Category Archives: African Traditional Sub-Saharan Cultures


#13 Evil Spirits: The Suicide
     (Northcote W. Thomas, 1913)

Among the Ibo… the evil spirit known as akalagoli, ekwensu or ajomwo excites the apprehensions on the people.

The akalagoli is said to be a person who had no wife, no child, and no money, and has committed suicide. They try to kill others after death, and more especially fortunate people.

Occasionally, one may see various devices in a house for catching akalagoli, or for driving them away. A pot with a broom in it is placed against the wall just inside the door; or a forked stick hangs from part of the framework that supports the roof of the wall and so on. The akalagoli is supposed to catch its foot in the fork of this stick—exactly as the witch is supposed to be caught in the witch’s ladder in England—and every month a fire of palm flowers is lighted to expel the akalagoli. Ordinarily, however, it is held to be sufficient to light palm flowers over the spot where the akalagoli or ekwensu is buried and to renew the ceremony every month.

Occasionally a person dead within comparatively recent years can be identified as an akalagoli, the remedy is to dig the body up. When this is done the doctor gets medicine, draws a circle round the grave, plants his horn upon it and runs round it; all this to secure that the akalagoli does not escape. Then he takes a piece of earth and rubs the heart of the dead man and burns it. He cuts off the head and cuts up the body.

[#13] Igbo: “Evil Spirits,” from Northcote W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on the Ibo-Speaking Peoples of Nigeria. Part I: Law and Custom of the Ibo of the Awka Neighbourhood, S. Nigeria. London: Harrison and Sons, 1913; reprint: New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, pp. 39-40.

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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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#11 The Kings of Yoruba
     (Samuel Johnson, 1897)

Sango: The God of Thunder and Lightning, and his wife Oya

Sango was the fourth King of the Yorubas…Sango reigned for seven years, the whole of which period was marked by his restlessness. He fought many battles and was fond of making charms. He was said to have the knowledge of some preparation by which he could attract lightning. The palace at Oyo was built at the foot of a hill called Ajaka’s hill. One day the King ascended this hill accompanied… by his courtiers and some of his slaves, among whom were two favourites, Biri and Omìran; some of his cousins went with him, but none of his children. He was minded to try the preparation he had in hand; thinking it might have been damp and useless, he first made the experiment on his own house. But it took effect, a storm was immediately raised and the lightning had struck the palace before they came down the hill, and the buildings were on fire. Many of Sango’s wives and his children perished in this catastrophe.

Sango who was the author of his own misfortunes became alarmed and dismayed at what had happened and from a broken heart he was resolved to abdicate the throne and retire to the court of his maternal grandfather, Elempe king of the Nupes.

All Oyo was now astir, not only to sympathize with the King, but also to dissuade him from carrying out his resolution; but he could not bear any opposition, and so mad was he, that he even used his sword against some of his loyal subjects who ventured to remonstrate with him, and who promised to replace for him his dead wives by others, by whom he might beget children, and so in time make good his present losses.

According to other accounts, he did not abdicate of his own freewill, but was asked to do so by a strong party in the state. Both accounts may be true, there may have been two parties, for to this day, Yorubas have an abhorence of a King given to making deadly charm; because for one who already has absolute power invested in him by law, this strange power can only be used spitefully, so that no one near him would be safe.

He was said to have caused 160 persons to be slain in a fit of anger, of those who were showing much concern and over-anxiety on his behalf, and who would prevent him by force from carrying out his resolve.

Thus determined he set out on his fateful journey with a few followers. Biri his head slave and favourite was the first to regret the step taken, and to urge on his master to yield to the entreaties of those citizens of Oyo, who with all loyalty promised to replace his losses, as far as man can do it, and to rebuild the palace; but finding the King inexorable, he forsook him and returned to the city with all his followers; Omiran likewise followed his example, and the King was thus left alone. He now repented his rashness, especially when he found himself deserted by his favourite Biri. He could not proceed alone, and for shame he could not return home, and so he was resolved to put an end to his own life; and climbing on a shea butter tree, he hanged himself.

His friends hearing of this tragedy went immediately and performed for him the last act of kindness, by burying his remains under the same tree.

On hearing of the King’s death, his personal friends followed his example, and died with him. Biri committed suicide at Koso (where the King died), Omiran did the same. His cousin Omo Sándá committed suicide at Papo, Babayanmi at Sele, Obei at Jakuta and Oya his favourite wife at Irá.

