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FETISHISM is often supposed to have its home and place of origin amongst the negroes of West Africa. It is certainly amongst the inhabitants of the Gold Coast and Slave Coast that the subject can best be studied; but if our conclusions are to be of any value, they should not be based on the hasty reports of passing visitors or the statements of semi-civilised natives, and “ fetishism” should not be detached from the general religious beliefs of those who practise it. Fortunately, within the last few years trustworthy information has been placed at the command of the student, and a signal service to the science of religion has been rendered by LieutenantColonel Ellis, First Battalion, West India Regiment, from whose valuable works (The T'shi-speaking Peoples, The Ewespeaking Peoples, and The Yoruba-speaking Peoples) the following account is taken.
The Gold Coast is inhabited by various Tshi-speaking tribes (of whom the best known are the Fantis and the Ashantis), who are all of the true negro type, as distinguished from the Negroids in the Mohammedan States to the north and the Congoese in the regions to the south. There are four classes of deities worshipped by them: (1) General Deities, few in number; (2) Local Deities, very numerous ; (3) Tutelary Deities of sections of the community; (4) Tutelary Deities of individuals. General deities are those generally worshipped by all or most of the different tribes, such as Bobowissi (“blower of clouds") or Nana-Nyankupon (“ lord of the sky”). Local deities are confined to one locality and one particular natural object, such as Tahbi, who resides in or under the rock on which Cape Coast Castle is built; Cudjo, the god of a shoal or reef between Cape Coast Castle and Acquon Point; Kottor-krabah, who resided at the wells now known by that name; Behnya, the god of the river Behnya, and so on. To which of these two classes Srahmantin and Sasabonsum are to be assigned, it is difficult to say. “In one sense they are local, since every district has one or more; and in another sense they are general, since they are known all over the coast by these names. Properly speaking, it seems as if Srahmantin and Sasabonsum were each a name of a genus of deities, every member of which possesses identical characteristics; though these names are in each locality used to designate individual deities.” Sasabonsum is implacable; once angered he can never be mollified or propitiated. Wherever the earth is of a red colour, there is, or has been, a Sasabonsum : the redness is caused by the blood of the wayfarers he has devoured. The third class of deities are the tutelary deities of particular sections of the community, such as towns, families, the inhabitants of any division of the town (a town-company), the frequenters of any market, etc. These tutelary deities differ from the local deities in this respect: the latter usually dwell each in his own locality (hill, river, rock, lagoon, etc.), and enter the images which are made of them to receive their worshippers' sacrifices and prayers; but the tutelary deity, though it is not absolutely and irrevocably confined to the material object (wooden figure, stone, calabash, etc.), which is its usual abode, for it can leave that abode and enter into and “possess” a priest, does usually and at ordinary times dwell in that material object. When a family grows so large that it must divide, and the branch in whose keeping the tutelary deity does not continue consequently requires a new one, or when a new " town-company” is formed, application is made to the priest of some local deity, who goes to the hill, rock, or river, etc., where the local deity resides, and communicates with him ; subsequently the priest becomes a possessed,” and, being inspired by the local deity, whose priest he is, says he is directed to go to the abode of the local deity," and take therefrom a stone or some of the earth; or to make a wooden figure out of the wood of a tree growing there, or something of that kind.” This he does, pouring some rum on the ground as an offering, "and then, dancing before them, and, bearing the object which is now believed to be the receptacle or ordinary abode of an indwelling god,” he proceeds to install it in the place where it is henceforth to be and continue as a tutelary deity; as such it, like local and general deities, has a sacred day of its own, on which its worshippers do no work, shave their heads, paint themselves with white clay, and wear white clothes. Sacrifices are offered to the tutelary as to the general and local deities. The tutelary deity of a family protects the members from sickness and misfortune generally. The tutelary deities of a “town-company” have each a special function: the principal one protects the fighting men of the company in war; another “ perhaps watches that no quarrel or division takes place between the members of the company; another may watch over them when dancing or holding a festival; and a third may take care of the drums." We now come to the fourth and last class, termed by Colonel Ellis “ the Tutelary Deities of individuals.” These “deities" resemble those of the third class, inasmuch as they dwell in exactly the same sort of objects—wooden figures, stones, or a pot containing a mixture of earth and blood—but they differ from them in several important points. First, the spot from which the wood or stone or earth is taken is not a spot frequented by a local deity, but one haunted by a Sasabonsum. Next, no priest is employed or consulted by the man who wants such a suhman, as its name is. Third, though offerings are made to the suhman by its owner, they are made in private-public opinion does not approve of them. Fourth, whereas the function of the tutelary deity of a family or town-company, etc., is to protect the members of that section, “one of the special attributes of a suhman is to procure the death of any person whom its worshipper may wish to have removed”-indeed, “the most important function of the suhman appears to be to work evil against those who have injured or offended its worshipper; its influence in other matters is very secondary.” Fifth, a suhman can communicate its own powers to other objects, and the owner of a suhman sells such charms. Finally, if a suhman does not prove efficacious, the man concludes that either a spirit does not
dwell in the object, or that, if it does, it is indisposed to serve him: “in either case he throws away the receptacle he had prepared for the spirit, and recommences de novo. But, so great is the fear of giving possible offence to any superhuman agent, that before discarding it he invariably makes some offering to it to avert its anger."
