Witchcraft, morality, and doubt

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Malcolm Ruel, Odu: Journal of Yoruba and Related Studies. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.1.045


Witchcraft, morality, and doubt

Malcolm RUEL


Among the Banyang witchcraft forms one element of their wider supernatural beliefs. Besides witchcraft, these include a cult of the dead, beliefs concerning a series of protective supernatural agencies or njɔ, and the concept of a generalized and ultimate deity, Mandɛm. These other elements are related to witchcraft beliefs in ways that will be later described and they are also important in their own right; yet if any complex of belief were to be singled out as preoccupying Banyang to a greater extent than others this certainly would be that which is here described as “witchcraft” and which Banyang speak of as dɛbu, that is, the actions of, and events which can be ascribed to, were-persons, bo babu. In an important respect also, these beliefs differ in their reference from other aspects of Banyang supernatural belief since they relate less to group behavior or the values inherent in group solidarity but are rather concerned with the supernatural or “non-apparent” element of individual behavior. Banyang witchcraft is concerned with the attributes or potential abilities of individual persons in their relationships with other individuals.

In a number of respects this complex of belief has common features with the witchcraft beliefs which have been described for other African societies. In a way similar to that Professor Evans-Pritchard has shown for Zande witchcraft, it provides Banyang with a “philosophy of misfortune”—a way of accounting for events, especially those of personal misfortune such as death, disease, or accidents. As in Zande witchcraft, the emphasis here is on the particularity of the events explained [580]by the beliefs and their coherence or logical consistency rests to a large extent upon the fact that the beliefs are employed situationally where it is not the belief itself which is challenged but the event or sequence of events which is apprehended in terms of the belief (Evans-Pritchard 1937). There is also, as Evans-Pritchard and other writers have shown elsewhere, an important moral element in Banyang witchcraft—albeit an “inverted” morality which presents stereotypes of evil or anti-social actions and where the “witch” is seen as a person who stands outside and opposed to society (Middleton 1963; Buxton 1963). Finally, to take up a point which R.G. Lienhardt (1951) makes in his account of Dinka witchcraft, these beliefs are very closely involved in questions of personal identity and individuality: despite the fact that in contexts of formal description clear general or type attributes can be named concerning a “witch” or witchcraft activities, in the actual situations where witchcraft is suspected, the suspicion is focused not upon type-agents but upon people: even although one may be unable to name who the witch is, there is no doubt that it is some one, a living person.

In other respects Banyang witchcraft has some unusual features.

Firstly, the beliefs have an unusual degree of detailed elaboration: basically they concern the possession of animal counterparts which can be used to harm others, but there is a very wide range of possible “were-animals” that people can possess and the actions attributed to them are equally diverse. Secondly, and leading on from the first feature, not all were-animals are believed to do harm and even those that are most closely associated with harmful actions may in particular instances be owned without harming others. Although, as it were, all witchcraft—the possession of any were-attribute—is tainted by the nefariousness of some, the essential moral question is not “Does a person possess were-animals?” (to which the answer is likely to be “yes,” since all people are to a greater or lesser extent assumed to have them) but “Which were-animals does he possess?” and “How have they been used?” Witchcraft dɛbu, is not of itself evil: it provides the potentiality for evil which depends upon the way in which were-attributes have in fact been used.

A third characteristic feature of the beliefs is their strongly “introspective” or self-identifying element. Although one may fear or harbor suspicions of other’s witchcraft activities, explicit accusation of other persons is rare: the identification of were-persons and their activities is made not through others’ accusations but through the events which befall or the spoken testimony of the were-person, mu dɛbu, himself. It is impossible then in the case of Banyang to undertake the kind of analyses that Marwick (1952) has suggested for Cewa witchcraft or sorcery, where the accusations made between persons are related to situations of tension in certain social relations and enable some adjustment to be effected in them. This does not mean that tensions are absent in Banyang society but suggests that they are of a more general nature, common to a wider range of persons. Finally, Banyang witchcraft beliefs are totally unallied with any belief in or practice of “sorcery” (i.e. the use of medicines or material agents in the belief that this may directly cause harm to others): the harm which people may do to others is expressed exclusively in terms of the inherent powers possessed through witchcraft or were-attributes. From their contact with people of other cultures Banyang recognize the possibility of sorcery but they deny its presence within their own traditional society. This exclusive emphasis on witchcraft beliefs as such makes the present study highly [581]relevant to the hypothesis recently advanced by Middleton and Winter (1963), who in distinguishing between witchcraft and sorcery suggest that witchcraft beliefs are more likely to be used to express actions of maleficence in societies whose local groups, wider than the domestic kin-group, are recruited on the principle of unilineal kinship, whereas sorcery beliefs are more likely to appear where local groups are not so recruited (i.e. where a man can choose his own neighbors). Banyang beliefs lend support to this hypothesis, but in a way I shall attempt to elaborate further.

The argument that I present in this paper is that Banyang witchcraft beliefs pose a central problem concerning individual behavior. This problem concerns the use of personal abilities or personal qualities of character in a society where in the immediate sphere of social life a person’s position in relation to others is ascribed or “given” to him by the fact of his birth, his membership of a particular kin-group being basic to his identity in society. In these circumstances (where his personal identity and ideally his interests are merged in a wider group) what role should he play as an individual: in what ways should he direct the attributes or abilities that he finds himself individually endowed with? This problem is intensified by the fact that whereas in the localized kin- or lineage-group, a person’s status is ascribed outside this—in the sphere of community or political activities there is a strong emphasis upon the values of individual ability and personal achievement. I shall suggest that this tension in the structure of the society underlies the nature of Banyang witchcraft belief. Ultimately, however, and in the face of the problem here outlined, the beliefs provide little assurance, but show an underlying doubt or uncertainty. The paper will try to show that a central feature of the beliefs is precisely this element of uncertainty, of ambivalence, both concerning the nature of the were-animals and the moral implications of their possession. Used to explain events after they have occurred, the beliefs do not establish a line of conduct whose moral consequences are clear in advance of its being made. A moral problem is posed then through the beliefs but the morality which they offer is negative and retrospective in its judgments.