Thus ended the life of this remarkable personage, who once ruled over all the Yorubas and Popos. He was afterwards deified, and is still worshipped by all of all Yoruba race as the god of thunder and lighting.

The King’s Natural and Official Mothers

The Orun festival takes place in September… the rite seems to deal with affairs connected with the King’s life. It is to him a periodic reminder of his coming apotheosis, and the emblem of worship is said to be a coffin made of or paved with clay in which he is to be buried. It is kept in charge of the “Iya Oba” (the King’s official mother) in a room in her apartments, visited by no one, and the ceremonies are performed in private once a year by the King himself, his “mother” and his Osorun, the latter taking the chief part…

the Basorun is to divine with kola nuts, to see whether the King’s sacrifices are acceptable to the celestials or not, if the omen be favourable the Alafin is to give the Basorun presents of a horse and other valuables; if unfavourable, he is to die, he has forfeited his right to further existence. But there can be no doubt that under such circumstances, it can always be managed between them that the omens be always favourable.

From this and other circumstances, it would appear that the King on this occasion occupies a humiliating position as one whose conduct is under review, hence the great privacy observed, for it is a cardinal principle with Yorubas that the Alafin, as the representative of the founder of the race, is to humble himself before no mortal; if such a contingency were to occur, he is to die.

Hence, no doubt, that his natural mother (if then living) is to make way for her son ascending the throne, so there will be no occasion to violate any filial duty imperative on a son who is at the same time the King. His majesty must be supreme.

…The Iya Oba is the King’s (official) mother… the King is not to have a natural mother. If his mother happens to be living when he is called to the throne, she is asked to “go to sleep,” and is decently buried in the house of a relative in the city. All the inmates of that house are accorded special privileges and enjoy marked deference as “members of the household of the King’s mother.”

The King sends to worship at her grave once a year. One of the ladies of the palace is then created Iya-Oba, and she is supposed to act the part of a mother to him. It is her privilege to be the third person in the room where the King and the Basorun worship the Orun in the month of September every year.

Children Born to Die

There are some peculiar names given to a certain class of children called “Abiku” i.e. born to die. These are supposed to belong to a fraternity of demons living in the woods, especially about and within large Iroko trees; and each one of them coming into the world would have arranged beforehand the precise time he will return to his company.

Where a woman has lost several children in infancy, especially after a short period of illness, the deaths are attributed to this cause, and means are adopted to thwart the plans of these infants in order that they may stay; for if they can only tide over the pre-arranged date, they may go no more, and thus entirely forget their company…

…Periodical feasts are usually made for these children of which beans and a liberal quantity of palm oil must form a principal dish. To this children of their age and others are invited, and their company of demons, although unseen are supposed to be present and partake of these viands. This is supposed to appease them and reconcile them to the permanent stay of their comrade, so that they may always have such to feed upon.

This superstition accounts for a rather high rate of infant mortality, for parents are thereby led away from the proper treatment of their ailments, while occupying themselves in making charms to defeat the purpose of imaginary demons!…

… Such children are called “Abiku” (born to die) and are supposed to belong to a company of young demons roaming about. They are believed to be capable of being born as young children, and (except forcibly detained by charms) of returning to their company at will, or at the instance of the members of their company.

Wearing the Death Cloth: The Funeral of the King

The Kings are buried in the Barà. The funeral usually takes place at night. It is notified to the public by the sounding of the Okinkin (a musical instrument like the bugle), the ivory trumpet, and the Koso drum, a drum which is usually beaten every morning at 4 a.m. as a signal for him to rise from his bed; to beat it at night therefore, is to indicate that he is retiring to his final resting place.

The body is removed to the Barà on the back of those whose office it is to bury the Kings the chief of whom is a titled personage known as the Ona-onse-awo, and his lieutenants. At certain stations on the route between the palace and the Barà, eleven in all, they halt and immolate a man and a ram, and also at the Barà itself, four women each at the head and at the feet, two boys on the right and on the left, were usually buried in the same grave with the dead monarch to be his attendants in the other world, and last of all the lamp-bearer in whose presence all the ceremonies are performed.

All these practices, however, have long been abolished, a horse and a bullock being used instead of human beings.

