Category Archives: Africa


#14 Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
     (G. T. Basden, 1938)

… [the] “Ichu-aja”… offering consists of a selection of the following: food, strips of cloth, a gin bottle, a lizard, a chicken or a kid, and other things up to a bull or, in the past, a human being, according to the instructions of the “dibia”, and as the circumstances demand. A man may be his own sacrificing priest on occasions. When, however, the “dibia” so directs, the “di-okpala” alone can act.

The main objects of “Ichu-aja” are:

(a) to remove fear of the living and the dead;

(b) to secure present and future well-being;

(c) to appease malevolent spirits.

The immediate results are hope, peace of mind and expectations of blessings to come.

Note may be made of other occasions when “Ichu-aja” is observed. The most common occur when a member of the community dies from a noxious complaint which rouses feelings of repulsion, such as leprosy or smallpox; in the case of self-inflicted death, or when a man dies during the time of mourning for his wife, or a woman for her husband. The bodies of such are not buried in the ordinary manner: they are carried out and deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush). For this sacrifice, not much preparation is required. It is a small affair, the offering demands no more space than a wooden platter, or a makeshift one, cut from a banana (tree) stem, or a fragment of dried gourd (calabash), or merely a plaited palm-leaf dish. The offering is carefully laid at the junction where three or more paths intersect at a spot outside the confines of the village and, usually, adjacent to a path leading to a burial ground. The place selected is known a “Abu-ito” and is near the spot where the disgruntled spirit is supposed to have dwelling.

The person carrying the offering is enjoined to maintain strict silence while passing along the road; not even a salutation is permissible. It is hardly necessary to exercise caution, because an oncoming traveler is usually quick to notice the presence of the platter and incontinently gives way to the bearer. He will do this from fear rather than from feelings of respect, hence there is little likelihood of the bearer being accosted by the other person. Some guidance in direction comes from the fact that the spirit is alleged to be residing at an indicated spot. The presentation of the sacrifice is deemed sufficient to mollifty his feelings and to induce him to cease from troubling the living.

…It is advisable to recall attention to the fact that the Ibo sacrifices for two main reasons. First, because of the pinch of adversity in some form or another. In common with other folk, the sense of sin and evil at work in the world drives a man to seek help from an outside power whom he believes to be his guardian spirit. The insufficiency of man, and his consequent inability to walk uprightly, is recognized by the Ibo. This is really why sacrifices are offered. The terms “Igo-Maw” (“to propitiate (feast) the spirits”) have deep significance for the Ibo. This underlying meaning must always be present in the mind of the student if he is to approach the study of Ibo sacrifice and ceremonial sympathetically.

We note that “Ichu-aja” is offered to malevolent spirits only; there is no form of direct sacrifice to the Supreme Being…

…Sacrifice, in consequence of pollution, is called “Ikpu-alu” = “to drive out abomination”; it may be on behalf of an individual or for the township. The following are some instances for which “Ikpu-alu” is necessary for purification purposes:

  1. A man having carnal knowledge of his mother, sister, or another of his father’s wives.
  2. A man committing adultery with his brother’s wife, or the wife of a member with whom there is blood relationship.
  3. Major misdeeds against Native Law and Custom.
  4. A man committing suicide by hanging.
  5. A man fighting with a “maw”. [a man impersonating a re-embodied spirit] (Vide p. 375.)
  6. A man having sexual intercourse with an animal.
  7. The birth of twins.
  8. A child cutting its upper before its lower teeth.
  9. Abnormal presentation in delivery.

These are examples; there are other offences which demand purification ceremonies; a complete list would absorb considerable space.

…When feast to the “Ilo-Maw” is observed, the procedure is as follows. Before describing it, attention must be called to the fact that, for the most part, sickness is not attributed to natural causes. Instead, it is believed that ill health, for which no visible reason can be assigned, is the result of witchcraft, or that it springs from the activities of spirits who have, in some unknown way, been offended and who display their wrath by inflicting sickness. One of the leading members of the family approaches a “dibia” and relates his story. The “dibia” inquires into the circumstances, the kind of sickness, how and when it began, and so forth. He thus obtains all the information available and derives some foundation upon which to base his diagnosis. He is then in a position to proceed with his own professional part in the business. He does this by divination. The upshot is that, as a general rule, blame is attached to some person, very frequently a woman. Clandestine infidelity is assumed to be a cause of sickness, including rheumatism and other ailments which have no connection with sexual intercourse. Too often, the allegation cannot be denied and, though the woman cannot understand “how” it has come about, yet, being unable to refute the charge, it is taken for granted that her sin is the cause of the sickness. Her one and only chance to prove herself innocent of deliberate evil intention was to pass successfully through a trial by ordeal. This consisted of swallowing the contents of the poison cup. (Orachi = sasswood.) A woman who has unfornate enough to be condemned to this form of trial died, forthwith, unless there was found a way of escape. Not often, however, was a woman rich enough to negotiate successfully with the administrator of the cup. He was most probably quite amenable to a monetary compromise. If made sufficiently attractive he might be persuaded to omit the poison altogether or, failing that, add a potent emetic which would cause the drinker to vomit before the poison could take effect…

The following description of death and burial customs pertains rather to the Awka District; they are not universal in the Ibo country. Each neighborhood has its own peculiar adaptations…

…The cause of death…plays an important part in the question of burial. The bodies of those who die from noxious diseases are disposed of hurriedly. Lepers, and those who die from smallpox, or some cause which cannot be accounted for satisfactorily, are quickly removed. Lepers are wound in their sleeping-mats and, like those who die of smallpox, are not placed in a grave; they are deposited in the “ajo-ofia” (bad bush) very often, indeed, before they are dead.

It is abomination for a dropsical person to die in the house. Death by dropsy is the due result of evil-doing, such as administering poison; the culprit has escaped human detection, but has not escaped punishment at the hands of the gods. People dying as the result of accident; women dying in childbirth; lunatics, suicides and those who have been murdered, drowned or burned are considered as having come to their untimely ends by “Onwu Ekwensu”, that is, by the instrumentality of the Devil. None of these may be rubbed with “ufie”, and they must be disposed of without delay. Should, by chance, any rubbing be done for one of these, it is done with “edo”, a brilliant yellow stain obtained from wood prepared in the same manner as camwood dye. They must be buried outside the confines of the town as befits those whose death is of the Devil. In the case of a suicide, it is essential, too, that the culpit’s house be ceremonially purified.

The corpse of a man or woman who dies during the period of mourning for wife or husband is treated similarly. The privilege of “Second Burial” is denied to all who die “Onwu Ekwensu”, nor is a “Chi” or “Okpensi” set up for them or the slave; they are for ever blotted out of the book of remembrance.

[#14] Igbo:  “Sacrifices, Death, and Burial,” from G. T. Basden, Niger Ibos.  New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc, 1938, 1966, pp. 58-60, 63-64,  271, 276,  416.


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#12 Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide
     (A. K. Ajisafe, 1924)

When a man finds life burdensome, disgraceful, and perilous to him, and consequently commits suicide he is given great credit and honour. But when out of shame for a mean act he commits suicide, his corpse is considered abominable and cast into the bush unburied.

(a) Should a man or woman be provoked to commit suicide, the provoker is held responsible for the same. The penalty is a very heavy fine to be paid to the family of the victim or forfeiture of the provoker’s life. The corpse of the suicide is not buried, but is removed to the house of the provoker till the judgment shall have been satisfied; then the corpse is taken over by the family, who bury it according to the rites and ceremonies for the burial of suicides.

[#12] Yoruba: “Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide,” from A. K. Ajisafe, The Laws and Customs of the Yoruba People, London: Routledge; Lagos: C.M.S. Bookshop, 1924, preface; p. 32. [field date 1906 ff]

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#7 The Price of Intrigue with Women of Royal Blood
     (A. B. Ellis, 1887)

In Ashanti the women of royal blood are permitted to intrigue with any eminently fine and handsome man in order that their kings may be commanding presence. If, however, permission has not first been obtained, the lover, and all who have assisted him in his suit, are put to death…

In December, 1871, a brother of Prince Ansa was detected in an intrigue with two women of royal blood, and was sentenced to death by the Ashanti Kotoko. The king strove to mitigate the sentence to one of banishment, but the council demurred, because the offence was of an unusual character, and the prince and his accomplices were slain.

With the king’s permission his sisters can contract marriage with any man who is pre-eminently handsome, no matter how low his rank and position may be. But a man of low rank who may have thus married one of the king’s sisters is expected to commit suicide when his wife dies, or upon the death of an only male child. Should he outrage native custom and neglect to do so, a hint is conveyed to him that he will be put to death, which usually produces the desired effect…

[#7] Ashanti: “The Price of Intrigue with Women of Royal Blood,” from A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. [c. 1890] Reprint: Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287.

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#6 Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

 …I am afraid that some of the following pages may be repellent to some of my readers. I have considered it to be my duty to set out the details of many of the horrors of the old régime. I have done so in order that the motives and reasons for them may be better understood. In olden times, and in times not so long past, the Ashanti people may seem, to the superficial observer, to have been merely bloodthirsty men and women unworthy of any sympathy whatever, and yet more than one hundred years ago, when these orgies of blood were at their height, one who knew them well [1] place the following statement on record:

‘It is a singular thing that these people—the Ashantees—who had never seen a white man nor the sea, were the most civil and well bred I have ever seen inAfrica. It is astonishing to see men with such few opportunities so well behaved.’

If such praise could be bestowed on a people who were at times guilty of the deeds that have been recorded by many travelers, I thought I would try to find out how these apparently opposing characteristics could be reconciled…

Experience has taught me, moreover, that there is sometimes a danger when we have before us a description of a rite which leaves us uncertain of its real meaning or its true raison d’étre.

We may commit the possible error of filling in this gap in our knowledge by construing the custom in terms of our own philosophy or of our own psychology. In most cases I believe, if we could follow up this rite to its end, or could properly understand it, we should find some good or, from our standpoint, perhaps some jejune consideration to account for it…


THUS far we have seen that the stages in anAshanti’s life have been indicated by a series of rites marking, as it were, certain exits and entrances. These transitions have not been abrupt, as all have been approached or departed from gradually. The child as yet unborn is already a denizen of the world of spirits. Its approaching arrival having been revealed, the expectant mother has a care not to do anything which might scare it back whence it is journeying. On the birth of the child a short period of suspense elapses, during which no one can be quite sure if the visitor from that other world of ghosts has come to stay permanently. After eight days there is more than hope, and the child is given a name. still, the link with the land of spirits is not yet severed absolutely; the child grows up and lives in a kind of borderland between the world of men and women and the world of ghosts. Gradually, as years go on, bonds with the latter seem to weaken, until at the age of puberty they are perhaps severed completely, and the ‘ghost child’, the ‘pot child’, becomes a man or woman, capable of performing those functions which seem to an Ashanti to be the only reason or compensation for being born again or reincarnated, the propagation of the species. Such persons are now admitted for the first time into the status and to the full privileges of grown mortals. They are entitled to a say in matters concerning their family or clan’s welfare; they are a potential power for good or for evil, not in an ethical sense, but in the realms of magic and religion. This recognition and acknowledgement of the new state into which they have now entered are really epitomized in the fact that should such a person die, he or she is entitled to, and must be accorded, full and proper funeral rites, and after death will receive honour and propitiation. His or her name will be held in memory as long as the clan exists.

Funeral ceremonies help to separate the dead from the living, to sever the ties with this world, and to assist the newly dead to pick up again the threads linking him or her with the land of spirits, which had been cut or dropped at puberty…

Although the funeral rites for anAshantiking and the ultimate disposal of his remains seem to differ materially from the obsequies of an ordinary individual, it does not necessarily follow, I think, that this indicates an intrusive culture. In the ceremonial for a dead king the differences possibly arose from a desire on the part of his people, not only to accentuate the disparity between the king, and the common herd, and even the great chiefs, but also to preserve his remains more carefully and reverently in order that these might serve as a medium or shrine for his spirit when it was summoned to return to his people in times of national reunion or national emergencies. In all this there is nothing exotic; it is only a crowning feature of theAshantibelief in ancestral spirits and their propitiation.


One aspect, however, of these funeral rites of an Ashanti king has attracted much attention. This is the so-called ‘blood-lust’, and the consequent apparently indiscriminate slaughter of victims. This feature of the royal obsequies has been emphasized and recorded in full by missionaries and other historians. One of the best known of our anthropologists said to me, a little over a year ago, after reading the manuscript of Ashanti, ‘I do not seem to
recognize your Ashanti as here portrayed; they seem milk and watery as compared with the conception I had formed of them; what about all the slaughter at their funeral customs?’ Now that very question had also worried me considerably. I could not imagine that the fine, charming, and manly people I had learned to know would become the blood-thirsty savages described in many works I had read. As I had not then, however, investigated funeral rites and ‘human sacrifices’, I could not express any opinion, and I therefore reserved judgement. I am now indebted for my knowledge to several old Ashanti of high rank, who have done me no small honour in admitting me into their confidence. They have disclosed to me secrets which would otherwise have passed with them into the grave. I have hesitated whether or not to allow some years to pass by before these statements are made public. Ashanti is, however, so rapidly advancing in civilization, that probably few of the younger generation will fell much interest in their recital. I am sure, moreover, that my older friends, venerable greybearded folk who themselves were actors in these events, will not object to the English public knowing the facts, which will help, I hope, to free the Ashanti from the stigma of having been bloodthirsty and ferocious savages before we took over the government of their country. I am now able to understand that there were motives other than mere blood-lust and cruelty, which ought to be known and taken into account before we pass judgement on the scenes of slaughter which seem to have been inseparable from great national mourning. Europeans seem to have an innate fear of the unknown beyond the grave; this the psycho-analyst calls thanaiophobia, which has also been aptly designated as our ‘passionate, absorbing, almost bloodthirsty clinging to life’. It will not therefore be easy to persuade the average person that there was something underlying all this spilling of blood, that ought to excite, if not admiration, at any rate a feeling that should be remote from disgust or pious horror. In the first place we should take into consideration a fact which was, of course, already well known, namely, that the persons killed on these occasions were supposed to resume after death their various duties under their royal master. It was incumbent upon those left on earth to see that the king entered the spirit-world with a retinue befitting his high station. Such killings thus became a last pious homage and service to the dead. The ideas and beliefs of the men who acted as executioners on those occasions and of their ‘victims’ with regard to death were the same. Death was merely a transition, like birth, from one kind of life to another. Although it would nowadays be far from correct to state that an Ashanti would as soon be dead as alive, never the less his outlook even now with regard to his exact position after death is not filled with any vague, troublesome misgivings as to what the hereafter may hold in store for him.

