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Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1898], at


Nkissi means the mysterious power that is contained in plants and herbs and earth, or, as we should say, the medicine or poison. Hence it comes to mean any mysterious power-in short, a mystery. The power of the hypnotiser is called Nkissi; the hypnotiser is called Ndotchi or Ndokki. The poisoner is also called by this name. To explain the Great Something, the unknown power that certainly governs the universe, has puzzled the Fjort, as it has puzzled all others who have tried to dive beyond the regions of certainty. But while others have reasoned and sought after wisdom, Fjort has just put the whole matter on one side, and called it Nkissi. So that it has not been a search after wisdom so much as a severe letting alone. His knowledge has come to him from his experience of a series of hard lessons in every-day life.

He suffered pain; fire burnt him; water drowned him; without food he hungered; sickness caused him pain, and death followed sickness. He ascribed it to Nkissi. Herbs poisoned some people, and herbs contained the power that cured others--Nkissi. Here there was something visible that contained the Nkissi; that caused pain and relieved it. Whence this power? It grew with the trees and herbs out of the earth: Nkissi nsi the mysterious power that comes from the earth. Fearful earth, or Nza-mbi, really, terrible firstborn, mother, or producer. The earth is the father's firstborn; the father's name, Mpungu.

Thus have we arrived at the name the Fjort has given to the Creator. He calls him Nzambi Mpungu, the Father of the Fearful Firstborn, or Earth.

The Rev. Pére Alexandre Visseq, in his Fiot Dictionary, under the heading "Nzambi," says it means "God, the Supreme Being, Creator and Preserver of the Universe. The Negroes believe in a Supreme Being who has made all things. According to them, he is a great monarch who has a great number of wives and beautiful children. He passes a happy existence in the heavens, and scarcely troubles himself about us. As he is not wicked, there is no use in their offering him sacrifices. Below him there are smaller divinities capable of doing barm. It is necessary to pray to them, invoke them and adore them. God is not jealous of the worship people render to them," and so on. I think we need not pursue this definition any further. There can be no doubt that the Supreme Being, Nzambi Mpungu, and Nzambi, Mother Earth, are two separate and distinct conceptions.

But we have another dictionary to appeal to, that of Mr. Bentley, a Baptist missionary in the Congo. And his vast knowledge of the natives and their language commands our respect. He writes: "The root of the word Nzambi has not been found in Congo. It is suggested by Mr. Kobbe in his Huero Dictionary that in Kurunga, 'Ndyambi' = God, and Ndyambi is derived from Yamba, to present on a special occasion, and connects it with Ndyembi, a reward, to which may be allied the Congo Nzamba, a toll for a bridge or a ferry. These suggestions can scarcely be regarded as satisfactory." So much for this authority.

But in the Tandu dialect of the Congo district, the word Mpungu means Father in the sense of Creator. And in the words: Nsusu, the young of a fowl, chicken; Nswa, the child; Nsa, dependents; Nsa Ka, the title of the heir apparent of the throne of Congo; we have a root which, in each case, refers to immediate offspring or dependence.

You will also learn as we proceed that Nzambi is talked of as the mother of all things, the first daughter of the first father. Nza, the earth, was the creator's first creation. That the earth that contained the Nkissi that poisoned or cured people should have been called the bad (mbi) earth, in the sense of the earth that is to be feared, is surely not a wonderful conclusion.

Hence Nza mbi, I conclude, first meant the Fearful First-born and producer. Thus we have Nkiss nsi, Nzambi's spirit, mystery in the earth; Nzambi, the Fearful First-born of Mpungu, the Father: a Trinity.

Mpungu, or, as he is more often called, Nzambi Mpungu, the father of the Fearful First-born, is seldom invoked by the natives. He is far above them. A father perhaps; but do not the children belong to the mother? and is it not to their mother and her family that they must look for assistance? The line between the white man's God and Nzambi Mpungu is a very thin one. The Negro has got as far as natural religion will take him, and admits that he knows little or nothing about Him. He is willing to believe whatever the white man likes to tell him. And thus we have Nzambi Mpungu, the father of Nzambi, described to us in their mythology, or folklore, as a human being-as a naked man. This idea has crept into their minds through their having come across pictures of Our Lord as he is painted dying for us upon the cross.

There is a man still living who declares that he was translated to heaven and saw Nzambi Mpungu. He lives in a town not far from Loango. He says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their shimbecs, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass into the abode of Nzambi Mpungu. Nzambi Mpungu cooked some food for him, and gave him to eat. And when he had eaten, he took him about and showed him his great plantations and rivers full of fish, and then left him, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. He stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had such an abundance of food. Then Nzambi Mpungu came to him again, and asked him whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. He said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them. Then Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family.[1]

I have said in the Introduction, that from historical tradition and from internal evidence, it is clear that Nkissism is a superimposed religion on the peoples of Loango and KaCongo, and that I believe the religion that was extant in these regions before the coming of the sons of the king of Congo and the priests of the Congo religion (Nkissism) was a religion identical

[1. This story was told to me by Antonio Lavadeiro, my linguister, or head-man, at Bintamba, River Chiloango.]

in essentials with that which I had opportunities of studying among the tribes of the Mpongwe stem (Mpongwe, Ajumba, Orungu, Nkâmi and Igalwa); and I may remark that among these tribes there is not a priesthood apart, but the house-father is the priest of his people. The following observations of Mr. Dennett seem to me to have a bearing on this point.

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