Witchcraft, divination and healing


Even if a person has a ‘good’ destiny, there are still dangers to be avoided if he is to achieve success in life. This is measured in terms of wealth, peace, prosperity, longevity and children (Awolalu, 1970; Leighton et al., 1963: 35ff). Full happiness only comes with the children who will be responsible for one’s burial. While good relations have to be maintained with the orisa and the ancestors, the greatest dangers probably lie in the activities of the witches. Witchcraft beliefs are still almost universal among the Yoruba, despite the growth of education and the spread of the world religions. They can easily be reconciled with Islamic or Christian belief, and a major attraction of the Aladura churches is their explicit attention to the problem. Witches in Yoruba belief are almost always women, and particularly old women. Their powers pass from mother to daughter, but can also be given to non-relatives, or even purchased. Yoruba magic on the other hand uses physical objects with known properties to achieve its results, and either men or women can be sorcerers. The Yoruba word for witch is aje, but normally euphemisms are used like awon iya wa, ‘our mothers’, or agbalagba, ‘the elders’. The stereotypes held about witches by the Yoruba are similar to those in many other parts of Africa: they are believed to be active at night and to have an insatiable appetite for sex. They are supposedly organised into egbe, initiation into which is thought to involve eating human flesh (Prince, 1961).

A number of measures can be taken to deal with the power of witches. Firstly, there are ‘medicines’ prescribed by a diviner. Secondly, there is membership of one of the cults explicitly opposed to witches such as Oro, Egungun or, in south-western Yorubaland, Gelede (Beier,1958). Thirdly, there is membership of the newer witchfinding cults or the Aladura churches. The Babalola revival in the 1930s which led to the rapid spread of Christianity in eastern Yorubaland also led to witch hunts in a number of areas (Mitchell, 1970a: 193; cf. Omoyajowo,1971: 715). The Tigari cult spread rapidly through Ghana, Dahomey and Togo into Egbado in 1951, before it was suppressed by the government (Morton-Williams, 1956b). In this case, most of the witches identified were old women. Witchcraft ‘confessions’ by old women are a common symptom of senile dementia. In Ogbomoso children started to stone an old woman who was wandering about outside our house claiming to have bewitched a number of people, and informants said they had seen similar incidents before.

Nevertheless, open witchcraft accusations against specific individuals are infrequent and people are more likely to take preventive action against witches in general, through ritual, charms and amulets. Where accusations occur, they are likely to be made against co-wives or wives of other men in the compound. These are clearly related to the tensions arising from polygyny and the wife’s subordination to more senior wives in the husband’s compound.

Though there are many systems of divination used by the Yoruba, the most important is Ifa (Bascom,1941; 1969b; Morton-Williams, 1966). The babalawo undergoes a long training, lasting several years. He divines either with sixteen palm nuts (ikin) or with a divining chain (opele). The opele is much quicker to use, but considered less reliable. If he is using palm nuts, the diviner passes them from one hand to the other, leaving one or two behind. Depending on the result, he makes a single or double mark in a tray of powder. He repeats the process eight times, leaving eight sets of marks in the tray in two columns of four. Each of the marks may be single or double, and there are 256 possible permutations or odu. The opele is made out of eight seeds or cowries joined together on a chain so that, when the chain is cast on the ground, each can fall face up or face down, corresponding to the single or double marks.

Each of the odu has its own name, rank and ese or verses associated with it. The diviners know at least four verses for each of the odu, and many more for the higher-ranking ones, those in which the two columns of four marks are identical. The verses consist of an assortment of folk tales, myths and historical narratives. They usually describe why on a particular occasion If a was consulted, the advice it gave, the sacrifice it prescribed, and a general moral. The verses are transmitted orally, and the diviner is constantly learning new ones throughout his career.

Ifa consultations vary in length. The client need not tell the diviner the nature of the problem, but may simply whisper it to a coin which is then placed in front of the diviner. In short consultations the diviner simply casts the chain, recites the ese of the odu which comes up, and leaves it to the client to make what he can of them as regards his own problems. In other cases, the diviner may make the initial cast, and then work through a long series of secondary questions, to find out whether good or evil is in store for the client, what sort of good or evil it is, and what he can do about it. If Ifa suggests a sacrifice, he can ask whether an offering to Esu is sufficient, or whether one to another orisa is necessary. Finally, the ese are recited. The logic of the method of answering questions is simple. Each of the odu is ranked, and the possible answers are each represented by a different symbol. A cast is made for each of the symbols, and the one which receives the highest-ranking cast is the one selected (Bascom, 1969b). Many of the odu are associated with particular orisa, or even with Islam, and this may give a clue to the solution of the client’s problem.

