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GOD:

THE CONTEMPORARY DISCUSSION

Editor in Chief
E. Ade Odumuyiwa

Editors
Ade P. Dopamu. M.O. Adeniyi. Olalekan Dairo.
Onah Odey. Wellington O. Wotogbe-Weneka.
AFRICAN CONCEPTION OF GOD AND
OCCULTIC CHARM: THE YORUBA AS A CASE
STUDY

Pius Oyeniran Abioje

Introduction

It can hardly be faulted to say that occultic charm-making and usage


constitute a commonplace in many parts of African, not just by traditional
Africans, but also by man y African Christians and Muslims. Yet, there seems
to be no official moral guidelines for makers and users of occultic charm,
probably because both Christianity and Islam officially regard the
phenomenon of charm as superstitious unGodly, and an anathema. One
would like to study the issue from African perspective.
The purpose of this study is to examine the reality of o c c u l t i c charm,
and to inquire into whether or not it has something to do with God in African
wordview. If the latter is positively discovered, the next question would concern
the issue of areas of pitfall and whatever recommendations one can proffer,
in respect of charm-making and usage. The study unfolds under three sub-
headings, namely: The Practice of Charm-making and Usage in Yombaland;
Aetiology of Charm-Making and Usage According to the Yonuba; and God vis-
a-vis Charm-Making and Usage in Yoruba. Tradition. Some
recommendations and the conclusion then follow.

The Practice of Charm-Making and Usage in Yorubaland

The Yoruba occupy, in the main, the South-West of Nigeria. They are located
in Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti. Ogun and Lagos States As Atanda notes, however,
pockets of the Yoruba are found in some other parts of Nigeria, such as in
Kwara, Kogi, E«do and Delta States.. Likewise in some West African
countries, such as Republic of Benin and in the West Indies and South America,
such as Brazil and Cuba.

In his book, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, J. Omosade Awolalu notes
that a survey of the beliefs of the Yoruba will not be complete without examining
the people's belief in what he calls mysterious powers. He went on to say that
although these mystical, preternatural and esoteric powers are virtually
inexplicable, they cannot escape notice when they are manipulated by those who
have access to them.2
As one can gather from books, conversations, and observations, the Yoruba, like
many other African peoples, believe in charm. According to N.A Fadipe,

In spite of the change brought about in the attitude of the people


(Yoruba) towards many things by almost a century of Christianity
and education, belief in magic is still pervasive. Those who do not
think of having recourse to its aid still take it for granted and act
implicitly on the assumption not only that magic exists, but that it
has an objective reality.3

