Beliefs and Practices
The evidence about the supernatural in tribal communities has to be treated with particular caution, for two reasons. One is that although, in its historical perspective, it is the earliest available to us, most of it has been collected in the past hundred years; tribal customs have therefore often been affected directly or indirectly by contact with civilisation. Ordinarily this would be more than compensated for by the fact that it has been possible, and to a limited extent still is possible, actually to investigate the communities instead of having to rely on archaeological remains and unverifiable chronicles, as we do in the case of those civilisations which have not survived. But here, the second complication arises. The majority of investigators - the overwhelming majority, in the case of professional anthropologists - have equated belief in the supernatural with superstition. They have studied and reported tribal beliefs and practices; but only rarely have they attempted to assess whether the beliefs may be justified, or whether the practices can work.
Living among the Melanesian islanders in the 1870s the missionary R. H. Codrington found that they believed in a force they called mana, which they thought of as natural, but which to him was supernatural.
It was not the first description of such a belief; in his study of the Peruvian Indians Clements Markham had mentioned that they thought all substances had their mama (as they called it). But it was Codrington’s account which focussed attention on the subject; and soon, variations were being reported from tribal communities all over the world.
There were problems, however, of interpretation. Tribesmen found it hard to explain what was often to them an abstraction; and even if they could explain, their language might not be adequate to convey their meaning. Translations into European languages created further distortions, and anthropologists bickered among themselves about what precisely, or even imprecisely, mana or the equivalents might mean.
In La Force Magique, published in 1914, Pierre Saintyves did his best to define it.
It is by its nature material, yet invisible and impalpable, and comparable to a colourless flame or an imperceptible wind. It is, moreover, intelligent and, without being a spirit, has a spiritual nature.
It might be defined as a kind of material fluid devoid of personal intelligence but capable of receiving, incorporating and reflecting the impression of all ideas and spirits ... a kind of impersonal spirit without ideas proper to it, in which the intentions of men and of spirits can be incorporated so that they can fulfil their aims.
The abstract idea of mana, though-like the abstract idea of the supernatural itself, in Europe - was usually intertwined with a belief that it was operated by spirits;’ sometimes themselves abstractions, sometimes the equivalent (though again, translations at best tended to be rough and ready) of fairies, ghosts, angels, demons or gods. And nearly all tribal communities believed in and practised magic. Some individuals, the belief ordinarily was, were endowed with the ability to exploit mana; or more commonly, to induce the spirits to exploit it, either by invocation, or by exercising the kind of power over them which Aladdin had over the slave of the lamp. The aim was to control or direct the forces of nature in order, as Codrington explained, ‘to make rain or sunshine, wind or calm, to cause sickness or remove it, to know what is far off in time or space, to bring good luck and prosperity, or to blast and curse’.
Mana, the force; spirits capable of using it; humans able to get the spirits to work for them: these were the three elements of the supernatural which were found in some form or other virtually everywhere.
Often this included forces which, like thunder and lightning, Europeans had come to accept as natural. But there were two phenomena which in European eyes were unquestionably supernatural: the faculty of obtaining information by second sight, for use in divination; and the ability to influence events or objects by mental, or psychic, power.
The belief that information could be acquired other than through the five senses was found in all tribal communities. The information could emerge spontaneously; either in dreams - the Zulus used dreams to guide them to herds of game; the Malays, to show them where to fish - or in waking visions. Of these, the most commonly reported were apparitions of people who had just died. Among the Maoris of New Zealand an apparition was regarded almost as a formal notification of death; so much as that in one case described by Caesar de Vesme in his Primitive Man - the first serious attempt at a general survey of the supernatural in tribal communities, published in 1930 - a Maori woman was permited to marry again on the strength of an apparition of her absent husband; a decision which was to lead to complications when, a few weeks later, the original husband returned.
Spontaneous dreams and visions, though, could not be relied upon to come up with the answers to all the tribe’s problems; and the practice of inducing clairvoyance was general. In some tribes, it was assumed that anybody could do it, as the missionary bishop Henry Callaway reported in his pioneering work The Religious System of the Amazulu, published in 1869 -‘perhaps the most accurate record,’ his obituarist in the Dictionary of National Biography thought, ‘of the beliefs and modes of thought of an unlettered race in the English tongue’.
It was the more important because Callaway had studied the tribes before civilisation had made much impression on them.
Among black men, he had found, there was a something which is divination within them. When anything valuable is lost, they look for it at once; when they cannot find it, each one begins to practise this inner divination, trying to feel where the thing is; for, not being able to see it, he feels internally a pointing which tells him, if he will go down to such a place, it is there, and he will find it. At length he sees it, and himself approaching it; before he begins to move from where he is he sees it very clearly indeed, and there is an end of doubt. The sight is so clear that it is as though it were not an inner sight, but as if he saw the very thing itself and the place where it is.
According to Andrew Lang, (below) the Zulus had a poetical name for the faculty; they called it ‘opening the gates of distance’.
