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At the Back of the Black Man's Mind, by Richard Edward Dennett, [1906], at



Sacred Symbols. -Compound Names. -The Sun and Moon. -General Scheme of Bavili Ideas. -Cosmological Ideas. -Ternporal Ideas.-The Year.-The Seasons. -Genetic Relations.-The Categories.

THE King of the Bavili, as I have said, has seven titles, one of which, that of Ntawtela, he does not receive until after his death. The other six, as I have explained elsewhere, are assigned to him as head of the six great departments of state. These six titles are, as I shall point out later, closely connected with the system of philosophy which I wish to expound to you. I believe that above and beyond fetishism or NDONGOISM, which I have already dealt with, there is a higher form of religion among the Bavili which is connected with certain symbols in the form of (1) sacred groves, (2) sacred lands and rivers, (3) sacred trees, (4) sacred animals, (5) omens, and (6) the seasons. The six titles of the King connect him directly with these six divisions of sacred symbols as well as with the six departments in the state. As Nkici ci he is, according to the native view, one of the products, or perhaps we should rather say the end and final result, of the working of the powers, or Bakici baci, represented by the sacred groves. As Fumu he is the king (or chief from whom all proceed) of the symbolic lands and rivers. As Ntinu Lukene he is head of the custom of the leopard, and thus associated with the sacred animals. As Nganga Nvumba (the doctor of the source of seasons or time) he is intimately connected with the seasons. As Xivangi (procreator) he is at the head of the omens. And as Mueno (the overseer of the morals of his people) he presides over the sacred trees. That is, he is the chief teacher in all these branches of native belief.

It is possible that at one time each of the sacred symbols mentioned above had its sacred grove; in this grove, it may be, the king, as the great high priest, taught his people the lesson connected with the symbol. In support of this conjecture I may mention that I have so far in no case discovered more than twenty-four sacred symbols in any of the six divisions enumerated above. There are, it is true, certain apparent exceptions, but the supernumerary symbols can be shown to stand apart from the others for clearly defined reasons. After years of study I have discovered twenty-four trees and herbs which are, as the natives say, BAKICI BACI or sacred, twenty-four sacred animals, and so on. Now if each division of sacred symbols is composed of twenty-four parts, the sum total of Bakici Baci should be 144. I have as a matter of fact discovered upwards of 90 sacred groves. It is therefore quite legitimate to suppose that there may formerly have been 144 or more. Not only so, but the meanings of the names of the sacred groves go to prove this supposition, as I shall show more in detail later. The most remarkable fact, however, about these groves is that the Bavili have preserved the orderly grouping of twenty-four of these, and I believe that it is in this order that we find the key to their philosophy.

In the sequel I treat of all the six sets of twenty-four symbols in detail. I should now like to draw your attention to the eight words, the only eight of this kind, so far as I know, found in Xivili, which are compounded of two words, as they seem to me to imply that the idea of the Bavili with regard to the symbols fall into 1+6+1 divisions. These words are:-



NKALA-NGO                NKONDA, or NONGA-NZAU



(1) MAMU-NZAMBI (the acts or word of God)[1] is a name given to certain towns, where some great palaver, consequent on the death of a great prince, has been talked out.

(2) MBUNGU-NTWALI (two mugs). This is the name given to the mouth of rivers where the waters of the sea and the river meet and form whirlpools.

BUNGU is the water bottle or mug, and there is a native saying KU NUA MALAVU, KU BULA MBUNGU, MBI I BELA NU MALAVU VO MU MBUNGU? To drink palm wine, to break the mug is the evil in the wine or the mug? This implies that the liquid in the mug may be replaced, but the wise man takes care of the mug.

A slave wishes to transfer himself to a new master, breaks his water cooler, and this act is called XIBULA MBUNGU.

When the princes hearing a palaver retire to take counsel one with another, they say they go away to drink water.

When the King dies it is his ambassador (or mouth) MAXIENJI, who carries the royal mug in the funeral procession, just as he has often before carried his words of wisdom. The mug is still left, you see, although it is not used until the princes elect their next King.

In ordinary funerals, which take place there, four or five years after death, the wife, parting from her dead husband for the last time, as they take his body away to bury it, lifts up her basket, containing the water bottle and, perhaps as a purification ceremony, goes to the stream to draw water.

Ideas of liquids, wisdom, and morality are connected with the MBUNGU NTWALL

(3) NKALA-NGO, the crab and the leopard. This stands for "Roe and Doe" in palavers, and the crab is the symbol of the sea, while the leopard is that of the earth. Their ideas of solids and justice are connected with these words.

(4) MANIA-MATALI, generally the name of a district up a river where rocky land rises from the low-lying swamps.

MANIA means the "cold" stones found in rivers and valleys. The word written in full is MANDIA (the princely womb). Ideas of the moon are connected with this word; everything looks cold by moonlight, and is actually cold.

[1. The translations given in brackets were in every case given me by the natives.]

MATALI (or Matadi) means the metallic rocks, heated by the sun, NTANGUA (mother chaser), and is opposed to NGONDE (or NGONDIA) the Moon, regarded here as the mother of the sun. The words mania-matali stand also for sun and moon.

