Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
THERE are still one or two secret societies among Ibibio women, though none so powerful as the great Ekoi cult of Nimm, or the famous Bundu of Sierra Leone. One of these is Ebere, a play which was started among the Ubium Ibibios, but was thought so beautiful that it was copied by other tribes. The principal rule of this society concerns the dress of the members, which is rather costly, so that only the wealthy are able to join. A large number of silk handkerchiefs must be bought and pleated. The corners are gathered together in a rosette and knotted along the ceinture so as to overlap slightly, while the lower end floats free. Bands of tanned skin, three to four inches broad, are then cut, and on these cowries and coloured beads are so thickly sewn as almost to hide the foundation. Two such bands are bound on each leg, usually above the ankle and below the knee. Sometimes a like adornment is worn on each of the forearms, while round the firm brown throats and over the breasts hang chains of bright-hued beads. Beneath the ankle-band hang dozens of the little twisted brass ornaments called nyawhawraw, such as are worn by small girls in front from a string round the waist. These ornaments are sometimes spoken of as "bells," but
they are really more like little clappers. Ebere women say that they wear them round their ankles, "so that they should clash together and sing sweetly in the dance."
Such associations strike a note midway between Freemasonry and Trade Unionism, and form the only safeguard of Ibibio women against the tyranny of their men-folk. Should a member consider herself wronged the matter is laid before the heads of the society, and action taken according to their decision.
Not long ago a ease was brought before the Native Court at Idua Oron, in which a woman, Nse Abassi by name, took action against Odiong Ete, as representative of the local Ebere Society, for unlawfully demanding money from her.
The plaintiff stated on oath
"Accused came to my house accompanied by Eyo Inyan and also Eurpe and Atati. With them they bore the Ebere drum, and when they came in they sat down and placed it upon the table. They said they were going to fine me one goat and one demijohn of rum because my goats had spoiled Nteyo's farm. I gave them one small demi-john and two small bottles of rum on the first day. Four days later I bought a goat and paid it over to the accused, also another demi-john."
Nku Ita, called as witness, stated on oath:
"I was not present when the accused demanded the goat and rum, but plaintiff came to me and bought rum, saying that it was to pay a fine inflicted by accused as head of the Ebere Society."
In every town both among Efiks and other Ibibios
there is a branch of the Than Isong Society, i.e. the Women of the Land. For the rites of this cult members gather together at certain times of the year, and not one man may be present. At Calabar it is called Ndito Iban, and it is in connection with this that warriors' wives dress in male attire and go about gaily dancing and singing, while their men-folk are on the war path.
The rites would seem to bear some faint, far-off echo of those of the Alruna wives who, with locks arranged beard-like, prayed All-Father Odin from over the Swans' Bath to bless their men's arms.
The Pangwe woman's secret society, Mawungu, also shows points of resemblance with the Ibibio Than Isong. Not only is the dance with which the festivities close called "Eban," according to Herr Gunter Tessmann, but the performers dress in male attire, while their leader marches gun in hand and sword girded.
As night fell on the day when Efik warriors left the town, the wives who remained behind used to go to their sleeping-rooms and there don the garments of their absent lords. With his clothing the head wife also took the name of her husband, and while the ceremony lasted might call herself, or be addressed, by no other. Once clad in this strange attire, the women sallied forth to visit the chief compounds of the town, drinking palm wine, laughing and jesting at each. No matter how heavy and anxious might be the hearts beneath this manly guise, they dared not show the least sign of sadness or anxiety, but must appear happy and brave, that by sympathetic magic the courage of their absent husbands should be upheld.
The ceremony was called "Ikom Be," and it was most strictly forbidden that any man should witness it; for this also was among the women's mysteries, and destruction would have fallen upon the race should any male have profaned the rites by his presence. All night long the women danced round the town to prove their courage and endurance. Only after dawn-break might they creep back to rest, and even then tears were forbidden lest indulgence in such weakness might magically affect their absent lords--turning to water the hearts within their breasts and causing their strength to melt away.
