Spirit-Mediumship in Africa –West Africa






I. West

1. Spirit-Possession in Gold-Coast

M. J. Field


2. Spirit-Possession in Kalabari Region

Robin Horton


3. Nago-Yoruba Spirit-Mediumship

Pierre Verger


II. Central & South

1. Spirit-Possession among the Tonga

Elizabeth Colson


2. Spirit-Mediums in Korekore Society

G. K. Garbett


3. Spirit-Possession among the Zulu

S. G. Lee


III. East

1. Spirit-Mediumship in Bu-nyoro

John Beattie


2. S`et.ani Cult among the Segeju

R. F. Gray


3. Spirit-Possession in Somaliland

I. M. Lewis


4. Spirit-Possession among the Lu-gbara

John Middleton


5. Spirit-Possession among the Alur

Aidan Southall


6. Sukuma Spirit-Mediumship

R. E. S. Tanner


7. Spirit-Initiation in Ankole

F. B. Welbourn



I.1. (pp. 3-13) M. J. Field : Spirit-Possession in the Gold-Coast.

p. 7 occasions of spirit-possession

"Most people who are possessed as part of their profession – priests. diviners, priestly auxiliaries ... – are conditioned to become possessed when they place themselves suitably ... . {Inasmuch as the active agent in the possessing is a deity, it is the deity who is so conditioned.}

Some priests have only to enter the sanctuary when the drums and gongs are beating and the flute wailing.

Some diviners gaze into a black liquid to the sound of gongs.

Another may have to hold upon his head, again to the sound of gongs, a weight heavy enough ... . ...

Induction ... by the inhalation of fumes, as was practiced by ... the Delphic soothsayers, is ... practiced ... by the Dagomba of Northern Ghana whose diviners ... sprinkle certain dried herbs into a charcoal fire and breathe the fumes."

pp. 8-9, 11 vocation to a career in spirit-mediumhood; formal training in spirit-mediumship




"When anyone is ‘strongly’ possessed for the first time, or so often possessed that he is suspected of being called to a dedicated career – ‘a god wants to come to him and work’ – efforts are made to find out what spirit is possessing him. He consults an established diviner, who becomes himself possessed by his own deity and answers the question. He gives the name of the intrusive deity and perhaps tells the supplicant that he must train as a full-time priest and set up his own shrine. ...


Or yet again {spoken to a woman}, you must go into training as a medium a then you must marry a herbalist ... . You must then help him in his diagnoses and treatments by consulting your familiar spirit.’ "


"if he is so ‘strongly’ or so frequently possessed as to ... upset his routine he is believed to have been called by a deity to a dedicated career. He may then go into training as a priest-diviner of the kind common in Ashanti. Or, among the Ga and Adangme, whose traditional priests are never themselves possessed, he (or, more often, she) may become a priestly auxiliary, possessed only when the deity holds one of his annual festival dances. ...

Again, a gifted medium may go into private practice as a soothsayer. ... Sometimes she marries a herbalist and they run a profitable business together, she diagnosing and prescribing, he administering treatment."

p. 9 possession of spirit-medium by a diversity of possessing-spirits in rapid succession, in the course of a single rite

"Sometimes at a festival dance a number of different spirits will possess a medium in succession, imposing on her a variety of miming.

The medium may announce, ‘I am such-and-such a venerated ancestress.’ The attendants will then array her ..., powder her, perfume her and place white goat-skins for her to walk upon. She will then sail graciously round greeting the most eminent members of the assembly.

A few minutes later she may be possessed by a dread and gone warrior : she will call for a sword ad stride about ferociously brandishing it, uttering war-like shouts and singing war-songs.

Then an animal-god, say a leopard, may come upon her and she will go on all fours, snarling, snapping, scratching and biting pieces out of live fowls.

On one occasion at a herbalist’s annual festival the possessed medium ... was possessed by all the herbs that the herbalist had used throughout the year ... . During this possession by herbs various patients came and consulted with her about herbal remedies."

p. 11 ‘carrying the coffin’ by possessing-spirits

"An emotional occasion on which non-professionals are possessed is the ceremony of ‘carrying the coffin’. ... the deceased is carried in his coffin (in earlier days it was a basket) all round the town on the pall-bearers’ heads. These bearers become possessed by the spirit of the dead man and this controls their movements. the coffin appears to buck and shy and .. charges madly off, compelling the bewildered sweating bearers without any apparent volition of their own."

p. 11-2 exorcism of spirit of ill-luck




Spirit-"possession is induced for therapeutic reasons, ... in the Ga ceremony of ‘driving away a bad gbeshi’. A bad gbeshi is thought of an influence of ill-luck inhabiting a person and bringing him misfortune and unprosperity when circumstances appear propitious.