The ability to induce clairvoyance and telepathy casually in this way, though, was uncommon. Usually some ceremonial procedure was required; an invocation of mana or the spirits.
Among the Melanesians, Codrington reported, ‘almost every man of consideration’ knew how to make the correct approach; but a few individuals were believed to have particularly effective ways of setting about it and they tended to acquire professional status.
In most tribes, divination was left to such specialists. They were variously described: as medicine men in the Americas, witch doctors in Africa, shamans in Asia. But though they had other functions, their chief task was to exercise their powers of second sight. The term ‘witch doctor’, the Rev. Joseph Shooter claimed from his experience of the Kafirs in the 1850s, was consequently misleading; by avocation he was really a seer, or prophet. Callaway agreed, but preferred the term diviner.
A diviner was usually recognised, and selected - if necessary, conscripted - when in his youth he showed signs of possessing psychic powers. As de Vesme described it:
He has perceived, in a dream or otherwise, some event happening at a distance; has read inexplicably the thoughts or the past of some other man; has had the premonition of some fact he could not normally have known; has cured a sick man by touching him or by some suggestion. Inert objects have been displaced around him without his touching them; or mysterious sounds have been heard, and so forth; or perhaps some other person has seen him appear by telepathic communication.
Before qualifying, an aspirant was expected to go through an initiation period, which might be protracted (in some cases, as long as ten years) and arduous. Sometimes it would begin by his behaving as if deranged, and eventually rushing off into the bush, or jungle, there to live for a time in solitude. Or he might be banished by the tribe to lead an ascetic existence, the assumption being that the ability to withstand hunger, extremes of temperature, solitude, even torture, was necessary to chasten the body, and thereby liberate the spirit, so that it would be free to collect the information required. This might be accomplished through the diviner entering into what appeared to European observers to be a state of abstraction, or trance, for a time; and then, on coming out of it, describing what he had ‘seen’ while free to ‘travel’, where the game or the stolen cattle or the enemy tribe were to be found. Or in the trance state his own spirit might leave him, so that other spirits could possess him and talk through him, using him as a medium to convey their information (though as what they said could be in strange languages or sometimes be simply garbled, somebody else might have to be called upon for an interpretation).
Some diviners were able to achieve dissociation (as psychologists came to describe the trance state) at will; some required assistance, in the form of plant drugs (the fly agaric mushroom in Siberia, the peyotl cactus in Mexico, tobacco in both North and South America) or rhythm - drums, music and dancing, to take the diviner ‘out of himself’. The dance itself might become part of the divination; among the Azande of Sudan, Edward Evans-Pritchard (below) reported, ‘a witch doctor does not only divine with his lips, but with his whole body. He dances the questions which are put to him’. Evans-Pritchard’s houseboy, who became a diviner, explained that the dance stirred up the ‘medicine’ (magic) within him, providing him with the answers.
A variety of devices were used to assist divination. To make contact with the spirits, a diviner might fashion objects to represent or symbolise them. In Papua a figurine would be put on the lap or shoulder of the diviner in his trance, to make sure that he was possessed by the right spirit, which would then speak out through him. A similar method was employed in Northern Rhodesia. ‘Usually the diviner, in a state of possession, communicates with the spirits via the figure,’ Barrie Reynolds reported in his study of Barotse magic, ‘whispering to it and listening to its equally secretive reply.’ Such objects were like radio tuning devices, designed to put the diviner’s dissociated mind on the required wave-length for psychic communication; the forerunner of what has come to be known as psychometry, where a medium touches or holds an object belonging to a client, the better to pick up psychic messages from, or information about, him or the object’s past owners.
In his Voyage Round the World (1804) John Turnbull described how in Tahiti stolen goods were recovered by applying to a diviner who was able to ‘show the face of the thief reflected in a calabash of clear water’ - a forerunner of the fairground clairvoyant’s crystal ball.
‘Scrying’ with the help of water, smoke (‘pictures in the fire’), glass, or even polished fingernails, was found in use all over the world; as was another technique still familiar through its use by water-diviners. Sometimes this type of divination was accomplished with bare hands, as it was by the Navajo’s ‘hand tremblers’. The trembler held out his hands in front of him until they began to shiver, the process acting as a kind of direction-finder by which the diviner ascertained where, say, a missing flock had strayed. More commonly, though, the diviner would employ some device, which appeared to do the trembling itself.
In the 1880s Frank Swettenham watched Malays using a rattan rod which would begin to vibrate in an odd fashion when it was brought close to the object of a search. Later, the anthropologist C. G. Seligman described how a Melanesian diviner held a branch out in front of him, his arms stiffly extended at the elbows; the branch, moving to and fro, ‘pulls him in the direction of the thief’. Konde diviners carried the horns of an antelope in the same fashion: the proximity of a thief, Frank Melland observed, drove their arms up and down like a pump handle. In other communities, a pendulum was preferred. B. H. Hodgson, who studied Indian tribes in the early part of the nineteenth century, described how when a spirit was thought to be giving trouble, the diviner set out leaves, each with the name of a spirit attached to it, and held a pendulum over them until by its movements it indicated the spirit responsible.