The paper describes firstly the general background of Banyang society and in particular the tension between kinship and community values before considering in greater detail the nature of the beliefs themselves.

The social background

Banyang are one of a series of small ethnic groups living in the present Western State of the Federal Cameroon Republic. According to the. 1953 census they numbered little more than 18,000 persons in their home country. Their territory, which lies in the central area of the basin of the upper Cross River, is hilly and forested, traversed by many rivers and streams; it is also very populated, with a density of approximately 23 persons per square mile. Banyang are traditionally farmers, growing plantains and coco-yams as their two most important crops. A feature of their country and of the larger region of which it is part is the variety and number of wild animals found there.1[582]

The pre-colonial political structure of Banyang society was essentially a small-scale one based upon a system of autonomous or semi-autonomous residential groups. As a people they lacked any overall political unity. The largest political groups accepting a common authority and recognizing a corporate unity were the village groups or “clans” numbering rarely more than 2,000 persons. These were further divided into villages, politically the most important units, each village recognizing a pre-eminent chief, and smaller hamlets, separate residential groups within the village whose own chiefs were junior to the village chief. In fact all these orders of grouping—village group, village hamlet—are known by a single undifferentiated εtɔk, “community” or “town,” and may be represented as different extensions of one overall community (ultimately the village group) whose members combine for political action on different occasions at different levels. Such political action is concerned especially with the government of affairs within the community itself and is essentially collective or corporate in character: authority is a function of the community and its exertion is dependent upon the unity of its associated members. While chiefs serve to define the formal status and interrelationships of particular residential groups, they act as leaders or representatives rather than rulers, and it is the “community” itself, represented (at any level of grouping) by chiefs and elders acting in council, who decide political issues, judge cases, discuss events of common concern, and so forth.

Cutting across the principle of residential association which is at the basis of community grouping is the further principle of descent or kinship unity. The largest corporate political group, usually a village group, is normally associated with and in most cases takes its name from the descendants of one ancestor. Within a village group, however, its integral residential groups (villages and hamlets) are characteristically composed of a series of separate descent or lineage groups (banɛrɛkɛt), each a corporate group with its own internal structure of authority. Villages are thus composed of a number of “major” lineage groups (commonly five to eight), hamlets of a number of “minor” lineage groups (commonly three or four). While all lineage groups are linked to the common genealogy of the village group or “clan” as a whole, it is the position of a lineage group within the wider residential group of which it is part which is the most important factor determining its form rather than the genealogical status of their common ancestor. The unity of interest and corporate structure of a lineage group are based upon the continuing common kinship which its members share and which distinguishes them from other members of the same residential community.

This dual system of grouping gives to each Manyang a dual identity. In the first place he is “a person of such-and-such a community” (mu εtɔk N-): for example, if a person is asked in Banyang country at large where he comes from he is likely to give the name of his village, “I am a Tali person,” “a Bara person,” and so on. Within the community itself, however, a man’s identity is derived from the lineage group of which he is a member: here he will be described as a “child” () of one of the known lineage group ancestors. Moreover a person’s position within a community (village or hamlet) is very closely associated with the power or prestige of his [583]lineage group, for it is these, his fellow kinsmen, who will be expected to support him in any matter which involves him directly with the community. As Banyang say, “A person’s respect comes from his lineage group.”

Status within the community and status within the lineage group, while linked in the structure of Banyang society, are based upon very different qualities and attributes. Status within a lineage group is primarily ascribed: it implies a moral unity with one’s fellow kinsfolk which no Manyang would explicitly deny. Although in practice there may be disagreements or dissatisfaction between lineage group kinsfolk, ideally their unity of interest is always strongly emphasized. There is a saying, which may be sung as a lament by a person who has lost his closest lineage relatives, “A person alone (i.e. without kin) is an animal.” This saying, whose terms bear upon our later description, suggests how it is through one’s kin that one is brought into society, made as it were a true person. A man’s status in the community, on the other hand, is very largely achieved and depends to a great extent upon his personal abilities, his access to wealth, and ultimately upon his personal good fortune. In the past, when residential patterns were somewhat different, any man could found his own settlement and could attempt to attract followers to himself there. There are no strictly hereditary community positions: through the help of a man’s father or kinsfolk he may be placed in a better position for the competitive acquisition of community status, but this must still be done individually—by entry into the associations or closed groups of a community, by building up followers, by expanding his domestic family. The element of achievement which underlies community status is expressed in the term mu εtɔk, “person of the community,” itself: in its literal sense, as when combined with a place-name, the phrase refers to any residential member of the (specified) community, but the same phrase is more commonly used, without qualification, to refer to someone who has achieved positive status in the community by being actively involved in its affairs. A man who does not join associations, who stays away from the corporate meetings of a community and has no voice in its running is often described as being “outside the community,” “lost in the bush”: the bo Etŋk, “the people of the community,” are those people of standing who collectively represent the community in its corporate actions.