For the expulsion procedure he is taken by the medicine-man and his apprentices to the outskirts of the town and the bad gbeshi driven out of him into the bush or perhaps


tied to a post or even induced to enter a fowl which is then driven away. the patient is made to hold on his head either a big bowl of water-and-herbs or a fowl. The assistants stand around beating gongs, singing, clapping and urging the gbeshi with threatening shouts to ‘come out’. The patient ... looks dazed and dreamy and sways drowsily. Then suddenly ‘the gbeshi gets up’ and the patient dashes wildly off into the bush still carrying his head-load and pursued by the assistants, all reviling the gbeshi and commanding it never to return. When the patient’s excitement leaves him he ... has no recollection of any part of the episode except the beginning, but ... the evil thing has left him and ... the future is bright."

p. 13 the social function of spirit-mediumhood

"The medium who becomes a professional priest or diviner is supplying a demand. He will not succeed unless he giver good value ... . During his training he submits to much discipline and hardship ... . ...

‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And the fruits of most spirit possession in Ghana are wholesome and sustaining."


I.2. (pp. 14-49) Robin Horton : Types of Spirit-Possession in the Kalabari Region.

p. 15 spirits which guide : as distinct from oru (free spirits)

"For Kalabari, every person, animal, plant or thing has a guiding spirit which controls its behaviour ‘as a steersman controls his canoe’.

Then, over and above such spirits associated with particular material objects, there are three great categories of free spirits who influence ... events, and whose generic label is oru.


its traits

1st – duen (‘the dead’)

"These are the spiritual portions of human beings, that leave their bodies when they die. In the after life, the dead continue to ... look after their real or fictional descendants as fathers look after their sons, and they demand respect from their descendants".

2nd am-oru (‘the heroes’)

"These are beings ... who founded the various communal institutions. Instead of dying, however, the heroes disappeared without leaving any descendants. ... the heroes underpin the strength of the ... institutions."

3rd awuamapu (‘the water spirits’)

"They are also the forces behind such human activity as is individualistic or deviates from the social norm : they are held responsible ... for actions of innovators."

p. 16 similarity, and difference, between idolatry & spirit-possession

"In the case of __,

the aim of the exercise is __;

and this is done by __ ."


"to secure control over oru by fixing them during the process of invocation and offering"

"associating them with inert, immobile wood."


"encouraging oru to make their attributes and wishes known to men"

"inducing them to enter living, mobile human bodies."

p. 16 the nature of Tamuno (the supreme goddess)

"Since she controls the spirits of her invokers as she controls spirits generally, ritual approaches to her ... contrast sharply with approaches to the spirits. Praise songs and ... offerings are absent, since persuasion and flattery would be absurd in this context." {In these terms, typical Christian worship-services (featuring much persuasion and flattery, directed toward God) are likewise absurd.}

Again, both sculptural representation and possession are absent". [cf. p. 9 (by M.J.F.) : "I have not heard of anyone practising an indigenous West African cult who was possessed by Almighty God". {But amongst Christians ("Pentacostal" ones) it is commonplace to become possessed by the Holy Ghost, which Holy Ghost is a Person of within the Trinity of Almighty God.}]

pp. 17-21 oru-seki (‘spirit-dancing’)




At "Soku, a small village in the north-west corner of Kalabari territory ..., the community maintains an elaborate annual festival for Fenibaso, head of its heroes ..., and ... a complementary festival for Duminea, head of the local water spirits. [p. 47, n. 4 : "For an ... account of the Duminea festival, see Horton, 1965b."] ...


But the testimony of older people ... suggest that ... what happens in the Fenibaso festival exemplifies a pattern once common to all Kalabari communities. ... The celebrations for Fenibaso start on a keke, the day of the week consecrated to the spirits. On the appointed day, ... the head priest presents an offering of agbara-fish [p. 47, n. 6 : Niger perch] ... telling the spirit to accept it happily, ... and to come ... on the morrow. In actual fact, the first phase of the festival is dominated not by Fenibaso himself, but by a violent and ferocious minion known as ‘Head-of-the-Canoe-Prow’. On the morning after this first offering, the priest of this junior spirit ... is ... to be dressed in the garb of his possessor. His dress includes ... a live chick looped about his torso on a length of fresh palm-frond ... . ... As for the live chick, this is a decoy for evil spirits who may come to worry the priest whilst he is possessed. ...


