Woman's Mysteries of a Primitive People, by D. Amaury Talbot, , at sacred-texts.com
AMONG the Ibibios different funeral rites are prescribed according to age, position, and manner of death.
To begin with the youngest. The bodies of babes who die within a few days of birth may not be buried like those to whom a fuller span of life was given, but are laid in an earthen bowl which is then placed, inverted, in a shallow hole scooped out by the side of the road.
A somewhat similar custom is reported from among the Baganda for the burial of a twin. "The embalmed body was wrapped round with a creeper and put into a new cooking-pot. When the preparations were complete, the relations assembled, a man called the 'Mutaka' took the corpse to waste land near a main road, dug the grave, and laid the body in it; on the grave he placed a cooking-pot mouth downwards, but put no earth in. Then everyone who passed by knew the place to be the grave of a twin, and avoided it lest the ghost should catch them. Women especially avoided the place and threw grass upon the grave to prevent the ghost from entering into them and being reborn." 1
any such upturned pots may be seen along the paths near Akaiya, especially those leading through parts of the bush which are carefully shunned at nightfall, for there the bodies of all who have died of smallpox, leprosy, or other infectious disease are flung and left without burial. An almost similar fate befalls those of women who have died in or immediately before childbirth, since these, too, are regarded as unclean. Should such a one die before giving birth, her body is cut open and the ftus carefully removed and interred in an inverted pot in the manner described. As with those who died in childbirth, the corpse is propped against a tree and left, with sunk head and hanging hands, until the luxuriant vegetation mercifully covers the pitiful remains with its green mantle.
The ghosts of such are greatly feared, as much here and now as amid the ancient Babylonians, among whose most dreaded wraiths are mentioned:
"A woman that hath died in travail,
Or a woman that hath died with a babe at the breast,
Or a weeping woman that hath died with a babe at the breast." 1
When the bearers come back after disposing of these pitiful dead they may not enter their houses, but must wait outside that of the dead woman, until the members of her family have brought out and sacrificed a dog, a cock, and some eggs. Magic leaves are ground between stones and rubbed upon the bodies of the corpse bearers, while the kinsmen pray that this so sad a fate may never again overtake one of their
house. The fowl's head is struck off, and its blood sprinkled over the bearers, who chant meanwhile:
"Let not the evil thing pass from me to any woman."
Until the sacrifices have been made and the prayers offered, none who took part in carrying the corpse may touch a woman lest that which cut off the newly dead should be communicated to the living.
The attitude of mind which thus denies gentle burial to those who have known the pangs, without the joys, of motherhood, is far as the poles asunder from that expressed by the old northern ballad in which so different a fate is meted out:
Their beds are made in Heaven high,
Full lowly down by our dear Lord's knee,
All girt about wi' gilly flowers,
A right fair company for to see." 1
Yet, though among Ibibios but little sentiment is wasted on these unfortunates, their lot, in the old days at least, was happier than that of women unlucky enough to bear twins. The fate of such has already been described, and the ill-results of the cruel superstition do not cease with life, but are thought to continue even after death. A woman who dies in giving birth to twins, or before the end of her year of purification after such an event, may not be carried to her last resting-place through the house door, any more than she may go out by it on leaving home to spend the prescribed twelve moons in the twin women's town. Such sad exiles must pass through a hole
purposely broken in the wall, by which exit the unfortunate babes are also carried forth. Further, the body of a twin mother may on no account be borne along a road by which ordinary people pass to and fro, but only by a little path specially cut through the bush to the place where it is to be flung.
The reason for this prohibition is much the same as that given in Cambodia for carrying a dead body feet foremost, i.e. "that it may not see the house, in which event other sickness and other deaths would result." Ibibios say, too, that should the ghost return and try to enter her former home she would be unable to do so since the place by which the body was carried forth has been blocked up, and wraiths can only enter by the same way through which their bodies were borne forth-the converse of that law of the spirit world explained by Mephistopheles to Faust--
"For goblins and for spectres it is law
That where we enter in, there also we withdraw." 1
In the country round Awa, a superstition obtains much like that of the Malayan "langsuir," a description of which is thus given by Sir William Maxwell:
"If a woman dies in childbirth either before delivery or after the birth of a child, and before the forty days of uncleanness have expired, she is popularly supposed to become a 'langsuyar,' a flying demon of the nature of the 'White Lady' or 'Banshee.' To prevent this a quantity of glass beads are put in the mouth of the corpse, a hen's egg is put under each armpit, and needles are placed in the palms of the
hands. It is believed that if this is done the dead woman cannot become a langsuyar, as she cannot open her mouth to shriek (ngilai) or wave her arms as wings, or open and shut her hands to assist her flight."