…Additions are made to their number at every fresh burial, usually from among the favorites of the deceased husband. These women must all be celibates for life, unfortunately among the number are usually found some who are virgins and must remain so for life: any misbehaviour is punished with the death of both culprits, the man on the day the crime is detected, and the woman after her confinement.

Besides those who are immolated at the death of the sovereign there used to be some “honorable suicides” consisting of certain members of the royal family, and some of the King’s wives, and others whose title implies that they are to die with the King whenever that event occurs. With the title they received as a badge a cloth known as the “death cloth,” a beautiful silk damask wrapper, which they usually arrayed themselves with on special occasions during the King’s lifetime. Although the significance of this was well-understood both by themselves and by their relatives, yet it is surprising to see how eager some of them used to be to obtain the office with the title and the cloth. They enjoyed great privileges during the King’s lifetime. They can commit any crime with impunity. Criminals condemned to death and escaping to their houses become free. These are never immolated, they are to die honorably and voluntarily.

Of the members of the royal family and others to die were:-­­­­–

  1. The Aremo or Crown Prince who practically reigned with his father, enjoyed royal honors, and had equal power of life and death.
  2. Three princes with hereditary titles viz., the Magaji Iyajin, the Agunpopo, and the Olusami.
  3. Two titled personages not of royal blood viz., the Osi’ wefa and the Olokun-esin (master of the horse) who is generally styled “Ab’obaku,” i.e. one who is to die with the King.
  4. The female victims were:—

Iya Oba, the king’s official mother; Iya Naso, Iyalagbon (the Crown Prince’s mother); Iyale Molè (the Ifa priestess), the Olorun-ku-mefun, the Iyamonari, the Iya’-le-ori (these are all priestesses) and the Are-ori-ite the chief favorite.

It will be observed that all the above-mentioned are those who by virtue of their office are nearest to the King at all times, and have the easiest access to his person; to make their life dependent on his, therefore, is to ensure safety for him against the risk of poisoning, or the dagger of the assassin.

The custom is that each should go and die in his (or her) own home, and among his family. The spectacle is very affecting. Dressed in their “death cloth,” they issue from the palace to their homes surrounded by their friends, and their drummers beating funeral dirges, eager crowds of friends and acquaintances flocking around them, pressing near to have a last look at them or to say the final farewell as they march homewards. The house is full of visitors, mourners and others, some in profuse tears; mournful wailings and funeral odes are heard on all sides enough to break the stoutest heart. While the grave is digging, the coffin making, a parting feast is made for all the friends and acquaintances; and as they must die before sunset, they enjoy themselves as best they can for that day by partaking of the choicest and favorite dishes, appearing several times in changes of apparel, distributing presents with a lavish hand around, and making their last will disposing of their effects. When everything is ready, the grave and the coffin approved of, they then take poison, and pass off quietly. But if it fails or is too slow to take effect, and the sun is about to set, the last office is performed by the nearest relatives (by strangling or otherwise) to save themselves and the memory of their kin from indelible disgrace. The body is then decently buried by the relatives and the funeral obsequies performed.

In many cases voluntary suicides take place. Some of the King’s favorite slaves who are not required to die often commit suicide in order to attend their master in the other world expecting to enjoy equally the emoluments of royalty in the other world as in this.

The End of King Adelu and Queen Alayoayo

King Adelu did not attain to the age of his father. His accession was marked by confusion, wars, and rumours of war all over the country for about four years, due chiefly to the Ijaye war and its sequels: but after this peace and tranquility prevailed, except for the Ibadan raids and the subjugation of the Ijesa and Ekiti provinces.

Towards the end of his reign he met with an accident by being thrown off his horse, and as a consequence a prolonged illness ensued. After his convalescence he had an attack of paralysis which was probably due to internal injury sustained by the fall, but it was generally attributed to poison administered by the Crown Prince, who was impatient to come to the thrown; it was also said that his accomplice and agent was the King’s favourite wife Alayoayo. . . .A few days after, the beating of the Koso drum and the blowing of the ivory trumpet at midnight announced to the public the death of their King.

Such an occasion was a time of dire distress in the palace, for apart from those who were bound by their special office to die with the King immolation was more or less indiscriminate in order to furnish the monarch with a large retinue in the other world. Hence every one tried to hide himself or herself in every nook and corner imaginable and in the ceilings of their apartments.