In ancient times, when life was much more uncertain and precarious than now, the attitude towards death was one of comparative indifference…

…Among the scores killed at royal funerals were some of the highest of the land—high court officials, relatives and wives of the dead monarch, who, no longer having any desire to live once ‘the great tree had fallen’, compelled their relatives to slay them by swearing the great oath that they must do so, thus not leaving them any option except to carry out their wishes. If we, then, take all these points into consideration, we may perhaps be entitled still to think this slaughter terrible, and to view such rites with abhorrence; but, on the other hand, we shall not be entirely just to this people should we, when writing or thinking to them, designate them senseless, savage, and brutal murderers.

The man or woman who, like some of these old Ashanti, was ready to die for an ideal, however misguided and mistaken it may have been, nevertheless is of the stuff which goes to the making of a virile and courageous nation, and is entitled to our respect and admiration…


The first intimation that the king had breathed his last would be, so I am informed, the sight of blood pouring from the royal bath-room. Here the body had been carried to be washed and dressed; at each stage of the process some attendant or other had been killed, one ‘to carry his bath mat, one the sponge and soap, one the bath robe’, and so on. The Queen Mother, perhaps the most powerful person in the kingdom, was immediately informed. She in turn dispatched messengers to the royal harem, for certain of the king’s wives to prepare themselves to accompany their husband on the journey upon which he had set out. The king, before his death, might have informed the Queen Mother which of his women he wished to go with him, and she also might choose others for this privilege. Others again would volunteer to share their fate.[2] The message delivered to these women of the harem was, ‘I bid you set out for a certain place’, and the answer always was, ‘Ma te’, ‘I have heard Akoranto’. These women then sent for their relatives, bade them farewell, decked themselves in white, as for a ceremonial feast, and put on all their gold ornament. On the night the royal body was removed from the palace to the first temporary mausoleum (the Barim Kese), the women, who had drunk themselves into a state of semi-consciousness with wine or rum, were strangled with leather thongs by men or women executioners. An alternative method of killing them was to twist their necks ‘with strong hands’. Strangling inAshanti is considered the aristocratic method of killing, because blood is not shed and there is not any mutilation.

Representatives of each section of household office-holders were killed in order to accompany the king; these included many young boys to act as elephant-tail switchers and heralds. The latter had their necks broken over the large elephant-tusk upon which the king used to rest his foot when bathing; they were smeared with white clay as a sign of joy. Besides all those who had not any option, freemen and sometimes slaves would volunteer for death. ‘I am hungry’ they would say, and should the executioner refuse to dispatch them they would swear the great oath, saying: ‘I swear the great oath that you must kill me that I and my master may set out, for I am hungry’. Such volunteers could always choose the manner of their death; some chose to be shot, others preferred to be strangled, and they were also accorded full funeral rites. They could, moreover, choose such articles as they wished to take with them; these were put into the grave.

In addition to the four classes of victims—criminals, captives of war, volunteers, and various holders of office at court, who did not seem to have any say in the matter—there were undoubtedly a certain number of persons killed, during the first few days after the death was made public, by people who had worked themselves up into a state of frenzy, and by some psychological process, which I do not pretend to understand, seemed to find in promiscuous killing the only satisfactory relief to their emotions.

[#6] Ashanti: “Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings” from R. S. Rattray, Religion & Art in Ashanti, Kumasi: Basel Mission Book Depot; London: Oxford University Press, 1927, pp. vi-viii, 59-61, 103-109.

[1] Mr. James Swanzy, given before a Commission of the House of Commons (Parliamentary Paper No. 506, p. 32, 20 June 1816)

[2] Two cases known to me of royal wives volunteering to accompany their husbands were those of Afoa and Kra Akyerc, who were natives of Agona and Breman, and wives ofKing Kwaku DuaI. they were buried with full funeral rites, dressed in oyokoman cloth (the cloth of the royal clan). Kwesi Dubi, the ntahera’ hene, uncle of my friend Kwame Sapon, shot himself in order to accompany his master Kwaku Dua I to the spirit world.

Captives and criminals killed at funerals were not buried; their bodies were cast into the forest near the spot Diakomfoase (somewhere near the site of the present rest house).

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(documented 1853-present)

  1. African Origin Myths: Man Desires Death
    (Hans Abrahamsson)


  1. The Souls of the Dogons
    (documented by Solange de Ganay, 1937-39)


  1. Restraining the Bereaved to Prevent Suicide
    (documented by Jack Goody, 1962)


  1. The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment


  1. Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  2. Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (documented by Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)
  3. The Price of Intrigue with Women of Royal Blood
    (documented by A. B. Ellis, 1887)


  1. Killing Oneself “Upon the Head of Another”: The Tragedy of Adjuah Amissah
    (documented by Brodie Cruickshank, 1853)


  1. The Prohibition of Death
    (documented by M. J. Field, 1937)


  1. The Criminality of Suicide
    (documented by A.B. Ellis, 1890)


  1. The Kings of the Yoruba
    (documented by Samuel Johnson, 1897)
  2. Yoruba Laws and Customs: Suicide
    (documented by A. K. Ajisafe, 1924)


  1. Evil Spirits
    (documented by Northcote W. Thomas, 1913)
  2. Sacrifices, Death, and Burial
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1938)
  3. A Murderer Must Hang Himself
  4. An Old Woman’s Prearranged Funeral
    (documented by G. T. Basden, 1921)


  1. The Timely Death
  2. Godusa: The Old Woman and the Antbear’s Hole
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)
  3. Ukugodusa: The First Woman Who Became a Christian
    (documented by L. H. Samuelson, 1912)
  4. The Burial of a King
    (documented by R.C.A. Samuelson, 1929)


  1. The Ghost of a Suicide
    (documented by John Roscoe, 1923)


  1. The Folktale of the Four Truths
  2. Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear


A continent comprising a fifth of the world’s land area, once the central portion of earth’s landmass, Africa was the area of origin for homo sapiens, the modern human, some 130,000–200,000 years ago. Below the vast desert that has come to serve as a cultural divide between sub-Saharan Africa and the largely Arabic regions edging the Mediterranean to the north, the African terrain consists primarily of flat or lightly rolling plains, without a central mountainous core or a broad continental shelf, a continent marked primarily by gradual changes of altitude and a highly regular coastline, rich in mineral, plant, and animal resources.

Within sub-Saharan Africa, forms of social organization range from small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherer-forager peoples, to farming and cattle-herding cultures, to highly urbanized societies. Traditional cultures have been largely rural and agricultural, many with trading networks but largely without centralized governmental authorities; yet Africa has also seen the formation of vast empires, including the 10th-century empire of Ghana, the 14th-century empire of Mali, the 15th-century empire of Bunyoro, the Ashanti empire of the 18th and 19th centuries, the 19th-century empire of Buganda, and the 19th-century kingdom of the Zulu, among many others. Many traditional communities stress both kinship networks with a unilineal pattern of descent and age-graded associations, especially among males. Among many, dowries are paid from male to female (the “bridewealth”), procreation is emphasized, and polygyny is a traditional ideal. However, traditional African societies are extremely diverse, and generalization is not possible. Furthermore, geographic and cultural boundaries do not always coincide, and an overall picture of Africa and its many societies is necessarily complex.

The standard way of classifying traditional oral African societies is by language, though this process is complicated by patterns of migration and language spread and by issues concerning the distinction between language and dialect. Four major language families or phyla contain what Barbara Grimes estimates to be Africa’s approximately 2,000 distinct indigenous languages. Among these language families, the largest groups are the Niger-Congo (including Kordofanian and Bantu), spoken in western and south-central Africa, with some 1,436 languages; Nilo-Saharan, spoken in central and central-eastern interior regions (196 languages); the Khosian family of click languages, spoken in the southern interior (35 languages); and Afroasiatic, including Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, and other languages of the north (371 languages). Among Africa’s huge variety of languages, Hausa, a Chadic language of the Afroasiatic family, and Swahili, an eastern coastal Niger-Congo language of the Bantu subfamily, have played the roles of lingua franca for trade; so have a variety of other languages, including Arabic, Afrikaans, French, and English. Many of the selections presented here are from the Niger-Congo family, which includes languages spoken by the majority of sub-Saharan Africans.

Few of Africa’s traditional sub-Saharan societies have written literatures. However, most have substantial, longstanding oral traditions. Wherever possible, these selections attempt to present traditional African legends, myths, stories, and histories concerning suicide from the earliest documenters of each culture’s oral history. Many of these documents were written or compiled from other accounts by Western explorers and missionaries using native informants. Other documents, however, come from educated Africans who wrote in Western languages but could interview informants in their native tongues.

While it is impossible to generalize effectively over such a large range of cultures in a geographic region as large as Africa, some similarities, Robert Lystad argues, are evident among traditional African values: that human nature is neither good nor evil, but capable of error; that humans should adapt to nature and the universe, rather than seek to alter it; that property is to be shared; and that the solutions to human problems are to be sought in traditional legends and stories. The universe is understood as a unity, not a dualism of mind/body or matter/spirit; the Creator or creative power is distant, though lesser gods and local spirits may intervene in the affairs of humans. Particularly relevant to issues of suicide are the beliefs that there is life after death and that kinship networks include family members who have already died, as well as those who are still living.

Beginning in the late 15th century, European commercial, colonizing, and proselytizing interests began to penetrate sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese, British, French, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Dutch, and Belgians all established areas of colonial rule, variously exporting minerals, goods, and slaves. Taking advantage of certain traditional slaving practices, the European slave trade increased from about 275,000 between 1450–1600, to about 1.3 million during the 17th century, about 6 million during the 18th century, and ended, after another 2 million, in the latter half of the 19th century. Brazil, the Spanish Empire, the British West Indies, the French West Indies, and North America were all major importers of slaves; so was the Arab world. Altogether, an estimated 12 million left the African continent as slaves in the European trade; an estimated 10–20% died during the Middle Passage.

The sources provided here largely postdate the era of enslavement and the slave trade, but that era and its consequences were hardly forgotten: As Brodie Cruickshank had commented in 1853 on the comparatively few European forts that remained after the end of the slave trade in the Gold Coast, “. . . there is something exceedingly horrible in the contemplation of the nations of Europe thus clinging to Africa like leeches and sucking her very life-blood, and to find her now almost neglected and forsaken when she is no longer permitted to be their prey.”

As with other oral cultures, accounts of myths, histories, and practices by outsiders, invaders, missionaries, and exploiters may well be influenced by the cultural ideologies of the reporters—in Africa, primarily Christianity and Islam—but they nevertheless offer the closest insight into traditional African culture and its views. A particularly vivid example of the tensions between direct access to traditional cultural material and Westernizing influences is to be found in the accounts of the Yoruba by Rev. Samuel Johnson (c. 1845–1901) (selection #11), one of the earliest and most prolific writers on African history. Johnson was himself a great-grandson of the Alafin Abiodun, the famous king of the Oyo Empire in the late 18th century, but was also a committed Christian, educated in Greek, Latin, mathematics, and Western philosophy and religious studies. A diplomat, missionary, and peacemaker in the disputes among Yoruba groups, as well as between the British and the Oyo, Johnson spoke African languages and was able to interview the traditional arokin, or court historians, in compiling his immense and authoritative History of the Yoruba; yet he reinterpreted Yoruba history as exhibiting its development toward the ultimate end of becoming Christianized. Johnson eventually became an Anglican priest, hoping “. . . above all that Christianity should be the principal religion in the land—paganism and Mohammedanism having had their full trial—[and that this] should be the wish and prayer of every true son of Yoruba.” Such overlays of personal commitment and worldview affect virtually all of the early published accounts of African belief and practice, which are then sometimes taken as sources for later traditions or held to “confirm” the work of later scholars. Yet at the same time, modern scholars like Kwame Gyekye insist that the difficulty of getting at indigenous ideas is not insuperable: he notes that in Akan, as in every African community, there are a few older individuals regarded as wise and steeped in traditional lore, who are able to distinguish between traditional philosophical conceptions and those of Christianity and Islam. Indigenous thinking may sometimes be formulated in Christian or Islamic religious language, but it often survives in comparatively untouched form.