This research reveals that there are different types of charm for procuring and
protecting one's desires, and for harming other people and their interest, and there
is hardly anything for which and against which there is no charm. Charm for
performing feats include those for aiding memory, Isioye, for good luck, awure, for
shortening the road or distance, kanaka, for money-making, oogun owo, for
becoming young again, ajidewe, for calling out bullets from someone wounded by
gunshots, ayota for curing diseases, for warding-off thieves, for making and
preventing rain, for getting job and promotion, for winning court cases and games;
they seem to be- adinfmitum. Charms for self protection include those for detecting
poison as in food and drink, iriran, for invulnerability to gunshot; oogun ibon, of
rinvulvierability to cutlass, sword, and knife attacks, okigbe, for making oneself
invisible at critical times, isuju, for vanishing at critical times, afeeri, for removing
oneself from accident and chaos, egbe, for protecting oneself against sorcerers and
witches, madarikan, ebe-agba, and agbelepota, and soon. Charms for influencing
people include those for winning somebody's love oogun ife, and for commanding
people to obey automatically, gbetugbetu. Charms for fighting include those for
knocking people out, aluwo, and for wrestling, oogun ijakadi.
The charm used for harming other people and their interests arc
about as many as the ones for procuring and securing personal interests
They include those for cursing people effectively, (epe), andl others such as
those inflicting blindness, paralysis, elephantiasis, craziness or madness,
failure, and of inflicting death itself.
One notes that some charms that are grouped under those meant for
personal interest may be used to people's houses such that the -thief
remains invisible in the burgling process. Likewise, a sorcerer may cause
or prevent rain to other people's disadvantage. A tradler may use charm to
draw all customers to himself or herself alone. And the charms for fighting,
which can easily be abused, are other examples.
Making and usage of charms usually involve five elements. It involves
in the first place, a set of materials such as herbs which including roots and
barks, alligator pepper, and small gourds called ado; whole? 01 parts of some
animals and birds, including human beings depending cm the type of charm.
(Moneymaking charms, and some automatic command charms, for
instance, are said to include some human part s) Some manufactured
materials such as padlock, ring, and needle; and some sacred objects such
as the costume of a masquerade, the people of Sango (the god of thunder and
lightening), kola-nut from the shrines of Sango, water and other objects from
the shrine of any of the divinities, and the emblem of Esu (messenger of
intermediary divinity) are also used. The materials are thus botanical,
zoological, anthropological, industrial, as well as sacred or religious.
In the second place are prescribed acts. Rainmaking charms, for
instance, usually involve sprinkling of water on the ground or dipping of
twigs in water and sprinkling it to imitate of rainfall. The charm for inflicting
blindness often involves pointing an enchanted finger at the. eyes of the
victim. And that recalls the third element, incantation. When the sorcerer points
his enchanted finger at the victim's eye, for- instance-he may be say ing an
incantation, such as:

Ika ko loju, oko nil loju


Ika kii riran, oko ni riran
A finger has no eyes, you wil 1 have no eyes
A finger does not see, you will not see.4

The fourth common element in the making and usage of charm is the observation
of taboos. Men and women of occultic charm have to abstain from certain
foods and actions. For instance, some charms forbid sharing an egg with
anybody, and some other charms forbid putting salt in food while the food is on
the fire, and so on, such a charm lost its potency if the taboo is violated.
There are some supposedly powerful charms called ofo ayajo, which
consist of only incantations. Ofo ayajo means an incantation of the historica1
day (which is to say that the particular incantation was first used on a particular
day, at a particular occasion, for a particular purpose, and know that the same
incantation is to be used for a similar purpose at a similar occasion, it should
not disappoint as it did not disappoint at the first instance).
The fifth element with regard to making and using charms belongs
particularly to veteran charm makers, and not charm buyers and users as such.
The Yoruba believe that: Adase ni i hun 'ni iba ki i hun 'niyan (reliance on ome's
effort alone fails, seeking support does not fail). And so, veteran charm makers
usually invoke the ancestors, imploring them to se«e to it that the charm they are
making works.
One can see evidence of belief in charm among the people of Yorubaland
a-s- many, surely not all, wear rings of charm, bear incision on their bodies,
amulets hung in some houses, and so on. It is also believed that some people
wear charm belts (onde) and carry pouches (apefe) and "padlocks of charm"
(agadagodo) in their pockets. Padlock of charm means that a charm is wrapped-
up round the body of a padlock. The possessor tells the charm in the padlock
what is desired, and after reciting the appropriate incantation, the padlock is
locked, and it is not to be opened until what is commanded comes to pass.
Similar to padlock of charm is akaba which consists of two small
enchanted sticks and a string. The person will tell akaba what he wants done.,
and as he recites the accompanying incantation, he will be tying the two sticks
together, using the attached string to do so. He does not untie the akaaba until
what he wants done comes to pass.
It is commonly believed that charms can be taught and learned, bought and sold,
bequeathed and inherited. Those who did not believe in charm among the
interviewees dismissed charm as superstition and rubbish. They said there is
nothing in it. They argued that people keep telling fantastic stories, but these
stories are like a mirage that defies concrete apprehension. They were not ready
to believe until th ey can see.
These were, however, only five, out of the forty-two persons interviewed.
The overwhelming majority believe in the efficacy of charm. Indeed, some of
them who were charm veterans claimed that they offer live cocks or hens
annually to some of their charms (like egbe- the charm for removing oneself
from accident or chaos). The charm has to kill the cock or hen by itself, thus, the
owner will know that the charm is still alive and active. The way it is done is
that, a child usually a male, is asked to carry the cock or hen on his head. The
child has to be on his knee, backing the charm, while the bird he carrries is
made to face the charm. The owner of the charm will then address the charm to the
effect that he has brought annual cock or hen, as the case may be. He will have to
tell the charm that it is the hen or cock that he has brought and not the child, otherwise,
it is believed that the child may die with the bird. After the address, the man will
begin his incantation, and as he progresses the bird dies gradually until it is stone
cold with the termination of the incantation. That way, the owner is sure that the
egbe is alive, and will work in time of need.
As a matter of fact, many Yoruba have no doubt that when a charm is prepared
properly, according to regulation, it will deliver according to expectation. Some
newspaper reports testify to the efficacy of charm For instance, a report had it
that peace returned to Ijebuland only after the elders mounted a vigilante to
deal with armed robbers who were responsible for insecurity of life and
property. Investigation revealed that the vigilante comprised some men who
were armed with charm. Even though the robbers expectedly armed with
sophisticated weapons, the report quoted some residents as saying the vigilante
banished the armed robbers to the extent that "for once, you could even decide to
put your money in the market-place in the full glare of everybody and be sure to
still meet it intact anytime you decide to come for it.5 That is similar to what is said
to happen in many other African communities whenever the elders resort to the
traditional way, in search of security. One heard that the unity of the elders and
their resolve is vital to unhampered success.
Beyond that, charm-making and usage do not appear to be a monopoly of
Yorubaland or even Africa alone. It seems that there is hardly any society or
community where the practice is unknown. For instance, John Haught, a
Westerner, notes, without any particular reference to Africa, that, magic is what
people resort to when religious trust fails.6 The difference is that many Africans,
including many Yoruba, do not seem to think that occultic charm is opposed to
religious trust. They would rather thank God when and if a charm works for them.
They believe that everything belongs to God, including, snakes, scorpions, fish
and dove. They view life holistically rather than dischotomistically.