These two types of demand upon a person need not necessarily conflict. A man may become a leader of his own age-group, may join associations, and so forth, without in any sense denying his obligations to his kin: indeed, his lineage group would be pleased by its representation through him in community activities. If, however, he is to achieve any significant status in the community—to become at some level a “chief” this is likely to bring him into competition with others of his own lineage group who are similarly seeking status, and may ultimately give rise to a split within the group and residential secession from it in the case of such a split the emergent leader is likely to carry certain of his kinsmen as supporters with him. A man who presses his own potential leadership or abilities too hard, on the other hand, is likely to alienate his kinsmen as a group and to acquire the reputation of being “arrogant” or “proud,” thus losing their support. The two sets of values imply then a certain tension in the choice of behavior for the individual person: a harmonization of them is required at each stage of a man’s life, the need to achieve status through his own efforts being related to the support or security which is derived from his merged identity with his own kin.[584]

The nature of witchcraft

The term dɛbu (in its singular form) refers in a general sense to any were-animal or were-attribute that a person may possess and it can also be used to describe the actions or events believed to derive from them. Although the term does not belong to the abstract noun class in Kenyang, it is frequently used in an abstract or generalized way to refer to the fact of a person having were-ability or as a general explanation of events caused by it. The plural form, on the other hand, babu, refers more specifically to “were-animals” as creatures or “beings with their own separate identities.” Banyang are not alone in their beliefs in “animal souls” which would appear to be common in the Cross River area. It is notable, however, that whereas amongst the Ejagham, who neighbor Banyang to the west, a distinction is made between “witchcraft” (ɔjε) as a malevolent activity and the possession of “animal souls” (Efamɛ),2 no such distinction is made by Banyang. For Banyang there is no separate attribute or power distinguished from dɛbu which can be used mystically to harm others: were-animals are not necessarily evil, but it is pre-eminently they who potentially provide the means to injure others.

The beliefs in were-animals take their cosmology from the settlement communities in which Banyang live. The mbaŋ, the “world around,” “general area” or “place,” includes on the one hand the area where people live, the εtɔk, the settlement or residential community, and on the other the “bush,” ebɔ, which surrounds the settlements, an area of farms, bush and forest, inhabited by animals. Witchcraft, dɛbu, is the possession by a person in the community of another identity which has the form of an animal living in the bush. One person may have one or a number of such “were-animals,” babu. Characteristically, a “witch” or “were-person” (mu dɛbu) is thought to be able to move in his (or her) were-identity in the “bush of the were-animals” (ɛba babu) at night whilst his body lies inert or “sleeping” in his house in the settlement. Although witchcraft belief takes its primary orientation from this division of the Banyang world into “settlement” and “bush,” there is nevertheless some ambivalence about the exact sphere in which “were-animals” operate. Associated in the first place with the “real” bush (where they can be met by hunters, fall into traps, be attacked by others, etc.) were-animals are also thought to move about in invisible form within the residential community itself. Only those who can dεgɔ mbaŋ, “see the place”—those who have second sight—can witness their actions there. Children who cry or dogs that growl for no apparent reason may be said to have seen were-animals moving invisibly in the settlement.

Were-animals are divided into two broad classes, “were-animals of destruction” (babu nsɔ) and “were-animals of ability” (babu betaŋ: betaŋ is the general word for “power,” “strength,” or “ability”). The “were-animals of destruction” are those whose possession may be used to cause injury to others (either directly, or to farms or property); they are also associated with certain internal organs or conditions of the body which can be examined at a post mortem operation to establish which animals a person owned and used harmfully. The “were-animals of ability” are associated with certain physical, temperamental or sometimes supernatural attributes [585]and are said to lie not “in the belly” but “in the skin” (that is, in the surface of the body, perhaps “in the muscles”); they are not subject to examination by autopsy.

The most notorious of the were-animals of destruction is the bird of night, the owl, the “chief of the were-animals,” which is believed to consume children; at an autopsy possession of an owl is signified by large clots of blood formed in the heart. Closely second to the owl is the python, which is thought typically to work in league with the owl: the owl takes the “shadow” or “spirit” of a child and gives it to the python who then “sits with it,” whilst the child at home sickens and may eventually die. At an autopsy the evidence for possession of a python is swollen intestines which slither out of the belly when this is open. What Banyang describe as a “male owl” or “penis owl” (ɛpɛmndɛm) is believed to go at night to cohabit with women, thus causing miscarriages, difficulties in child-birth or barrenness; the sign of a male owl (which can be owned by either men or women) is a swollen or turgid appendix. Possession of a bush-pig is especially linked with women: moving in herds they may cause damage to farms, and ownership may also be suspected in cases of frequent miscarriages or infertility, when the woman is said to be “bearing her children in the bush” and not at home. The sign of a bush-pig is said to resemble a gecko, lying in the lower part of the pelvis (probably the fallopian tubes), which when “rotten” or in an abnormal condition indicates possession and harmful use of the were-animal. A further series of animals, although generally classed as were-animals of destruction, are less positively condemned and are in part associated with “abilities” which may be used for acceptable purposes: the important point here is whether the were-animal, potentially destructive, has in fact been used harmfully. These animals include: the leopard, which can chase or attack other animals in the bush or may carry off goats from a settlement and is associated with physical strength or litheness in fighting, running or dancing, and whose sign is spotted or mottled lungs; the elephant, which sometimes causes damage to farms but more especially is said to “hear things” (-gok mbaŋ in the witchcraft world) and in real life to give its owner the ability to learn quickly what is going on in the community, and whose sign is a pitted liver (said to be marks of the grape-shot of the hunter who has killed the animal); the hippopotamus (“the elephant of the river”) whose attributes in the river are similar to the elephant’s in the bush, but whose physiological sign I did not ascertain; the crocodile, which can attack others in the river or those coming to the river and whose sign is the “rotten” or abnormal condition of what is probably the pancreas (with a form not unlike that of a crocodile); the bush-cow, associated with wily strength in fighting and sometimes said to carry off children, its sign small holes in the smaller part of the liver (mɔ bεcεn). Mention should also be made of a certain species of owl (εkpɔnεn), distinct from the common owl (ɛpɛm), which owl is believed to be possessed by members of a witchcraft detection society, Basinjom, and is properly used to fly at night to observe witchcraft happenings but which may also be used for evil purposes, “to eat the heart of others”; its sign is the “rotting” of the surface of the heart. Finally, “lightning” is also believed to be a were-attribute which can be used to cause damage by striking trees or more rarely houses, and is especially associated with a fierce or commanding temperament; its sign is an enlarged gall-bladder.