As an instance of the indiscriminate slaughter which occurred on this occasion we may mention the following:—

Kudefu the King’s favourite Ilari and head of all his slaves on the morning of the death before it was officially announced went to know of his master’s condition, and learning he was dead he was going home sad at heart to die of his own accord.

Alega the keeper of the gate seeing him coming from the inner apartments, being inquisitive, approached him to learn of their august master’s condition. Kudefu at once unsheathed his sword saying “You go before, I am coming at your heels to be attendants on our master in the other world” and in one stroke he cut off his head and then coolly went home to die. Several who were too inquisitive lost their lives in this way. In that vast compound those in one corner of it may not know what was taking place in another.

It was also a time of mourning for the relatives of those who have received the “death cloth” knowing that they must have to bury in the evening a relative strong and healthy in the morning and up to the time the fatal cup is taken.

Alayoayo was very reluctant to die, and begged hard that her life should be spared, relying probably on the Crown Prince’s promise to her. But in this she was sadly disappointed; for this reason she stayed much longer in the palace than she was expected

to do, for according to custom she must die at home among her own people. When at last she knew that death was inevitable, she issued from the palace well-dressed in her “death cloth” with her drummer before and her maidens carrying large calabashes full of kola nuts, she trod her way homewards to the measures of the drum scattering kola nuts with a lavish hand right and left to the crowd of spectators thronging her way from the palace gates to her home, to have a last glance at her.

In the meantime a great feast had been made at her home for all friends and relatives to partake with her for the last, during which time the grave was in digging and the coffin made. She distributed her property among her relatives and her only son. When the hour was come she bade all farewell and repaired to her chamber and the fatal cup was placed in her hands. But owing to the preventives she had fortified her system with, the effects were neutralized; this was repeated again and again, with the same result. So towards sunset the disappointed relatives in order to prevent an indelible disgrace to the family had to strangle her, and then gave her a decent funeral. The same may be said more or less of all those who had received the “death cloth.”

The Aremo (Crown Prince) also was told to die, but not only did he refuse point blank to do so but was also determined to ascend the throne. His grandfather had abolished the custom of the Aremo dying with the father, his own father the monarch now deceased was his father’s Aremo and he succeeded him on the throne, and why then should he die?

But these customs are now dying out with the age especially since King Atiba in 1858 abolished that of the Crown Prince dying; the loss of experienced princes like the Iyajin around the throne is also felt irreparable. With the exception of the women, all the men now refuse to die and they are never forced to do so, but are superseded in their office if the next King wills it; they must then retire quietly from the city to reside in any town in the country in order to prevent the confusion of two individuals bearing the same title. As for the Crown Prince, he expects to succeed his father on the throne but if he is rejected by the king-makers, he also has to retire from the city.

Despotic and Rejected Kings: Ayibi

… An inter-regnum of some years followed the last reign, the affairs of the kingdom being left in the hands of the Basorun. The heir to the throne was the late King’s grandson…Ayibi was crowned when he came of age. Unfortunately he proved unworthy of the honour and respect done him; he greatly disappointed the hopes of the nation. This may have been due to a great defect in his training when a minor, over-indulgence taking the place of strict discipline. He proved to be a tyrant who took delight in shedding blood…. For …acts of cruelty, an insurrection was stirred up against him by all the people, and being rejected he committed suicide…

The reason why these Kings after rejection invariably committed suicide is this. The person of a King is regarded as sacred. Kings are venerated as gods, indeed many of them have been actually deified; but the moment a king’s enormities provoke an open rebuke, or on being told publicly “We reject you,” by the constitution of the country he must die that day. He cannot from the sanctity with which he has been regarded abdicate and continue to live as a private individual, or continue to reign by sufferance, by the clemency of aggrieved subjects. Hence he must die; and by his own hands, for it is an unthinkable horror among the Yorubas for any man to lay hands upon a being regarded as sacred. It is the prerogative of the Basorun to utter the sentence of rejection when the people are determined on it.

Even Noblemen also from their exalted positions are never ordered to execution. “The King rejects you. The ancient Kings Oduduwa, Orañyan, Aganju, and others, reject you.” He must then take poison and die. Such deaths are accounted honourable, public and decent funerals are accorded them.

If any one allows himself to be executed his carcase will be treated like that of a common felon, and his pulled down. Therefore a faint-hearted individual would be despatched by his nearest relatives to save themselves from indelible disgrace. An honourable burial will then be accorded to the illustrious dead.