Somewhat similar precautions are recorded from Borneo, where "When men are on a war expedition, fires are lighted at home, the mats are spread, and the fires kept up till late in the evening and lighted again before dawn so that the men may not be cold; the roofing of the house is opened before dawn so that the man may not lie too long and so fall into the enemy's hands. Again when a Dyak is out headhunting his wife, or, if he is unmarried, his sister, must wear a sword day and night in order that he may be always thinking of his weapons; and she may not sleep during the day nor go to bed before two in the morning lest her husband or brother should thereby be surprised in his sleep by an enemy." 1
As an example of the way in which native customs are sometimes misunderstood by even the best-meaning of white men, it may perhaps be mentioned that a missionary of great experience and high standing on the West Coast who had heard something of the Efik
rites above described, related them in somewhat garbled form as proof of the joy of these women on being temporarily released from the control of their men-folk!
Although these two societies, Ebere and Than Isong, are the only ones which we were able to trace as still existing among Ibibio women, yet accident brought to light a very different state of affairs which had obtained in former days.
While collecting information concerning the ceremonies which custom had decreed should be performed on the deaths of Efik chiefs who had held great positions in the Egbo Society--the most important secret cult among Efik and Ekoi men--my husband discovered that when "the Egbo" flees the town, as he is usually supposed to do after such an event, should the surviving members fail to catch and bring him back in triumph, they are forced to enlist the services of an ancient woman who must belong to one of the ruling families. At her call the spirit usually returns, although he has refused to pay attention to the summons of any man. This need to ask the help of a woman seemed strange in a society from which women are excluded on penalty of death from witnessing the rites. My husband therefore inquired as to the origin of the custom and was told, after considerable hesitation, that feminine aid was necessary because Egbo was originally a woman's secret society, until the men wrested from them its secrets, learnt the rites, and then drove out women from all participation therein. 1
To-day, save in the depths of the bush, where many of the old ceremonies are still carried out whenever there seems a chance of eluding the vigilance of "Government," death can no longer be inflicted on women who have trespassed, either accidentally or with intention, on places set apart for the carrying out of Egbo plays. One such execution, however, happened just before our arrival at Oban, and is thus described:
"The sacred images, etc. are carried to a part of the bush where a little hut of green boughs has been built to receive them. Sentries are posted to keep all intruders from coming within a mile of this spot. On one occasion, however, two young girls, sisters, happened to have missed the patrol and trespassed unwittingly within the sacred precincts, probably in search of nuts or bush fruits which abound everywhere. They were caught by the sentries, brought before the Egbo, condemned to death and hanged almost immediately. Their brother, who was a member of the highest grade of the society, was allowed as a great favour to be present at their death, and afterwards to carry home the bodies to his family. Of redress in such a case there could be neither hope nor thought." 1
Later we learned that the original discoverers of Egbo were some women of the Kamerun who went at dawn one morning to fish in the river. There, by the waterside, they found the first Egbo which had been brought thither by a divine woman who
had come down to earth on purpose to teach the secrets of the cult to her human sisters. After learning the mysteries the women bore the image in triumph to their town, where they built a hut in which to shelter it and practise the rites of the cult. After awhile the men noticed the importance of the new institution and persuaded the women to admit them to its mysteries. No sooner had they succeeded in learning these than they rose and slew all those to whom the secret had first been revealed, and made a law that for the future only men might become members of the society or be permitted to witness the rites.
A vivid account of the death of a woman who peeped at Egbo is given by the Rev. Hope Waddell:
"Making her sit on the ground," he says, "they danced round her, leapt and capered hither and thither, ringing their bells, beating their drums and flourishing their swords over her head, or, occasionally as they passed, touching the back of her neck with the cold edge to make her shrink and shudder. At length, at a signal, the fatal stroke was given."