The “were-animals of ability” are even more numerous than those of “destruction.” I have collected some thirty different creatures and no doubt there are many [586]others. The following may serve as examples: possession of a wasp (which frequently builds its hanging nest in a doorway or under the eaves of a house) helps to protect its owner from the incursions of other were-animals and is often associated with sharpness of temper; possession of a mud-fish is said to enable its owner to sweat profusely in fighting and so to slip out of his opponent’s grasp; possession of a bat enables its owner to have control over the waters of a river, damming the river by stretching itself across it and then suddenly releasing the waters and so causing a flood; a hunter may be helped by possession of an apparently mythical animal, (εssɔnatɔ), who invisibly rounds up animals for him to shoot; possession of a drill (ɛkurikak) is believed to confer strength of body, including the ability to carry heavy loads; possession of a lemur [sic] is associated with a strong grasp; of a hawk, the supernatural ability to fly up out of an awkward situation; of a type of rat or burrowing animal (ngumbok), the ability to burrow out of or otherwise extricate oneself from an enclosed space; of a lion; the ability to lead or command others—and also to protect the settlement from other animals; of a certain bird (ncɔkɔrɔk), skill and liveliness in dancing.

The division of were-animals into two classes implies a moral distinction between those animals which are, or can be, used harmfully and those which are merely of benefit to their owners. The difference however is not entirely clear-cut since, as has been noted in describing them, not all the “were-animals of destruction” are thought of as necessarily harmful and a number of them are associated with acceptable attributes: the most open in this respect are probably the elephant, the bush-cow, the εkpɔnɔn owl, and “lightning.” Such animals merge into the second class, the “were-animals of ability,” and in some situations can be aligned with them. For the most part, however, less emphasis is given to the were animals of ability, which have a greater diversity and are more sporadically owned. Possession of them is generally regarded as being morally neutral and they may be claimed or ascribed with few overtones: nor can positive evidence—internal, physiological signs—be adduced to prove ownership. Nevertheless, even a were-animal of ability may become a potential danger to its owner, since, as we shall later see, anything which affects or occurs to a person’s were-animal in the bush is thought to have its repercussions upon the person “in the house.” Someone who is noted as having a particular were-animal of ability—a lion, hawk, or drill, say—and who falls ill, may have his illness explained in terms of things that have occurred to his were-animal. Such explanations are made far more commonly with regard to the were-animals of destruction but no person with a witchcraft attribute is entirely free from the danger of involvement in “the bush of the were-animals.”

Banyang believe that were-animals are acquired, usually in childhood, by instruction and the use of medicines. It is commonly the parents who are thought to instruct the child but sometimes it may be a more distant relative who has been close to the child in its upbringing. Instruction in witchcraft is closely associated with the general process of a child’s education, which for Banyang is a recognized and deliberate activity by which a man or woman’s knowledge is passed on to the child. (Teaching of “affairs of the community” is especially important in the relationship of father to son.) Potentially any person can have acquired were-animals in this way, although he may later deny conscious knowledge of them. When, for example, I have denied that I possessed were-animals, I have been asked: “Did your [587]mother (or father) not love (or care for) you?” A number of people have told me how in their childhood their fathers had given them medicines to drink (leaves or woods, usually infused in water) either telling them or implying that this was a form of were-animal, although in these cases the were-animal claimed was always one of “ability,” not of “destruction.” Other more fanciful accounts are given of procedures used to teach possession of were-animals, sometimes coupled with stories of how medicines actually change into the animal concerned. In general, however, there is assumed to be a definite stage of instruction when the candidate’s “eyes are opened,” i.e. when full, conscious knowledge of the were-animal is imparted, together with the ability to activate it. People will often admit, somewhat generally, that they may have been taught were-animals by their parents but will deny that “their eyes were opened.” Evidence for the direction from which witchcraft has been taught is given in the autopsy by whether the signs appear on the right-hand side of the body (which indicates the father or father’s side) or the left-hand side of the body (indicating the mother or maternal kin).

The use of witchcraft for evil purposes is identified for Banyang with actions of duplicity or deceit. A were-person (who does harm) is closely akin to “a person of two voices” (mu bɛyŋbɛ pai) or double-dealer; to “do evil things,” “to move at night,” or “do things of the night” is to use witchcraft for wrong-doing. Such possibilities of deceitful action are believed to be an ever-present factor in human relations: whatever a person says one is never sure of what he is contemplating “in his heart.” This uncertainty in human relations may be contrasted with the quality of certainty or truth which is ascribed to God, Mandɛm. Although Upper Banyang often refer in ordinary speech to “Mandɛm” (usually in the sense of an ultimate cause, often as a beneficent guiding providence) and sometimes address prayers to him, Mandɛm or Mandɛm mfai, “God above,” is nevertheless seen as a distant, inaccessible figure beyond man’s direct comprehension. More immediately involved in human affairs and representing the principle of truth or certainty there are the cult-agencies, njɔ, which are believed ultimately to owe their efficacy to God and may be described as Mandɛm mɛk, “God below.” These cult-agencies, of which the most important is Mfam, are thought to operate against actions of wrong-doing or deceit within the community: they are used in the swearing of oaths in legal cases; they may be invoked against unknown thieves; but their most important role is the detection and punishment of evil actions through were-animals. Single cult-agencies are normally owned by the members of a lineage group or a section of one. Their impersonal power is thought constantly to be operating in the settlement: when it “sees” any evil action of witchcraft it will “take” or “catch” the witch, who will then fall sick and, if nothing further is done, may die. After an act of witchcraft has been suspected a cult-agency may be especially invoked; not all cult-agencies are thought to be equally effective; but ultimately the punishment through the cult-agencies of harm by witchcraft is automatic and certain. “A were-person will not remain in the community” (mu dεbu apu tat εtɔk).3[588]

