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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


The sport of the gods

Psychic forces are important, at one end of the scale, in individual sickness and misfortune: at the other in preserving the whole structure of society. They are equally important at every point of life. Skill in agriculture, in managing stock, in war and hunting is necessary. But, if the psychic forces are not favourable, no amount of skill will avail. In contemporary terms, anybody can 'have a day off'. He may be world-famous; but, if he is suffering from emotional strain, he may easily do bad work, or lose his match to an inferior player, or have a car accident. There are British rituals connected with all these activities - shaving and dressing well to suggest smartness at work; singing hymns at football matches; carrying a Saint Christopher medal on the car keys. Although they may be psychologically important (psychic causes have real effects in the physical world), it would be difficult to show that any of them has a direct bearing on the skills required.

So, among the Marakwet, when a crop was ready for harvest, a few ears were plucked and rubbed in the hands over the fire so that they burst with a characteristic plop. To ensure the health and increase of his stock, a man crushed the root of a plant with saltlick and water. The mixture was sprinkled over the stock (preferably by a daughter aged about thirteen) every morning for four days; and, during that time, no visitor might enter the homestead nor eat food prepared in it. Before setting out for war, a diviner was consulted as to the likely prospects. If he was not available, there were ordinary people who 'had feet' - they could foretell the immediate future from whether, as they walked, their toes struck stone, wood or soil. If the rains failed, a sacrifice of a spotless black sheep was made to Ilat (lightning). Only men and women whose first-born children were girls might take part. The tail of the sheep, mixed with blood, bones and the contents of the stomach, was burnt on a fire of green wood; and, as the smoke rose, the participants danced round the fire, praying,'Man of the Waters, rescue us! Save us! Why do you let the land grow dry? Send us rain!' Ilat was conceived as a personal being with power over lightning and water and acting as the agent of God in the detection of thieves. It is to be noticed that he had no specialist priests to offer him sacrifice. About fifty per cent of adult men and women must have been entitled to take part.

A rather more specialised system was found in Buganda. Ggulu, the spirit of the sky, and Walumbe, the spirit of death, have already been mentioned (Chapter Two). Ggulu controlled the rain and, through his son Kiwanuka, the lightning. Kitaka, spirit of the earth, was consulted by the king whenever somebody was to be put to death. Kitaka would capture the ghost of the victim so that it did not trouble the king. Musisi was spirit of earthquakes. Katonda was 'creator'; but very little attention was paid to him; and he does not seem to have been regarded as more important than any of the other spirits. Far more important was Mukasa, spirit of Lake Victoria, who gave increase of food, cattle and children and healed both the bodies and the minds of men.

Of these, Musisi and Mukasa were said to have been originally men, belonging to a family which lived on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria. Indeed, one Muganda authority, who had ample opportunity to know the old customs and beliefs, wrote that 'all spirits were originally merely men. Because of their excellence in this life, they were given special powers when they died.' This is probably an exaggeration. It seems much more likely that the Baganda originally personified the powers of nature and that to these they added legendary heroes who had done exceptional deeds in life. For some reason or other, they came to feel that the organisation of society was more important than the struggle with nature and thus that all spirits had a human origin.

The story goes that, when the eighth king was at war with the neighbouring Banyoro, he sent for help to Ssese and obtained Kibuuka, who was the brother of Mukasa. Kibuuka floated in a cloud and was able to direct operations from that vantage point. Unfortunately (like Samson) he got entangled with a Munyoro woman captive who learnt his secret, escaped and told her people. Next day, they shot their arrows into the cloud and killed Kibuuka. His body was buried. But his ghost started speaking through one of those who had buried him. A shrine was built for him, where his ghost was treated with almost as much honour as a king. He was regularly sent human sacrifices; and his mediums (men through whom he was supposed to speak) accompanied the armies to war to advise the generals. Other spirits of war were Nende and Kirabire, said to be sons of Mukasa and brothers of Musoke, spirit of the rainbow. Mukasa's great-uncle, Wanga, was said to have restored the sun to the sky (presumable after an eclipse) in the reign of the sixteenth king. There is obviously something wrong with this chronology; but chronology is a relatively sophisticated concern.