Aetiology of Charm-Making and Usage According to the Yoruba

The Yoruba traditional experts, the babalawo, that were interviewed


spoke on the origin of oogun (which translates both occultic charm and
medicine). They said oogun was created by God, and its existence was revealed
through Osanyin, as a slave (some called him Orunmila's younger brother). One
morning, when Orunmila was going out, he asked Osanyin to clear the
surrounding grass and shrubs. When Orunmila came back, he was furious to find
Osanyin sitting down clearing nothing. On query, Osanyin replied: "which of
these plants should I clear? He then began to point at the plants, saying: This plant
works against headache, this one against malaria when you combine this with
that one, it cures leprosy, and so on. At the end, he triumphantly asked Orunmila
again: "which one should I clear?" Thus, Osanyin taught Orunmila the usefulness
of plants and oogun.
The traditionalists were asked whether Orunmila learnt also of bad or wicked
oogun (charm). They answered negatively, insisting that only wicked persons could
account for that perversion of goodness.
The foregoing is reminiscent of Genesis 1:31, which says that everything
created by God was good. It can be argued that plants, animals, and other
materials are created by God, but what about words, which are also used in the
incantations of occultic charm? The Bible leaves no one in doubt that words can
be powerful. God created the universe through 'his words, in form of: Let there be
light, and light surfaced, let there be plants and animals, and they surfaced, and so
on (Genesis 1:1-23). One can note also that words can be used to console, bless, or
to curse someone to commit suicide, to bring peace or war, and so on, depending on
who and how the power of word is used. In the words of a Yoruba elder,
Olubuyide Ogunyemi:

Word is powerful, you can use it to do and undo many things.