Further risks in the use of early ethnographic sources include the overlay of unconfirmed theories of indigenous belief and practice. In perhaps the best-known example of apparent overinterpretation, it was reported as late as 1910 that the Shilluk (or Chollo), a culture of Nilo-Saharan speakers in southern Sudan closely related to the Dinka presented here, customarily strangled their kings when they grew old or ill in order to save the divinity within, a report that Sir James George Frazer developed in The Golden Bough (1911–15) into the centerpiece of his influential theory of African regicide. However, the practice of ceremonial regicide and the theory Frazer constructed were never reliably confirmed, and despite later modifications by Evans-Pritchard in 1948 and David Cohen in 1972, the claim that the disappearance of the Shilluk kings was the product of regicide or “royal suicide” has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, similar claims are represented here in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s account of required suicide for despotic kings among the Yoruba (selection #11), and in the accounts of live burial by the Dinka of their chieftain, the Master of the Fishing-Spear (selection #23). In such cases, it is impossible to say what was in fact the case in the earlier periods of African civilization, or to determine whether the African kingship was an archaic magical system or a political, bureaucratic, and military institution, but the stories and legends that have been transmitted and collected have played a major role in conveying many forms of African thought. Similar difficulties in interpretation affect virtually all of the ethnographic material for every early culture presented in this volume. Yet despite their biases, the early reporters remain perhaps the most direct source of insight into the issues about suicide and voluntary death under scrutiny here.

The Selections

The selections are ordered geographically and by language-group in roughly counterclockwise fashion,  beginning with the northern areas of West Africa, moving down around heavily populated regions of the Niger delta, then south and east to the region of the Zulu, and finally northeast to the Bantu in what is now northern Zimbabwe, the Ganda in Uganda [check], and the Dinka in the Nile basin of the Sudan.  Sources from written traditions in North Africa and the Nile and Horn region are entered separately in this volume.  Most sources in this section come from West Africa, the region of subSaharan Africa most populated and most fully documented by early ethnographers.

Selection #1, “African Origin Myths”, casts a broad sweep over a wide range of African origin myths serving to account for the occurrence of death, from the Islamic cultures of the Hausa to the traditional Benue-Congo cultures of  the lower Zambesi. Despite the considerable variety of these myths, what is significant is that in many of them  death has come into being because man needs it, requires it, or desires it.

The Voltaic Branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Selection #2, “The Souls of the Dogons,” is drawn from the accounts of the Griaule ethnographic expeditions during 1931-39 to the Dogon, a group whose language is of the Voltaic branch of the Niger-Congo language family and who now live in the remote and rugged area of the Bandiagara escarpment and the Niger bend in southwest Mali. In part because of their isolation, the Dogon have been less affected by colonialism than many other African groups and have been able to maintain many of their precolonial cultural traditions.  Ancestor-worship is an important component of Dogon religion, and the Dogon are famed for their religious masks.  In this selection from Dogon mottoes, a distinction is drawn between the individual soul that may survive in a life after death and the nyama or impersonal life-force, or vital principle, that would ordinarily be transmitted from the dead person to a specific newborn relative. The selection describes the negative implications of suicide for this process.

Also from a Voltaic-speaking group is Jack Goody’s contemporary account of the LoDagaa (selection #3), inhabitants of two settlements in the northwest corner of Ghana near the Black Volta River, who speak dialects of Dagari, a Mossi language. Although they have no centralized political system, the LoDagaa have highly developed funeral customs, including an elaborate set of suicide precautions for bereaved family members, reflecting assumptions about the likelihood, expectedness, and desirability of suicide after the death of a spouse or close family member.

The Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo Subfamily
Moving to the south, selections #4 through #10 are drawn from various groups of Akan, a broad constellation of separate ethnic groups who speak Twi, a language of the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic subgroup. According to archeological and linguistic evidence, the Akan have inhabited a heartland in south central Ghana for some 2000 years. Akan groups include the Akan proper, the Ashanti (or Asante), the Fante (or Fanti or Fantee), and the Ga, members of which groups are now living in Ghana (called the Gold Coast in colonial times; now named after the Ga), Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo. Traditional Akan societies, largely agricultural, consist in some seven or eight matrilineal clans, and inheritance, kinship, and succession are all descended through the mother’s line, although some offices and spiritual attributes are inherited patrilineally. After Portuguese traders and colonizers reached the coast of Ghana in the late 15th century, some Akan groups began to trade gold and slaves for European products, including guns.  Beginning in about 1700, the Asante established the most powerful Akan state, dominating the region now known as Ghana until conquered by the British in 1900; this empire, said to be one of the “largest and most sophisticated imperial systems ever constructed without the aid of literary skills,” was particularly known for its sumptuous artistic culture. However, in contrast to many other Akan, the Ga, who inhabited the coast, were patrilineal, though females could inherit property from their mothers; the men fished and raised crops while the women conducted trade.  On one account, the Gã king, Okai Koi, committed suicide in 1660 after another Akan people, the Akwamu, defeated the Ga; on another, he was killed in battle in 1677. The Ga are now among the most urbanized of West African peoples.

Several of the Akan selections presented here describe  the effects of contact  with European colonizers on these traditional groups. Selection #4, from the Akan proper, “The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment,” alludes to the British colonial government’s efforts to suppress the execution  of alleged witches and the practice of coerced suicide thus generated. From the Ashanti, selection #5,  “Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial,” taken from Capt. Rattray’s monumental attempt to trace the development of Ashanti legal, political, and judicial institutions from their origin in the simple family group under a house-father to their functions in a colonial system under a paramount chief, describes traditional Ashanti (and, more generally, Akan) beliefs and legal principles concerning suicide,  comparing them to European views.  In this selection as well as in selection #6, among others, traditional practices  are seen in contrast to the legal systems administered by Europeans—for example, while  among the Namnan, a small Northern Territory Ashanti tribe, a suicide’s property was to be confiscated by the Chief, much as the British suicide’s property was forfeit to the King, some of his property in livestock might nevertheless remain to the wife and children, and dead bodies are subjected to trial and punishment (selection #5).

The contemporary philosopher Kwasi Wiredu explains these practices  as rooted in the absolute principle of Akan justice that  “no human being could be punished without a trial. Neither at the lineage level nor at any other level of Akan society could a citizen be subjected to any sort of sanctions without proof of wrongdoing.” Wiredu  also points to the importance of the belief that the life-principle is immortal. “Death is preferable to disgrace” runs a characteristic Akan saying; Wiredu notes that defeated generals, taking this to heart, often chose to commit suicide in the field. 

Selection #6, on Ashanti funeral rites, is also taken from Capt. Rattray’s accounts. Drawing on earlier reports and elderly informants, Rattray  first describes the complete absence of  funeral rites for stillborns, neonates, and children who die—no ceremony  at all, and the corpse is merely tossed into the bush—and then the contrastingly  lavish funerals for kings, replete with both voluntary and nonvoluntary deaths of the newly deceased king’s wives, retainers, and captives in order to mark the funeral and continue to serve the king in the afterlife. Whether institutional suicide of those in subordinate social roles  is to be regarded as suicide in any robust sense, or merely conformity to strong social expectation, is an issue in many traditional cultures, both in Africa and elsewhere.

Selection #8, on socially-expected suicide, describes what contemporary suicidologists might call the “get-even” practice  called  killing oneself “upon the head of another”: by committing suicide, one person can visit the same calamity on another  person.  In Fante culture (as in many  others, for example the Tlingit of Alaska), social responsibility for suicide is assigned to an outside party, not to the person who kills himself.  Suicide  thus makes it possible to control the behavior of other parties.  A particularly vivid example is described in the tragedy of Adjuah Amissah, a beautiful young Fante woman from a town on what is now the coast of Ghana, whose sad story comes from the earliest selections in these accounts.  The tale has evidently undergone evolution in its telling: Cruickshank’s account holds that she killed herself with a silver bullet, while Edward Bowdich’s version refers to golden bullets.  The central point remains unchanged, however: Adjuah Amissah’s suicide is attributed to her wish to save her family.  In accord with Ashanti law, her family would be held responsible for the suicide of her suitor and, in effect, must pay in kind; Adjuah Amissah’s own suicide protects them from this penalty.

Selection #9, “The Prohibition of Death,” concerning the Ga people,  raises issues about what counts as suicide.  The traditional beliefs of the Ga about certain types of deaths do not appear to conceptualize them as suicide, but nevertheless do hold people accountable for dying at times or in ways that are impermissible; these beliefs  thus seem to suggest that such deaths are after all in some sense voluntary.

The groups from which selections #10 through #16 arise, the Ewe, the Yoruba, and the Ibo, are also members of the Kwa branch of Niger-Congo and also inhabit areas of West Africa surrounding the Niger River drainage basin—Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria—heavily vegetated areas with high temperature levels, heavy rainfall, and frequent thunderstorms, where population density is high.

The traditional Ewe heartland is southern Togo; the group’s oral traditions tell of its flight from a brutal 17th-century tyrant, King Agokoli of Notsé, perhaps giving rise to its distrust of strong central authority. The absence of a strong central state left the Ewe particularly vulnerable to slave-raiding during the 17th-19th centuries. Selection #10, a British major’s 1890 account of the Ewe-speaking peoples of the coast of West Africa, briefly describes practices in Dahomey, now Benin, in punishing suicides. Striking in this brief account  is the apparent appropriation of European notions—“every man is the property of the king” and exposure  of a suicide’s body to public ridicule, reminiscent of European practices of desecration of the body—coupled with traditional African practices regarding suicide, in particular decapitation.

The Yoruba, in contrast, were highly urbanized before colonial times and formed powerful city-states centered around the royal residence of the oba, or king.  Linguistic and archeological evidence suggests that speakers of a distinct Yoruba language emerged some 3000-4000 years ago in the area around the Niger-Benue confluence in what is now Nigeria.  Patrilineal in descent patterns, Yoruba men farmed and practiced crafts; women dominated marketing and trade. The 13th and 14th-century Yoruba bronzes and terracotta sculptures, as well as an oral literature of histories, folklore, and proverbs, mark the richness of Yoruba culture. Traditional Yoruba religion recognizes a supreme but remote creator-god with a pantheon of lesser deities more directly involved in human affairs.  Internal wars among Yoruba groups and city-states in the 19th century left the Yoruba vulnerable to slavery; exported with Yoruba slaves, Yoruba religion still forms the basis of Santería as practiced in modern Cuba, Trinidad, and Brazil, and homes practicing forms of Santería such as Ocha (“the religion”) may still contain shrines to Catholic saints and at the same time shrines to ancestral African dead. After the British gained control of Yorubaland in the late 19th century, the formerly strong Yoruba kings lost their sovereignty but were permitted to continue to play a role in local government.

Also belonging to the Kwa branch of the Niger-Congo linguistic family, the Igbo (formerly Ibo) have lived for thousands of years in a heartland around the lower Niger River. Unlike the Yoruba, they did not develop centralized state authorities or monarchies, but lived in autonomous, relatively democratic villages each of which was knit together by overlapping kinship ties, secret societies, professional organizations, and religious cults and oracles.  By the late 17th century, many Igbo had become slave traders who sold members of other ethnic groups as well as other Igbo captured in the interior; the British outlawed the slave trade with the Abolition Act of 1807, attempting to substitute for it trade in palm oil. However, the decentralization and openness of Igbo culture seemed to invite missionaries, and most Igbo are now Christian. An ill-fated attempt in 1967 to establish an Igbo state, Biafra, resulted in massive starvation among the Igbo before the state was reabsorbed by Nigeria in 1970.

The lengthy Yoruba selection (#11) from Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yorubas,  completed in 1897, reflects the historical centrality of the king in Yoruba society, and, consequently, the social importance of the king’s lineage  and succession, the king’s immediate  family, and the king’s funeral rites, as well as the forms of recourse available should a king prove  despotic.   Samuel Johnson’s king-histories from Sango onwards  depict many  kings as suicides, including Sango himself.  Family is important but can be too important: in Yoruba tradition, the king’s natural mother is expected to commit suicide, to be replaced by a surrogate drawn from the court.  An interlude concerning beliefs about birth and death suggests that the Yoruba hold that some children about to be born are in fact abiku or evil spirits:  they enter the world only temporarily and then leave it at a preappointed date: though parents may attempt to dissuade them from doing so. This voluntaristic explanation of repeated failures of pregnancy is offered in a culture in which reproduction is held to be of paramount importance:  it is not so much the mother who is blamed, but the child itself if it dies.  In Bascom’s account, the abiku is granted short spans of life by Olorun “because it does not want to remain long on earth, preferring  life in heaven or wishing only to travel back and forth between heaven and earth”—a phenomenon believed to be common where infant mortality is high.  Funeral customs concerning the king are of central cultural importance:  much as in a number of other traditional cultures in Africa, South America, Egypt, China, and elsewhere, the Yoruba considered it a privilege or an obligation  to accompany the king into the afterlife, and accounts of early customs involve both voluntary and nonvoluntary  deaths by wives, retainers, and others for this purpose.  Distinctive here is the practice of “wearing the death cloth,” a much-cherished cloth received by  those who will be expected to die with the king—the crown prince, certain other members of the royal family and some of the king’s wives–a cloth worn on special occasions that  marks them for this eventual honor.  Although such accounts may be challenged as exaggerated and unreliable,  as was Sir James Frazer’s theory of regicide among the Shilluk, they nevertheless appear consistent with traditional beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife. Finally, according to Johnson, whose very early accounts are based on oral histories and on his interviews with tribal elders, Yoruba practice involves expecting a despotic king or one otherwise unable to govern wisely to commit suicide when he loses the confidence of the people. An ill or despotic king is not to be killed by others, but, when the populace so indicates, is expected to die by his own hand.  Less colorful than Johnson’s narrations,  A.K. Ajisafe’s brief account (selection #12), concluding the Yoruba section,  recounts practices he described in 1906 which reflect the ways in which historical attitudes toward suicide were reflected in everyday practice.

Selections #13-#16, concerning the Igbo, conclude  the material  from the Kwa linguistic branch.  In selection #13, a brief passage describes an evil spirit, the akalagoli, who after committing suicide continues to harm those who are still living; selections #14 and #15 describe  rituals associated with suicide and the imposition of required suicide as a penalty for homicide.  Selection #16 is particularly vivid in its description of cooperation in one’s own death for practical reasons:  advance planning for a death that will be carried out underscores the importance of a suitable funeral for continuity after death.