Another spirit was Ddungu, who seems to have been imported from Bunyoro. He was particularly concerned with hunters, who offered him beer and left their spears overnight in his shrine. (Another custom of hunters was that, if a buffalo were killed, a shrine was built for its ghost outside the hunter's house, lest it kill him on his next expedition). Kawali and Kawumpuli were responsible for smallpox and plague - that is, for epidemics rather than individual sickness. One was the son, the other a nephew, of kings. Kawumpuli's nurse, Nabuzaana, became the guardian spirit of women and her living attendants acted as specialist midwives. Nalwanga, mother of Mukasa, assisted childless women to bear children. Two other female spirits, Nagadya, mother of Kibuuaka, and Nagawonyi, interceded with Ggulu and Musoke in time of drought. (When the rain was very heavy, or the lightning severe, smoky fires were burnt to keep the clouds from falling; and drums were beaten to draw the attention of the spirits to the presence of people who might be hurt by the elements).

These are only a few of the many spirits recognised in Buganda. Each of them had one or more shrines supervised by 'priests' who were in charge of administration and offered sacrifices when occasion demanded. Very few of them expected bloody sacrifice - whether of men or animals. But, often, large estates were associated with the shrines and gifts of many kinds might be given - of men or women to act as attendants, of cows and goats to swell their herds, of beer to drink or cowrie shells to use in decoration. At least the more famous of them were treated with the same honour as the ghosts of kings; and it might be difficult for an outsider to distinguish between the shrine of a spirit and that of a king's jawbone. The kings were dependent on them and might suffer for offences against them. But they were also dependent on the king. A shrine might not be built, nor the successor to a priest be appointed, without the king's permission. A king might, in anger, burn down a shrine or kill all the attendants. There is the impression that kings and spirits were very much on equal terms: and that, just as kings, in life, were superior to all men, so their ghosts were superior to the spirits.

It is not clear whether in Buganda belief in spirits had its origin in the personification of natural forces or in giving special honour to the ghosts of exceptional men. But it seems to have developed into an attitude which treated all spirits - whatever their origin - as though they were ghosts who had obtained especial power and therefore deserved especial honour. They were ghosts who, instead of being of concern only to their own clan, and ceasing to be active after the third or fourth generation, had attained a tribal status and continued their activity from one far generation to another. Kings and warriors and famous sorcerers continued to exercise, in a ghostly way, the functions of their earthly life. It is very doubtful whether they can, in any proper sense, be called 'gods'.

It is important not to give the impression that all societies, which believe in numbers of different psychic forces, organise their beliefs in the same way as the Baganda. Ilat in Marakwet corresponds very closely to Kiwanuka in Buganda. But he is clearly a nature-spirit; and there are no hero-spirits to complicate the picture. Of the Nuer of the Sudan Professor Evans-Pritchard has suggested that the large number of nature-spirits recognised are regarded rather like the colours of a spectrum which forms when the white light of one God is refracted through the varieties of human experience. Much the same seems to be true of the Dinka of the Sudan and the Yoruba of Western Nigeria. The total picture is one in which natural forces are felt to be personal in their action. On the other hand, once given the belief in ghosts, men who have been exceptional in life might well be expected to be exceptional in death also.

But it is important to remember also that they are not regarded as being concerned only with the exceptional things which are most likely to be remembered or to call for special action. If Ggulu withheld rain, or sent too much, it was because he was displeased. But, if the rains fell normally, it was because he was satisfied. In the same way, if the king was pleased, he gave gifts. If he was angry, he put men to death. It was important to keep him contented all the time. If I keep my car in good condition, it will give me good service. If it stops, I may blame my wife for not reminding me to fill up with petrol, or the garage mechanic for not servicing it properly. Or I may blame myself for forgetfulness or carelessness. In the first case, I am throwing the blame on a person outside myself: in the second, on my own psychology, something which I cannot locate in space. If I combine the two processes, I blame a psychic force outside myself. I may even be so angry with the car that I hit it. I may even be so fond of it that I call it 'she'. I am not far from inventing a spirit world of my own.

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