Such was the "justice" meted out by the usurping male to women who dared intrude upon the secrets of a cult the mysteries of which had once been exclusively their own.
That the most dreaded of all Ibibio secret societies, Ekkpo Njawhaw, i.e. Ghosts--The Destroyers, 1 was originally also a woman's society is proved by the following story compiled from three accounts, only varying slightly in detail, which were collected from different parts of the District.
How Men Stole the Secrets of the Woman's Society Ekkpo Njawhaw
In the old, old days Ibibio women were more powerful than the men, for to them alone the mysteries of the gods and of secret things were made known. By such knowledge they were enabled to keep all males as servants, employing them to do the heaviest work. Especially because of the strength of their limbs and greater endurance were men found useful as fighters.
Now at first women greatly outnumbered men upon earth, but after awhile the latter began to multiply, and in course of time grew discontented with their lot. "Why," asked they, "should the hardest work fall to our share, while the women lord it over us? Yet, body for body, they are weaker than we!" To this others answered, "So long as the secret knowledge is theirs alone, we shall never prevail against them." Thus the men whispered together, striving to find a way by which they might cast off the women's yoke.
Then, on a day very long ago, the people of Oduko went out to fight those of Urua Eye, whom after a hard struggle they overcame and drove forth into the bush. The victors began to burn down the town, but in a house built for the meeting-place of one of the women's secret societies they found abandoned strange masks and fetishes, together with fringed robes and all else necessary for carrying out the rites of the terrible cult Ekkpo Njawhaw (Ghosts--The Destroyers). These things the warriors bore back to their town, and showed to the old men who, by our
custom, always stay at home during war time. Long they consulted together as to the meaning of the things and of their hidden powers. Yet, of all that they wished to know they could guess nothing. Then one very wise old man said:
"Let us get together an offering of goats and palm wine and take it before the women, begging them to teach us the mysteries that we also may know them and grow strong."
To this all agreed, and a great feast was made. Then, after they had eaten and drunken together, that old man, the wily one, went apart with some of the elder women such as were leaders among them, and spoke cunningly to these saying:
"Better to tell us the reason of Ekkpo Njawhaw, and teach us the rites of the cult, because all the men of this town want to join with the women in the matter, that together our people may become strong beyond all others."
Then the head priestess said to another old woman of Oduko:
"Let us draw apart from the men so that the women can consult alone and in secret upon the matter. It seems to me that much whispering should take place behind closed doors or in the hidden parts of the bush, for soft and slow should our steps fall upon this new road by which the men seek to lead us."
To this the second old woman answered:
"As for me, I am against it altogether. I do not want to teach our mysteries to the men, for I think that they are trying to deceive us, and wish to take p. 198 Ekkpo Njawhaw away from us so that we should not be able to rule them any more."
Then these two wise ones spoke to the younger women and said: "We will give the men no part in our society." But the others cried out upon them, saying that they were foolish and over slow, caring only for the things of yesterday and taking no thought for the morrow. In the end the younger women announced:
"It is good that the men should know these things. Are they not our own men, who have always served us? Why, therefore, should we keep the secrets hidden from them?"
So with loud and eager talk they beat down the advice of the old ones who would have stayed them, until the latter said:
"Be it as you will, since you do not choose to listen, we say no more. Nevertheless we know that when the men have learnt the secrets they will take Ekkpo Njawhaw away from us so that we can never rule them as before."
Then the younger women explained to the men all the mysteries of the cult, with the full rites and every secret by means of which they had formerly held dominion. Afterwards the men called a great meeting and announced:
"From now on a law is made that should any woman try to join in the play of Ekkpo Njawhaw, the men will lead her to the market-place and there cut off her head in the sight of all the people."
On hearing this the women were very sorry for what they had done, but they dared not disobey,
because the men were stronger of limb than they and also very cruel. Only the two old women who had not agreed to tell the secrets said:
"We were never willing to open up these mysteries to the men, so we shall continue to play our play alone for ourselves as before." To this the men answered:
"If any woman plays Ekkpo Njawhaw again she shall be bound to a stake in the market-place and be beheaded before all the townsfolk, that other women may see her fate and learn to play no more."