The Zulu, who are believed to have migrated into southern Africa sometime after the second century A.D., speak a Bantu tongue  (Bantu is the best-known subgroup of Niger-Congo, spoken in much of the southern third of Africa) that developed as a distinct language well before the Zulu achieved a collective identity or centralized political structure, which did not emerge until intergroup conflict  arose among Nguni groups over grazing lands and ivory sources in the late 18th century.  Under the leadership of the brilliant strategist Shaka, who became clan chief in 1815 and who introduced such military innovations as the short stabbing spear, the Zulu established a huge kingdom, the size of contemporary Natal Province, within a single decade. They did not become subject to colonial rule until 1883, when the British invaded, and Zulu nationalism has remained a potent force in contemporary South African politics.

Selection #17 describes traditional Zulu attitudes towards timely and untimely death, providing the background for understanding the custom of godusa, “sending home,” (also goduka, ukugodusa, root meaning to go away; go home; die).  The term denotes the practice of killing or assisting in the suicide of an old person, or may refer to a ceremonial feast of farewell to an old relative before assisting in his death. Although the practice was opposed by the colonial authorities and missionaries at the time of the accounts provided here, the two selections display the differing overlays of different observers. The two selections, #18 and #19, are reported by the daughter and one of the two sons of the Rev. S. M. Samuelson (d. 1916), who went to Natal in 1851 as a missionary,  yet are strikingly different:  R.C.A. (Robert Charles Azariah) Samuelson (b. 1858), the son, narrates the story of the old woman and the antbear’s hole  (selection #19), an event that apparently took place in 1869-1870, describing  the practice as one that is acquiesced in, indeed accepted, by the old woman who is its target; she is described as consenting to burial alive and the practice  is said to be understood by the Zulu as humane.  At the same time, his elder sister, L.H. (Levine Henrietta, known as Nomleti) Samuelson (b. 1856), exhibits in selection #19 much more clearly the  repugnance felt by many missionary reporters for the practice of senicide: she sees the old woman’s death as cruel, the culmination of many years of threat with no humane intent.  Selection #20 describes traditional customs surrounding the burial of a Zulu king, involving, as is reported from many other early cultures around the world, the burial of live or newly killed wives and servants to accompany him.

Selection #21 is from the Banyoro, also Bantu-speakers whose language is Runyoro-Rutooro, live in the area of western Uganda to the immediate east of Lake Albert. The Bunyoro has been particularly concerned to uphold the ancient cultural traditions of their ancestors.  This selection describes fears of ghosts—including the ghosts of suicides.

Selections #22 and #23 are from the Dinka, a cattle-herding group who live in the broad savannahs of the central Nile basin in the Sudan and move from dry-season river camps to permanent settlements in the rainy season; they are closely related to the Shilluk. Cattle of are central importance in Dinka culture, and are central in the suicide-related ceremonies described. Selection #22 is a traditional Dinka folktale, “The Four Truths,” in which a threat of suicide not only shows its force in altering the situation, but exhibits the prospective suicide’s own perception of his very modest replacement value as the 6th son, and recognizes himself as a far less valuable member of society than his adult uncle.  Selection #23 describes the practice of burial alive, with full ceremonial honors, accorded the clan chieftain, the “Master of the Fishing-Spear.” Dinka belief holds that the Master of the Fishing-Spear “carries the life of his people,” and that if he dies like ordinary men—involuntarily—the life of his people, which is in his keeping, will be gone with him. In contrast, burial alive, normally at the Master of the Fishing-Spear’s own request, assures the people of their own vitality and success in war. If the Master of the Fishing-Spear were to die an accidental death or death from illness, it could have serious consequences for the whole tribe. The practice of burying the Master of the Fishing-Spear alive is believed to prevent illness among the people; as one Master of the Fishing-Spear is reported to have explained, “I am going to see (deal with) in the earth the Powers of sickness which kill people and cattle,” as well as to settle a family dispute; after three months, the old men of the tribe reported, there was no more cattle-plague. In another famous case in Western Dinkaland, a renowned Master of the Fishing-Spear was reported to have “entered the grave clutching in his hand a tsetse fly, and thereby removed the scourge of tsetse from his people.” Burial alive is reported by various anthropologists, including Charles G. and Brenda Seligman in their expedition to the Sudan 1909-1912, and Lienhardt 1947-1950, though in both cases informants are describing earlier practices not documented directly. Dinka sources also describe the interference by government officials in attempting to suppress such practices and the various sorts of subterfuge the Dinka used in order to persuade the authorities that burial alive was no longer being practiced.

Suicide and attempted suicide were not uncommon among Africans captured and transported in the slave trade.  Accounts of numbers of suicides are reported by some ship captains and slave owners or traders, but wholly without interest in the ethical issues such acts might have raised for the slaves themselves.  A more compelling account of suicides among slaves under transport is to be found in the work of Olaudah Equiano [q.v.], an Igbo born in Nigeria and transported to Virginia. He was later freed; traveled widely, was eventually resident in London.  Equiano published what became an influential factor in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  (1789); this work contains accounts of slaves’ suicides at sea and their belief that it would enable them to return home to their homelands.

Additional sources:

  1. Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298;
  2. of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed.  Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996;
  3. see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1;
  4. concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa.  London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27 [check: vol 2?];
  5. concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54;
  6. quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78;
  7. quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993,  p. 86.
  8. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti.  London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71.
  9. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc.  London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303;  and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee,  London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London:  Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.
  10. Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74.
  11. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5.
  12. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New  York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim;
  13. quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective,  Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165.
  14. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of  Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982;
  15. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough.  A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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Filed under Africa, African Traditional Sub-Saharan Cultures, African Traditional Sub-Saharan Cultures, Indigenous Cultures, The Early Modern Period, The Modern Era

(c. 1745-1797)

from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself


Olaudah Equiano, an Igbo, describes himself as born to a relatively prosperous, slave-owning family in the region east of the city of Onitsha, Nigeria, where ownership of slaves and slave-raiding were local practice at the time. At the age of about 10 or 11, Equiano was kidnapped along with his sister by local raiders and sold into slavery. His first owners were an African family located at some distance from his home, but still within the same linguistic sphere; he was then sold and resold several times until taken for transport on a British slave ship to Barbados and then to Virginia. Sold in Virginia to Lieutenant Michael Pascal of the Royal Navy, Equiano was renamed Gustavus Vassa (after the 16th- century Swedish king), and served in the “French and Indian” Seven Year’s War in a celebrated naval encounter in Gibraltar in 1759. He was acquired by Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia, who helped him purchase his freedom in 1766. Once emancipated, he traveled to the Arctic with the Phipps expeditions of 1772–-73 in search of a northwest passage, and around the Mediterranean in the service of an English gentleman. He lived among the Miskito Indians of Central America for six months, and later settled in London. Some recent voices have disputed Equiano’s account of his birth in Africa, arguing that he was born in South Carolina and adapted others’ writings or recollections of the Middle Passage as the source of his personal narrative; most scholars accept Equiano’s account of his African origins as genuine.

After his emancipation, Equiano became an ardent abolitionist. One of very few Africans who emerged from slavery and became literate in the languages of the West, Equiano published The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), an autobiographical account of his life, including his early childhood and recollections of Igbo culture in Africa, his kidnapping, enslavement, and sale to British slavers, and his transport into slavery in the New World that is the focus of the selection here. Speculative criticism both at the time and recently has challenged the authenticity of this document, insisting, as one early commentator did, that “it is not improbable that some English writer has assisted him in the compilement, or, at least, the correction of his book.” Nevertheless, the book, importantly subtitled “Written by Himself,” was well received and reviewed. It sold over 5,000 copies and became a major force in bringing about the Abolition Act (March 1807) and Emancipation Bill (July 1833). Equiano’s work also served as one of the first records to shape the experiences of the black African diaspora during slavery and afterward. For the remainder of his life, Equiano continued to lecture against the slave trade; he married an Englishwoman, Susanna Cullen, in 1792, and they had two daughters in the years before he died.

Equiano’s full work allows the reader to contrast the comparatively humane African forms of slavery with the relentlessly cruel and barbarous treatment accorded slaves in transport by their European captors. The passage included here begins after he has been sold and resold by African slavers, but is about to be loaded aboard ship for transport via the Middle Passage to the New World. Equiano describes his own impulses toward suicide, if he could have freed himself to do so, and attempts by his fellow slaves to jump overboard—attempts against which their captors were always on guard. Indeed, slavers often strung nets along the sides of the ship to prevent leaps into the water; they retrieved and sometimes executed and then mutilated those who did succeed in reaching the water, since the slavers were convinced, according to one historian of the period, that Africans believed mutilation would end the cycle of rebirth that otherwise would carry a suicide back home to Africa and his family. Wilfred Samuels says of Equiano’s thoughts of suicide, “while suicide might have been a means of escaping the living hellhole that threatened to engulf him, his sacred traditions taught that committing suicide would sever him eternally from his ancestral roots.” Of those slaves who did commit suicide, writes  illiam Piersen, since they believed they would return to their former African homelands in the next life, “their deaths mark one of the world’s greatest, but most overlooked, religious martyrdoms.”

Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Available online at Project Gutenberg #15399. Material in introduction from G. I Jones, “Olaudah Equiano of the Niger Ibo,” chapter 2 in Philip D. Curtin, Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967, pp. 92-96; and from Wilfred D. Samuels, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Coral Gables, FL: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1989, and from William D. Pierson, From Africa to America: African American History from the Colonial Era to the Early Republic, 1526–1790. New York: Twayne, Simon and Schuster, 1996, pp. 31-32.


The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slaveship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo.  These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, which I am yet at a loss to describe, nor the then feelings of my mind.  When I was carried on board I was immediately handled, and tossed up, to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had got into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.  Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, which was very different from any I had ever heard, united to confirm me in this belief.  Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.  When I looked round the ship too, and saw a large furnace or copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate; and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted.  When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me, who I believed were some of those who brought me on board, and had been receiving their pay; they talked to me in order to cheer me, but all in vain.  I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair.  They told me I was not; and one of the crew brought me a small portion of spirituous liquor in a wine-glass; but, being afraid of him, I would not take it out of his hand.  One of the blacks therefore took it from him, and gave it to me, and I took a little down my palate, which, instead of reviving me, as they thought it would, threw me into the greatest consternation at the strange feeling it produced having never tasted any such liquor before.  Soon after this, the blacks who brought me on board went off, and left me abandoned to despair.  I now saw myself deprived of all chance of returning to my native country, or even the least glimpse of hope of gaining the shore, which I now considered as friendly; and I even wished for my former slavery, in preference to my present situation, which was filled with horrors of every kind, still heightened by my ignorance of what I was to undergo.  I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing.  I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; but soon, to my grief, two of the white men offered me eatables; and, on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands, and laid me across, I think, the windlass, and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.  I had never experienced any thing of this kind before; and although not being used to the water, I naturally feared that element the first time I saw it; yet, nevertheless, could I have got over the nettings, I would have jumped over the side; but I could not; and, besides, the crew used to watch us very closely who were not chained down to the decks, lest we should leap into the water: and I have seen some of these poor African prisoners most severely cut for attempting to do so, and hourly whipped for not eating.  This indeed was often the case with myself.  In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men, I found some of my own nation, which in a small degree gave ease to my mind.  I inquired of them what was to be done with us.  They gave me to understand we were to be carried to these white people’s country to work for them.  I then was a little revived, and thought, if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate: but still I feared I should be put to death, the white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among any people such instances of brutal cruelty; and this not only shown towards us blacks, but also to some of the whites themselves.  One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged[1] so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute.  This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the manner.  I could not help expressing my fears and apprehensions to some of my countrymen: I asked them if these people had no country, but lived in this hollow place the ship?  They told me they did not, but came from a distant one.  “Then,” said I, “how comes it in all our country we never heard of them?”  They told me, because they lived so very far off.  I then asked, where were their women?  Had they any like themselves?  I was told they had.  “And why,” said I, “do we not see them?”  they answered, because they were left behind.  I asked how the vessel could go?  They told me they could not tell; but that there were cloth put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then the vessel went on; and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the water when they liked in order to stop the vessel.  I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really though they were spirits.  I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they would sacrifice me: but my wishes were vain: for we were so quartered that it was impossible for any of us to make our escape.  While we staid on the coast I was mostly on deck; and one day, to my great astonishment, I saw one of these vessels coming in with the sails up.  As soon as the whites saw it, they gave a great shout, at which we were amazed: and the more so as the vessel appeared larger by approaching nearer.  At last she came to an anchor in my sight, and when the anchor was let go, I and my countrymen who saw it were lost in astonishment to observe the vessel stop; and were now convinced it was done by magic.  Soon after this the other ship got her boats out, and they came on board of us, and the people of both ships seemed very glad to see each other.  Several of the strangers also shook hands with us black people, and made motions with their hands, signifying, I suppose, we were to go to their country; but we did not understand them.  At last, when the ship we were in had got in all her cargo, they made ready with many fearful noises, and we were all put under deck, so that we could not see how they managed the vessel.  But this disappointment was the least of my sorrow.  The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.  The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now became insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated.  The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.  Happily perhaps for myself I was soon reduced so low here that it was thought necessary to keep me almost always on deck; and from my extreme youth I was not put in fetters.  In this situation I expected every hour to share the fate of my companions, some of whom were almost daily brought upon deck at the point of death, which I began to hope would soon put an end to my miseries.  Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much more happy than myself; I envied them the freedom they enjoyed, and as often wished I could change my condition for theirs.  Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.  One day they had taken a number of fishes; and when they had killed and satisfied themselves with as many as they thought fit, to our astonishment who were on the deck, rather than give any of them to us to eat, as we expected, they tossed the remaining fish into the sea again, although we begged and prayed for some as well as we could, but in vain; and some of my countrymen, being pressed by hunger, took an opportunity, when they thought no one saw them, of trying to get a little privately; but they were discovered, and the attempt procured them some very severe floggings.

