(Note: The north of Africa, including the Sahara and the
Sudan, has been Islamic territory for many centuries. For a discussion
of Islamic magic and alchemy, see the entry Arabs. Instances
of Arabic sorcery are also discussed in the Semites
Beliefs and practices thought of as occult in Western society
were integral to the traditional tribal religions in the southern
two-thirds of Africa, especially those concerning sympathetic
magic, the cult of the dead, and witchcraft. During the history
of this region, the basically pantheistic and polytheistic religions
have also been cross-fertilized with Islamic and Christian
teachings, creating new beliefs and modifying old ones. Today
a large but undetermined number of Africans follow traditional
beliefs involving deities, ghosts, and spirits as well as an array
of special powers in nature presided over by the supreme entity
adopted from Christianity and Islam. The latter, somewhat remote
from everyday problems, is believed to largely operate on
humans through the many other deities.
Among the Zulu and other Bantu tribes of equatorial and
southern Africa, witchcraft or malevolent sorcery was traditionally
practicedin secret, for the results of detection were terrible.
Tribes instituted a caste of witchfinders assigned the task
of tracking down witches.
The nineteenth-century writer Lady Mary Anne Barker observed,
It is not difficult to understand, bearing in mind the superstition
and cruelty which existed in remote parts of England
not so very long ago; how powerful such women become among
a savage people, or how tempting an opportunity they could
furnish of getting rid of an enemy. Of course they are exceptional
individuals; more observant, more shrewd, and more
dauntless than the average fat, hard-working Kaffir women, besides
possessing the contradictory mixture of great physical
powers and strong hysterical tendencies. They work themselves
up to a pitch of frenzy, and get to believe as firmly in their own
supernatural discernment as any individual among the trembling
circle of Zulus to whom a touch from the whisk they carry
is a sentence of instant death.
The Zulu witchfinders were attended by a circle of girls and
women who, like a Greek chorus, clapped their hands and repeated
a low chant, the measure and rhythm of which changed
at times with a stomp and a swing of the arm. Ceremonial dress
was also an important part of the witch doctors role, for such
things appealed directly to the imagination of the crowd and
prepared onlookers to be readily swayed by the necromancers
devices. One of the witchfinders, Nozinyanga, was especially
impressive. Her fierce face, spotted with gouts of red paint on
cheek and brow, was partly overshadowed by a helmetlike
plume of the tall feathers of the sakabula bird. In her right
hand she carried a light sheaf of assegais (spears), and on her
left arm was slung a small and pretty shield of dappled oxhide.
Her petticoat, made of a couple of large handkerchiefs, was
worn kiltwise. From neck to waist she was covered with beadnecklaces,
goats-hair fringes, and the scarlet tassels. Her chest
rose and fell beneath the baldric of leopard skin, fastened
across with huge brazen knobs, while down her back hung a
beautifully dried and flattened skin of an enormous boa constrictor.
When the community had resolved that a certain misfortune
was caused by witches, the next step was to find and punish
them. For this purpose the king summoned a great meeting,
his subjects sitting on the ground in a ring or circle for four or
five days. The witchfinders took their places in the center, and
as they gradually worked themselves up to an ecstatic state, resembling
possession, they lightly switched with their quaggatail
one of the trembling spectators, who was immediately
dragged away and butchered, along with all of his or her relatives
and livestock. Sometimes a whole kraal was exterminated
in this way, so reminiscent of European witch-hunts.
Barker also described a sorceress named Nozilwane, whose
wistful glance, she noticed, had in it something uncanny and
uncomfortable. She was dressed beautifully in lynx skins folded
over and over from waist to knee, the upper part of her body
covered by strings of wild beasts teeth and fangs, beads, skeins
of gaily colored yarn, strips of snakeskin, and fringes of Angora
goat fleece. Lynx tails hung like lappets on each side of her
face, which was overshadowed and almost hidden by a profusion
of sakabula feathers. This bird, Barker commented, has
a very beautiful plumage, and is sufficiently rare for the natives
to attach a peculiar value and charm to the tail-feathers; they
are like those of a young cock, curved and slender, and of a
dark chestnut color, with a white eye at the extreme tip of each
feather. Among all this thick, floating plumage were interspersed
small bladders and skewers or pins wrought out of
tusks. Like the other witchfinders, she wore her hair highly
greased and twisted up with twine until it ceased to have the appearance
of hair and hung around the face like a thick fringe,
dyed deep red.
Bent double and with a catlike gait, Nozilwane came forward.