Witchcraft as an explanation of death, illness, and abnormal events

The illness or death of children, the barrenness of women, accidents causing injury, a house catching fire, drowning or the loss of goods in a river, damage to farms, the loss of a goat or dog, the unusual flooding of a river or the sudden storms which come in the dry season may all be accounted for through the action of witchcraft or were-animals. Witchcraft is an ever-present element in Banyang thought and speech about events in the world around them and is likely to be imputed in any unusual happening, especially one of misfortune. Many such explanations remain circumstantial, to be confirmed or altered by the later process of events. In the most serious cases—for example, the illness or death of children—a diviner may be consulted and his advice sought. If he confirms that witchcraft is the cause of the misfortune (illness may also be caused by the dead) he will indicate what actions should be taken to guard against it. It is unlikely however that responsibility for a particular case of misfortune will be expressed as an explicit accusation against another, known person. An accumulation of incidents and suspicions may center over a period of time on one person and in the past, it is said, such suspected witches were required to undergo trial by the esere bean or other means. The use of these ordeals was however stopped in early colonial times and their only modern equivalents are the accusations which can be made at a dance of the Basinjom society. The identification of a witch depends less however upon the accusations of others than upon the events which demonstrate the person’s own complicity in were-actions. One of the commonest songs sung in a witchcraft context emphasizes this element of personal responsibility or self-searching: “If something disappears in the house, you yourself should look for it.”

In Banyang belief a were-person faces two potential dangers. In the first place the mere fact of possessing a were-animal and moving with it in the bush or having it in the river, renders its owner liable to any accident or misfortune which can occur to the were-animal there: one’s leopard may be trapped, one’s elephant shot, sand from the river may be thrown into the eyes of one’s hippopotamus, and so on. Such events are believed to cause parallel disease or injury to the person’s body at home: sores appear on the legs; a person is suddenly sick and vomits black bile; someone goes blind. These are only some of the commonest and most stereotyped explanations, but there are many others which relate circumstantially to the particular features of a disease and to the were-animals that a person may be assumed to have: breathlessness to the running away of a leopard (who has been challenged by or wishes to escape from others); an attack of virulent boils to the biting of ants; festering sores on the nose and face to a crab which has seized the muzzle of a were-leopard coming to the pool to drink, and so on.

The second potential danger concerns a were-person who “removes his were-animal” to cause harm to others and who is “caught” by the protective cult-agency njɔ.

In either case recovery from the disease and avoidance of its possible fatal consequences is possible only after the person has “confessed” (-ka, affirm, agree to) [589]his (or her) were-animals. In the first case such a confession may be made simply as an open statement in front of other people, in daylight, facing the sun, in the settlement. (It would seem usually to be made outside or just behind the house in which the sick person is living.) In the second case, when njɔ has caught a culpable witch, confession must be combined with the ritual removal of the cult-agency’s influence, which is carried out at the appropriate shrine of the cult-agency in the presence of those who own it. Confession must be full: if anything is held back the disease may still continue, it is believed, leading ultimately to the person’s death.

Such confessions are in fact made and provide Banyang with the clearest verbal evidence for the existence of were-animals and the malefactions of their owners. The possibility of false or incomplete confession is however also recognized, with its consequences in failure to recover and ultimate death. It is at this point that witchcraft beliefs are used almost exclusively to explain events, and here too that most certain knowledge is gained regarding a person’s were-animals. In the vast majority of cases—the major exceptions are the deaths of small children and obviously old and senile people—deaths are accounted for by witchcraft, where the witchcraft concerned is that owned by the dead person himself. The evidence for this is obtained at an autopsy performed immediately before burial. (In 1953–4 such operations were illegal but were still very widely performed; for one reason or another they might be omitted but whenever there was doubt about the cause of death the pressure was always to perform them.) The skin and flesh covering the stomach and chest of the corpse is cut and folded backwards over the face and the internal organs are examined for the signs which have already been listed. The person who performs this operation is not a specialist but is any person not directly related to the deceased (often a friend or in-law to the lineage group) who has knowledge of the signs and who is willing to undertake the task. It is usually he who first interprets the signs but they should also be witnessed and agreed to by observers from the lineage group of the deceased, and in the case of a younger person from his matrilateral kin. The signs are interpreted for were-animals that the person has owned but has not activated or “removed from his belly” and for those that the person has “removed” and used for harmful purposes—and which now account for his death.

The uncertain actuality of were-animals

A number of features of Banyang witchcraft belief are immediately striking: the very generality of these beliefs which ascribe to all persons a greater or lesser complicity in the “other” world of were-identities; the elaborate diversity of were-animals which people are thought to possess and “use” in various ways; the developed circumstantiality of the beliefs which associate witchcraft with a wide range of material circumstances—types of disease, physical abilities, possible events, organs and conditions of the body (some of which may indeed be interrelated in fact). A further feature of this belief system which would seem to be of critical importance to it is the quality of uncertainty or ambivalence which it shows concerning both the nature of the were-animals and the moral consequences of their use. In this section I discuss the ambivalence which surrounds the way Banyang speak of [590]were-animals—at once “actual” and “psychic.” In the following section I discuss their moral ambivalence—sometimes neutral or morally acceptable, sometimes harmful and “evil,” but with the effective distinction between the two by no means certain.