[#11] Yoruba: “The Kings of the Yoruba,” from Rev. Samuel Johnson, ed. Dr. O. Johnson, The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate [completed 1897], Lagos: C.M.S. (Nigeria) Bookshops, 1921, Sango: pp. 34-36, 150-152; The King’s Natural and Official Mothers, 48-49, 63; Children Born to Die, 83-84, 137; Wearing the Death Cloth, 54-57, 396-398; 57 (text interpolated); The Fate of Despots, 156-158; 169-170, 172-173.

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#10 The Criminality of Suicide
     (B. Ellis, 1890)

In Dahomi it is criminal to attempt to commit suicide, because every man is the property of the king, The bodies of suicides are exposed to public execration, and the head is always struck off and sent to Agbomi; at the expense of the family if the suicide were a free man, at that of his master if he were a slave.

[#10] Ewe: “The Criminality of Suicide,” from A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, languages, &c. [originally published in 1890]. Reprint: Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1965, p. 224.


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#9 The Prohibition of Death
     (M.J. Field, 1937)

This [ceremony] is jointly performed by the La Kpã priest and the Osabu priest. Osabu is a senior of the Kple gods, La Kpã the chief of the later comers and the present head of the whole town.

The La Kpã priest begins by taking a hoe newly decorated with both red tuŋ and pairs of white stripes, and dances from La Kpã’s tree to Osabu’s tree hoeing the air with great spirit and singing one of the many Kpã songs which begin: ‘Gba` ye pɔtnepɔ yo’, a phrase in a language no one understands. It is an amazing sight, this white-bearded dignified old man transformed into a flying confusion of white calico, skinny legs, and brandished hoe, whisking down the stony street. The Osabu priest stands waiting in silent dignified contrast under Osabu’s tree, takes the hoe from the La Kpã priest and hoes to the place of Nyoŋmɔ Tfawe and back, returns the hoe and the La Kpã priest hoes back again to his own tree.

This ceremony inaugurates a period of worship. The gods have come to the town—normally they are supposed to live on the hill of Adzangote a dozen miles inland where the Labadians stayed temporarily before settling on their present site. The gods stay six weeks in the town, and most of that time a Sabbath hush prevails: no drums except the gods’ own may be beaten, no private dancing, noise, shouting, or celebration is allowed. Formerly even whistling was forbidden. Furthermore, no one may die in the town during these weeks. If he does, he has committed the monstrous crime of Owu Kase or the blasphemous death. All burial rites are denied him, no one mentions that he has died, he is buried furtively in the bush, instead of under his own house, without any mourning or wailing, and his family have to make sacrifices and be purified from the pollution. The whole of his property is confiscated by the goddess Nã Yomo’—the goddess of births.

The ideas behind this prohibition of death in the presence of the gods are not quite so simple as those one might foresee. Knowing that priests may not touch or see any dead body, and when mortally sick themselves must be taken away from the gods’ premises, one at once leaps to the conclusion that the life-giving gods abhor death and that this is the whole story. Perhaps it was once, but the theory which the people themselves now offer to account for death prohibition during a feast is that the gods are much more interested in one newly dead person than in a townful of living ones. They will neglect their annual business with the living and go and talk with the newly dead. The ritual for the people is therefore spoilt….

… There are two kinds of death which are (literally) unspeakably disgraceful. The first is death during Hɔmɔwɔ when the gods are in the town; the second is the death of a pregnant woman….

…The death of a pregnant woman, whether early in her term or whether in childbed with the child still undelivered, is held to be due to her own wickedness, and by failing to deliver her child she is accounted its murderer. If she dies in childbed after the birth of the child, or if she has a miscarriage, she is treated as merely unlucky and is given ordinary burial; but if she dies together with her unborn child she is buried secretly without mourning, weeping, wailing, or any ordinary rites in Ko Σa, the accursed grove, outside the town.

For a woman buried in Ko Σa special rites are performed by the people of Afiwe (Nã Yomo’s worshippers) and the property of the dead woman is brought to Nã Yomo’s gbat fu and after snipping or chipping off a tiny scrap of each article to put in the gbat fu for Nã Yomo herself, the Nã Yomo wulɔmɔ distributes the rest. One of the wɔyei works herself into a possession fit and tells whether the dead woman owed or was owed anything, and payments or demands are accordingly made on behalf of Nã Yomo. After this a musu kpãmɔ purification ceremony is performed by the priest to take away the curse from the household. The family is finally purified with water from Nã Yomo’s pot.