Then the iju drummer and his assistants start to beat out an urgent rhythm, calling the praise-names of the spirit. ... After some minutes of this deafening build-up, the priest starts to tremble ... . ... Then a huge convulsion shakes the priest’s body and he rushes headlong into the dancing square. ... At intervals ..., the drummers change their rhythms, and the spirit abandons his swordplay to dance. {Brandishing a sword is also characteristic of some Taoist spirit-possession caerimonies.} ...

On the evening of the same day, ... the whole sequence is repeated. Again on the next day, ... once in the morning and once in the evening.


On the third day, ... in ... the evening, however, there is what is known as the ‘town running’. In this, the spirit, summoned to the priest’s head by drums and singing, chases the young men headlong four times round the town. ...

On the morning of the fourth day, ‘Head-of-the-Canoe-Prow’ is called out for the last time. ... At dusk the same evening, preparations are made for ... the appearance of Fenibaso himself. ...


As the drummer starts to call the names of Fenibaso, the three priests come out ... at the door of the cult-house. ... Before long, the priest of Fenibaso trembles violently and rushes out in front of the drums, possessed."

Horton, 1965b = W. R. G. Horton : "Duminea". NIGERIA MAGAZINE, No. 86 (Sept.).

p. 25 oru bibi n’ekwen (‘speaking with the mouth of the oru’)

"most communal cults ... had a ... ‘speaker with the couth of the oru’. This figure ... became possessed at the request of people who came to consult his spirit about the causes of their misfortunes. The clients called up the spirit with an invocation ..., and when it came upon him it answered their questions, diagnosing the spiritual causes of their troubles and suggesting appropriate remedies."

pp. 28-31 eremin’ oru kuro (possession by ‘women’s oru’) : oru kuro ereme (‘oru-carrying women’)

p. 28

"This category of possession is typically associated with the minor water spirits that ... have no special domain

p. 29

of their own. ... To secure the services of an oru kuro woman, one goes to her house and tells her that one wants to talk with her spirit. She then ... goes to the spirit’s shrine, and calls upon it to mount her. After a while she goes into the shrine, puts on special clothes associated with the spirit, and sits down. Before long, she becomes drowsy. Then the spirit mounts her ... . The spirit ... comes ... speaking ... an alien tongue. There is a fairly standard ‘water-people’s language’ spoken by most of these possessing spirits. ... its words are formed by substitution of syllables in ordinary Kalabari words, by use of lengthened forms from the drum-language, and so on. ... Some, again, speak a stuttering form of ordinary Kalabari.

Another common index of spirit possession is a restless striding up and down {Peripatetic, the dominant Athenian mode of teaching and of learning philosophy} which goes on whilst the spirit is talking and listening. Yet another index, though by no means a universal one, is a fine body tremor.

p. 30

Apart from the alien tongue, which usually requires an interpreter, a session with an oru kuro woman much resembles a session with any other type of clairvoyant diviner. [p. 48, n. 13 : "See Horton 1964a."] Being a spirit, the woman’s possessor is credited with an ability to ‘see’ directly the spiritual causes of any affliction. ...

Alongside the possessing spirit principally concerned with divination, it is common to find a sort of junior side-kick known as owu biribo – ‘Water Doctor’. This character commonly bears an ibo name, speaks Ibo, and is credited with the knowledge of herbs and other pharmacopoeia ... . His role partly overlaps that of the principal spirit; but whereas the latter is chiefly concerned with diagnosis, owu biribo is chiefly concerned with treatment ... . ...

When one of the water spirits has been summoned to the head of an oru kuro woman for a divining session, ... at the end of the business for which it was summoned ... it turns its attention to bystanders, making unsolicited observations on their condition, on their relations with the spirits, and on misfortunes and afflictions liable to overtake them. It may even parade about on the

p. 31

street, accosting passers-by and telling them of unseen agencies with which they have become embroiled. ... Often, the oru kuro woman’s spirit arrives spontaneously – to tell someone of an affliction, to warn an individual or a group of impending trouble ... . ...


Mingled with the divining and prophesying is a good deal of boasting about the power and fearfulness of the water-spirits, and a good deal of propaganda about the splendours of their home beneath the rivers. ...