Here I interrupt the summary of Colonel Ellis's account to make some remarks. As we have seen, Colonel Ellis finds a difficulty in saying what class of god Sasabonsum belongs to. I would suggest that the source of the difficulty is that Sasabonsum is not a god at all; and I would point to several differences between Sasabonsum on the one hand, and general deities, local deities, and tutelary deities of sections of the community on the other hand. The latter have each a definite circle of worshippers ; Sasabonsum, none. They have priests of their own ; Sasabonsum has not. Further, their worship is public and approved ; Sasabonsum's is secret and illicit. They do good, more or less, to their worshippers ; Sasabonsum (“malignant”) is implacable and does good to nobody. In fine, Sasabonsum is a spirit with whom no body of worshippers has established permanent friendly relations, and is not, therefore, a god at all. The worship of the general deities, the local deities, and the tutelary deities of particular sections of the community is religious worship, for they are gods of the or a community ; but dealings with Sasabonsum and the manufacture of suhmans are in the nature of “ black art," as Sasabonsum is not one of the community's gods.
Now, let us listen to Colonel Ellis again. The Portuguese discoverers of West Africa (1441-1500) were familiar in Europe with relics of saints, charmed rosaries, amulets, and charms generally, for which the Portuguese term was feitiços. When, then, they found the Tshi-speaking negroes worshipping pieces of stone and other tangible, inanimate objects such as the tutelary deities (whether of individuals or of sections of the community) dwelt in, they naturally regarded these small objects as charms, and called them feitiços. They could not have applied the term to a natural feature of the landscape, such as a river, valley, rock, etc., in which a general or local deity dwelt and where he was worshipped. Now the term
feitiço or fetish is not strictly applicable even to a suhman, much less to the tutelary deity of a family or town-company, because the feitiços of Europe at the end of the fifteenth century were genuine charms, i.e. tangible and inanimate objects believed to possess inherent supernatural powers of their own; whereas even the suhman was, and is, conceived to be a spirit dwelling in the inanimate object. This error, sufficiently misleading if it had only involved a false conception of the nature of tutelary deities of individuals and sections of the community, unfortunately has grown still further, for the term fetish has come to be applied to all the objects of negro-worship, even to local and general deities. For this error we have principally to thank De Brosses, who thought he had discovered in fetishism the origin of religion, and was led to define a fetish (in his Du Culte des Dieux Fétiches, 1760) in this misleading manner: “Anything which people like to select for adoration,” for examples, “a tree, a mountain, the sea, a piece of wood, the tail of a lion, a pebble, a shell, salt, a fish, a plant, a flower, certain animals, such as cows, goats, elephants, sheep, or anything like these.” Hence the mistaken belief, widespread once in the learned world, that the negro worships an inanimate object, a stock or a stone, knowing it to be inanimate. For another, if possible, more misleading error Bosman (through De Brosses) is ultimately responsible. He gives the following as a statement made to him by a native: “If any of us is resolved to undertake anything of importance, we first of all search out a god to prosper us in our designed undertaking; and, going out of doors with this design, take the first creature that presents itself to our eyes, whether dog, cat, or the most contemptible animal in the world, for our god, or, perhaps, instead of that, any inanimate object that falls in our way, whether a stone, a piece of wood, or anything else of the same nature. This new-chosen god is immediately presented with an offering, which is accompanied by a solemn vow, that if he pleaseth to prosper our undertakings, for the future we will always worship and esteem him as a god. If our design prove successful, we have discovered a new and assisting god, which is daily presented with fresh offerings; but if the contrary happen, the new god is rejected as a useless tool, and conse