It was only with great difficulty that any information could be gleaned as to this terrible wraith, since it is a matter of firm belief that even to mention her might lay the speaker open to an unwelcome visitation. No entreaty or inducement which we could offer availed to persuade any informant to confide to us the appellation by which these ghastly and malignant spirits are known. The utmost we could prevail upon anyone to impart on the subject was that among some tribes she was called Ekwensu; we have since learned that this is the Ibo term for these sad wraiths. It was stated from several sources that, by simply calling aloud the dread name, a discarded wife had succeeded in drawing down upon her husband the curse of such an uncanny housemate. After long seeking we learnt, however, that in this part of the world when a woman has died in childbirth, the mouth of the corpse is closed with pitch, and this mixed with thorns is sometimes also placed beneath the armpits, while the hands are occasionally bound to the sides. To be efficacious this service should be rendered by an old woman, "who must be such a one as had brought many children into the world but has now long ceased from bearing." No mention was made of other precautions, such as beads, eggs, or needles placed in the palms.
These sad wraiths are thought to be filled with
[1. Straits Branch, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. No. 7, p. 28.]
enmity against the whole human race, because they have been robbed of offspring and denied burial, in consequence of which last misfortune they are forced to wander up and down over the length and breadth of the earth, racked with hunger and parched with thirst, with no resting-place in the ghost town amid kindly kith and kin. With the idea of avenging themselves upon men for this dreary lot they sometimes take the form of a beautiful woman in order to attract the regard of a lover. To such the wraith may bear elfin children, and is even said to be capable of so well disguising her evil nature as to live among mortals unsuspected for years. Only one peculiarity does she show. She cannot join in the merrymakings of her town, for, should she once be inveigled into a circle of dancers, her feet skim the earth so lightly that she can no longer keep to the ground, but is forced to spring--ever higher and higher--till at last, with a blood-curdling shriek, she flies away, and is even said at times, to the horror of the spectators, to have changed before their eyes into the form of an owl or vampire bat.
When a man has fallen under the spell of one of these terrible beings he is lost indeed, for at death the ghoul-wife and her demon offspring gather round his bed, mopping and mowing, and their unclean presence keeps off the kindly spirits of those ancestors whom he would fain join in the ghost town.
Further details of the "langsuir," corresponding in many points with those given above, may be found in the fascinating pages of Skeat's "Malay Magic." The passage is quoted in full on account of its charm
The original langsuir, whose embodiment is supposed to be a kind of night owl, is described as being a woman of dazzling beauty who died from the shock of hearing that her child was stillborn and had taken the shape of the pontianak or mati-anak--a kind of night owl. On hearing this terrible news she clapped her hands, and without further warning flew whinnying away to a tree, upon which she perched. She may be known by her robe of green, by her tapering nails of extraordinary length (a mark of beauty), and by the long jet black tresses which she allows to fall down to her ankles--only alas! (for the truth must be told) in order to conceal the hole in the back of her neck through which she sucks the blood of children! These vampire-like proclivities of hers may, however, be successfully combated if the right means are adopted, for if you are able to catch her, cut short her nails and luxuriant tresses, and stuff them into the hole in her neck, she will become tame and indistinguishable from an ordinary woman, remaining so for years. Cases have been known, indeed, in which she has become a wife and a mother, until she was allowed to dance at a village merrymaking, when she at once reverted to her ghostly form and flew off into the dark and gloomy forest from whence she came."
Of the pontianak or mati-anak, i.e. the ghost of a stillborn child, no trace could be found among the Ibibios, and no special precaution save that of burying face downwards beneath an inverted bowl, seemed taken to prevent its return.
The following story was told by an Efik woman
to whom it was related by a friend who lived near the Opobo border:
"Many, many years ago a very beautiful woman lived upon earth. She married a great chief who loved her beyond all his other wives. To her alone he gave the gifts which should have been shared between all of them, and neglected the rest for her sake. This made the others so jealous that they consulted together and bought a strong juju which they buried one night beneath the path by which the favoured wife went to her farm. Further, they tied pieces of tie-tie into strong knots and hid them beneath her bed, and locked and clasped door- and box-locks, that by this magic the portals of birth should be closed against the coming of any babe to her.
"By this means the woman was kept childless for many years, but at length her husband collected great gifts and took them to a very strong juju, thereby purchasing a medicine which he brought back and gave, in all secrecy, to this best-loved wife. By its strength the bad jujus were overcome, and the fellow-wives saw that their envious plots were vain.