In spite of this the old women still continued to carry out the rites as before, hidden in the bush in a secret place which they had made. After long searching, however, the men found them and bore them off to Oduko market-place where their heads were struck off in the sight of the trembling women.
That is the reason why none but men may join the play of Ekkpo Njawhaw, or even witness the rites of this society.
After this change had been made therefore, all the inhabitants of a town who did not belong to the cult were ordered to keep within their houses, behind shut doors and windows, while the images ran up and down.
Not long ago at Ndiya, a woman, Adiaha Udaw Anwa by name, dared to sit on her veranda and watch the forbidden sight. The "image" ran in to catch and punish her for her temerity. Terrified at the consequences of her curiosity the poor woman ran inside the house and fastened the door, but the followers of Ekkpo soon forced open this frail barrier. Adiaha
looked round for a hiding-place, and, in default of a better, climbed into the cupboard over the hearth where pots and pans are kept and meat is laid for smoking. The bottom of this receptacle is never solid but made of palm stems, laid crosswise, so that the smoke may pass through the interstices. After Ekkpo Njawhaw had forced an entrance he could not for the moment see where the woman was hidden but heard the palm stems creaking beneath her weight, so slashed upward with his machet and cut through the bottom of the cupboard, so that she fell down.
He then struck her twice across the head, making two wounds, one running from above the root of the nose to the back of the skull, and the other from ear to ear across the crown, thus marking her with a great cross.
Later a native doctor took the woman in hand, and cured her wounds after a long course of treatment, but the hair has never grown again over the scars, which are still clearly to be seen.
Another case concerned a little girl about eight years of age, also named Adiaha, who was rescued from being offered up to Ekkpo Njawhaw, after the sacrificial dress had been actually placed upon her. 1
This Ibibio story of the revolt of man calls to mind a similar state of things, the memory of which is celebrated at the Fuegian festival, Kina. This was instituted to commemorate the rising of the males against the women "who formerly had the authority and possessed the secrets of sorcery." 2
Just as behind the whole Ibibio pantheon looms the awful figure of "The Great Creatrix," so behind the cult of Ekkpo Njawhaw looms the still more terrible presence of Eka Ekkpo--Eka Abassi's dread counterpart--the source of all evil, the Death Bringer and Fount of Terror. The word Ekkpo does not only mean "ghosts," it also signifies "devils," and just as in Isaiah, chapter xlv., verse 7, we read "I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things," so here, amid these rude Ibibios, where woman is now regarded as a mere slave of her overlord man and one would least look for such a state of things, we get not fatherhood but motherhood--"motherhood, immaculate and alone. a virgin birth"--as the source of the powers both of light and of darkness, of good and evil, of life and of death.
"Terrible indeed to look upon is this Mother of Ekkpo Njawhaw. Often of colossal size, ill proportioned and coal black in colour, she looms from out the darkness at the back of her sons' shrine, surrounded with the dreadful insignia of the cult, and with arms outstretched as if to welcome fresh victims. Around her flat, misshapen feet lie skulls, some new and ivory tinted, some blackened with the smoke of many sacrifices, and others carved with astonishing care and fidelity from solid blocks of wood. Two sons she has Akpan Njawhaw, the first-born, and Udaw, the second-born; also two daughters--Adiaha, the elder, and Angwa-Angwa, the younger.
