

We also find a superstition which recalls that of the were-wolf, for the hyena (Kpelekpe) is often supposed to be a man who assumes that disguise at night, to prey upon sheep and cattle, and, if the opportunity offers, upon human beings. Such man-hyenas are believed to be able, by means of certain howls and cries, to compel people to go out to them in the dark forest to be devoured. A similar belief is found in Abyssinia.[2] The weird "laugh" of the hyena, and its nocturnal habits, no doubt account for this superstition, just as similar causes have led to the owl being universally regarded as a bird of ill omen.

A belief in metamorphosis is universal, and is not

[1. London, R. Bentley, 1864.

2. Mansfield Parkyns, "Life in Abyssinia," vol. ii. p. 146.]

limited to a change to an animal form, since men and women are sometimes transformed into trees, shrubs, rocks, or natural features. The shrub buje, whose fruit is used to stain the skin in imitation of tattoo marks, was a Yoruba belle of that name, who was metamorphosed. Her story will be found among the Tortoise Stories in the chapter on Folklore.

The Iyewa lagoon is also said to have been a woman. The story runs that a poor woman, named Iyewa, had two children, whom she had a hard struggle to support; but she used every day to go with them into the forest to gather firewood, which she carried to the town and sold for food. One day, when following her customary avocation, she and the children, finding wood scarce, wandered further into the forest than usual, and, when it was time to return, they could not find their way out. They walked hither and thither looking for the path, but in vain, and at last, tired out and tormented with thirst, they lay down to rest under a large tree. This rested their limbs, but their thirst increased, and the two children filled the forest with their lamentations, crying to their mother for water. The poor woman, half distracted, sprang to her feet, and again searched in every direction for the path and for water, but fruitlessly, and when at last she returned to her children she found them almost at the last gasp. Then, prostrating herself upon the earth, she called upon the gods to come to her assistance and save her children. The gods listened to her prayer, and Iyewa was at once changed into a lagoon, at which the children drank and so recovered; while next day they were found by neighbours who had come in search of them, and taken back to the town. When the children grew up they built a house by the side of the lagoon, which, in memory of their mother, they called Odo Iyewa, "The Lagoon of Iyewa."

Next: Chapter VII: The In-Dwelling Spirits And Souls of Men.