It is important to understand that these beliefs are not seen as a formally arranged, “logical” system of ideas, in the way that they have been presented here, but are associated very much more closely with the ongoing pattern of events taking place in a community. This pattern, as interpreted by the beliefs, is an emergent, ever-continuing one. A child is sick; farms are ravaged by bush-pigs; a goat is lost; a young man falls ill; his illness continues and he confesses to moving with a leopard and bush-cow; the child dies but before its death the cult-agency, Mfam, is carried, its power being invoked against the (unknown) were-person harming the child; a woman falls ill and before the cult-agency she confesses to a python and bush-pig; she recovers, but later the young man dies; there is an autopsy after his death and he is discovered to have had an owl, lightning, and a leopard, but did not “remove” his leopard to do harm with it. Witchcraft interpretations emerge from such a complex and intertwined skein of events: so much can be directly explained by the beliefs (the death of the child; the inefficacy of the young man’s confession and his subsequent death); more can be inferred from the events (the complicity of the woman in the child’s illness and in the ravaging of the farms); what remains unexplained (the subsidiary were-signs at the autopsy of the young man, the loss of the goat) can be left simply unresolved, or becomes the potential reference for future events.

Within this ongoing, ever emergent pattern of interpretation and events there are three relatively fixed or “certain” points around which all knowledge of witchcraft activity coheres. The first of these is the assumed power and ultimate efficacy of the cult-agencies to detect and “catch” were-persons engaged in harm.4 The second is the visible signs of witchcraft examined at an autopsy. The third is the confessions made by persons willing to admit to were-activities. The first of these points is a projected certainty only: the axiomatic power of njɔ which forms part of Banyang religious belief. The second is knowledge gained of another person’s were-animals when he himself is dead, no longer part of events and unable to reply. The third point is more crucial, for by confession individuals implicate themselves in were-activities and thus give the strongest evidence that witchcraft “exists.” Yet assuming, as we must, that were-animals do not have the ostensible reality claimed for them, how then can we explain that confessions are made and what meaning should be given to them?

Individual confessions are likely to be prompted by a mixture of influences. Fear of the consequences of failure to confess, the pressure of relatives who on the occasions of illness are ready to emphasize that the matter lies with the person himself, suggestions by others (including a diviner who may indicate that an illness may [591]come from the person’s own “belly”), the memory of past events or a person’s own subjective experiences: all or any of these may form factors. The most important general fact underlying the credibility of witchcraft confessions would however seem to concern the nature of the were-animals themselves as they are conceived by Banyang.

As already briefly mentioned, Banyang speak of were-animals as having a different form in different contexts. In some contexts they appear as the actual animals which inhabit the bush, rivers and forest around their settlements: the bush-pigs which do in fact ravage farms, the leopards which are known to carry off goats and can occasionally attack an isolated person, the owls which are heard at night hooting from a housetop or nearby tree. In other contexts were-animals are ascribed less actually and are said to be present or to move in invisible form: they are “shadows” (barikndi) or “spirits” (bεfoɔo) moving about in the community. Again, while most of the were-animals correspond to actual species, a number of them shade off into animals which are known only by hearsay (e.g the lion, which is not a forest animal, or the nyakɛfiɛt the animal of the grassland) and finally into those which can only be described as mythical (e.g. the hunter’s aid, the εsɔŋatɔ, and another animal which was described to me as living in the depths of the forest and having huge, luminous eyes which lit up the area around it). This same ambivalence applies also to the mode of operation of the were-animals: sometimes actual (the striking of lightning, the carrying off of domestic animals, damage to farms, attacking other animals), sometimes supernatural (the owl which “eats” children, the python which “sits with” the child’s “spirit”), sometimes a mixture of the two modes (the elephant which “hears things” in the witchcraft world, those animals of ability which enable their owners to fly up or burrow out of difficult situations).

Throughout much or all of these beliefs there is an element of extended metaphor which in its extension hovers uncertainly between literal and symbolic statement. For example, the phrase dεgɔmbaŋŋ means literally “to see the place” (or world around); someone who does not do this is blind. The phrase is also used metaphorically in the sense “to see (or know) things that go on”; during the hearing of a dispute and in the face of an unlikely account of events a chief or leading man can challenge the disputant by asking “Do you think I do not see what goes on?” (literally, that: “I do not see the place”). Finally, as already mentioned, the phrase means “to see things in the witchcraft world,” but in this sense (while the metaphorical meaning is still there) the literal elements are stronger and are supported by an extended verbal and ritual usage concerning sight and the eyes; medicine is indeed put in the eyes of Basinjom candidates so that they may “see the place”; similarly instruction in possession of were-animals involves at some stage “opening” the initiant’s “eye,” while others who “see the witchcraft world” are thought to do so through the means of their were-animals which inhabit it. Clearly there is an element of symbolism here, but it is a symbolism which is systematically elaborated to provide the basis for behavior and explanation which treat the “symbolic” statements as though they had “literal” meaning: the dividing line between metaphor and literal truth is blurred and at any one point it is difficult to distinguish between them or to say which element is the more important. A part of the coherence of Banyang witchcraft belief depends upon such an extended system of analogy which can be referred at different points and in different ways to actual events or personal experience.[592]

An important area of this range of reference concerns mental or psychological experience. Whilst the “objective” evidence for witchcraft activities is usually cited in the consistency of the events they purport to explain (for example, recovery from illness after confession), when I have pressed informants to state more exactly what witchcraft is they have generally pointed to people’s “thought” or “evil ideas” about others. It is often said that “witchcraft is people’s thoughts”; “Witchcraft is when someone is annoyed and has the idea of harming another.”