"Now among the number was a witch. Full of malice therefore, she went before her witch company and told how her rival had triumphed over the magic knots and other spells wrought against her, and was about to bear a babe. Then all the witches plotted together to weave a most evil charm, by means of which the babe should meet death on life's threshold. Thus it came to pass, and when the little dead form was shown to the mother she gave but one cry, and striking out with her hands as though to fend off the
cruel fellow-wives, without further warning flew up into the branches of a tall tree, upon which she perched in the guise of a white owl, uttering plaintive cries. So embittered was she by the treatment she had received that whenever one of her enemies bore a babe she used to come down at night time and, vampire-like, suck its essence, so that it also died."
It is interesting to compare this Ibibio version with those from the Malay States given previously.
Little children from one to seven years of age are laid in the grave on their right side, as if sleeping, with hands folded palm to palm and placed between the knees. Should it happen that several piccans have died in any family one after the other on reaching about eight to ten years, the next child to expire at this age is also buried face downwards, "so that he may not see the way to be born again." It is thought that his spirit is one of those mischievous sprites who only reincarnate to bring grief to parents, and would never grow up to be a comfort to them in later years. The mother or grandmother of such unwelcome revenants usually breaks a finger or slits an ear of the corpse before it is laid in the grave, that, when it is born again, they may know it at once because it will bear this mark. The spirits are said to dislike this treatment so much "that they often give up their bad habit of dying, and on the next reincarnation grow up like other people."
When such a boy or girl has died the parents usually wash the feet and hands of the corpse and pour the water into a bottle which is kept in a corner of their sleeping-room. When the wife feels that she is once
more about to become a mother, the liquid is sprinkled over the floor of the room, while the parents cry aloud the name of the ghost, saying, "You must not be born into our family again."
Among the Ekets the father of a child is held responsible for its burial. It is a breach of custom for the mother to lay it in the grave. A case illustrating this came before the Native Court at Eket early in April, 1913, in which the plaintiff stated:
"Defendant married my daughter. They had a child who died. Just before its death defendant came in and found the dying child in my arms. At once he caught up a machet, and with the flat of this struck me across the mouth. I said to him 'What have I done?' He did not answer, but took up a jar of palm wine which stood near by and flung the contents over the `Mbiam juju crying, 'Let me die for my child!' I said to the people who stood around, 'He thinks that I am killing the child, but never have I heard of a grandmother who harmed her grandchild!' Then I got up and went away, leaving the babe with its mother. I did not go far, but came back into the courtyard and made a fire in a corner, out of the way, thinking 'I will stay here till I know how it goes with the child.' As I sat waiting and listening, defendant came out, seized me by foot and throat, and flung me out of the compound. He caught up his machet and would have killed me, but the bystanders ran between and stopped him from harming me further. It was then that the child died, and so soon as he knew that its soul had quite gone from it he thrust the dead body into the arms of my daughter, and bade
her bear it to my house. This she did, and he refused to bury it, although it is our custom for the father to bury dead babes. It is unseemly and against our rule that a woman should do so, yet when the husband's half-brother came and ordered my daughter to bring the dead body and bury it, she obeyed. She it was, therefore, the mother, who laid it in the grave."
In the course of my husband's study of native burial rites he stumbled upon the discovery that among the Ibos underground chambers, much on the plan of those of ancient Egypt, were formerly prepared for the reception of the dead. In talking over the matter with an Efik chief of high standing the latter stated that in olden days at Calabar graves only slightly different in form used to be dug out for the interment of chiefs. His description was as follows:
"Within the walls of the dead man's compound an oblong chamber often twenty-four feet deep, was dug. Through one of the sides they cut a tunnel, and at the end of this a large underground room was hollowed out. . . . . When all had been arranged the coffin was carefully lowered into the first chamber, borne through the passage, and laid upon the resting-place so reverently prepared.
"Then the best-loved wife of the deceased and two of his most beautiful slaves were led into the chamber and seated upon three chairs at the feet of, and facing, their dead lord. Between living and dead a table was placed, and on this dish es containing fine 'chop' was set.
"The best-loved wife was in the centre, and into her hands a lighted lamp was given. Then all save
the three women left the burial room. Boards were placed before the entrance and earth piled against these until the passage was filled up. Bolts of cloth and the less costly articles, were then laid in the first compartment, immediately beneath the shaft. Lastly soil was thrown in and beaten down over all." 1
213:1 "The Baganda, their Customs and Beliefs," p. 125. Roscoe.
214:1 Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia." R. C. Thompson.
215:1 "The Ballad of Clerk Saunders."
216:1 Aymonier, quoted in "The Mystic Rose," p. 95. A. E. Crawley.
224:1 "By Haunted Waters." P. Amaury Talbot.