The Malays used a lemon suspended from a thread: William Skeat described in his Malay Magic how when the questions were getting ‘warm’, the lemon would begin to swing, the belief being that the more vigorous its movements, the greater the emphasis which it was trying to convey.
Another device which Evans-Pritchard found employed by the Azande worked on a principle rather similar to the spiritualists’ ouija board; it consisted of a table and a piece of wood which slid over it, answering questions according to whether it slid, or stuck. A variation on this practice was the use of a stick, lightly moistened with goat’s blood, which the operator would rub his hand up and down, putting questions, the degrees of friction supplying him with the answers.
At this point, powers of the kind which a diviner employed to obtain information cease to be readily distinguishable from those which he used to make mana or spirits work for him. The piece of wood that was used for divination, for example, was assumed to be psychically or demonically ‘charged’ with a fetish, or spirit, so that it had a kind of life of its own which might manifest itself in various ways. At initiation ceremonies in Japan, according to Adolf Bastian, a sieve would be invested with a demon; when it was handed to an initiate it would proceed to ‘twist his body into the most strange and wonderful positions’. Travelling through the Middle East in the seventeenth century, Thomas
Shaw was assured that a certain iron bar ‘upon command would give the same noise as a cannon, and do the like execution’; often no command was required, the object after being charged was assumed capable of injuring or killing anybody who touched it. Few European observers, however sceptical, were inclined to test the validity of such claims.
The ability to exercise psychic control over matter was usually described as magic. It is admittedly an unsatisfactory term; but the alternatives, witchcraft or sorcery, are also misleading, because they were ordinarily used about magic employed for evil purposes; whereas the tribal diviner used it, or at least was expected to use it, for the benefit of the tribe. The assumption was that certain individuals possessed the power to influence matter at a distance (or the knowledge how to summon spirits for that purpose); to materialise, or dematerialise, objects; or to use them as weapons, as when they ‘pointed the bone’ at somebody, causing him to fall ill and die. Sometimes it was believed that the weapon actually left the magician’s hand and entered the victim’s body; sometimes the gesture sufficed. This was a grey area, in which European observers found difficulty in separating the physical from the psychical elements in magic.
Much the same problem arose over the common claim that a magician could transform himself into somebody else, or into an animal; that he could vanish and reappear instantaneously at some distant place - translocation; or that he could be in two places at once - bilocation. Observers were often unable to say whether it was the magician’s body, or simply his spirit, which was supposed to be transformed, or to do the travelling. Still, in some tribal communities it was assumed that magicians could actually raise themselves off the ground by mental power. Fr. Paul Lejeune, a French Jesuit missionary in Canada in the 1630s, was assured that levitation was a common occurrence; two centuries later Australian aborigines told A. W. Howitt that magicians had been expected to be able to convey themselves by air.
Speaking in unknown tongues was another of the magician’s accomplishments; and the ability to display strength, skill or endurance far beyond the normal. He should be able to break free from bonds, and run or dance without stopping for hours at a time. Here, the difficulty for observers lay in distinguishing between supernatural and superhuman feats. But there was one particular form of endurance which was frequently encountered, and was not easy to explain naturally - except as deception: the ability of magicians to endure extremes of temperature, and in particular, to carry red hot coals in their mouths or hands, or to walk over and through fire. Ceremonies of this kind were reported from many parts of the world; from Pacific islands, Japan, Malaya, India and Trinidad. Nor was it only magicians who had this power. Trial by ordeal was also a common practice.
A suspect would hold a heated bar of iron or put his hand in boiling water for a prescribed period of time. If he were guilty, the assumption was, he would be burned or scalded; but innocence would ensure incombustibility. If his hand remained unmarked, he was acquitted.
One other supernatural element was commonly reported; effects which were attributed to the spirits, rather than to the magician, though they could be an accompaniment of his magic. When the North American Indians held meetings to obtain advice, the spirits were expected to announce their arrival by making certain signs. The teepee with the medicine man inside it would begin to rock, as if caught in a gale (though even the fiercest gale could not ordinarily shift it); lights, or fire, would be seen over it; strange sounds or voices would come out of it, or sometimes out of the empty surrounds. Similar manifestations could also occur at the whim of the spirits; sometimes casually, sometimes as if with malice. In the first of the classical compendiums of anthropological knowledge, Primitive Culture, Edward Tylor noted that ‘the elf who goes knocking and routing about the house at night, and whose special German name is the poltergeist’, was known to the Dyaks, Siamese, Singhalese and Esthonians. Andrew Lang and de Vesme provided further examples. In Java, poltergeists were so common that there was even a term in the language to designate them, distinguishing them from other spirits.
“Tribal Communities” is an extract from Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from the Earliest Times to 1914 by Brian Inglis, published by White Crow Books, and is available from Amazon and other bookstores.
Natural and Supernatural by Brian Inglis