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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


The natural and the supernatural

Few Britons have seen bacteria. We rarely think about them unless they cause disease. And even today many people are ignorant that bacteria are essential to healthy organic life. If we have to deal with them, whether to kill the malign bacteria which cause dysentery or to increase their benign activity in a compost heap, we consult a specialist. Normally, if we think about them at all, we simply take them on trust. But most of us, if challenged, would say that they are a natural and inescapable part of our environment.

No traditional Baganda have seen a ghost (Baganda ghosts are not expected to be seen. They work in other ways). Although custom directed that shrines to the dead should be tended regularly, they usually were neglected unless the ghost of the deceased caused trouble. The benign activity of ghosts was so much taken for granted as to be hardly mentioned except on very special occasions. If, hwever, a ghost caused trouble a specialist was consulted. But, if challenged, traditional Baganda would say that ghosts were a natural and inescapable part of their environment. There was nothing "supernatural" about them. Indeed, the contrast between "natural" and "supernatural" cannot be expressed in the Luganda language.

The idea that religion has to do with the supernatural, that is with miracles and the breaking of "natural law", is deeply ingrained in Western thinking. We think of the "natural" and "supernatural" as two entirely different realms to such an extent that some of us find it extremely difficult to believe that a supernatural world exists at all.

Contrast our way of thinking with two folk-tales which show how differently the Baganda thought about what we would call "the supernatural":

When Kintu, first king of the Baganda, came to the country, he was alone except for his cow. He ate its dung and drank its urine and enjoyed its company. One day, sliding down the rainbow from the sky, which was ruled by a king called Ggulu, came Ggulu's sons and daughters to have a look at the earth. One daughter, Nnambi, fell in love with Kintu and determined to marry him. Her brothers told their father, who advised them to steal Kintu's cow so that he would die. But Nnambi saw what happened and took Kintu to the sky to recover it. Ggulu set Kintu impossible tasks: to eat 10,000 helpings of food and beer; to use a copper axe to cut a rock into firewood; to collect a pot of drinking water from the dew; and finally to find his own cow among 40,000 others. All these Kintu accomplished and drew wondering praise from Ggulu. He married Nnambi; and they went back to earth to breed the Baganda.

Whatever the moral of this story, it is clear that the wonder-worker was Kintu the man, not Ggulu the "ruler of the sky" whom we would call a god. Kintu and Ggulu dealt with each other as any Baganda suitor would deal his potential father-in-law. Earth and sky, man and heavenly being, do not represent different, incomparable, levels of existence in this story but are part of a single, intercommunicating, whole.

Nnambi's brothers, Walumbe, followed the happy pair to earth and, out of jealousy, became the spirit of disease and death. He was eventually chased away and lived in a hole in the earth. But he was finally responsible for all death; and all ghosts had to visit him before returning to their clan graveyards. On one occasion a hunter, called Mpobe, followed his dog, which was chasing an edible rat; and the rat ran down Walumbe's hole. At the bottom was a village and many people and, a little further on, an old man who was Walumbe. Mpobe was, not unnaturally, afraid; and he knelt down, as any Muganda would kneel to a chief. He explained how he had come and was allowed to go home on condition that he told nobody where he had been. Else, Walumbe would kill him. In the end, of course, he blabbed to his mother and Walumbe came to claim him. Mpobe asked if he might first sell his things, buy a cow and eat it. Permission was given; and Mpobe made the deal last over several years before he finally had to pay his debt.

There is no suggestion here that death not something to be avoided. But Death does not appear as a terrible figure but as a patient creditor-having certainly the last word but, dealing with man on almost equal terms.

The recent experience of a Marakwet woman in Kenya, interviewed in the 1960's, tells the same story. In a dream she was visited by the ghost of her dead son, who asked her to get him his favourite fruit. This she did, leaving it at the spot he indicated. The next night he again asked for fruit. She replied, 'If you can't come home without making a nuisance of yourself, why don't you stay where you are?' So the third night he just came for a chat.

