#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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