One day, when we had a smooth sea, and moderate wind, two of my wearied countrymen, who were chained together (I was near them at the time), preferring death to such a life of misery, somehow made through the nettings, and jumped into the sea; immediately another quite dejected fellow, who, on account of his illness, was suffered to be out of irons, also followed their example; and I believe many more would very soon have done the same, if they had not been prevented by the ship’s crew, who were instantly alarmed.  Those of us that were the most active were in a moment put down under the deck; and there was such a noise and confusion amongst the people of the ship as I never heard before, to stop her, and get the boat out to go after the slaves.  However, two of the wretches were drowned, but they got the other, and afterwards flogged him unmercifully, for thus attempting to prefer to slavery.  In this manner we continued to undergo more hardships than I can now relate; hardships which are inseparable from this accursed trade.


  1. Such brutal floggings were at this time considered essential to the maintenance of discipline in the British navy and on ships engaged in the slave trade.  Flogging is not an Ibo and Edo from of punishment, as it is, for example, farther north in the Hausa country.

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from Rihla: On Sati and Religious Suicide


Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Batutah, known as Ibn Battuta or sometimes Battuta, was born to a Berber family of Islamic legal scholars in Tangier, Morocco. He is known for the extent of his travels over 30 years, setting the record for distance journeyed by an individual until the advent of the Steam Age 450 years later. From the time he left to perform the hajj at age 21, Ibn Battuta’s travels took him through most of the Islamic world, North, West, and East Africa, and as far as South and Central Asia, including China in the east and Southern and Eastern Europe in the west.

Ibn Battuta returned to Morocco in 1354 and an oral account of his experience was collected by scholar Ibn Juzayy and adapted into a narrative entitled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, commonly known as the Rihla, meaning “journey.” The traditional rihla was centered around visits to the holy places of Arabia; only after, and due to Ibn Battuta’s travels, did “rihla” come to mean travels throughout the world.

Ibn Battuta describes in the Rihla that it was first from a passing man in Pakpattan, now in Pakistan, that he was first told of sati, the suicide of a Hindu widow on the pyre of her husband. Ibn Battuta describes noticing later processions of individual Hindu women on horseback, followed by “both Muslims and infidels” on the way to funerals. He wrote that the ritual was voluntary on the surface, but that a widow who declined would be “despised” and live on “with her own people in misery.” Ibn Battuta goes on to describe a sati ritual of three women that he himself witnessed, and relates that while the men preparing the ritual held a blanket in front of the fire so as not to frighten the approaching women, one of the women tore the blanket away and said, smiling, “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.”

In analogy to sati, Ibn Battuta adds religious suicide in the Ganges and quotes a typical man preparing to enter the water: “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” which Ibn Battuta cites as meaning God.


Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, tr. H.A.R. Gibb. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929 (1983 reprint), pp. 190-193.


The first town we reached after leaving Multan was Abuhar [Abohar], which is the first town in India proper, and thence we entered a plain extending for a day’s journey. On the borders of this plain are inaccessible mountains, inhabited by Hindu infidels; some of them are subjects under Muslim rule, and live in villages governed by a Muslim headman appointed by the governor in whose fief the village lies. Others of them are rebels and warriors, who maintain themselves in the fastnesses of the mountains and make plundering raids. On this road we fell in with a raiding party, this being the first engagement I witnessed in India. The main party had left Abuhar in the early morning, but I had stayed there with a small party of my companions until midday and when we left, numbering in all twenty-two horsemen, partly Arabs and partly Persians and Turks, we were attacked on this plain by eighty infidels on foot with two horsemen. My companions were men of courage and ability and we fought stoutly with them, killing one of the horsemen and about twelve of the footsoldiers. I was hit by an arrow and my horse by another, but God preserved me from them, for there is no force in their arrows. One of our party had his horse wounded, but we gave him in exchange the horse we had captured from the infidel, and killed the wounded horse, which was eaten by the Turks of our party. We carried the heads of the slain to the castle of Abu Bak’har, which we reached about midnight, and suspended them from the wall.

Two days later we reached Ajudahan [Pakpattan], a small town belonging to the pious Shaykh Farid ad-Din. As I returned to the camp after visiting this personage, I saw the people hurrying out, and some of our party along with them. I asked them what was happening and they told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him. After the burning my companions came back and told me that she had embraced the dead man until she herself was burned with him. Later on I used often to see a Hindu woman, richly dressed, riding on horseback, followed by both Muslims and infidels and preceded by drums and trumpets; she was accompanied by Brahmans, who are the chiefs of the Hindus. In the sultan’s dominions they ask his permission to burn her, which he accords them. The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquires a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself. Once in the town of Amjari [Amjhera, near Dhar] I saw three women whose husbands had been killed in battle and who had agreed to burn themselves. Each one had a horse brought to her and mounted it, richly dressed and perfumed. In her right hand she held a coconut, with which she played, and in her left a mirror, in which she looked at her face. They were surrounded by Brahmans and their own relatives, and were preceded by drums, trumpets and bugles. Every one of the infidels said to them “Take greetings from me to my father, or brother or mother, or friend” and they would say “Yes” and smile at them. I rode out with my companions to see the way in which the burning was carried out. After three miles we came to a dark place with much water and shady trees, amongst which there were four pavilions, each containing a stone idol. Between the pavilions there was a basin of water over which a dense shade was cast by trees so thickly set that the sun could not penetrate them. The place looked like a spot in hell—God preserve us from it! On reaching these pavilions they descended to the pool, plunged into it and divested themselves of their clothes and ornaments, which they distributed as alms. Each one was then given an unsewn garment of coarse cotton and tied part of it round her waist and part over her head and shoulders. The fires had been lit near this basin in a low lying spot, and oil of sesame poured over them, so that the flames were increased. There were about fifteen men there with faggots of thin wood and about ten others with heavy pieces of wood, and the drummers and trumpeters were standing by waiting for the woman’s coming. The fire was screened off by a blanket held by some men, so that she should not be frightened by the sight of it. I saw one of them, on coming to the blanket, pull it violently out of the men’s hands, saying to them with a smile “Do you frighten me with the fire? I know that it is a fire, so let me alone.” Thereupon she joined her hands above her head in salutation to the fire and cast herself into it. At the same moment the drums, trumpets and bugles were sounded, the men threw their firewood on her and the others put the heavy wood on top of her to prevent her moving, cries were raised and there was a loud clamour. When I saw this I had all but fallen off my horse, if my companions had not quickly brought water to me and laved my face, after which I withdrew.

The Indians have a similar practice of drowning themselves and many of them do so in the river Ganges, the river to which they go on pilgrimage, and into which the ashes of those who are burned are cast. They say that it is a river of Paradise. When one of them comes to drown himself he says to those present with him, “Do not think that I drown myself for any worldly reason or through penury; my purpose is solely to seek approach to Kusay,” Kusay being the name of God in their language. He then drowns himself and when he is dead they take him out and burn him and cast his ashes into this river.

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from The City of God
from On Free Choice of the Will


Born to a small landholder, Patricius, and a pious Christian, Monica, in the small town of Thagaste in the Roman province of Numidia (modern Souk-Ahras, Algeria), Augustine of Hippo was of profound influence on the history of Western thought. Augustine studied rhetoric and classical philosophy at Carthage and was initially attracted to the dualistic religious philosophy of Manichaeanism. By the time he was 19, in 373, his mistress had borne him a son, Adeodatus. In 383, Augustine traveled to Rome where he was unsuccessful in establishing a school. He then moved to teach rhetoric in Milan for two years, where he met the bishop Ambrose and the community around him of Christian Neoplatonists. Augustine found within Christianity’s teachings satisfactory answers to questions about the being of God and the nature of evil, but—torn by his desires and the demands of chastity as a Christian sexual virtue—he did not undergo full conversion until 386. Ambrose baptized him, together with his son Adeodatus, on the night of Holy Saturday, before Easter of 387. After Adeodatus’s death, Augustine was ordained a presbyter of Hippo in 391; five years later, he became bishop of Hippo, and continued in that position until his death in 430, during the third month of the Vandals’ siege of Hippo.

Augustine’s principal works include the Confessions (397–400), an autobiographical account of his spiritual struggles and conversion to Christianity, and The City of God (413–426), a Christian vision of history. He also wrote many tracts against the Manichaeans, the Donatists, and the Pelagians. In his writings, Augustine addresses many issues, including original sin, grace, revelation, creation ex nihilo, the nature of time, divine foreknowledge, and predestination, and develops the idea of the church as a community of believers, just and predestined for immortality.

In The City of God, Augustine addresses the issue of suicide more directly and comprehensively than any previous writer in the Christian tradition. The full title of the work is Twenty-Four Books of the City of God Against the Pagans; within the framework of its more general effort to counter the accusation that it was Christianity that had led to the fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths in 410, the work also attacks the Roman—especially Stoic—conception of suicide as a matter of heroism and virtue, whether committed for political reasons, to protect chastity, or to avoid personal difficulties. Though antecedents of some of his views may be detected in earlier writers, Augustine’s overall treatment of the issues in suicide is strikingly original. With respect to the issue of whether a virgin threatened with sexual violation may kill herself to avoid it—the dispute already addressed by Eusebius [q.v.], Ambrose [q.v.], and other earlier writers—Augustine defuses the issue by asserting that sexual violation affects the body only, not the soul, and is a matter of the purity or impurity of the victim’s intentions rather than material, physical fact; this position remains definitive for the Christian tradition thereafter. Augustine’s treatment of Biblical suicides like Samson and Saul [q.v., under Hebrew Bible] is also novel; it relies on a divine-command theory in assessing the ethics of suicide and holds that only those suicides directly commanded by God are permissible. Not all later writers accept Augustine’s argument that in the cases of Samson and Saul, there must have been a “special commission” from God, but  Augustine’s treatment of them has been widely influential. Also significant in Augustine’s treatment of suicide is his “two-person” model, evoked by many later writers and associated with what contemporary writers now identify as the ambivalence of suicide: one part of a person or of a person’s psyche—in Augustine’s view, the guilty, murderous part—kills the other part of that same person, the (as he says of Lucretia [q.v., under Livy]) “guiltless, chaste, coerced part.” Finally, in the last portion of the selection provided here, Augustine addresses what some later thinkers have argued is the deepest issue about suicide for the Christian tradition as a whole, the tension between the promise of a personal afterlife and the wrongness of seeking death to achieve it. If Christian belief promises a heavenly afterlife for those without sin, but one is always at risk of sin while in the body in this life, why wouldn’t the believer commit suicide to reach that afterlife, just after confessing, repenting, and receiving absolution for all previous sins? Augustine’s reply to this question becomes definitive for virtually the entire remainder of the Christian tradition: suicide is a worse sin than any that can be avoided by it. It cannot be, so to speak, as later thinkers might call it, a shortcut to heaven.

In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine considers a number of skeptical objections to the notion that life is a good: for example, that someone might wish not to exist because he is unhappy or because he fears the afterlife. Augustine interprets suicidal thinking as the desire for respite or peace, and asserts that the suicide thinks of himself as not existing after death—and so is clearly in error. The desire for respite is quite natural, but it leads to a conceptual mistake. To be at peace, whatever one’s sufferings have been, one must exist.


Augustine, The City of God, Book I, ch. 17–27, tr. Rev. Marcus Dods.From A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff, Vol. II: St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, Edinburg: T & T Clark, Edinburgh, n.d. Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal LibraryOn Free Choice of the Will, tr. Thomas Williams, Book III, sections 6–8, Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1993, pp. 83–87.



Of Suicide Committed Through Fear of Punishment or Dishonor

And consequently, even if some of these virgins killed themselves to avoid such disgrace, who that has any human feeling would refuse to forgive them? And as for those who would not put an end to their lives, lest they might seem to escape the crime of another by a sin of their own, he who lays this to their charge as a great wickedness is himself not guiltless of the fault of folly. For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide, and so much the guiltier of his own death, as he was more innocent of that offense for which he doomed himself to die. Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? How much more ought he to abstain from laying violent hands on himself who has done nothing worthy of such a punishment! For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. Why, then, should a man who has done no ill do ill to himself, and by killing himself kill the innocent to escape another’s guilty act, and perpetrate upon himself a sin of his own, that the sin of another may not be perpetrated on him?

Of the Violence Which May Be Done to the Body by Another’s Lust, While the Mind Remains Inviolate

But is there a fear that even another’s lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another’s: if it pollute, it is not another’s, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity? For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life. But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be periled that it may be preserved? If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost. Nay more, the virtue of holy continence, when it resists the uncleanness of carnal lust, sanctifies even the body, and therefore when this continence remains unsubdued, even the sanctity of the body is preserved, because the will to use it holily remains, and, so far as lies in the body itself, the power also.

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact. And therefore a woman who has been violated by the sin of another, and without any consent of her own, has no cause to put herself to death; much less has she cause to commit suicide in order to avoid such violation, for in that case she commits certain homicide to prevent a crime which is uncertain as yet, and not her own.