‘There is nothing more natural than the supernatural;’ and any attempt to understand the religious experience of traditional Africans must begin from a reversal of our normal secular Western, but not particularly Christian, idea that the "natural" and "supernatural" are different. Certainly, there is a recognition, in many African societies, of a hierarchy of power. The Creator God, if there is a belief in him or it, is the source of this power, as he or it is the source of all things. But power is found, in descending order, in lesser spirits, in ancestral ghosts, in chiefs, who are often the focus of communication with the spirits, in witches and sorcerers. Finally in ordinary men and women, animals, plants and inanimate things.

Sometimes this power is personalised. The Baganda, for instance, have many stories of pregnant girls, deserted by their lovers, who gave birth to water instead of a child. The water became a river; and the girl's spirit might catch unwary travelers and drown them. Near one village in Uganda there lived a leopard which kept the people in its care and warned them if other leopards were coming to steal their stock. An animal's horn, which had been filled with suitable ingredients and empowered by a spirit, could be used by its owner to do jobs for him at a distance and could speak to him.

Sometimes the power has to be put into things, as into the horn and articles of sorcery which will be discussed later. But sometimes it is inherent. A Buganda man who killed the animal after which his clan is named was believed to have killed his clan totem and automatically died. If a pregnant woman laughed at a lame person, her child would be born lame. If a sheep, a goat or a dog got onto the roof of a house, the inhabitants would leave it at once, saying it was unlucky to live there. All these things were 'taboo.'

When this power was first described by Europeans, it was called by the Melanesian word mana. The Melanesians used mana to explain any exceptional excellence or skill in men - the power of a chief, the success of a warrior, skill in rearing pigs or raising large crops of food. The attempt to obtain mana was thought to be the basis of Melanesian religion. A similar idea was later found in Polynesia, where mana was described as an all-pervasive psychic force behaving very much like electricity. People and things which were positively 'charged' could pass it by contact to one that was 'negative'. Unless this process was properly controlled, damage might result. A positively charged chief, for instance, might come into contact with a commoner. The chief would lose some of his power; and the commoner might be injured. An example of this type of reaction in 2 Samuel 6.6f. Therefore 'taboos' were imposed to prevent the fatal contact.

But the electrical metaphor, which was so effectively used to describe the action of mana, can be used to illuminate the relation between 'natural' and 'supernatural'. Sir Arthur Eddington once pointed out that a physicist's description of matter in terms of electrons and protons might easily give the impression that a chair consists largely of wide-open space - hardly a suitable support for sitting. The common-sense account is entirely different. Common sense can normally disregard the electrical basis of matter. Electrical forces become of concern to common sense when they are not properly controlled - when lightning strikes, for instance - or when they are harnessed to human welfare to produce effects which are impossible without them. To harness them requires specialist skill; lightning may be extremely frightening. But we do not therefore regard electricity as supernatural. It is an inescapable part of our natural environment with special powers for good or ill. It is very much in this way that traditional peoples understand the power which operates in taboos and magic, through the ghosts and the spirits. It underlies all life; but 'common sense' can normally disregard it. When out-of-the-way things happen, or when a man needs special power for a particular purpose - to deal with misfortune or to seek unusual success - he becomes aware, as we become aware of electricity, of something which he believes to be around him and available all the time.

But a word of warning is necessary. Electricity can be dangerous as well as useful. The Doctor Who stories suggest how the popular imagination fears electricity when it gets into the hands of men who use it for their own evil ends. An electric iron may give a fatal shock. So a man who can control mana may be feared as well as admired. If he can use it to improve his own crops, he can equally well use it to do harm to others. Among the Lugbara of Uganda, a man who consistently has better crops than his neighbours is liable to be accused of witchcraft and punished.

There are three ways in which men have looked at the universe (other ways may be possible). One is that of materialism, which sees all phenomena as matter organised in less or more complicated forms but, because it is matter, ultimately subject to control by man. The second, which has been described in this chapter, sees all phenomena as the expression of a mysterious force, which may or may not be personalised, which men may try to control for their own advantage but to which they are ultimately subject. The third divides phenomena into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, the one subject to man's control the other wholly mysterious. In order to understand the ‘religions’ described in this book, it is necessary to try to suspend judgement as to which of theses views of the universe is true and to enter as fully as possible into the point of view of the second.

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