Every movement of her undulating body kept time to the
beat of the girls hands and their low crooning chant. Soon she
pretended to find the thing she sought, and with a series of wild
pirouettes leaped into the air, shaking her spears and brandishing
her shield like a bacchante. Nowamso, another of the
party, was determined that her companion should not get all
the applause, and she too, with a yell and a leap, sprang into
the dance to the sound of louder grunts and harder handclaps.
Nowamso was anxious to display her back, where a magnificent
snakeskin, studded in a regular pattern with brass-headed
nails, floated like a stream. She was attired also in a splendid
kilt of leopard skins, decorated with red rosettes, and her dress
was considered more careful and artistic than any of the others.
Nozilwane, however, had youth and stamina on her side.
The others, although they all joined in and hunted out an
imaginary enemy, and in turn exulted over his discovery, soon
became breathless and spent and were glad when their attendants
led them away to be anointed and to drink water.
The magical beliefs of central and eastern Africa were for
the most part connected with beliefs and practices concerning
the dead and the honoring of images. When the ghost of a
dead person was weary of staying in the bush, many believed
that the spirit would come for one of the people over whom
they exerted the most influence. The spirit would say to that
person, I am tired of dwelling in the bush, please to build for
me in the town a little house as close as possible to your own.
The spirit would also instruct him to dance and sing, and accordingly
he would assemble the women at night to join in
dance and song.
Then, the next day, the people would go to the grave of the
obambo, or ghost, and make a crude image, after which a bamboo
bier, on which a body is conveyed to the grave, and some
of the dust of the ground were carried into a little hut erected
near the house of the visited, and a white cloth was draped over
the door. A curious element of the ritual, which seems to show
that these people had a legend something like the old Greek
myth of Charon and the river Styx, was a song chanted during
the ceremony with the following line: You are well dressed,
but you have no canoe to carry you across to the other side.
In most preindustrial cultures, epileptic diseases were assumed
to be the result of demoniac possession. In much of Africa
the sufferer was supposed to be possessed by Mbwiri, and the
person was relieved only by the intervention of the medicine
man (priest) or a spirit or deity. In the middle of the street a
hut was built for the sufferer, and there he resided, along with
the priest and his disciples, until cured, or maddened. Townspeople
held a continuous revel, including what seemed like unending
dances to the sound of flute and drum, for ten days to
two weeks, engaging in much eating and drinking all at the expense
of the patients relatives.
The patient at some point danced, usually feigning madness,
until the epileptic attack came on accompanied by a frenzied
stare, convulsed limbs, the gnashing of teeth. The mans
actions at this point were not ascribed to himself, but to the
demon that had control of him. When a cure, real or pretended,
had been effected the patient built a little house for the spirit
image, avoided certain kinds of food, and performed certain
duties. Sometimes the process terminated in the patients insanity;
some were known to run away to the bush, hide from all
human beings, and live on the roots and berries of the forest.
One European writer observed of the tribal medicine man,
[They] are priest doctors, like those of the ancient Germans.
They have a profound knowledge of herbs, and also of
human nature, for they always monopolise the real power in
the state. But it is very doubtful whether they possess any secrets
save that of extracting virtue and poison from plants. During
the first trip which I made into the bush I sent for one of
these doctors. At that time I was staying among the Shekani,
who are celebrated for their fetish [image]. He came attended
by half-a-dozen disciples. He was a tall man dressed in white,
with a girdle of leopards skin, from which hung an iron bell,
of the same shape as our sheep bells. He had two chalk marks
over his eyes. I took some of my own hair, frizzled it with a
burning glass, and gave it to him. He popped it with alacrity
into his little grass bag; for white mans hair is fetish of the first
order. Then I poured out some raspberry vinegar into a glass,
drank a little of it first, country fashion, and offered it to him,
telling him that it was blood from the brains of great doctors.
Upon this he received it with great reverence, and dipping his
fingers into it as if it was snap-dragon, sprinkled with it his forehead,
both feet between the two first toes, and the ground behind
his back. He then handed his glass to a disciple, who emptied
it, and smacked his lips afterwards in a very secular
manner. I then desired to see a little of his fetish. He drew on
the ground with red chalk some hieroglyphics, among which I
distinguished the circle, the cross, and the crescent. He said
that if I would give him a fine dush, he would tell me about
it. But as he would not take anything in reason, and as I knew
that he would tell me nothing of very great importance in public,
negotiations were suspended.