The accursed grove, the burial-place of these dead women, is on the north side of the town and is a much dreaded spot. A waterhole not far away is believed to be haunted by these restless and wretched dead. These ghosts may be seen, I am told, in broad daylight looking just like living people, washing their clothes and the small clothes of their dead infants. The mere sight of them in the distance brings on a severe headache and fever; to meet them at close quarters is to be belabored with blows by them and thrashed nearly to death. My informant was prostrated with headache the day after merely telling me about them and showing me the accursed grove—though he had only stayed uneasily outside while I went inside to see if there were pots, stools, or any ceremonial apparatus—and he deemed it wise to ward off a possible worse fate with rum and panic-stricken apologies to the dead and to Nã Yomo.

[#9] “The Prohibition of Death,” from M. J. Field, Religion and Medicine of the Gã People, London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1937, pp. 44, 59.

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#8 Killing Oneself “Upon the Head of Another”: The Tragedy of Adjuah Amissah
     (Brodie Cruickshank, 1853)

The fame of Adjuah Amissah, a native of Cape Coast [modern Ghana], is still kept fresh in the memory of the natives, by the songs which they sing in honor of her death. People are still alive, who remember the great beauty which hurried her to an early grave. She became the object of a devouring passion on the part of a young man of Cape Coast. Her relations, considering that her charms authorized them to expect a better alliance, refused to admit his addresses. This rejection so preyed upon the mind of the disappointed lover, that his life became insupportable, and he determined to sacrifice himself to his passion. He resolved, however, that Adjuah Amissah’s family should dearly rue having spurned his suit, and in the spirit of an inextinguishable vengeance he shot himself, attributing his death to his unrequited love, and invoking his family to retaliate it upon his murderess.

It is the principle of the Fantee law, to visit the cause of such a calamity with a similar retribution, and when a person puts himself to death, “upon the head of another,” as they express it—that is, attributes the cause of his act to another’s conduct—that other is required to undergo a like fate. The family of the unhappy girl endeavored to avert this fate by offering to pay a large sum in gold; but nothing but her death would satisfy the vengeance of the youth’s relations, and they appealed to the native authorities to vindicate their laws. All the mercy which could be extended to Adjuah Amissah, was to allow her a few days to lament with her friends her untimely end, and to have a silver bullet put into the musket with which she was compelled to deprive herself of life. She employed the few days of respite, in singing with her young friends her farewell dirge, and completed the cruel sacrifice by shooting herself.

[#8] Fante: “Killing Oneself ‘Upon the Head of Another’: The Tragedy of Adjuah Amissah,” from Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, pp. 210-212.

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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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#5 Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial
     (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

The offences set out [below] were known in Ashantias Oman Akyiwadie, which, translated literally, means, ‘Things hateful to the Tribe’. These acts were looked upon as sins of which the central authority was bound to take immediate official notice, lest certain supernatural powers, to whom the deeds were regarded as peculiarly offensive, should wreak their vengeance, upon those whose paramount duty it was to protect their interests and to punish breaches of immemorial law or custom…