You can use word on somebody, "turn him around". Jesus
Christ too cursed a fig tree. He used word on it. You can stay
in a village in Oyo State and use the word on somebody who
stays in far-away United State of America or United
Kingdom. This shows the ultimate power in word.7

On another note, Ogunyemi gave a different account of the origin of the


knowledge of magic. According to him, spirits of plants antl animals taught
hunters who used to move a lot in the jungle the knowledge, hence they
(hunters) are usually much more profound in the art of occultic charm-making
and usage than any other professionals in the traditional arena.8
At the same time, Bolaji Idowu discovered a multiple origin of the
knowledge of charm-making and usage, which encompasses the earlier
mentioned myth of origin, and the spiritual connection enunciated by
Ogunyemi. In the words of Idowu:

Traditional doctors in Africa often claim that they are taught


medicine by divinities or, more generally, in dreams or in
trances, or during meetings with spirits in forests. A really
good doctor is usually a person who lives close to nature and
has the opportunity of close observation even of the medical
habits of animals and birds.

The mention of medicine and doctor in the quotation should not create
confusion, since in many parts of Africa, the knowledge of occultic charm and
medicine often goparipassu.

God vis-a-vis Charm-Making and Usage in Yoruba Tradition

One's observation is that in the perspective of the Yoruba, there is nobody


and nothing that is greater than God. He is conceived as both supreme and
unique. He is said to be the omnipotent and source of every real power,
including the mysterious power that is called occultic charm. The
explanation holds that as in creation there are fish and snakes, so are there
both good and evil charms. It is in that regard that John S. Mbiti calls good use
of "knowledge of mystical powers", medicine, "to distinguish it from the wicked
use of the same force.10 J. Omosade Awolalu and P. Adelumo Dopamu explain that:

Both the medicine man and the herbalist are generally good. They
operate for the well being of the society. But the magician can be
good or bad. He can use his knowledge to harm or to kill. In the
latter use, we come to the realm of sorcery, and the magician is then
adequately referred to as a sorcerer.''

It may be useful or encouraging to note that even though making


and usage of charm is prevalent in the indigenous culture of the Yoruba,
as noticeable also among many other African people, there are some
traditional individuals who do not pay much attention to it. And that is
reflected in a number of proverbs. For instance, in Yoruba:
•Iwa omo nii m'omo se okigbe A violent child is prompted by his
character to make the charm for making oneself impervious to
cutlass and knife. The implication is that a peaceful child will
never think of such charms. And, being a proverb, the meaning
is elastic. For instance, it means also that a non-promiscuous
person will never seek for charm against venereal disease.
•Inu mimo je ju oogun lo - innocent or pure heart works better
than charm.
•Iwa I'oba awure - Good conduct is the king of the charm for goodluck
than the charm for good luck can bring.
Moreover, traditional individuals who realise that the demands of many
charms are "not only dehumanising, but in many cases very unfruitful.12 It is
dehumanising when a charm requires parts of or a whole human being, and faeces
of a pregnant woman, for instance.
Fear, or a feeling of insecurity is a human plague. It demoralizes human
beings, and reduces them to ridiculous wretch. According to Earnest Larsen:
Millions of terrified Americans cram our Christian
churches weekly. Countless thousands of times we
break the bread who is Christ, yet we leave those
buildings as scared, as insecure as when we
entered. What did we say to one another? Were we
listening when Jesus cried: 'I DO ACCEPT YOU.
You need not be afraid'?13