In some cases, the possessing spirit comes expressly to tell a story of happenings in his town; and this story may be a saga which goes on night after night ... . ... . ... their dramatis personae provide a cover for real-life characters and their escapades, thus lifting gossip to the level of art tinged with social criticism." {satire}

Horton 1964a : W. R. G. Horton : "Kalabari Diviners and Oracles". ODU 1(1).

pp. 35-6 women who consent to having male water-spirits as their husbands


woman’s divine husband


"although the women ... appear to have found relief from their troubles through acceptance of marital relationships with water-spirits and subsequent submission to being possessed by them, other women appear to have found equal relief through acceptance of such marital relationships without submission to being possessed. ... Many of the women ..., indeed, ... tried other remedies before opting for water-spirit husbands and obtaining relief through possession. ...

In each of these cases, the woman’s troubles were diagnoses as coming from a water-spirit husband, and she agreed to accept possession by him. But ... the established oru kuro woman ... decided ... by calling


the spirit to mount her. This she did by summoning a pot-drummer and a chorus of other oru kuro women to sing the songs appropriate to the spirit suspected to be the victim’s ‘husband in the water’. The spirit duly entered the victim’s head, sang, and danced. The officiating oru kuro woman then questioned it as to what it wanted with the victim, how it should be called, and what rites should be done to appease it."

p. 36 gradual taming of possessing-spirit

"Following upon this initial possession was a period of months or even years when the spirit settled down. ... At the beginning of this period, the spirit would come and go in a capricious way, showing no sense of when it was welcome and when not. It would also make extravagant demands on its audience, come inconvenient, some impossible to satisfy. At this stage, the supervising oru kuro woman would try, by coaxing and cajoling, to make it come and go to order. She would also reason with it whenever it appeared, gently pointing out which of its demands were socially acceptable and which were not. After some time of this, the appearances of the new spirit were under control. It came when invoked by its carrier, stayed a reasonable time, and behaved in a generally tractable way."

pp. 38-9 marriage (of a woman already acknowledging a male water-spirit as husband) to a human husband simultaneously


human husband


One oru kuro "woman said : ‘My husband in the water tells me to marry a man without half a penny, and give him all the orders. ...’ ... All this notwithstanding, ... a considerable oru kuro women do stay married after possession, even though many of them bear no more children. In some cases they manage this by teaming up with the type of man ... with not a halfpenny in his pocket


who is content to be given orders, to act as interpreter and general factorum in his wife’s shrine, and to live off the earnings of her spirit."

pp. 38-39 terms for ‘sexual intercourse; a man having a female water-spirit as his wife’

p. 38

"Kumba and wele are water-spirit words for sexual intercourse".

p. 39

"And a great many of these men also receive the diagnosis that a water-spuse ... is worrying them for recognition and for fulfilment of obligation. But ... such a diagnosis is very frequently followed by possession, in men".


Instance of such a sequel : "He was possessed by a female ‘water-wife’ ".

p. 40 rite acknowledging marriage of human to spirit

(mode between woman spirit-medium and her male possessing-spirit :) "Note that this is not a rite of marriage. {In Haiti, however, devotees do undertake what they regard as rites of marriage between humans and deities of opposite gendre to them.} In Kalabari thinking, the marriage has been contracted in the world of the water-people before birth, between the carrier’s own guiding-spirit and her water-spirit partner. What efere gbana does is acknowledge the tie and the obligations that go with it."

"water spirits [divine intelligences] are adopted by individuals, nearly all women, who are called 'spirit carriers' (oru-kuro). It is usually young married women who are 'seized' by a spirit and become its servant, but young girls may also have this experience...However it happens fairly often that the symptoms persists until the woman agrees to the interpretation that she was married to a water spirit in the spirit world before her birth, and must now allow him to possess her and speak through her mouth [i.e. become a prophetess]. She then usually spends some time, sometimes a long time, in the house of an established oru-kuro woman, where she learns to keep her spirit under control, so that it visits her only at appropriate moments, when people come to consult her..."

"...In the olden days the spirit of such a woman used often to go down into the water [i.e. enter a trance state] for the space of seven days, after which she usually returned to her own people. When the serpent husband [i.e. Adumu, the divine intelligence dwelling in the spiritual plane] comes up to visit his wife he is invisible to ordinary eyes, but the priestess herself can see and talk with him in his shrine..." http://www.ijawland.com/history-and-culture/208-ijo-spiritual-culture.html "Ijo Spiritual Culture"


I.3. (pp. 50-66) Pierre Verger : Trance and Convention in Nago-Yoruba Spirit-Mediumship.

p. 65, n. 1 general term for ‘deity’