Suicide, except under certain peculiar circumstances, was formerly regarded in Ashantias a capital sin. It was a sin of which the central authority took immediate cognizance. These two statements of fact exhibit at once the difference and the similarity between our laws and theirs. Suicide and attempted suicide result, in our own country [England], in both legal and ecclesiastical consequences, but to state that suicide was ‘a capital offence’ must at first sight appear somewhat curious. Not all forms of what we would tern ‘suicide’ were regarded as sins; in fact, under certain circumstances, the action of taking one’s own life was considered as honourable and acclaimed as praiseworthy; e.g. to kill oneself in war by taking poison, or sitting on a keg of gunpowder to which a light was applied, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy or return home to tell of a defeat; to take one’s own life in order to accompany a beloved masters or mistress to the land of the spirits; and finally, those especially interesting cases, where a man commits suicide to wipe out what he considers his dishonour and because he cannot stand the ridicule of his companions. Suicide was considered a sin when it was carried out to avoid the consequences of some wrongful deed, or when, after investigation, it was not possible to ascribe any motive for the act. In the latter case there was always a legal presumption that the motive for self-destruction had been evil. In the disfavour with which the central authority seemed always to have regarded this offence, it is rather difficult to trace any other cause than the desire rigorously to maintain its prerogative as the sole dispenser of capital punishment. It is just possible, however, that the State, i.e. the tribal authority, may have placed suicide in the category of sins, owing to a dislike of having an evilly disposed disembodied spirit wandering about in its midst. The spirit of the suicide became a saman twetwe, a ghost wandering about in search of its head, for it was debarred from entering the Samandow (land of spirits) until the expiration of its destined time upon earth, which it had itself wrongfully curtailed. Moreover, when eventually reincarnated, it would return to this world as a tofo sasa—the spirit of one who had died an unholy death—with a cruel and murderous nature which would lead it again to meet a similar end in its next incarnation. The man who had committed an offence, the penalty for which he well knew was death, had not any right to balk the central authority of its right to execute him. The central authority indeed refused to be cheated thus, and the long arm of the law followed the suicide to the grave, from which, if kinsmen should have dared to bury him, he was dragged to stand his trial before the council of Elders. The result of the trial was almost a foregone conclusion, for the dead man would either have been found to have committed some offence, and fearing the consequences (which might have been more terrible than any self-inflicted death, i.e. the Atopere) have taken his own life, or if it were not found possible to trace any motive for the deed, then the commission of some wicked act was presumed, and he was equally judged guilty. In the latter case his dead body was addressed by the Okyeame in the following words:

(Addressing the Chief.) ‘This is your slave, (i.e. subject). No one knows what he had done, and to-day he has hanged himself. (Then addressing the corpse.) No man knows a single thing that came into your head (i.e. your motives), but, because you did not bring your case here that we might take good ears to hear it, but took a club and struck the Akyeame—and when you kill us (thus) you regard us as brute beasts—therefore you are guilty.’

In the case of a murderer who had afterwards committed suicide the final summing up was as follows:

(Addressing the Chief.) ‘This is your slave. (Addressing the corpse of the suicide.) Since it has come about that you have killed your fellow man, and when he had done a bad thing to you, you did not come to tell the Akyeame in order that we might have told the Chief and caused him to investigate the case for you, but instead, you went and killed him and also killed yourself, then because you did not bring your case here that we might have brought good ears to hear it, but instead raised a club and struck the Akyeame—and when you kill thus you treat us as if we were brute beasts—therefore you are guilty.’

As soon as the Okyeame had delivered this oration, the Chief’s executioners would step forward and decapitate the dead body. Here we have the explanation of the sentence ‘Suicide was a capital offence’. The plaintiff in the case had been the murdered man. The sentence and ‘execution’ of the murderer implied his innocence. The party in a trial who is judged innocent pays Aseda, a thank-offering, to the Chief… really a fee to ensure that witnesses would be forthcoming on a possible future occasion to testify to the result of the trial). The murdered man could not claim exemption to this rule. He (i.e. his kinsmen) therefore paid Aseda and the kinsmen claimed the body of their murdered relation without further formality. Not so the blood relations of the murderer and suicide. They might not on any account remove his body for burial in the clan sacred burial-ground; they might not even mourn for him. His headless trunk was cast into the bush, to wander, as we have seen, an unhappy headless ghost. Not only so, but his kinsmen could not themselves entirely escape the evil consequences of his deeds, a responsibility, that was even sometimes shared by the Chief himself. The kinsmen of the suicide had ‘to drink to the gods’ and to produce every bit of his (the suicide’s) personal private property, which was then confiscated by the Chief…

The immediate superior (if himself a Chief under a greater Chief) of a subject who had violated any of the great tribal or national taboos, and thereby incurred the death penalty, appears to have been held responsible that his subject did not escape punishment by committing suicide…

At a later date the custom arose of permitting the kindred of a person found guilty of many of these capitol sins ‘to buy the head’ of their clansman. It is very doubtful if this privilege was ever really extended to cases of deliberate murder, even at a late period when the majesty of law and the administration of justice were disregarded. By paying this price the confiscation of the offender’s private property was avoided, and if, as in the case of a suicide, the guilty party were already dead, his kindred also obtained the body, the head of which was not cut off; they might mourn for him, and hold the usual funeral custom.

