Animism, HeLa cells, and Mystical Flesh (pt 1)

Click here for: Part 2 and Part 3

(Do you ever just want to link to about a dozen posts and say, “Here, read all of this quickly and then carry on?)

I did a fair amount of research on animist religious traditions–specifically, those related to West African Vodun–for the Satanic Daycare Posts. Most of that didn’t make it into the posts, but it did manage to give me nightmares.

(Content warning: human sacrifice)

The past three “Anthropology Fridays” have focused on Edward B. Tylor’s description of Animism, the general religious belief that non-human entities, like animals, plants, and stones–have souls or spirits. (AF1: human sacrifice; AF2: animal sacrifice; AF3: plant and object sacrifice.)  Tylor believes that animism constitutes the original form of religious belief from which all others descended (an intriguing position, but nigh impossible to prove,) and that the practice of sacrifice (of people, animals, plants, and things,) follows naturally from the belief that their souls will journey on to the afterlife or spirit realm. Eg:

Of such rites in the Pacific islands, the most hideously purposeful accounts reach us from the Fiji group. Till lately, a main part of the ceremony of a great man’s funeral was the strangling of wives, friends, and slaves, for the distinct purpose of attending him into the world of spirits. Ordinarily the first victim was the wife of the deceased, and more than one if he had several, and their corpses, oiled as for a feast, clothed with new fringed girdles, with heads dressed and ornamented, and vermilion and turmeric powder spread on their faces and bosoms, were laid by the side of the dead warrior. Associates and inferior attendants were likewise slain, and these bodies were spoken of as ‘ grass for bedding the grave.’

(See also: Pictures from Oceana/Indonesia/Polynesia etc.)

“Animism” is a broad term that could be applied to thousands of religions; this post is specifically concerned with West African traditions and their religious descendants, aka Voodoo.

Organized religions like Christianity and Islam have conveniently (for me) written down their beliefs and worked hard to ensure that all of their members believe the same thing. Of course they don’t all believe the same thing, and there are always groups that are exceptions, but overall, we can say things like, “Jews are monotheists who focus on the diasporic experience;” “Muslims are monotheists who really like their prophet, Mohammad;” “Christians are monotheists but their god manifests in multiple different forms.” Talk to just about any adherent of these religions in the world, (Mormons excepted,) and you’ll find someone who agrees with one of these statements.

Polytheistic animist religions from non-literate societies are not so convenient. They happily morph and absorb new traditions and deities wherever they go–Catholicism where there were Catholics; Protestantism where there were Protestants; Islam where there were Muslims; indigenous American beliefs where there were Natives; and these days, apparently, Hindu iconography due to Hindus producing attractive-looking pictures of their deities. This creates a great deal of variation in individual local traditions, though we will be generally ignoring these to focus more on underlying commonalities and big-picture differences.

Of course, people are never content to leave names alone, presumably because there is some sort of elite cred to be earned by carefully enunciating the difference between “Voodoo” and “Vodou,” and because Vodou priests don’t like being associated with schlocky horror movies and Louisiana tourist shops.

So we have a proliferation of terms: West African Vodun, Haitian Vodou (aka Vaudou/Vadoun,) Cuban Vodu, Dominican Vudu, Brazilian Vodum aka Candomble, Louisiana Voodoo, American Hoodoo, West African Juju, Obeah, Santeria, Palo, etc.

For the sake of this post, if it sounds like “Voodoo,” I’m going to spell it “Voodoo.” If I mean a specific variant, like “Haitian Voodoo” or “West African Voodoo,” I’ll say that. If it’s a variety with a really different name, I’ll say something like, “Obeah Voodoo” or just “Obeah.”

I’ve collected some pictures:

Voodoo fetish market in Togo, West Africa
Voodoo fetish market in Togo, West Africa
Voodoo statue from Togo, West Africa
Voodoo statue from Togo, West Africa
Voodoo altar with fetishes, Benin, West Africa
Voodoo altar with fetishes, Benin, West Africa

Some Voodoo art is better looking, eg:

Voodoo Shrine, Benin
Is this what happens when the egg refuses to leave its nest? Voodoo Shrine, Benin
Voodoo Pantheon by sculptor Cyprien Tokoudagba of Benin
Voodoo Pantheon by sculptor Cyprien Tokoudagba of Benin

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that this religion involves a lot of penises.

All of the Voodoo variants basically believe that spirits exist, and you can get them to help you out by sacrificing things to them. These things can be anything from other people to cigarettes. The African varieties seem more likeley to involve human sacrifice, the Latin American and Caribbean varieties tend more toward animal sacrifice, and the American varieties toward herbal remedies and inanimate sacrifice, but exceptions always exist.

I should note that human sacrifice is not some kind of African universal, but it is more common than we like to think.