"Orisha and vodun are the general names given by the Yoruba and Dahomean people respectively to the deities worshipped by them."

p. 50 Yoruba terms for ‘spirit-medium’

"A medium may also be called

elegun orisha (‘the one climbed on by the orisha’),

eshin orisha (‘horse of the orisha’),

adoshu orisha (‘the one whose head is the bearer of the orisha’s oshu’)".

p. 65, n. 2 "The oshu ..., made of several ingredients (leaves ... and minerals) ... is thought of as fixing and stimulating the ashe or power of the orisha. The oshu is placed on the shaven head of a new initiate, as a consecration to a particular orisha."

p. 51 corresponding names of deities in Yoruba & in Fon



god of __





"coarse and energetic"








"calm and serene"




"restless agitation"




"cynical and abusive"

p. 51 terms for ‘diviner’ and for ‘divination’ in Yoruba & in Fon










pp. 52-3 possession of spirit-medium by god S^ano


S^ano human medium


"The possessed elegun is to be the incarnation of Shango for seventeen days. {with the #17 of this Yoruba lightning-god, cf. the Izo,n 17 divine fishes (some of which may be electric)}

His hair is plaited in the shape of a crest, and

his body is powdered with red camwood.

He is dressed in iyeri, a circle of scarves tied to a belt ..., and

a bante, an apron made of ram leather completely covered by cowrie shells sewn side by side.

Brandishing a oshe or double axe, ...


he ... dances dances among them for several hours. ...

He wears a strange expression, half cunning, half benevolent."

p. 54 human assistants for deities at the weekly religious celebration

al-as^e (keeper of as^e),

saba (his assistant),

okere (saba’s assistant),

as^ogun (in charge of oris^a Ode),

oluponan (in charge of Es^u Elegba),

iyafero (woman charged with calming down Ogun),

alaposi (drummer),

elegbenla (soldiers of the oris^a),

is^oro (who interpreteth the will of the oris^a),

aros^eku (who beareth on his head the as^e),

iyaworis^a (women who sing for the oris^a)

p. 65, fn. 5 as^e is an emblem of an oris^a

p. 54 musical instruments comprising religious orchestra

aposi (small drum with earthenware body),

ogida (elongated drum),

kele (small drum raised on legs),

agogo (iron bell)

p. 56 behaviour of men under spirit-possession by deity Ondo at Pobe

"They walk bent forward and with large paces, raising their feet very high.

... Their faces are contracted and their mouths open.

They pull their tongues and shake them.

They open their eyes wide.

They take on ... blinking their eyelids continuously and speaking tremulously".

pp. 56-7 ro^le of deity-possessed spirit-media during caerimony in rite at Ilodo




"a character called Fashina played an important role.

Okere also bore the title Ijishe.

And Oga Onsa, chief of the egbenla, interfered frequently in the dialogues between the various orisha. ...


Ijishe, who is the first to appear in possession, utters a loud shout ... . ... He walks restlessly here and there, shaking left hands with the audience. He walks with stiff legs, hopping from one to the other, looking at the sky. ...


He ... from time to time makes violent shoulder movements known as ijika.


At this point, Iyafero enters into trance and begins to dance calmly.


Oga Onsa comes ... on a place called idomosun where the osun irons representing the dead ancestors are planted. ...


After this the iyaworisha dance ... in front of the temple where Alashe shakes his bell to salute them."

p. 59 ymbolic objects held by spirit-media of various deities




point cap; 2 aja (handbells)


os^e (double-axe)




2 hunting-sticks


a tin stick

p. 64 general nature of public religious performance

"These festivals give the impression of a theatrical performance or even an operetta. Their cast, costume, orchestral accompaniment, solo and chorus differ little in spirit from the Mystery and Passion Plays enacted in medieval Europe in the forecourts of the cathedrals. The salient difference is that in the present case the actors, if we may so call them, are in a state of trance. ...

The great part played by convention in trance behaviour had already attracted the attention of Michel Leiris, who has written of it in his study of possession in Ethiopia. [Leiris 1958] It also attracted the attention of Alfred Me’traux, who suggested the term ‘ritual comedy’ for the rites performed by voodoo followers in Haiti."[Me’traux 1955]

Leiris 1958 = Michel Leiris : La possession et ses aspects the’a^traux chez les Ethiopiens de Gondar. Paris.

Me’traux 1955 = A. Me’traux : "La come’die rituelle dans la possession". DIOGENE 11.


John Beattie & John Middleton (edd.) : Spirit-Mediumship and Society in Africa. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.