That demonstrates an idea of the universal prevalence of fear, and why some people
go for charm. Yet, Jesus enjoins, "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36). And: "I have
been given all authority in heaven and on earth... I am with you always until the end of this
world". (Matt. 28:18-20).
At any rate, even those who were so convinced of the efficacy of charm, confessed
that charms do not always work, and also that genuine charms are rare to come by.
But, even if there are genuine charms, can it be impossible for God to neutralize a genuine
charm? An elder, Micheal Oyaniyi, gave an anecdote. He said a man was travelling in his
car, on a journey of two hundred kilometres. After covering one hundred and fifty
kilometres, he realised that he forgot his amulet or protective charm. The question is:
who or what protected him on his one hundred and fifty kilometres? Thus, absolute power
is said to be in God's hand alone, who neither dozes nor slumbers.
Some Yoruba experts in different interviews explained that oogun (charm) means
something that is too long without end. (Etymologically, the substantive is gun,
which means long, while the prefix oo means something or someone, depending on the
context, and so, oogun means something that is long). The traditionalists find someone
else who will turn the charm to water that is, neutralize the charm's potency with a more
powerful charm. In other words, the world of charm is a circle, in which people use charm to
counter charm, and no one can be sure who has the master card.
A Yoruba traditionalist related the story of an annual festival in which people
prepared dangerous charm poisons. Each member of the charm society of the town would
bring his own poison to the chairman of the charm society who would swallow some or
all of the poison, confident that his amulet would neutralize the effect of the charm. For
eight years, no charm poison could harm the chairman in question. But in the ninth year of
his tenure, a very young man came up with his pot of charm poison. The chairman used his
finger to mix the poison as he used to do, but as he tasted it, the poison magically turned
to a metal club in his mouth, the metal club went inside and broke a pot which the
chairman had magically planted in his own stomach to contain the contestants'
poisons. When the pot broke, all the poison in it penetrated into bowels, and the
chairman died in a matter of minutes. From that day, nobody dares to hold the
festival any more.
The import of the story is that nobody should think he is all in all when it
comes to charm-making and usage. The story also shows that charm may not
bring the desired security. Many interviewees believe that genuine security can be
found only in God who alone is the Alpha and the Omega. According to the
Yoruba: oogun lo ni ojo kan iponju, ori lo ni ojo gbogbo (charm is used in time
of emergency or desperation, as a last resort, but everyday belongs to God).
It should be noted that although Christianity and Islam are said to oppose
occultic charm-making and usage, it is known that many African Christians
and Muslims have recourse to charm. Many devoted ones who would not go
the traditional way still allow their night guards to use whatever they know to
enable them do their work effectively. Beyond that, certain passages of the Qur'an
are said to be manipulated in a magical form by many Muslims, while many
Christians use some Psalms, magically also... A common practice among many
Christians is to pray into water, and bless various materials which are then
handled as charm. Many Muslims are known to produce lira as majical objects
from certain verses of the Qur'an.
With particularreference to the Catholic Church, scapular, crufix an medals
are clutched by many Catholic as African traditionalists clutch their amulets.
African found churches, such as the Celestial Church of Christ, and the Cherubim
and Seraphim Church use various objects, including a staff and a red piece of cloth
in a similar fashion.
In the final analysis, when the individual is asked to justify his/her action, God
is said to be the ultimate Determiner, whether one is speaking with an African
traditionalist, a Christian or a Muslim. This leads one to conclude that many
human beings crave magical solution to problems that are associated with
existence and survival, irrespective of religious faith. No wonder many prophets
in Sacred Scriptures are said to have worked miracles that had the automatic
character of an effective occultic charm.
Recommendations

• Occultic charm cannot be dismissed as mere superstition. Indeed the charms that
are found to be effective against evil perpetrator such as those for
deterring thieves and chasing or catching, armed robbers, should be
preserved and encouraged Everything that helps to banish misery in
African culture. should be nourished and preserved.
•On the whole, African wisdom does not encourage a person to be obsessed with
seeking, making and using charm. For instance a Yoruba song goes thus:

Are owo ni e sa (2ce)


Eni t'on,sa 're ogungun ntan' ra eje
Areowoniesa

(Endeavour to earn money (2ce)


Those who preoccupy themselves with charm-making
and usage are deceiving themselves
Endeavour to earn money).
It is believed that over-preoccupation with seeking and making charms
impoverish a person, since that involves spending both money and precious
time.