In 2001, the ritually-dismembered, headless torso of “Adam,” a Nigerian child about 5 or 6 years old, was found floating in the Thames. An autopsy revealed, via stomach contents and pollen found in his lungs, that he’d only been in Britain for a few days and had drunk a potion used in West African ritual magic. (There are approximately 180,000 Nigerians living in the UK.)

Nigerian Joyce Osiagede, the only person to be arrested in Britain as part of the inquiry, has claimed that the victim’s real name is Ikpomwosa. In an interview with ITV’s London Tonight, Mrs Osiagede said she looked after the boy in Germany for a year before travelling to Britain without him in 2001. She claimed she handed the boy over to a man known as Bawa who later told her that he was dead and threatened to kill her unless she kept silent. ..

Asked who killed him, she said a ‘group of people’. She added: “They used him for a ritual in the water.” Claiming the boy was six years old, she said: ‘He was a lively boy. A very nice boy, he was also intelligent.’ Detailed analysis of a substance in the boy’s stomach was identified as a ‘black magic’ potion. It included tiny clay pellets containing small particles of pure gold, an indication that Adam was the victim of a Muti ritual killing in which it is believed that the body parts of children are sacred. Bodies are often disposed of in flowing water. (source)

These cases more normally happen in Africa, but then we tend to lack official police investigations, autopsies, and BBC articles, but there’s plenty of documentation if you look:

The Leopard Society was a West African secret society active in the early- to mid-20th century that practiced cannibalism.[1] They were centred in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and Nigeria.

Members would dress in leopard skins, waylaying travelers with sharp claw-like weapons in the form of leopards’ claws and teeth. The victims’ flesh would be cut from their bodies and distributed to members of the secret society. According to their beliefs, the ritual cannibalism would strengthen both members of the secret society as well as their entire tribe. (source)

The “Refworld” (Refugee World) article on human sacrifice in Nigeria (from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) claims that,

According to various sources, ritual killings in Nigeria are performed to obtain human body parts for use in rituals, potions, and charms. The Lagos-based newspaper This Day explains that “ritualists, also known as headhunters, … go in search of human parts at the request of herbalists, who require them for sacrifices or for the preparation of various magical potions”. …

According to This Day, ritual murders are “a common practice” in Nigeria. … Similarly, a 2012 Daily Independent article states that “in recent times, the number of … brutal murders, mostly for ritual purposes and other circumstances, involving couples and their partners has been on a steady progression.” …

This Day reported that a confidential memo from the Nigerian police to registered security service providers indicated that ritual killings were particularly prevalent in the states of Lagos, Ogun, Kaduna, Abia, Kwara, Abuja, Rivers, and Kogi. … In 2010, one newspaper reported that dead bodies with missing organs were being discovered on a daily basis on a road close to Lagos State University that was described as a “hot spot for ritual killers.” A second newspaper reported in February 2011 that, in the same area, ten people had been killed in suspected ritual murders in the preceding two months. A 2009 article published by Agence France-Presse reported that, according to a state government official, the kidnapping of children for ritual murder was on the rise in Kano.

(I have removed the in-line citations because they make the article unreadable; check the original if you want their sources.)

Ju-Ju (Voodoo) house, Nigeria
Ju-Ju (Voodoo) house, Nigeria

According to Wikipedia,

Juju is sometimes used to enforce a contract or ensure compliance. In a typical scenario, a juju spell will be placed on a Nigerian woman before she is trafficked into Europe for a life in prostitution, to ensure that she will pay back her traffickers and won’t escape.[5][6][7]

From the BBC, Witch-Doctors Reveal Extent of Child Sacrifice in Uganda:

A BBC investigation into human sacrifice in Uganda has heard first-hand accounts which suggest ritual killings of children may be more common than authorities have acknowledged.

One witch-doctor led us to his secret shrine and said he had clients who regularly captured children and brought their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits.

Meanwhile, a former witch-doctor who now campaigns to end child sacrifice confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

The Ugandan government told us that human sacrifice is on the increase, and according to the head of the country’s Anti-Human Sacrifice Taskforce the crime is directly linked to rising levels of development and prosperity, and an increasing belief that witchcraft can help people get rich quickly.

Wow, that’s a terrible side effect of increased prosperity. (You know it’s bad when you have an “Anti-Human Sacifice Taskforce.”)

A witch doctor explains:

“They capture other people’s children. They bring the heart and the blood directly here to take to the spirits… They bring them in small tins and they place these objects under the tree from which the voices of the spirits are coming,” he said.

Asked how often clients brought blood and body parts, the witch-doctor said they came “on average three times a week – with all that the spirits demand from them.”

We saw a beaker of blood and what appeared to be a large, raw liver in the shrine before it was destroyed, although it was not possible to determine whether they were human remains.