Of Lucretia, Who Put an End to Her Life Because of the Outrage Done Her

This, then, is our position, and it seems sufficiently lucid. We maintain that when a woman is violated while her soul admits no consent to the iniquity, but remains inviolably chaste, the sin is not hers, but his who violates her. But do they against whom we have to defend not only the souls, but the sacred bodies too of these outraged Christian captives,—do they, perhaps, dare to dispute our position? But all know how loudly they extol the purity of Lucretia, that noble matron of ancient Rome. When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband Collatinus, and to Brutus her kinsman, men of high rank and full of courage, and bound them by an oath to avenge it. Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life. What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was. Not more happily than truly did a declaimer say of this sad occurrence: “Here was a marvel: there were two, and only one committed adultery.” Most forcibly and truly spoken. For this declaimer, seeing in the union of the two bodies the foul lust of the one, and the chaste will of the other, and giving heed not to the contact of the bodily members, but to the wide diversity of their souls, says: “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”

But how is it, that she who was no partner to the crime bears the heavier punishment of the two? For the adulterer was only banished along with his father; she suffered the extreme penalty. If that was not impurity by which she was unwillingly ravished, then this is not justice by which she, being chaste, is punished. To you I appeal, ye laws and judges of Rome. Even after the perpetration of great enormities, you do not suffer the criminal to be slain untried. If, then, one were to bring to your bar this case, and were to prove to you that a woman not only untried, but chaste and innocent, had been killed, would you not visit the murderer with punishment proportionably severe? This crime was committed by Lucretia; that Lucretia so celebrated and lauded slew the innocent, chaste, outraged Lucretia. Pronounce sentence. But if you cannot, because there does not appear any one whom you can punish, why do you extol with such unmeasured laudation her who slew an innocent and chaste woman? Assuredly you will find it impossible to defend her before the judges of the realms below, if they be such as your poets are fond of representing them; for she is among those

“Who guiltless sent themselves to doom,
And all for loathing of the day,
In madness threw their lives away.”
And if she with the others wishes to return,
“Fate bars the way: around their keep
The slow unlovely waters creep,
And bind with ninefold chain.”(Virgil, Æneid, vi. 434)

Or perhaps she is not there, because she slew herself conscious of guilt, not of innocence? She herself alone knows her reason; but what if she was betrayed by the pleasure of the act, and gave some consent to Sextus, though so violently abusing her, and then was so affected with remorse, that she thought death alone could expiate her sin? Even though this were the case, she ought still to have held her hand from suicide, if she could with her false gods have accomplished a fruitful repentance. However, if such were the state of the case, and if it were false that there were two, but one only committed adultery; if the truth were that both were involved in it, one by open assault, the other by secret consent, then she did not kill an innocent woman; and therefore her erudite defenders may maintain that she is not among that class of the dwellers below “who guiltless sent themselves to doom.” But this case of Lucretia is in such a dilemma, that if you extenuate the homicide, you confirm the adultery: if you acquit her of adultery, you make the charge of homicide heavier; and there is no way out of the dilemma, when one asks, If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?

Nevertheless, for our purpose of refuting those who are unable to comprehend what true sanctity is, and who therefore insult over our outraged Christian women, it is enough that in the instance of this noble Roman matron it was said in her praise, “There were two, but the adultery was the crime of only one.” For Lucretia was confidently believed to be superior to the contamination of any consenting thought to the adultery. And accordingly, since she killed herself for being subjected to an outrage in which she had no guilty part, it is obvious that this act of hers was prompted not by the love of purity, but by the overwhelming burden of her shame. She was ashamed that so foul a crime had been perpetrated upon her, though without her abetting; and this matron, with the Roman love of glory in her veins, was seized with a proud dread that, if she continued to live, it would be supposed she willingly did not resent the wrong that had been done her. She could not exhibit to men her conscience but she judged that her self-inflicted punishment would testify her state of mind; and she burned with shame at the thought that her patient endurance of the foul affront that another had done her, should be construed into complicity with him. Not such was the decision of the Christian women who suffered as she did, and yet survive. They declined to avenge upon themselves the guilt of others, and so add crimes of their own to those crimes in which they had no share. For this they would have done had their shame driven them to homicide, as the lust of their enemies had driven them to adultery. Within their own souls, in the witness of their own conscience, they enjoy the glory of chastity. In the sight of God, too, they are esteemed pure, and this contents them; they ask no more: it suffices them to have opportunity of doing good, and they decline to evade the distress of human suspicion, lest they thereby deviate from the divine law.

That Christians Have No Authority for Committing Suicide in Any Circumstances Whatever

It is not without significance, that in no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, “Thou shalt not kill.” This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Nor yet should any one on this account suppose he has not broken this commandment if he has borne false witness only against himself. For the love of our neighbor is regulated by the love of ourselves, as it is written, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” If, then, he who makes false statements about himself is not less guilty of bearing false witness than if he had made them to the injury of his neighbor; although in the commandment prohibiting false witness only his neighbor is mentioned, and persons taking no pains to understand it might suppose that a man was allowed to be a false witness to his own hurt; how much greater reason have we to understand that a man may not kill himself, since in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” there is no limitation added nor any exception made in favor of any one, and least of all in favor of him on whom the command is laid! And so some attempt to extend this command even to beasts and cattle, as if it forbade us to take life from any creature. But if so, why not extend it also to the plants, and all that is rooted in and nourished by the earth? For though this class of creatures have no sensation, yet they also are said to live, and consequently they can die; and therefore, if violence be done them, can be killed. So, too, the apostle, when speaking of the seeds of such things as these, says, “That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die;” and in the Psalm it is said, “He killed their vines with hail.” Must we therefore reckon it a breaking of this commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” to pull a flower? Are we thus insanely to countenance the foolish error of the Manichæans? Putting aside, then, these ravings, if, when we say, Thou shalt not kill, we do not understand this of the plants, since they have no sensation, nor of the irrational animals that fly, swim, walk, or creep, since they are dissociated from us by their want of reason, and are therefore by the just appointment of the Creator subjected to us to kill or keep alive for our own uses; if so, then it remains that we understand that commandment simply of man. The commandment is, “Thou shall not kill man;” therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man.

Of the Cases in Which We May Put Men to Death Without Incurring the Guilt of Murder

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Abraham indeed was not merely deemed guiltless of cruelty, but was even applauded for his piety, because he was ready to slay his son in obedience to God, not to his own passion. And it is reasonably enough made a question, whether we are to esteem it to have been in compliance with a command of God that Jephthah killed his daughter, because she met him when he had vowed that he would sacrifice to God whatever first met him as he returned victorious from battle. Samson, too, who drew down the house on himself and his foes together, is justified only on this ground, that the Spirit who wrought wonders by him had given him secret instructions to do this. With the exception, then, of these two classes of cases, which are justified either by a just law that applies generally, or by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.

That Suicide Can Never Be Prompted by Magnanimity

But they who have laid violent hands on themselves are perhaps to be admired for their greatness of soul, though they cannot be applauded for the soundness of their judgment. However, if you look at the matter more closely, you will scarcely call it greatness of soul, which prompts a man to kill himself rather than bear up against some hardships of fortune, or sins in which he is not implicated. Is it not rather proof of a feeble mind, to be unable to bear either the pains of bodily servitude or the foolish opinion of the vulgar? And is not that to be pronounced the greater mind, which rather faces than flees the ills of life, and which, in comparison of the light and purity of conscience, holds in small esteem the judgment of men, and specially of the vulgar, which is frequently involved in a mist of error? And, therefore, if suicide is to be esteemed a magnanimous act, none can take higher rank for magnanimity than that Cleombrotus, who (as the story goes), when he had read Plato’s book in which he treats of the immortality of the soul, threw himself from a wall, and so passed from this life to that which he believed to be better. For he was not hard pressed by calamity, nor by any accusation, false or true, which he could not very well have lived down; there was, in short, no motive but only magnanimity urging him to seek death, and break away from the sweet detention of this life. And yet that this was a magnanimous rather than a justifiable action, Plato himself, whom he had read, would have told him; for he would certainly have been forward to commit, or at least to recommend suicide, had not the same bright intellect which saw that the soul was immortal, discerned also that to seek immortality by suicide was to be prohibited rather than encouraged.

Again, it is said many have killed themselves to prevent an enemy doing so. But we are not inquiring whether it has been done, but whether it ought to have been done. Sound judgment is to be preferred even to examples, and indeed examples harmonize with the voice of reason; but not all examples, but those only which are distinguished by their piety, and are proportionately worthy of imitation. For suicide we cannot cite the example of patriarchs, prophets, or apostles; though our Lord Jesus Christ, when He admonished them to flee from city to city if they were persecuted, might very well have taken that occasion to advise them to lay violent hands on themselves, and so escape their persecutors. But seeing He did not do this, nor proposed this mode of departing this life, though He were addressing His own friends for whom He had promised to prepare everlasting mansions, it is obvious that such examples as are produced from the “nations that forget God,” give no warrant of imitation to the worshippers of the one true God.

What We are to Think of the Example of Cato, Who Slew Himself Because Unable to Endure Cæsar’s Victory

Besides Lucretia, of whom enough has already been said, our advocates of suicide have some difficulty in finding any other prescriptive example, unless it be that of Cato, who killed himself at Utica. His example is appealed to, not because he was the only man who did so, but because he was so esteemed as a learned and excellent man, that it could plausibly be maintained that what he did was and is a good thing to do. But of this action of his, what can I say but that his own friends, enlightened men as he, prudently dissuaded him, and therefore judged his act to be that of a feeble rather than a strong spirit, and dictated not by honorable feeling forestalling shame, but by weakness shrinking from hardships? Indeed, Cato condemns himself by the advice he gave to his dearly loved son. For if it was a disgrace to live under Cæsar’s rule, why did the father urge the son to this disgrace, by encouraging him to trust absolutely to Cæsar’s generosity? Why did he not persuade him to die along with himself? If Torquatus was applauded for putting his son to death, when contrary to orders he had engaged, and engaged successfully, with the enemy, why did conquered Cato spare his conquered son, though he did not spare himself? Was it more disgraceful to be a victor contrary to orders, than to submit to a victor contrary to the received ideas of honor? Cato, then, cannot have deemed it to be shameful to live under Cæsar’s rule; for had he done so, the father’s sword would have delivered his son from this disgrace. The truth is, that his son, whom he both hoped and desired would be spared by Cæsar, was not more loved by him than Cæsar was envied the glory of pardoning him (as indeed Cæsar himself is reported to have said); or if envy is too strong a word, let us say he was ashamed that this glory should be his.

That in that Virtue in Which Regulus Excels Cato, Christians are Pre-Eminently Distinguished

Our opponents are offended at our preferring to Cato the saintly Job, who endured dreadful evils in his body rather than deliver himself from all torment by self-inflicted death; or other saints, of whom it is recorded in our authoritative and trustworthy books that they bore captivity and the oppression of their enemies rather than commit suicide. But their own books authorize us to prefer to Marcus Cato, Marcus Regulus. For Cato had never conquered Cæsar; and when conquered by him, disdained to submit himself to him, and that he might escape this submission put himself to death. Regulus, on the contrary, had formerly conquered the Carthaginians, and in command of the army of Rome had won for the Roman republic a victory which no citizen could bewail, and which the enemy himself was constrained to admire; yet afterwards, when he in his turn was defeated by them, he preferred to be their captive rather than to put himself beyond their reach by suicide. Patient under the domination of the Carthaginians, and constant in his love of the Romans, he neither deprived the one of his conquered body, nor the other of his unconquered spirit. Neither was it love of life that prevented him from killing himself. This was plainly enough indicated by his unhesitatingly returning, on account of his promise and oath, to the same enemies whom he had more grievously provoked by his words in the senate than even by his arms in battle. Having such a contempt of life, and preferring to end it by whatever torments excited enemies might contrive, rather than terminate it by his own hand, he could not more distinctly have declared how great a crime he judged suicide to be. Among all their famous and remarkable citizens, the Romans have no better man to boast of than this, who was neither corrupted by prosperity, for he remained a very poor man after winning such victories; nor broken by adversity, for he returned intrepidly to the most miserable end. But if the bravest and most renowned heroes, who had but an earthly country to defend, and who, though they had but false gods, yet rendered them a true worship, and carefully kept their oath to them; if these men, who by the custom and right of war put conquered enemies to the sword, yet shrank from putting an end to their own lives even when conquered by their enemies; if, though they had no fear at all of death, they would yet rather suffer slavery than commit suicide, how much rather must Christians, the worshippers of the true God, the aspirants to a heavenly citizenship, shrink from this act, if in God’s providence they have been for a season delivered into the hands of their enemies to prove or to correct them! And certainly, Christians subjected to this humiliating condition will not be deserted by the Most High, who for their sakes humbled Himself. Neither should they forget that they are bound by no laws of war, nor military orders, to put even a conquered enemy to the sword; and if a man may not put to death the enemy who has sinned, or may yet sin against him, who is so infatuated as to maintain that he may kill himself because an enemy has sinned, or is going to sin, against him?

That We Should Not Endeavor By Sin to Obviate Sin

But, we are told, there is ground to fear that, when the body is subjected to the enemy’s lust, the insidious pleasure of sense may entice the soul to consent to the sin, and steps must be taken to prevent so disastrous a result. And is not suicide the proper mode of preventing not only the enemy’s sin, but the sin of the Christian so allured? Now, in the first place, the soul which is led by God and His wisdom, rather than by bodily concupiscence, will certainly never consent to the desire aroused in its own flesh by another’s lust. And, at all events, if it be true, as the truth plainly declares, that suicide is a detestable and damnable wickedness, who is such a fool as to say, Let us sin now, that we may obviate a possible future sin; let us now commit murder, lest we perhaps afterwards should commit adultery? If we are so controlled by iniquity that innocence is out of the question, and we can at best but make a choice of sins, is not a future and uncertain adultery preferable to a present and certain murder? Is it not better to commit a wickedness which penitence may heal, than a crime which leaves no place for healing contrition? I say this for the sake of those men or women who fear they may be enticed into consenting to their violator’s lust, and think they should lay violent hands on themselves, and so prevent, not another’s sin, but their own. But far be it from the mind of a Christian confiding in God, and resting in the hope of His aid; far be it, I say, from such a mind to yield a shameful consent to pleasures of the flesh, howsoever presented. And if that lustful disobedience, which still dwells in our mortal members, follows its own law irrespective of our will, surely its motions in the body of one who rebels against them are as blameless as its motions in the body of one who sleeps.