•With or without charm, everybody at one time or the other can suffer from one
difficulty or the other. Christians call such difficult, cross; many other
persons may call it fate, while many practitioners of African Religion may
term it work of a sorcerer or the design of a witch. The diversity in
perspective is dictated by cultural influences and different backgrounds.
When t h e downturn of life ensues, it may be that what is required is no
more than the courage to face it, without caving-in. A theist approach is
to intensify prayer to God. Those who believe in the efficacy of charm
should feel free to use it but ensures that innocent persons are not harmed
in whatever circumstance.
•The state needs to intensify' efforts at uprooting some of the ills in t i n society,
such as insecurity, injustice, exploitation unemployment,
poverty, and hunger, which promote charm-making and usage.
•Hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centres can, to some extent, mitigate charm-
making and usage, especially when properly equipped. Some doctors and
nurses hold, in the course of this research, that some of the diseases that
were attributed to sorcerers by the people could be diagnosed and cured
in properly equipped hospitals, even though one may not rule-out altogether
evil machinations by sorcerers and witches.

Conclusion

This study discovers that occultic charm is known worldwide, and charm-
making and usage are not a monopoly of Africa or Yorubaland in particular. One came
to the realisation that in Yorubaland, as in many parts of Africa, possibly, charm-
making and usage, are said to be faith in God, as it is said to be the case in Christianity
and Islam. Many Yoruba traditionalists explained that God is the ultimate source of
all power, and that abuse of charm power is as bad as the abuse of any other power or
grace. The research reveals that Yoruba traditional wisdom does not encourage
obsession with seeking, making and using charm. It rather enjoins industrial
endeavour to attain success in life. Nevertheless, it is held that one can resort to charm
at some critical or desperate moments, such as when a person is under an attack by
armed robbers. The study finds that many Christians and Muslims either indulge in
the use of occultic charms, properly so called, or they engage in practices that
correspond to making and using occultic charms. Such practices include treating
some Psalms or some Qur'anic verses as magical objects. It would thus appear that
there is a natural tendency in many human beings to seek magical solution to some
existential problems, irrespective of a person's religious faith. The final conclusion
is that whatever can banish misery in human life, should not be allowed to become
extinct in Yoruba culture. For instance, if there is an effective charm to deter and
catch thieves and armed robbers, or, if there is an effective charm to extinguish fire
that is gutting a property, or, a charm that can cure a disease, or resolve any such
difficulties as those just mentioned, such should be embraced. Unfortunately, there
are said to be many charlatan charm experts who deceive and defraud charm
seekers.
Notes and References

1. J.A. Atanda, An introduction to Yoruba History, (Ibadan


University Press, 1980), p. 1.
2. J. Awolalu Omosade, Yoruba Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, (Essex:
Longman Group Ltd., 1979), p. 69.
3. N.A. Fadipe, The Sociology of the Yoruba, (Ibadan: University
Press, 1987), p. 292.
4. A.B. Jacobs, A Textbook on West African Traditional Religion
(Ibadan: Aromolaran Publishing Company Ltd., 1978), p. 201
5. The report is titled: "Vigilante Banishes Armed Robbers" in the
Tribune on Saturday, (Ibadan), 6 December, 1997, pp. 11 & 13
6. John Haught, What is Religion? An Introduction, (New York
Paulist Press, 1990), p. 23 f.
7. Olubuyide Ogunyemi spoke in an interview with Joel Ayanlola
the latter's column, titled: "Guest Platform", in Sunday Sketch
(Ibadan), November 5,1995, p. 5.
S. Ibid.,p.5.
9. E. Idowu, Bolaji African Traditional Religion: A Definition
(London: SCM Press Ltd., 1978), 200f.
10. S. Mbiti John, Introduction to African Religion, (London
Heinemann, 1978), p. 171.
11. J. Omosade Awolalu & P. Adelumo Dopamu, West African
Traditional Religion, (Ibadan: Macmillan, 2005), p. 145.
12. A. Nnamidi Odoemene, The Fundamentals of African Traditional
Religion (A Key to African Development), (Enugu: SNAAP Press,
1988), p. 88.
13. Earnest Larsen, How do I Change my Man? (For Women only),
(Missouri: Liquori Publications, 1974), p. 143.