Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 

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



ON page 169 of Great Benin you will find a photograph taken by Mr. C. Punch in March 1892, of a Bini house in course of construction.

In this picture we find that a certain figure is built into the fluted wall, it is coloured white and shows up well against the dark red clay of which the wall is constructed (Pl. XXI).

This figure is of the greatest interest and may be said to be the "formula" at the back of the black man's mind both north and south of the equator on the West coast of Africa, six of which apparently form the complete religious system of both the Yoruba and the Bavili or Luango people. It is used as a divining board or a tally of the seasons indiscriminately.

Resting on the top of the figure you will find a bird, meant to represent the IFE, a kind of wagtail, to whom the people of Luango attribute the origin of the drum. IFE is the spiritual capital of the Yoruba, and IFA is their great oracular deity. Now IFA means that which is stripped off, and the verb to strip off means also to create.[1] IFA as a God or part of God would and does represent what we should call the Son of God.

Immediately beneath this bird is the formula formed first of 16 marks or holes in four parallel lines, and secondly of eight

[1. Exactly the same idea exists among the Bavili where the word XIVANGA creator is derived from VANGA to create, which literally means to keep on stripping off.]

ditto in two parallel lines, that is 24 marks or holes in all. You will notice that there is a distinct gap between the first four and the second two lines.

Let us suppose this figure on the wall to represent the divining board, then the first 16 marks represent the 16 sacred palm kernels which the BABALAWOS use in consulting IFA on their Sunday. But Ifa is always attended by his offspring OPÉLE, the other great oracular God of the Yoruba whom the diviners consult every day. Now the literal translation of the word OPÉLE is the one who endures and replenishes.

Thus you will see that the Yoruba may be said to divide the "formula" into two great parts, first, 16 divine principles under four great headings, IBARA, EDI, OVEKUN, and OGBE, and second, eight natural parts under two great headings the names of which I have not been able to ascertain.

Separated from the above but underneath is a strong line drawn from side to side, representing man the diviner.

That is a formula Of 24 parts between first cause and final effect-a formula preserved to the Bavili in the making up of their shrouds, in their families of Bakici baci, and in their six seasons, as well as in the titles of their King, his 12 assessors and their six offices, and to the Bini at least in their political constitution, as well as their system of divination.

That this formula should exist not only among the Bavili but also among the Bini and Yoruba adds great importance and weight to my conviction that it in reality is the formula (six of which go to complete the philosophy) which has so Iong been lying hid at the back of the black man's mind.

Difficult, perhaps impossible, as it may be to convince others of this (to me) great truth, I feel that I have been justified in making the attempt. At any rate, no harm will be done to whatever value may be attached to the foregoing notes, as no one need agree with these conclusions unless they like.

On the other hand I cannot help feeling that one who has lived so long among the Africans, and who has acquired a kind of way of thinking black, should be listened to on the off chance that a secondary instinct developed by long contact with the people he is writing about, may have driven him to a right, or very nearly right, conclusion.

It seems to the writer that the complete philosophy was once given and taught to the people by means of symbols, and that 201 sacred groves were set apart as the places where the lessons in connection with this philosophy were taught.

This is backed up by the following story a certain Babalawol told me: EWARE, he said, was a son of the sixth king of Benin, and when his father died he wished to succeed to the throne. The people, however, would not have him, and drove him into the bush. After 201 years he returned to Benin city with 201 followers. He and his followers were like men but were not really men, they were EBAMI (powers in rivers and sacred groves)-EWARE then taught the Bini people the foundation of their present religion. But the people said that there were too many EBAMI and set about thinking how their number could be diminished. They built a fine house or temple and invited them all to a feast there, gave them plenty to eat and drink, and when they were nearly drunk fastened the doors and burned the house down. Many of the EBAMI escaped and entered the different rivers and became river spirits, etc.

EWARE also was much troubled about the fact that he had to die, so he sent a messenger to OYISA (= God) to ask him to come to Benin city and talk the matter over. God came down and landed at Agbor (a place to the east of Benin city), and asked if that were Benin city. They told him no, and directed him via Oza and Ugo, to the city, so that at length he arrived and had a meeting with EWARE, when it was finally decided that every man must die. ESHU (the devil) is said to have accompanied OYISA bearing a knife.

This would bring the introduction of the present Bini religion to the fourteenth century, or about 400 years after the founding of the kingdom of Bini by the son of the Alafin of AWYAW the great Yoruba king.

This religion has taken such a vigorous root in the country

[1. BABALAWO = a Bini priest. See Appendix.]

that it is now very difficult to find any trace of the older form of religion that must have been in existence among the EFA or people of this country before the coming of EWARE, or even the first Yoruba OBA. Interesting as the study of this superimposed religion may be among the Bini we are not likely, upon their own showing, to find it in so perfect a form as among the Yoruba. It is to IFE, the spiritual capital of the Yoruba country, that we must go if we are to rebuild up and reform this religion, which is, of course, now degenerated into a kind of mythology.

But there is one great lesson that we have learnt from this story of the Bini, and that is that the completed religion is ruled by 201 EBAMI.

It is interesting to know that before the destruction of the OBA'S palace each of these 201 EBAMI had a bronze plate representing it on the walls of the great room as a record, but it is exasperating to think that in its destruction our chance of obtaining all the names by which they were known has gone. It will now take years of patient note-taking to collect them once again. No native that I have so far come across can give me more than a few of their names, just the most prominent ones, and just sufficient to let us know that they referred to sacred rivers, lands, trees, animals, omens, and the seasons.

We have noted that both the Bini and Bavili in the first place recognise God under the names OYISA and NZAMBI.

They then recognise that there are two great divisions among things and people. Those created which they connect with God (OYISA) and those procreated which they connect with the Devil (ESHU) as far as the Bini are concerned, and BANTU NZAMBI and BANTUA NDONGO so far as the Bavili are concerned. Things of the spirit and things of the body as we should say.

Then we note that they divide things of the spirit into three parts, and things of the body into three parts or six parts in all.

Then we have twenty-four powers representing the winds etc., as causative attributes under these two great headings.

After which we have the six formulæ each of twenty-four powers which makes one hundred and forty-four parts in all, i.e., seventy-two parts under the spiritual heading and seventy-two parts under the procreating heading.

And finally we have the twenty-four parts which are the results of the foregoing creative and procreative parts.

In short there are two hundred and one parts in their philosophy which all must bear in mind.

It is possible that in the foregoing notes some error in detail may have crept in, but I feel that I have given data enough to be enabled to give you the formulaæ in full, at any rate in table form in such a way as to make this philosophy which is at the back of the black man's mind, fairly clear.

Next: Chapter 23. Conclusion