"At the planting of farms the lesser rites of the cult are carried out; but the greater ceremonies take
place at the New Yam Festival. Eight days before the first of the new season's crop may be eaten, in any town where this society has gained a footing, the images must be carried forth in solemn procession and set up in the public square." 1
On such occasions the figure of Eka Ekkpo stands in the midst, with a son on either hand. Sometimes the effigies of the two daughters are placed there in addition, one at each end of the family line. For the first seven days, at dusk each evening, fowls and other offerings are brought and offered up before the fetishes, while the club drums are beaten to warn non-members among the passers-by from venturing too near the sacred spot. No yams may be brought on this occasion, and as is but meet, victims are first offered to Eka Ekkpo, seeing that she is the fount from which the others have sprung. Akpan is the next to receive offerings, then comes the turn of Udaw, and lastly the two daughters, though these are sometimes neglected altogether.
On the eighth day the images are carried back to their usual abode, that of "the Mother" being borne in front. Should anyone chance to meet this terrible procession upon the road, the first thing that a native would do would be to look whether the fetish was represented with one ear or two. In the latter case there would be a chance of life, because the goddess might possibly listen to the victim's frenzied prayer for mercy. In the former case prayer would be useless, because with one ear (Una Utung) she cannot listen to anyone. Only with two ears is it possible for her to have compassion.
To primitive races, and indeed the world over, death must always be one of the great mysteries, and it is the less astonishing that for Ibibios the supreme ruler of the Ghost Realm should be feminine when we consider that according to some peoples, for instance the Yaos and Wayisa of East Central Africa, death itself "was originally brought into the world by a woman who taught two men to go to sleep. One day, while they slumbered, she held the nostrils of one of them till his breath ceased, and he died." 1
As has already been mentioned, if a woman chanced to witness an Ekkpo Njawhaw play, no matter how unwillingly, a member was singled out, and robed with all haste in the special dress of the cult executioner. After the poor woman he crept, "softly, softly," and exacted a terrible penalty for her unwitting trespass. No Ekkpo "image" may go forth without a machet in his hand. Each, therefore, is ready at a moment's notice to fulfil the behest of the "Great Mother," and, like the devotees of Kali Ma, bring to her shrine "Gobbets fresh and fresh!"
Chance also brought to light the fact that even over the "Great Warriors Club"--Ekong--(i.e. War) woman was once the dominating influence. This is shown in a curious survival.
At the time of the new yam harvest the members of "Ekong" assemble for an interesting ceremony. Across a corner of one of the town "playgrounds" a line of forked sticks is driven into the earth. This is so arranged that at the beginning and end of the row a great tree may usually be found. At the
height of about four and a half feet from the ground, between the supports, palm leaves are hung, and against the terminal tree on the left-hand side is to be seen a little arbour made of the same leaves. In this a member of the society, chosen on account of his sweet voice, sits singing during the greater part of the ceremony. He is clothed in women's garments, and represents "The Mother of Ekong"; "For unless the latter be present on such an occasion, no blessing can be hoped for during the coming year."
So far as could be ascertained, Ekong also had no father, but sprang in full strength, it would appear, from beneath the heart of a virgin. It was very difficult to obtain any information on this subject, the tradition of which seems all but to have died out in the present day. Two very old women were, however, induced to relate what their grandmothers had told them as little children, and the account tallied in almost every particular, the only difference being that in one case my informant asserted that Ekong sprang forth "fully armed," Athene-like, from the body of his mother, and in the second case it was only said that he issued "in full strength, able to bear arms." The latter account was afterwards corroborated by Akpabio of Awa.
192:1 "Magic and Fetishism," p. 12. A. C. Haddon, F.R.S.
193:1 A full description of the ceremony of "recalling the Egbo" will be found under the heading "Burial Rites" in my husband's book "By Haunted Waters."
194:1 "In the Shadow of the Bush," pp. 43-4. (Heinemann, London; George Doran, New York.)
195:1 A full account of this terrible society will be found in "By Haunted Waters."
200:1 "By Haunted Waters." P. Amaury Talbot.
200:2 "Les Origines du Mariage et de la Famille," p. 448. Giraud Teulon.
202:1 Edinburgh Review, July, 1914. P. Amaury Talbot.
203:1 Journ. Anthrop. Inst., xxii., 111-12. J. Macdonald.