The Sun and Moon are also spoken of as two brothers running one after the other, but as the word NKOMBA in BAVILI may stand for either brother or sister, we may if we like call them brother and sister.

The sun and moon are further spoken of as judges to whom certain palavers must be referred. The other day I noticed a very neatly devised badge (Pl. IIb) upon a native's shirt, and I asked him what it meant. The background of the badge was red, a favourite colour with the materialistic Bavili. The sun and new moon were figured in white cloth, while the mouth was formed of white and black cloth. The native told me that he had a palaver with a certain cook, and that they had come to the conclusion that the decision of so great a question could come only from the sun and moon. Upon a visit to the grave of my old native friend Francisco I found the following device upon the gate of the fence surrounding it: the sun with lines across its face and the moon in its last quarter. Here no mouth was figured, showing, I suppose, that all breath was at an end. I can find no trees sacred either to the sun or moon.

5. The Morning Star the Bavili liken to a child running before its parent calling him to rule the day. This Star they call MA ULA.[1]

The Evening Star is the offspring expressing its joy at going to rest with its mother the Moon, and it is called NXIENJI.

The full moon rises from her couch accompanied by this same star, her offspring, now her husband, and this star is then called NDONGO (the spirit of witchcraft).

6. NKONDA or NONGA-NZAU (to hunt the Elephant) has the meaning of amassing everything for one's own family and giving nothing to others. It is the name of certain towns The words symbolise weight, energy, and plenty.

[1. The exclamation U ULU is that with which the Bavili greet either the new moon or a "witch" (NDOXI).]

7. BULU-NTU (a breaking of the head) a place generally situated about the falls of a river where the waters burst a channel through or past the rocks. MBULU = beast. NTU = man.

8. KACI-NUNI = wife and husband, really "primeval dawn" and "I have absorbed." These words are not only used for man and wife but also for negative and positive powers; inferior and superior, as when one man comes up to another to ask him for a favour and calls himself the other's NKACI. NKACI is also used for the word NGULINKACI meaning one's uncle on the mother's side. Thus the mythologist may easily become confused. The natives say that the sun calls the moon his mother, but MAMA (mother) may mean his aunt by marriage. He is also said to be the husband of the moon; this may mean that he is superior to her just as Maluango, though the king of the offspring province, considers himself superior to KAKONGO, the mother province, from whence his wife comes.

These double words, which with one exception are compounded of elements of contrary meaning, may be regarded as one particular case of a formula which runs through their philosophy. To sum up we have-

1. MAMU-NZAMBI-concerning god palaver.

2. MBUNGU-NTWALI-the heads of maternity connected with ideas of water.

3. NKALA-NGO-the crab and the leopard connected with ideas of earth.

4. MANIA-MATALI-cold and hot stones connected with ideas of fire.

5. MAULA-NXIENJI-the two stars connected with ideas of motion and procreation.

6. NONGA-NZAU-hunting the elephant, connected with ideas of plenty.

7. BULU-NTU-beast and man connected with ideas of birth.

8. KACI-NUNI-wife and husband ideas of opposites.

Put into a generalised form we may say that the philosophy of the Bavili can be expressed by the formula 1 +6+ 1; six categories, which, as will be shown in the subsequent chapters, reappear in the arrangement of the groves and other symbols of Nzambi, and outside these categories at the one end the idea of Nzambi, regarded as cause; at the other the idea of man regarded as effect.

In the case of the compound words the order adopted is not based on any information drawn from the natives: all that has been gathered from them is the distinctive character of these eight words and the ideas which they connect with them. We now pass on to consider the seasons, and here not only has it been possible to elucidate the native ideas connected with the seasons and their names, but to get from the natives further details as to the genetic relation held to exist between the various months and seasons.


In the last resort the Bavili are monists: they reduce everything ultimately to a manifestation of Nzambi. From the abstract Nzambi proceed Nzambi Mpungu, Nzambi Ci and Kici. These three elements of the trinity appear in Bavili philosophy as Xi, Ci, and Fu. (It is desirable to note Xi and Ci are respectively female and male, whereas Nzambi Mpungu and Nzambi Ci are male and female.)

Xi means passive matter or things pertaining to the maternal principle. Ci is the paternal or active principle.

Let us take an example. The sea is regarded as a male principle; from it proceeds rain which falls on the earth, and the earth is regarded as a female or passive principle; the rain fertilises the earth and causes it to bring forth fruits.

Fu is, properly speaking, habit, custom, or sequence; we may, perhaps, express it in one word by evolution, understanding thereby rather the process by which the individual is produced than the life history of a species. In another sense it may almost be said to be the individual himself. Thus, when the rain has fallen upon the earth, it forms on the one hand springs and rivers, and on the other causes vegetation to spring up. Both the rivers and the vegetation result from the interaction of earth and sea: the process of production and the product are both Fu.

In order to prevent misconception I expressly state that these ideas are not derived directly from the natives, but from philological considerations. These three ideas are naturally strictly abstract and out of all relation with the material universe.