That in Certain Peculiar Cases the Examples of the Saints are Not to Be Followed

But, they say, in the time of persecution some holy women escaped those who menaced them with outrage, by casting themselves into rivers which they knew would drown them; and having died in this manner, they are venerated in the church catholic as martyrs. Of such persons I do not presume to speak rashly. I cannot tell whether there may not have been vouchsafed to the church some divine authority, proved by trustworthy evidences, for so honoring their memory: it may be that it is so. It may be they were not deceived by human judgment, but prompted by divine wisdom, to their act of self-destruction. We know that this was the case with Samson. And when God enjoins any act, and intimates by plain evidence that He has enjoined it, who will call obedience criminal? Who will accuse so religious a submission? But then every man is not justified in sacrificing his son to God, because Abraham was commendable in so doing. The soldier who has slain a man in obedience to the authority under which he is lawfully commissioned, is not accused of murder by any law of his state; nay, if he has not slain him, it is then he is accused of treason to the state, and of despising the law. But if he has been acting on his own authority, and at his own impulse, he has in this case incurred the crime of shedding human blood. And thus he is punished for doing without orders the very thing he is punished for neglecting to do when he has been ordered. If the commands of a general make so great a difference, shall the commands of God make none? He, then, who knows it is unlawful to kill himself, may nevertheless do so if he is ordered by Him whose commands we may not neglect. Only let him be very sure that the divine command has been signified. As for us, we can become privy to the secrets of conscience only in so far as these are disclosed to us, and so far only do we judge: “No one knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him.”

But this we affirm, this we maintain, this we every way pronounce to be right, that no man ought to inflict on himself voluntary death, for this is to escape the ills of time by plunging into those of eternity; that no man ought to do so on account of another man’s sins, for this were to escape a guilt which could not pollute him, by incurring great guilt of his own; that no man ought to do so on account of his own past sins, for he has all the more need of this life that these sins may be healed by repentance; that no man should put an end to this life to obtain that better life we look for after death, for those who die by their own hand have no better life after death.

Whether Voluntary Death Should Be Sought in Order to Avoid Sin

There remains one reason for suicide which I mentioned before, and which is thought a sound one,—namely, to prevent one’s falling into sin either through the blandishments of pleasure or the violence of pain. If this reason were a good one, then we should be impelled to exhort men at once to destroy themselves, as soon as they have been washed in the laver of regeneration, and have received the forgiveness of all sin. Then is the time to escape all future sin, when all past sin is blotted out. And if this escape be lawfully secured by suicide, why not then specially? Why does any baptized person hold his hand from taking his own life? Why does any person who is freed from the hazards of this life again expose himself to them, when he has power so easily to rid himself of them all, and when it is written, “He who loveth danger shall fall into it?” Why does he love, or at least face, so many serious dangers, by remaining in this life from which he may legitimately depart? But is any one so blinded and twisted in his moral nature, and so far astray from the truth, as to think that, though a man ought to make away with himself for fear of being led into sin by the oppression of one man, his master, he ought yet to live, and so expose himself to the hourly temptations of this world, both to all those evils which the oppression of one master involves, and to numberless other miseries in which this life inevitably implicates us? What reason, then, is there for our consuming time in those exhortations by which we seek to animate the baptized, either to virginal chastity, or vidual [widowed] continence, or matrimonial fidelity, when we have so much more simple and compendious a method of deliverance from sin, by persuading those who are fresh from baptism to put an end to their lives, and so pass to their Lord pure and well-conditioned? If any one thinks that such persuasion should be attempted, I say not he is foolish, but mad. With what face, then, can he say to any man, “Kill yourself, lest to your small sins you add a heinous sin, while you live under an unchaste master, whose conduct is that of a barbarian?” How can he say this, if he cannot without wickedness say, “Kill yourself, now that you are washed from all your sins, lest you fall again into similar or even aggravated sins, while you live in a world which has such power to allure by its unclean pleasures, to torment by its horrible cruelties, to overcome by its errors and terrors?” It is wicked to say this; it is therefore wicked to kill oneself. For if there could be any just cause of suicide, this were so. And since not even this is so, there is none.


…Someone might say, “I would rather not exist at all than be unhappy.” I would reply, “You’re lying. You’re unhappy now, and the only reason you don’t want to die is to go on existing. You don’t want to be unhappy, but you do want to exist. Give thanks, therefore, for what you are willingly, so that what you are against your will might be taken away; for you willingly exist, but you are unhappy against your will. If you are ungrateful for what you will to be, you are justly compelled to be what you do not will. So I praise the goodness of your Creator, for even though you are ungrateful you have what you will; and I praise the justice of your Lawgiver, for because you are ungrateful you suffer what you do not will.”

But then he might say, “It is not because I would rather be unhappy than not exist at all that I am unwilling to die; it’s because I’m afraid that I might be even more unhappy after death.” I would reply, “If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so.”

Next he might ask, “Why should I assume that if it is unjust I won’t be more unhappy?” I would reply, “If at that time you are in your own power, either you will not be unhappy, or you will be governing yourself unjustly, in which case you will deserve your unhappiness. But suppose instead that you wish to govern yourself justly but cannot. That means that you are not in your own power, so either someone else has power over you, or no one has. If no one has power over you, you will act either willingly or unwillingly. It cannot be unwillingly, because nothing happens to you unwillingly unless you are overcome by some force, and you cannot be overcome by any force if no one has power over you. And if it is willingly, you are in fact in your own power, and the earlier argument applies: either you deserve your unhappiness for governing yourself unjustly, or, since you have whatever you will, you have reason to give thanks for the goodness of your Creator.

“Therefore, if you are not in your own power, some other thing must have control over you. This thing is either stronger or weaker than you. If it is weaker than you, your servitude is your own fault and your unhappiness is just, since you could overpower this thing if you willed to do so. And if a stronger thing has control over you, its control is in accordance with proper order, and you cannot rightly think that so right an order is unjust. I was therefore quite correct to say, ‘If it is unjust for you to be even more unhappy, you won’t be so; but if it is just, let us praise him by whose laws you will be so’.”

Then he might say, “The only reason that I will to be unhappy rather than not to exist at all is that I already exist; if somehow I could have been consulted on this matter before I existed, I would have chosen not to exist rather than to be unhappy. The fact that I am now afraid not to exist, even though I am unhappy, is itself part of that very unhappiness because of which I do not will what I ought to will. For I ought to will not to exist rather than to be unhappy. And yet I admit that in fact I would rather be unhappy than be nothing. But the more unhappy I am, the more foolish I am to will this; and the more truly I see that I ought not will this, the more unhappy I am.”

I would reply, “Be careful that you are not mistaken when you think you see the truth. For if you were happy, you would certainly prefer existence to nonexistence. Even as it is, although you are unhappy and do not will to be unhappy, you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist at all. Consider, then, as well as you can, how great is the good of existence, which the happy and the unhappy alike will. If you consider it well, you will realize three things. First, you are unhappy to the extent that you are far from him who exists in the highest degree. Second, the more you think that it is better for someone not to exist than to be unhappy, the less you will see him who exists in the highest degree. Finally, you nonetheless will to exist because you are from him who exists in the highest degree.”

So if you will to escape from unhappiness, cherish your will to exist. For if you will more and more to exist, you will approach him who exists in the highest degree. And give thanks that you exist now, for even though you are inferior to those who are happy, you are superior to things that do not have even the will to be happy―and many such things are praised even by those who are unhappy. Nonetheless, all things that exist deserve praise simply in virtue of the fact that they exist, for they are good simply in virtue of the fact that they exist.

The more you love existence, the more you will desire eternal life, and so the more you will long to be refashioned so that your affections are no longer temporal, branded upon you by the love of temporal things that are nothing before they exist, and then, once they do exist, flee from existence until they exist no more. And so when their existence is still to come, they do not yet exist; and when their existence is past, they exist no more. How can you expect such things to endure, when for them to begin to exist is to set out on the road to nonexistence?

Someone who loves existence approves of such things insofar as they exist and loves that which always exists. If once he used to waver in the love of temporal things, he now grows firm in the love of the eternal. Once he wallowed in the love of fleeting things, but he will stand steadfast in the love of what is permanent. Then he will obtain the very existence that he willed when he was afraid not to exist but could not stand upright because he was entangled in the love of fleeting things.

Therefore, do not grieve that you would rather exist and be unhappy than not exist and be nothing at all. Instead, rejoice greatly, for your will to exist is like a first step. If you go on from there to set your sights more and more on existence, you will rise to him who exists in the highest degree. Thus you will keep yourself from the kind of fall in which that which exists in the lowest degree ceases to exist and thereby devastates the one who loves it. Hence, someone who prefers not to exist rather than to be unhappy has no choice but to be unhappy, since he cannot fail to exist; but someone who loves existence more than he hates being unhappy can banish what he hates by cleaving more and more to what he loves. For someone who has come to enjoy an existence that is perfect for a thing of his kind cannot be unhappy.

Notice how absurd and illogical it would be to say “I would prefer not to exist rather than to be unhappy.” For someone who says “I would prefer this rather than that” is choosing something. But not to exist is not something, but nothing. Therefore, you can’t properly choose it, since what you are choosing does not exist.

Perhaps you will say that you do in fact will to exist, even though you are unhappy, but that you shouldn’t will to exist. Then what should you will? “Not to exist,” you say. Well, if that is what you ought to will, it must be better; but that which does not exist cannot be better. Therefore, you should not will not to exist, and the frame of mind that keeps you from willing it is closer to the truth than your belief that you ought to will it.

Furthermore, if someone is right in choosing to pursue something, it must be the case that he becomes better when he attains it. But whoever does not exist cannot be better, and so no one can be right in choosing not to exist. We should not be swayed by the judgment of those whose unhappiness has driven them to suicide. Either they thought that they would be better off after death, in which case they were doing nothing contrary to our argument (whether they were right in thinking so or not); or else they thought that they would be nothing after death, in which case there is even less reason for us to bother with them, since they falsely chose nothing. For how am I supposed to concur in the choice of someone who, if I asked him what he was choosing, would say “Nothing”? And someone who chooses not to exist is clearly choosing nothing, even if he won’t admit it.

To tell you quite frankly what I think about this whole issue, it seems to me that someone who kills himself or in some way wants to die has the feeling that he will not exist after death, whatever his conscious opinion may be. Opinion, whether true or false, has to do with reason or faith; but feeling derives its power from either habit or nature. It can happen that opinion leads in one direction and feeling in another. This is easy to see in cases where we believe that we ought to do one thing but enjoy doing just the opposite. And sometimes feeling is closer to the truth than opinion is, as when the opinion is in error and the feeling is from nature. For example, a sick man will often enjoy drinking cold water, which is good for him, even if he believes that it will kill him. But sometimes opinion is closer to the truth than feeling is, as when someone’s knowledge of medicine tells him that cold water would be harmful when in fact it would be harmful, even though it would be pleasant to drink. Sometimes both are right, as when one rightly believes that something is beneficial and also finds it pleasing. Sometimes both are wrong, as when one believes that something is beneficial when it is actually harmful and one is also happy not to give it up.

It often happens that right opinion corrects perverted habits and that perverted opinion distorts an upright nature, so great is the power of the dominion and rule of reason. Therefore, someone who believes that after death he will not exist is driven by his unbearable troubles to desire death with all his heart; he chooses death and takes hold of it. His opinion is completely false, but his feeling is simply a natural desire for peace. And something that has peace is not nothing; indeed, it is greater than something that is restless. For restlessness generates one conflicting passion after another, whereas peace has the constancy that is the most conspicuous characteristic of Being.

So the will’s desire for death is not a desire for nonexistence but a desire for peace. When someone wrongly believes that he will not exist, he desires by nature to be at peace; that is, he desires to exist in a higher degree. Therefore, just as no one can desire not to exist, no one ought to be ungrateful to the goodness of the Creator for the fact that he exists…

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Filed under Africa, Ancient History, Augustine, Christianity, Europe, Selections, Stoicism

(c. 240–c. 320)

from The Divine Institutes


Born sometime between 230 and 260 in proconsular North Africa to a non-Christian family who lived at Carthage, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius became a rhetorician and professor of oratory in Nicomedia, in northwest Asia Minor. Known for his Latin prose style, he was sometimes called the “Christian Cicero” by Renaissance scholars. He had been appointed (c. 290) to his professorship at Nicomedia by the Roman emperor Diocletian, but when Diocletian began to initiate what came to be known as the Great Persecution, Lactantius, who had converted to Christianity by this time, resigned his professorship (c. 305) and began to write defenses of Christian theology for both Christians and non-Christian academics. He sought to refute polytheism and to show the falsity of pagan philosophy while demonstrating the truth of Christian tenets. After Constantine became emperor, he lifted Lactantius out of poverty and invited him to Trier to tutor his son, Crispus.

In The Divine Institutes (303–310), the first systematic summary in Latin of Christian teaching, Lactantius attacks Greek and Roman views of suicide. He addresses Plato’s view of the immortality of the soul and Cicero’s view that death will be better than life, or at least no worse. Lactantius replies, on the contrary, that death cannot be assumed to be good, but relative to a good or bad life lived. Lactantius also claims that the venerated Stoic examples of suicide, including such notable instances as that of Cato, were actually homicide victims of Stoic philosophy. Lactantius derides what he sees as an erroneous pagan “balance-sheet” mentality weighing pleasure against pain. Lactantius is the first writer in the Christian tradition to argue, as he does in this work, that killing oneself is worse than killing another person, a view that gains considerable currency in later Christian thought.