It is worth noting at this point the parallel which exists between Western psychological concepts and the concepts of Banyang witchcraft. The divided areas of “bush” and “community” resemble in a number of respects the divisions of the “sub-conscious” and “conscious” mind. The “bush,” like the “sub-conscious” mind, is a place of no apparent order, of rampant individualism, a place in which the normal principles of space and time are in abeyance. From this area come the influences which break in upon and disturb the ordered, public life of the community. “Confession” to were-activities is a process of harmonizing the two areas, of making explicit and public within the one actions or influences deriving from the other, a process of “re-integrating” or “re-socializing” the person in the community who was earlier part of this divided world.

I would not argue that the “reality” of Banyang witchcraft beliefs lies in the realm of psychological experience. This certainly would be denied by Banyang, who find plenty of external evidence for witchcraft in the events of the world around them. Yet the fact that the nature and operation of were-animals is left uncertain by the beliefs enables these beliefs to be extended into the field of psychological experience and to be used there as a kind of psychology, a set of interrelated concepts which enable people to express and deal with this experience.

Witchcraft and the problem of individual behavior

As has been emphasized throughout in this paper, the possession of were-animals is not itself condemned. It is how a person acts with his were-animals that determines his guilt or innocence. Throughout the whole range of the beliefs this moral issue is left open: in the two main categories of were-animals (those of “destruction” and those of “ability”); in the fact that even some were-animals classed with those of “destruction” may be used merely for personal benefit and without causing harm; in the denial of conscious knowledge of whatever were-animals a person possesses (that he may have been instructed in were-animals by his parents but “his eyes were not opened”): and finally in the plea that even although a person owns and has knowledge of the most heinous of the were-animals (especially the python) this has been “kept in the house” and has not been sent out on nefarious errands. So also when were-abilities are spoken of in more general terms, the point implicitly made concerns how they are used and not their possession as such. Thus it is commonly said that in the distant past the only were-animals that people had were those of “ability” and that they used them for good; nowadays, it is added, “people’s hearts have changed and they use their were-animals for evil things.” Again, it is generally believed that Europeans have were-animals (“lightning” in particular is commonly ascribed to Europeans) and it is sometimes said that it is with their were-animals [593]that Europeans have created all the things that they have—airplanes in the sky, ships that travel on the water, ships that travel under the water, and so on. But, it is added (or was, in 1953–4), whereas Europeans have used their were-abilities to good purposes, “black people” have used them only to harm others. (On the other hand, when I spoke of the atom bomb the immediate response of my informants was that this was witchcraft, dɛbu, and that it showed that Europeans too, could use this ability for evil.) The central issue of Banyang were-beliefs concerns not the existence of were-attributes but in what ways such attributes are directed.

Although were-animals are thought to be able to range over relatively far distances and to form compacts with others there, the use of were-animals to cause harm to others is commonly associated with the immediate field of social relations, including especially lineage kinsfolk and co-residents. A were-person may wish to injure these, it is thought, out of malice or a secret jealousy. A further, stereotyped reason for a kinsman (or kinswoman) attacking his (or her) own kin comes from the complicity of the were-person in witchcraft activities which then obliges him to sacrifice a relative (or occasionally part of himself); were-animals are said thus to join in “groups” (ncɛmɛ) in order to share in the food each member provides in turn; someone who has been brought into the association will at first share in the food of others but will then be obliged to make his own contribution under pain of his own life, and so will be forced to give someone close to him. Occasionally witchcraft is said to operate within a lineage group in preservation of its own norms or solidarity. There is a belief that each lineage group owns its own part of a river, or “deep” (Eka), where its members’ were-animals live. A person who flouts the norms of kinship by offending or failing to respect his lineage elders may, it is believed, be disciplined by them “in the river.” This belief in the sanctioning power of lineage were-animals is similar in form to belief in the sanctioning power of the dead of the lineage group, who on perceiving the annoyance of its living elders are thought to cause illness to a miscreant member: whereas, however, the sanction of the dead is associated with an external, moral force (which is merely activated by the elders), the sanction of the were-animals is essentially an individual trial of strength (in which the more experienced elders may be thought to have a greater robustness). Thus if a person is proud and does not respect others, he may be told: “We shall meet with our were-animals: then we shall see who is the strongest.”

As these examples show, the possession of witchcraft is essentially an attribute of persons as individuals; the qualities associated with the were-animals are the individual qualities distinguishing one person from another, and the various actions ascribed to were-animal may be said to figure the ways in which such particular qualities may be directed. The morality implicit in witchcraft beliefs is not then a statement of “good” or “bad” qualities as such but of the harmony or discordance of individual behavior within the framework of generally accepted social relationships.