The witch-doctor denied any direct involvement in murder or incitement to murder, saying his spirits spoke directly to his clients.

He told us he was paid 500,000 Ugandan shillings (£160 or $260) for a consultation, but that most of that money was handed over to his “boss” in a nationwide network of witch-doctors.

Remember, reputable economists and immigration experts all agree that stemming the tide of mass migration from Africa to Europe is physically impossible, but not to worry, because all of these migrants will revitalize the European economy with their fecund vitality.

Thankfully, there is an anti-child-sacrifice movement in Uganda:

Former witch-doctor turned anti-sacrifice campaigner Polino Angela says he has persuaded 2,400 other witch-doctors to give up the trade since he himself repented in 1990.

Mr Angela told us he had first been initiated as a witch-doctor at a ceremony in neighbouring Kenya, where a boy of about 13 was sacrificed.

“The child was cut with a knife on the neck and the entire length from the neck down was ripped open, and then the open part was put on me,” he said.

When he returned to Uganda he says he was told by those who had initiated him to kill his own son, aged 10.

Ugandan child mutilated by witch doctors
Ugandan child mutilated by witch doctors

Okay, technically, Uganda is more central Africa than west Africa.

The Guardian reports:

Uganda has been shocked by a surge in ritualistic murders and human sacrifice, with police struggling to respond and public hysteria mounting at each gruesome discovery.

In 2008 more than 300 cases of murder and disappearances linked to ritual ceremonies were reported to the police with 18 cases making it to the courts. There were also several high-profile arrests of parents and relatives accused of selling children for human sacrifice. …

Both police and NGOs are attributing the surge to a new wave of commercial witch-doctors using mass media to market their services and demand large sums of money to sacrifice humans and animals for people who believe blood will bring great prosperity.

“Cases of child sacrifice have always existed, mainly in the Ugandan central region, but there is a new strain of traditional healers in Uganda and their geographical spread is mainly attributed to increased unemployment and poverty,” said Elena Lomeli. …

Maybe the BBC got the prosperity angle wrong.

“My experience working with victims suggests that the abusers are greedy people who want to get rich quick. In rural areas, people can sacrifice their own child. In urban areas, educated and rich people will look for somebody else’s.”

Looming food shortages and famine hitting Uganda’s poorest in the north and east are also feeding the demand for sacrificial rituals. “These are not poor people paying for these rituals, they are the wealthy elite taking advantage of the desperate poor,” said Binoga. “In January a 21-year-old woman was jailed for 16 months for kidnapping a child and trying to sell him to a witch-doctor for a large sum. These cases are on the increase.”

Ugandan police are increasingly linking the sudden increase in cases to organ trafficking. The anti-human trafficking taskforce said many of the bodies found in the past few months were missing organs such as kidneys, hearts and livers, a detail not consistent with many traditional ritualistic practices.

Sadly, Uganda may still be doing better than neighboring Rwanda (genocide) and the DRC (cannibalism):

Pygmy activists from Congo have demanded the United Nations set up a tribunal to try government and rebel fighters accused of slaughtering and eating Pygmies who are caught in the country’s civil war.

Army, rebel and tribal fighters – some believing the Pygmies are less than human or that eating the flesh would give them magic power – have been pursuing the Pygmies in the dense jungles, killing them and eating their flesh, the activists said at a news conference yesterday.

There have been reports of markets for Pygmy flesh, the representatives alleged.

“In living memory, we have seen cruelty, massacres, genocide, but we have never seen human beings hunted and eaten literally as though they were game animals, as has recently happened,” said Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of the Mbuti Pygmies in Congo.

… Earlier this year, human rights activists and UN investigators confirmed that rebels cooked and ate at least a dozen Pygmies and an undetermined number of people from other tribes during fighting with rival insurgents. There have been no reports of Congolese Army soldiers engaging in similar activity. (bold mine.)

Well.

That’s the end of the Africa section of this post.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the New World Voodoo varieties, where human sacrifice is thankfully less common. (Thank you, Columbus.)

Click here for: Part 2 and Part 3

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18 thoughts on “Animism, HeLa cells, and Mystical Flesh (pt 1)

    • Mormons claim to be Christian but according to the last missionaries I talked to, they are polytheistic. I don’t like to be the guy claiming to know better than they are whether or not they are Christians, but I do note that polytheism is at serious odds with the rest of Christianity.

      That, or the missionaries were incorrect.

      Like

    • Mormons are to Christians, as Christians are to Jews. Mormons have their own prophet, that makes them their own religion.

      Like

  1. There’s a fair amount of material about the targeting of albinos as sacrificial victims, particularly in Tanzania. Tanzania has a very high rate of albinism, which is a symptom of inbreeding, since the genes involved are recessive.

    Like

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