The dates of Lactantius’ life are not known. Estimates of his lifespan generally range between the years 240 and 330.


Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book III, chs. 18–19. Trans. Rev. William Fletcher. In The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 7. Buffalo: 1886; New York 1899–1900. Available online at Christian Classic Ethereal Library.



The Pythagoreans and Stoics, While They Hold the Immortality of the Soul, Foolishly Persuade a Voluntary Death

Others, again, discuss things contrary to these, namely, that the soul survives after death; and these are chiefly the Pythagoreans and Stoics. And although they are to be treated with indulgence because they perceive the truth, yet I cannot but blame them, because they fell upon the truth not by their opinion, but by accident. And thus they erred in some degree even in that very matter which they rightly perceived. For, since they feared the argument by which it is inferred that the soul must necessarily die with the body, because it is born with the body, they asserted that the soul is not born with the body, but rather introduced into it, and that it migrates from one body to another. They did not consider that it was possible for the soul to survive the body, unless it should appear to have existed previously to the body. There is therefore an equal and almost similar error on each side. But the one side are deceived with respect to the past, the other with respect to the future. For no one saw that which is most true, that the soul is both created and does not die, because they were ignorant why that came to pass, or what was the nature of man. Many therefore of them, because they suspected that the soul is immortal, laid violent hands upon themselves, as though they were about to depart to heaven. Thus it was with Cleanthes and Chrysippus, with Zeno, and Empedocles, who in the dead of night cast himself into a cavity of the burning Ætna, that when he had suddenly disappeared it might be believed that he had departed to the gods; and thus also of the Romans Cato died, who through the whole of his life was an imitator of Socratic ostentation. For Democritus was of another persuasion. But, however, “By his own spontaneous act he offered up his head to death”; and nothing can be more wicked than this. For if a homicide is guilty because he is a destroyer of man, he who puts himself to death is under the same guilt, because he puts to death a man. Yea, that crime may be considered to be greater, the punishment of which belongs to God alone. For as we did not come into this life of our own accord; so, on the other hand, we can only withdraw from this habitation of the body which has been appointed for us to keep, by the command of Him who placed us in this body that we may inhabit it, until He orders us to depart from it; and if any violence is offered to us, we must endure it with equanimity, since the death of an innocent person cannot be unavenged, and since we have a great Judge who alone always has the power of taking vengeance in His hands.

All these philosophers, therefore, were homicides; and Cato himself, the chief of Roman wisdom, who, before he put himself to death, is said to have read through the treatise of Plato which he wrote on the immortality of the soul, and was led by the authority of the philosopher to the commission of this great crime; yet he, however, appears to have had some cause for death in his hatred of slavery. Why should I speak of the Ambraciot [Theombrotus]who, having read the same treatise, threw himself into the sea, for no other cause than that he believed Plato?—a doctrine altogether detestable and to be avoided, if it drives men from life. But if Plato had known and taught by whom, and how, and to whom, and on account of what actions, and at what time, immortality is given, he would neither have driven Cleombrotus [Theombrotus] nor Cato to a voluntary death, but he would have trained them to live with justice. For it appears to me that Cato sought a cause for death, not so much that he might escape from Cæsar, as that he might obey the decrees of the Stoics, whom he followed, and might make his name distinguished by some great action; and I do not see what evil could have happened to him if he had lived. For Caius Cæsar, such was his clemency, had no other object, even in the very heat of civil war, than to appear to deserve well of the state, by preserving two excellent citizens, Cicero and Cato. But let us return to those who praise death as a benefit. You complain of life as though you had lived, or had ever settled with yourself why you were born at all. May not therefore the true and common Father of all justly find fault with that saying of Terence:—

“First, learn in what life consists; then, if you shall be dissatisfied with life, have recourse to death.”

You are indignant that you are exposed to evils; as though you deserved anything good, who are ignorant of your Father, Lord, and King; who, although you behold with your eyes the bright light, are nevertheless blind in mind, and lie in the depths of the darkness of….

…[T]hose who assert the advantage of death, because they know nothing of the truth, thus reason: If there is nothing after death, death is not an evil; for it takes away the perception of evil. But if the soul survives, death is even an advantage; because immortality follows. And this sentiment is thus set forth by Cicero concerning the Laws: “We may congratulate ourselves, since death is about to bring either a better state than that which exists in life, or at any rate not a worse. For if the soul is in a state of vigour without the body, it is a divine life; and if it is without perception, assuredly there is no evil.” Cleverly argued, as it appeared to himself, as though there could be no other state. But each conclusion is false. For the sacred writings teach that the soul is not annihilated; but that it is either rewarded according to its righteousness, or eternally punished according to its crimes. For neither is it right, that he who has lived a life of wickedness in prosperity should escape the punishment which he deserves; nor that he who has been wretched on account of his righteousness, should be deprived of his reward. And this is so true, that Tully also, in his Consolation, declared that the righteous and the wicked do not inhabit the same abodes. For those same wise men, he says, did not judge that the same course was open for all into the heaven; for they taught that those who were contaminated by vices and crimes were thrust down into darkness, and lay in the mire; but that, on the other hand, souls that were chaste, pure, upright, and uncontaminated, being also refined by the study and practice of virtue, by a light and easy course take their flight to the gods, that is, to a nature resembling their own. But this sentiment is opposed to the former argument. For that is based on the assumption that every man at his birth is presented with immortality. What distinction, therefore, will there be between virtue and guilt, if it makes no difference whether a man be Aristides or Phalaris, whether he be Cato or Catiline? But a man does not perceive this opposition between sentiments and actions, unless he is in possession of the truth. If any one, therefore, should ask me whether death is a good or an evil, I shall reply that its character depends upon the course of the life. For as life itself is a good if it is passed virtuously, but an evil if it is spent viciously, so also death is to be weighed in accordance with the past actions of life. And so it comes to pass, that if life has been passed in the service of God, death is not an evil, for it is a translation to immortality. But if not so, death must necessarily be an evil, since it transfers men, as I have said, to everlasting punishment….

…What, then, shall we say, but that they are in error who either desire death as a good, or flee from life as an evil? unless they are most unjust, who do not weigh the fewer evils against the greater number of blessings. For when they pass all their lives in a variety of the choicest gratifications, if any bitterness has chanced to succeed to these, they desire to die; and they so regard it as to appear never to have fared well, if at any time they happen to fare ill. Therefore they condemn the whole of life, and consider it as nothing else than filled with evils. Hence arose that foolish sentiment, that this state which we imagine to be life is death, and that that which we fear as death is life; and so that the first good is not to be born, that the second is an early death….

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from The Enneads
   On Happiness
   On the Primal Good and Secondary       Forms of Good
   ‘The Reasoned Dismissal’


Plotinus, the founder and principal exponent of the philosophical school known as Neoplatonism, was born in Egypt; it is not clear whether he was Greek, Roman, or a Hellenized Egyptian. He had a Greek education. He studied for 11 years with the philosopher Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria, and went on the expedition of the Roman emperor Gordian III against Persia in 242–244 in order to learn something about the philosophies of the Persians and Indians, though the expedition failed, Gordian was killed, and Plotinus escaped only with difficulty. Plotinus moved to Rome in 244 and, at the center of an influential circle of intellectuals, lectured on the thought of Plato and the Pythagorean school, as well as on the virtue of asceticism. Plotinus’ works were collected and edited by his student, Porphyry, and exist today in an arrangement of six groupings, each having nine books, called the Enneads. In his last years, Plotinus suffered from an apparently painful and repulsive disease that kept his friends away from him (now assumed to be tuberculosis or, more likely, leprosy), and died at his country estate with his physician Eustochius at his side.

Plotinus created a system of thought based on Plato’s dualism between material object and Form or Idea, dividing Plato’s realm of intelligibles into three: the One, Intelligence, and the Soul. For Plotinus, God’s power emanates through pure Intelligence to the world of matter; human beings occupy a unique place between the world of Ideas or Intelligence and the world of matter or sensation, belonging to both realms. However, human beings have the potential to relinquish matter and to achieve a union of Soul or Intelligence with God. Given these notions, Plotinus concludes that death is not an evil but actually a good. But this view raises an issue that confronted both Plato and the early Christians: If matter, body, and worldly things are inferior and/or painful and death is a desired good, then why not hasten the realization of this good through suicide? Plotinus argues against suicide; the “Proficient,” (i.e., the person who has mastered true philosophy) has learned not to attend to either positive or painful circumstances and will not commit suicide, an act motivated by passion, except perhaps if he feels he is losing his reason, and then only under “stern necessity.”


Plotinus, Enneads, Book I, Tractate 4.8, 4.14; Tractate 7.3; Tractate 9. Trans. Stephen MacKenna. New York: Pantheon Books, printed in Great Britain by Oxford University Press, 1954, pp. 47, 50–51, 66, 78–79. Available online from the Christian Classic Ethereal Library.


Book I, Fourth Tractate: On Happiness

As for violent personal sufferings, he [the Proficient] will carry them off as well as he can; if they overpass his endurance they will carry him off.

And so in all his pain he asks no pity: there is always the radiance in the inner soul of the man, untroubled like the light in a lantern when fierce gusts beat about it in a wild turmoil of wind and tempest.

But what if he be put beyond himself? What if pain grow so intense and so torture him that the agony all but kills? Well, when he is put to torture he will plan what is to be done: he retains his freedom of action.

Besides we must remember that the Proficient sees things very differently from the average man; neither ordinary experiences nor pains and sorrows, whether touching himself or others, pierce to the inner hold. To allow them any such passage would be a weakness in our soul.

And it is a sign of weakness, too, if we should think it gain not to hear of miseries, gain to die before they come: this is not concern for others’ welfare but for our own peace of mind. Here we see our imperfection: we must not indulge it, we must put it from us and cease to tremble over what perhaps may be.

Anyone that says that it is in human nature to grieve over misfortune to our household must learn that this is not so with all, and that, precisely, it is virtue’s use to raise the general level of nature towards the better and finer, above the mass of men. And the finer is to set at nought what terrifies the common mind.

We cannot be indolent: this is an arena for the powerful combatant holding his ground against the blows of fortune, and knowing that, sore though they be to some natures, they are little to his, nothing dreadful, nursery terrors.

So, the Proficient would have desired misfortune?

It is precisely to meet the undesired when it appears that he has the virtue which gives him, to confront it, his passionless and unshakeable soul.

For man, and especially the Proficient, is not the Couplement of Soul and body: the proof is that man can be disengaged from the body and disdain its nominal goods.

It would be absurd to think that happiness begins and ends with the living-body: happiness is the possession of the good of life: it is centered therefore in Soul, is an Act of the Soul—and not of all the Soul at that: for it certainly is not characteristic of the vegetative soul, the soul of growth; that would at once connect it with the body.

A powerful frame, a healthy constitution, even a happy balance of temperament, these surely do not make felicity; in the excess of these advantages there is, even, the danger that the man be crushed down and forced more and more within their power. There must be a sort of counter-pressure in the other direction, towards the noblest: the body must be lessened, reduced, that the veritable man may show forth, the man behind the appearances.

Let the earth-bound man be handsome and powerful and rich, and so apt to this world that he may rule the entire human race: still there can be no envying him, the fool of such lures. Perhaps such splendors could not, from the beginning even, have gathered to the Proficient; but if it should happen so, he of his own action will lower his state, if he has any care for his true life; the tyranny of the body he will work down or wear away by inattention to its claims; the rulership he will lay aside. While he will safeguard his bodily health, he will not wish to be wholly untried in sickness, still less never to feel pain: if such troubles should not come to him of themselves, he will wish to know them, during youth at least: in old age, it is true, he will desire neither pains nor pleasures to hamper him; he will desire nothing of this world, pleasant or painful; his one desire will be to know nothing of the body. If he should meet with pain he will pit against it the powers he holds to meet it; but pleasure and health and ease of life will not mean any increase of happiness to him nor will their contraries destroy or lessen it.

When in the one subject a positive can add nothing, how can the negative take away?


Book I, Seventh Tractate: On the Primal Good and Secondary Forms of Good

Life is a partnership of a Soul and body; death is the dissolution; in either life or death, then, the Soul will feel itself at home.

But, again, if life is good, how can death be anything but evil?

Remember that the good of life, where it has any good at all, is not due to anything in the partnership but to the repelling of evil by virtue; death, then, must be the greater good.

In a word, life in the body is of itself an evil but the Soul enters its Good through Virtue, not living the life of the Couplement but holding itself apart, even here.

Book I, Ninth Tractate: ‘The Reasoned Dismissal’

‘You will not dismiss your Soul lest it go forth taking something with it.’

Your dismissal will ensure that it must go forth taking something (corporeal) with it, and its going forth is to some new place. The Soul will wait for the body to be completely severed from it; then it makes no departure; it simply finds itself free.

But how does the body come to be separated?

The separation takes place when nothing of Soul remains bound up with it: the harmony within the body, by virtue of which the Soul was retained, is broken and it can no longer hold its guest.

But when a man contrives the dissolution of the body, it is he that has used violence and torn himself away, not the body that has let the Soul slip from it. And in loosing the bond he has not been without passion; there has been revolt or grief or anger, movements which it is unlawful to indulge.

But if a man feel himself to be losing his reason?

That is not likely in the Proficient, but if it should occur, it must be classed with the inevitable, to be welcome at the bidding of the fact though not for its own sake. To call upon drugs to the release of the Soul seems a strange way of assisting its purposes.

And if there be a period allotted to all by fate, to anticipate the hour could not be a happy act, unless, as we have indicated, under stern necessity.

If everyone is to hold in the other world a standing determined by the state in which he quitted this, there must be no withdrawal as long as there is any hope of progress.

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