Yoruba Concept of Witches

Witchcraft, the extra-natural interference in the welfare of the community by women, has long since ceased to be a source of major concern in Western society. In many other
areas of the world, however, the witch remains a very active and vital image in the consciousness of the people, This is certainly true for the Yoruba, a negro group
occupying large areas of Nigeria, Dahomey and Togo land along the north-west coast of Africa. With the Yoruba (irrespective of his social level, religion or education), belief in the witch and in her powers is all but universal.
The study of witchcraft, both as it exists in contemporary
cultures and as it has existed in the Western community at
different periods in the past, raises a number of
interesting questions for the student of psychology and
sociology. If witchcraft is not a genuine phenomenon, why
is the witch fantasy so prevalent in so many different
cultures throughout the world? What is it about the human
female that provokes such similar pictures of her magical
malevolence in such diverse cultures? What changes have
occurred in Western culture that have allowed the witch
fantasy to lose its erstwhile potency? A study of the witch
is she exists today among the Yoruba may help elucidate
these problems.

THE WITCH IN YORUBA THEOLOGY
Yoruba legend has it that certain women once went to the
malevolent trickster god Eshu to ask for the power of
witchcraft. Eshu was willing to give it to them but he had
to refer them to Orunmila, the god of Fate. Orunmila would
not allow them to go out into the world with the power of
witchcraft until they promised to honour certain signs and
materials to serve men as protections against their power.
They agreed to this but it was necessary for them to go on
to Olorun, the Lord of all, to make their agreement
binding. This transaction is mentioned in certain ancient
Ifa verses of unknown origin which are used in divination.
“ldi ogbungbun, aworo niye,
They went to Alara’s house and kill him,
They went to Ajero’s house and kill him,
They went to Orangun’s house and kill him.
You pluck the Okro of Ejiwo
You eat the Camwood of Ailoran
You kill the stammering water of Owu.
When Eshu came, you left for a place in the sky and it
received you not,
Then you went to Orunmila and when you got there, you
greeted him and he asked
you where you were going.
Then you said you were going into the world to be killing
people and to be debarring
their progress.
It is a forbidden act to eat soap.
Then Orunmila said that he would not allow the gates to be
opened unto you,
unless you go to the Almighty God, when you got there, you
explain yourselves to him.
Then the almighty God said:
‘Spittle once out of the mouth, will not come back to the
mouth again,
The grass that the elephants tread will never rise again,
Therefore you must not change your agreement
And anybody with this sign on should be honoured’.”
(Ifa Odu, Idi Meji)

THE NATURE OF THE WITCH
It is clear then that in Yorubaland, witchcraft is a
feminine art and has its power from Eshu, the trickster
god, and was sanctioned, if somewhat reluctantly, by
Orunmila (lfa) the god of Fate, and by Olorun, the Lord of
all. This power is generally attributed to older women, but
young women or even girls can sometimes be involved.
According to some informants, witchcraft power is a kind of
immaterial substance which may be kept in a calabash hidden
in a hole in the wall of the witch’s house, or in a hollow
tree. The power itself may be lodged in the roots of a tree
or even in a young child (age 1 to 8 years). In the latter
case the witchcraft power will not harm the child but, on
the contrary, will protect the child from other witches as
the child is serving one of them as a refuge. The red tail-
feather of the parrot is used as a sign of witchcraft
power, and may be placed in the calabash or in the tree
containing the witchcraft power. (I have been unable to
find out the origin of this use of the red feather or why
it should come to have this association with the witch.)
Other informants regard the power as a more concrete
substance which is present in the woman’s abdomen. As one
man said: “I have seen two women vomit it out. It was like
a stone or a hard ball of something. Witchcraft seems generally
to be held as a desirable skill because of the great power
it provides; however, there is also the idea that the
spirit of the witch after death becomes a restless and
disconsolate ghost who wanders about the world in a
distraught state. The power is usually passed from mother
to daughter, but it may also be bestowed as a gift, or may
be purchased. When passed from one person to the other it
is often given mixed with certain foods. It is sometimes
held that a woman cannot die possessing witchcraft power
but must pass it on to someone before her death; in fact,
she will not be able to die unless she does so.
Perhaps some actual comments by Yoruba informants would
help clarify these aspects.
“Witchcraft power is like a breeze, you can’t see it but it
has effect. A woman can’t die possessing it-when she dies,
she vomits out the invisible witchcraft and it passes to
her daughter.”
“A wornan can buy witchcraft power or may, as well, inherit
it from another person. This mostly depends on the interest
or love the witchcraft woman has in the person that is
going to possess it. Some people when they suffer too
much, seek for this power. In this case she has to buy it.
But it is very necessary, and matter of must, to give this
witchcraft power to somebody before she should die. In this
case, if she could not get anybody either to buy it or to
give it out as a gift to her friend outside, or to have a
daughter she loved that can inherit it, she has to take it
to an Iroko tree that is very young. This will become a
spirit in the tree. Other witches will be coming to this
tree to have their meetings. It is such trees that
herbalists carry their sacrifices to in case they have a
patient that is seriously sick.”
“Through many informants I believe that a woman may buy,
inherit or be presented with this power. This is not given
directly. It can be given through foods such as baked beans
(Akara), Kola, Porridge, red Yam (Esuru) and many other
native foods. When this is taken the power will start to
grow, until when the person will start to fly in the
night.”

THE POWERS OF THE WITCH
Witches are considered to have great power-“They are the
rulers of the world, they get their power from God who gave
them permission to kill. They have no mercy. They can do
anything.” They are said sometimes to have favourites whom
they protect and make wealthy but these positive aspects
are not emphasized-they are mostly spoken of in connection
with their malevolence. The Yoruba word for witch is Aje. word Aje is avoided as much
as possible or at least spoken in a whisper (for fear of
attracting the witch’s attention or offending her). The
expressions “Agbalagba” witchcraft (old people), “awon iya”
(our mothers) or “Awon eni toni aiye” (those who a calabash
rule the world) being substituted. A witch’s malignancy may
be turned upon a man for almost any reason-for some slight
impoliteness, or because he accuses her of being a witch,
or because he is getting too high in the world or often for
no reason “just because they are evil women”.
One of the commonest fantasies about the powers of the
witch is that she can transform her “heart-soul” (Okan)
into a bird or animal. This occurs at night and her
physical body remains in a deep sleep while her transformed
heart-soul moves abroad. A woman who sleeps on her back
with her mouth open and arms outstretched is probably a
witch. She cannot be awakened while her heart-soul is
abroad and if someone captures the bird or animal into
which her soul has been transformed she will not be able to
wake up; if the creature is killed the witch will die. Most
witches transform themselves into night birds of some
type…these have been variously described to me as “a white
bird with a long red beak and red claws” or “a brown bird
like a bush fowl with a long red beak” Alternatively they
may transform themselves into owls, cats, rats or bats, the
common feature being that these creatures are all active by
night, for it is believed that witchcraft is a nocturnal
thing, the witches being most active between 12 and 3 a.m.
in the realms of dream and nightmare. If the witch’s
activities are brought into the light of day, they lose
their potency, e.g., by confession. It is believed that the
witch bird perches by night in a tree close to the victim’s
house. An owl perched in a tree near a man’s house will
cause considerable alarm to the householder. The actual
manner in which the witch bird damages her victim is
obscure but I have been told that it pecks its victim’s
head or neck and sucks out his blood. There is a saying,
“Aje ke lana, omo ku loni” (the witch bird chirped
yesterday, the child dies today).
Witches are considered to take part in some obscure
nocturnal orgies (ajo) for which one member of the witch
party must supply a human child.

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