The criteria by which offerings to the orisa are chosen make an interesting subject of study in themselves (Awolalu,1973; 1978). Each of the orisa has its own tastes and taboos: the preference of Orisanla for white offerings and of Ogun for dogs are obvious examples. Some offerings are chosen for their qualities: palm oil and the liquid from snail shells are both associated with smoothness, peace and tranquillity. Others are linked with the effects they are supposed to produce through verbal association or myth (Verger, 1972). Most edible sacrifices are eaten by the worshippers themselves, with a small portion being left for Esu, but sometimes If a may specify that the whole offering is to be given to the orisa, and it will be burnt, buried, or exposed.

The objects chosen also depend on the importance of the occasion. The more urgent the need for maintaining or restoring relations with the supernatural, the higher the quality of the offering. Before the colonial period, the major communal sacrifices in many towns involved human victims, including major annual festivals, offerings at the start of a war, offerings to ward off a disaster, or on the foundation of a new town. Human victims were also used in some Ogboni rituals (Morton-Williams, 1960b). For the public rites, sheep and cows have been substituted long since.

Yoruba magical techniques and rites prescribed by the babalawo shade off into Yoruba medical practice, and the two are often combined (cf. Prince, 1960; 1964; Maclean,1971; Leighton et al., 1963). The Yoruba word ogun refers to either magic or medicine, and the babalawo is usually known for his medical skill as well as for his skill in divination.

Government medical facilities are unevenly distributed in Yorubaland, and where they are found they can have a dramatic effect on local mortality rates (Orubuloye and Caldwell, 1976). Whereas many villages have dispensaries which can deal with minor complaints, there are few hospitals outside the towns. In any case, queues in hospital out-patient departments are often long, and illiterate patients cannot always be sure that they will get the correct drugs from the dispenser at the end of the day, even if they are prepared to bribe him. The first reaction of most people to their own or their children’s sickness is to try and do something about it themselves. Older members of the compound usually know some herbal remedies which may work, and for those who can afford them there is a lively trade in patent medicines and prescription drugs in the markets. There are also a lot of quack remedies around. If these measures fail, the patient will have to look elsewhere. In the rural areas, the usual alternative is a babalawo or other expert. Even in the towns, traditional healers still have a flourishing clientele, along with the Muslim diviners and the Aladura prophets. The choice of healer often depends on the nature of the disease. While a patient with a chest or stomach complaint is likely to be taken to the hospital, those suffering >from barrenness, impotence or psychiatric complaints are more likely to be taken to other healers. The treatment given by a healer may include both a herbal potion with pharmaceutical properties to deal with the symptoms, and a sacrifice to appease the orisa. Yoruba healers make use of an enormous variety of items, ranging from plants and herbs to pieces of dried birds and animals. There are stalls selling these exotic ingredients in most markets of any size. Verger has shown (1972) how many of these items have names or attributes related verbally to the effects which they are required to produce, and he suggests that the same is true of many of the spells and incantations (ofo) which are used along with them. Buckland (1976) suggests that underlying Yoruba medicinal practice, as well as other aspects of Yoruba belief, is a paradigm derived from a theory of conception, bringing together the colours red (menstrual blood) and white (sperm) within the black skin of the mother, and he relates folk theories of diseases like leprosy, which lead to red or white patches on the skin, and their treatments, to this paradigm.

In this abbreviated survey of traditional religion, a number of general characteristics emerge which find parallels in the world religions as they have developed among the Yoruba. Firstly, Yoruba religion deals largely with the problems of the individual in this world. It is not concerned with a systematic and logically coherent set of beliefs, but with ritual techniques which are believed to work. God is distant: ritual centres on a variety of intermediaries, especially the orisa. Witchcraft and sorcery are seen as major causes of suffering, but the diviners can provide information on the nature of the problem and help on both the physical and spiritual levels, as well as providing knowledge of the future.

Secondly, religion and the social structure are closely linked. The ancestor cult is an extension of the kinship system, and the descent group is in some contexts a religious congregation in which the elders have ritual authority. However, the correlation between kinship and religious affiliation is not perfect, and cult groups cross-cut descent groups. The oba as the symbol of the community is also involved in the festivals of its major cults. How far these characteristics are also found in the Yoruba versions of the world religions will be considered in the following sections

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