[#5] Ashanti: “Law and Constitution: A Suicide’s Trial,” from Capt. R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution, Kumasi: Basel Mission Book Depot, and London: Oxford University Press, 1929, pp. 294, 299-302 [field date 1921ff.].

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#4 The Detection of Witches: Ordeal and Punishment

Normally, a witch cannot be detected in daylight, but there are certain signs supposed to be warnings that witchcraft is in the air…


In order to find out the guilty person, African justice in the past often resorted to trial by ordeals. In this way thieves, murderers, taboo-breakers and witches were “found out”. Space prevents me from describing these ordeals at length. There were a number of minor ones. The suspects were made to chew dry rice and those who could not swallow it were declared guilty. Medicine men were alleged to possess black powder with which they could make a witch glow or even burn, if they rubbed it on his forehead. After the application of a counter-medicine, the witch would confess. The Gas used some special medicated eyewater which would blind the guilty ones and leave the innocent unharmed. More serious was the ordeal with boiling oil, into which the suspect was to hold his hand. This ordeal was surrounded by an elaborate ritual. Even more fearful was the poison ordeal, where a concoction of the bark of the Odom (not Odum) tree was drunk by the suspect. Fainting and loss of consciousness were taken as proof of guilt. Such poison ordeals are common all over Africa. The most important Ghana ordeal was the so called “carrying of the corpse”. The dead body of a person who had died a strange death was carried by either two or four men. (Sometimes Some objects represented the actual body.) The “corpse” was asked questions and answered “yes” or “no” by the way it “made the carriers sway or knock forward”. In this way the corpse could knock against the guilty person. These ordeals are now all prohibited by law.

The Punishment

What happened if an ordeal had designated somebody as a real or “spiritual” murderer, poisoner or witch? The proverb says: “the corpse which is going to knock against someone cares nothing for cries of sorrow.”

In olden days a person found guilty by the poison ordeal was caught by the feet, dragged through the scrub and over stones till his body was torn to pieces and he died. This was the procedure among the Gas.

Among the Ashantis, a witch’s blood may not be shed. She was, therefore, strangled to death, or drowned, or clubbed, or smeared all over with palm oil and cast into a fire.

Another method of punishment has also been described by Captain Rattray: “A self confessed witch used to have a firebrand placed in her hand before being expelled from the village. A message was sent to the next village, from which she would also be driven and so on. This punishment really amounted to the death penalty”.

Among the Brongs at Boundoukou, the person found guilty was clubbed to death in the forest and his body was just thrown into the bush and not buried-a terrible punishment, if one knows how important for the after life correct burial is esteemed among the pagan. Among the Nќonya (a Guang tribe) the punishment was death by burning, or the payment of a ransom to the value of seven slaves. Among the Agni, the punishment for witchcraft was decapitation.

Until a century ago, the person convicted of witchcraft was almost always put to death by torture as Bowdich attests. This was really just a ceremonial form of lynching.

…After the Colonial Government had stopped this lynching, another form of punishment became more frequent: it was that of telling or expecting the person found guilty to commit suicide. The same Rev. Mader reports another case of “carrying the corpse”, where the “guilty person” was a mother of eight children. Through fear of the government-since two soldiers happened to be in town-she was not lynched but socially ostracized. Everybody avoided her. Her relatives told her to take courage and kill herself. She even went to see the paramount chief to ask for her death, but was refused-again for fear of the Government. She was then taken into custody in the house of an elder. There the constant mockery so distressed her, that she finally asked permission to fetch firewood in the bush and there she hanged herself.

Since the Government has abolished all this elaborate trial by ordeal and summary punishment, what reaction follows? Similar interference of Governmental authorities in theSudanmade Dr. Evans-Pritchard, write that it brought about “vagueness and confusion”. The same can be said of the Akan. However cruel the old system may look to us today, it maintained some order. Guilty persons were found-it did not matter whether they always really were guilty or not-and the system gave a certain sense of security. This was destroyed by the Government, which, of course, only wanted to prevent cruelty and could not do otherwise than to prohibit such customs.

[#4] Akan: The Rev. H. Debrunner, Witchcraft in Ghana: A study on the belief in destructive witches and its effect on the Akan tribes, Accra: Presbyterian Book Depot Ltd., 1959, 2nd ed. 1961, pp. 100-104.

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