The claims of the priest to possess supernatural powers were
seldom questioned. He was not only a doctor and a priest who
intervened with the spirits and deitiestwo capacities in which
his influence was necessarily very powerfulhe was also a
witchfinder, and this office invested him with a truly formidable
authority. When a man of worth died, his death was invariably
ascribed to witchcraft, and the aid of the priest was invoked to
discover the witch.
When a man was sick a long time, his neighbors called
Ngembi, and if she could not make him well, they called the
priest. He came at night, in a white dress, with cocks feathers
on his head, carrying a bell and a little glass. He called two or
three of the victims relatives together. He did not speak, but
always looked in his glass. Then he told them that the sickness
was not of Mbwiri, nor of a ghost, nor of God, but that it came
from a witch. They would say to him, What shall we do? He
would then go out and say, I have told you. I have no more
to say. They then gave him a dollars worth of cloth, and every
night they gathered together in the street and cried, I know
that man who bewitched my brother. It is good for you to make
him well. Then the witch made him well.
If the man did not recover they called the bush doctor from
the Shekani country. At night he went into the street; all the
people flocked about him. With a tiger skin in his hand, he
walked to and fro, until, singing all the while, he laid the tiger
skin at the feet of the witch. At the conclusion of his song the
people seized the witch and put him or her in chains, saying,
If you dont restore our brother to health, we will kill you.
Western Occultism in Africa
Today more than 100 million Africans follow a form of Islamic
faith, and an almost equal number some form of Christianity.
In addition to Roman Catholic and Protestant faiths,
there are many variant forms of Christianity, and many Christian
groups have become independent of the older missionary
churches and reorganized as indigenous religious bodies. The
religious picture has been confused in recent years as a result
of the unrest attending the throwing off of colonial regimes and
the establishment of autonomous governments. Another important
factor in the changes surfacing on the entire continent,
in addition to political reform and upheaval, has been the education
of many young Africans at American and European universities.
As they travel back to Africa with western ideas and
the seeds for a new way of economic survival, the scene is likely
to change on all frontseven regarding their own ancient superstitions
and folk legends.
In the midst of these changes, Western occult, metaphysical,
and mystical literature has circulated through the continent
since the 1920s, especially in South Africa, the central African
states, and such West African nations as Ghana and Nigeria.
Since World War II there has been a noticeable popular response
to such ideas. As early as 1925 the Rosicrucians were
present in West Africa, and New Thought was introduced into
Africa in the 1930s when several American teachers toured the
country and assisted in the formation of the School of Practical
Christianity in 1937 (now known as the School of Truth). Today
a broad range of such groups as the Church of Religious Science,
the Unity School of Christianity, Swedenborgians, and
the Church Universal and Triumphant are in existence. In the
last two decades, guru-oriented groups such as ECKANKAR,
Subud, and the Grail Movement, and some of the new Japanese
religions have appeared. Numerous gurus, including Maharishi
Mehesh Yogi, Satya Sai Baba, and Guru Maharaj Ji
have a following. The New Age movement has been particularly
strong in South Africa, mostly among the white population,
and has provoked the appearance of a reactionary anti-New
Most interesting has been the emergence of new indigenous
African metaphysical movements. Typical of these are the Spiritual
Fellowship and the Esom Fraternity Company, both operating
in Nigeria. The latter, for example, has established a
training school specializing in the healing arts and sciences and
what is called a cosmic hospital. The Spiritual Fellowship
grew out of the literary efforts of A. Peter Akpan, who has developed
an eclectic program of spiritual development aimed at
attaining the higher levels of consciousness. Yogi Kane is a
Hindu teacher operating in the Senegal, where he teaches what
he terms Egyptian yoga. East and West come together in
these new movements in a mutual affirmation of astrology, divination,
spiritual healing, and an esoteric approach to life.
These indigenous have also become an avenue for the advancement
of women who often must assume a secondary role in traditional
African religions as well as in Christianity and Islam.
Gardiner, John. The New Age Cult in South Africa. Cape
Town: Stuikhof, 1991.
Hackett, Rosalind I. J. New Age Trends in Nigeria: Ancestral
and or Alien Religion? In Perspectives on the New Age, edited
by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1992.
. Religion in Calabar: The Religious Life and History of a
Nigerian Town. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1989.
Oosthuizen, Gehardus C. The Newness of the New Age in
South Africa and Reactions to It. In Perspectives on the New Age,
edited by James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1992.
Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. London:
Sheldon Press, 1974. Reprint, New York: Harper, 1977.
Wellard, James. Lost Worlds of Africa. New York: E. P. Dutton,