The range of this discordance is illustrated by the range of the were-animals themselves. The most heinous of them—the owl and python, together in a slightly lesser place with the male owl and bush-pig—may be said to represent individual actions which run directly counter to the central values of the society: the bearing and rearing of children in the community and the rightful use of sexuality in procreation. These were-animals have the characteristic quality of “inversion” noted [594]for the witchcraft beliefs of other societies. At the other extremes, the “were-animals of ability” represent individual attributes which are morally neutral, not running counter to social norms or relationships.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, the fact of wrongful action—action discordant with given social norms—is not determined solely by the nature of the were-animal itself. While this is true to some extent of all were-animals it is most notably so of those were-animals which stand between the two extremes cited above. Here there is an important series of animals (the leopard, elephant, crocodile, hippopotamus, bush-cow, Ekpɔnɔn owl, “lightning”) whose moral attributes are open, uncertain or ambivalent. They may be used to do harm—and as such are classified with the “were-animals of destruction”—but their possession is also believed to confer abilities which are not condemned, but are of advantage to the person who owns them. It is these animals, moreover, which figure to a large extent in stories about witchcraft, in confessions, in accounts of a person’s self-caused death, and so on. Some indication of the kind of issue which is posed by the possession of them is given by the personal abilities associated with them. Most of these are of direct relevance to the individual struggle for status in the community: personal power, command and initiative in action, knowledge of affairs. Such qualities are very much those expected of a man who is to rise to the status of chief or leading elder in a community; but they are also qualities which by their very individualism are potentially disruptive of other norms and relationships.

The problem which is posed by, and through, Banyang were-beliefs and which is focused centrally in this intermediate series of were-animals can now be stated more precisely. Briefly it can be described as the problem of uncertain individualism. While all behavior to some extent implies such a problem it would seem to be one which is especially emphasized by the conditions of Banyang society. Here, as we have already described, two sets of values operate which while not in direct conflict (being each concerned with a separate sphere of social life) are nevertheless radically dissimilar and imply some tension in the choice of individual behavior. On the one hand, in community activities individual qualities are at a premium; on the other hand these qualities are required to accord with a person’s “given” identity as a kinsman and member of a lineage group, a group of persons whose solidarity is based upon their common, ascribed status. The problem for Banyang may be described as that of using personal attributes or abilities, but of using them in such a way as not to jeopardize other values, or oneself in relation to them. In terms of the were-beliefs themselves and stated perhaps rather crudely, the problem is of having the strength and power of a leopard (or a bush-cow or a crocodile) but of not over-aggrandizing oneself to the detriment of others, of having the initiative and command associated with “lightning” but of not overreaching oneself in one’s claims to influence over others, of having the indirect knowledge of affairs ascribed to an elephant but of not so implicating oneself in such knowledge that one’s public identity is obscured by it.

Yet ultimately, while the beliefs express this problem, they do not themselves provide an answer to it. In the final analysis Banyang were-beliefs present an uncertainty and not an assurance. It is left to events to decide how a person’s were-animals have been used: these events are the external circumstances of illness and finally death, and the beliefs can have no control over them. The moral issue concerning [595]the use of a person’s were-animals is decided only after the event—by what happens to the person himself—and the judgement is circumstantial and retrospective. The incidence of confessions is perhaps itself an indication of people’s willingness to accord by the event (presented externally to them) and other’s judgment of it—and even the test of confessions in later events: proved right if further illness does not follow; wrong if illness does follow—when ultimately death and the subsequent autopsy become the final arbiters.


Buxton, Jean. 1963. “Mandari witchcraft.” In Witchcraft and sorcery in east Africa, edited by John Middleton and E.H. Winter, 99–122. London: Routledge.

Durrell, Gerald. 1953. The overloaded ark. New York: Viking Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lienhardt, Godfrey. 1951. “Some notions of witchcraft among the Dinka.” Africa 21 (4): 303–18.

Marwick, M. G. 1952. “The social context of Cewa witchcraft beliefs.” Africa 22 (2): 120–35.

Middleton, John. 1963. “Witchcraft and Sorcery in Lugbara.” In Witchcraft and sorcery in east Africa, edited by John Middleton and E.H. Winter, 257–76. London: Routledge.

Middleton, John and E. H. Winter. 1963. “Introduction.” In Witchcraft and sorcery in east Africa, edited by John Middleton and E.H. Winter, 1–26. London: Routledge.

Sanderson, Ivan T. 1937. Animal treasure. New York: Viking Press.

Talbot, P. Amaury. 1912. In the shadow of the bush. New York: George H. Doran Company.


Malcolm RUEL (1927–2010) was a British social anthropologist who taught at the University of Edinburgh and at Cambridge University. A student at Cambridge and Oxford, he studied with Meyer Fortes, Paul Bohannan, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He published two books: Leopards and leaders: Constitutional politics among a Cross River people, based on his doctoral research among the Banyang people, and Belief, ritual, and the securing of life: Reflective essays on a Bantu religion, based on research among the Kuria of East Africa.


Editors’ Note: This article is a reprint of Ruel, Malcom. 1965. “Witchcraft, morality, and doubt.” In Odu: Journal of Yoruba and Related Studies vol. 2: 3-26. We would like to thank Ann Ruel for permission to reprint the work. We remind the reader that we retain the style of the original with some minor formatting changes.

1. A number of zoological expeditions have been carried out in this general area. Two which were largely based in Banyang country have been popularly described in I.T. Sanderson’s Animal treasure (1937), and Gerald Durrell’s The overloaded ark (1953), both of which gave vivid pictures of the variety of animal life.

2. For information on this point I am grateful to Mr. S. T. Tataw of Ossing. See also Talbot 1912, Chapters 7 and 17.

3. It may be noted that it is not explicitly stated here that the “were-person” has in fact committed evil, although by its context this would be understood. On the other hand, it is sometimes said that many more people have died since the introduction of Mfam, which suggests some reservation of judgment about people’s guilt or an acknowledgement of the fact that all are in some way guilty.

4. In a more extensive description I would include in this first category the witchcraft detection society, Basinjom, whose name in Ejagham means “cult-agency (njɔm) of God (Obasi)” and which Banyang often refer to simply as “cult-agency,” njɔ. I have not attempted to give an account of this society since it would overburden the present paper and since, whilst it plays an important role in the divination of witchcraft it is not integral to the system of belief itself. The society is also of relatively recent introduction.