Xi and Ci having produced Fu cease to operate; Fu, on the other hand, continues. Under the name Vu it becomes active in space and time, and may be called the cause of the material universe, Vu=time, season.


(a) The Divisions of the Year.

Properly speaking, the year falls into three divisions, Mawalala, Xicifu and Mvula. Of these, Mawalala is a period of rest, Xicifu a period of preparation, and Nvula an evolutionary period or period of production. just as in the cosmological ideas we have a progression of three factors, Xi, Ci and Fu, so in the same way in temporal ideas, Mawalala and Xicifu produce Nvula. just as Fu in its turn became a cause, so Nvula produces Mawalala of the succeeding year.

(b) The Seasons and Months.

Of the three divisions of the year, Mawalala is itself both a season and a month; Xicifu falls into two seasons of two months each, and Nvula into four seasons of two months each. Properly speaking, the seasons only ex'ist as factors in six groups of four, the other three being in each case the two months, and the product specially associated with the seasons. These groups of four are related just as our cosmological series, Xi, Ci, Fu, and Vu; they consist of a principle, male and female causes and a product.

We have already dealt with the months under measures (p. 65), and it is unnecessary to repeat the information given there.

I now give you these groups in the form of a table





Mwici (smoke).

Bulu Maci Mavola (source of sweet waters).
Bulu Maci Mbu (source of sea waters).

Nkasa (pea).

Bunji (mist).

Bika li Muanda Xicifu (to leave the valley of mist).
Muanda Xicifu (the valley of mist).

Mbundubundu (new green grass).

Mvumvumvu (drizzle).

Kufulu Nkaci (negative desire).
Kufulu Nuni (positive desire).

Buku (mushrooms).

Waw Waw Waw (rains).

Kaci Mbangala (negative witness).
Nuni Mbangala (positive witness).

Kusafu (a fruit).

Nvula Nxentu (female rains).

Bika li Muanda Sunji (to leave the valley of the cycle).
Muanda Sunji (the valley of the cycle).

Makundi (fruit).

Nvula Mbakala (male rains).

Ndolo Nkaci (female suffering).
Ndolo Nuni (female suffering).

Mba (palm kernel).


We may now consider the genetic relations of these six groups. Denominating the groups by the names of the seasons which preside over them, Mwici is female and Bunji is male; their product Mvumvumvu is regarded as female. just as in the cosmological ideas Fu, the effect, becomes Vu, the cause, the female effect Mvumvumvu is replaced by the male cause Waw Waw Waw. This is, however, not directly operative, but manifests itself through the secondary causes Nvula Nxentu and Nvula Mbakala, and their effect is Mawalala. Mawalala, as the table shows, stands outside the progression, and is in a way the end or final effect of the whole process.

In its turn Mawalala becomes a cause; it stands to Mwici and Bunji in the same relation as Waw Waw Waw to the two groups which follow it. Being regar-ded by the natives as a season of rest, no product is associated with Mawalala. The orderly grouping of the symbols may be termed the formula.


The Bavili ideas relating to the various divisions enumerated above may be said to fall into six divisions which we shall term the categories. It must be understood that the European ideas which I have been led to select only represent imperfectly the native ideas. On the one hand the European conceptions go beyond those of the natives in many directions; on the other the natives associate many to the European heterogeneous notions under one heading, as shown below.

The six categories are: Water, Earth, Fire, Procreation and Motion, Fruitfulness, Life. I will now proceed to show the connection of the seasons with these ideas.

Mwici. Not only do the names of the months composing this season mean salt-water and fresh-water, but the word Mwici itself contains the root Mu. (for Mbu =the sea). The connection of this group with liquids is clear.

Bunji. The names of the component months mean the valley of Xicifu, and the name of the group the source of seed or maize. This connects it with the category of earth.

Mvumvumvu. This is the period of marriage and the names of the months mean male and female desire. The flame of love is perhaps sufficient to justify me in associating this group with fire and marriage.

Wawawaw. The notion of running away, to which we have already alluded, may serve to connect this season with the category of motion and procreation.

Nvula Nxentu. The months are the months of maturity of crops and the harvest, and their names are connected with the mortar in which seed is pounded. The connection with fruitfulness seems clear.

Nvula Nbakala. We have already mentioned that the opening of Mawalala is a period of high birth rate. This may serve to associate this season with the category of Life. The names of the months mean male and female suffering or travail.

In dealing with the compound words it has been mentioned that the natives associate various ideas with them; these ideas in their relation to the categories are here set out in tabular form:-


Associated Ideas.


Morality, wisdom (as opposed to reason), virtue, breath, speech (=out-breathing), inspiration (=in-breathing), hearing, mouth, fatherhood.


Solids, justice, reason, intelligence, essence, seed, herbs and grass, hands, stomach, heart, motherhood.


Love, desire, marriage, union, spirit, light, kernel, tying up, heat, and cold, the womb, smell.


Touch, the penis, conception, germination, thunder, lightning.


Weight, energy, plenty, pregnancy, harvest, sight, memory, leg.


Birth, parturition, pain, taste, lips.


Next: Chapter 11. Bibila, the Philosophy of the Groves