Friday, October 12, 2012

African Religions: Fred Welbourn's

Ancestors index pages or Nurelweb

Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968
The natural and the supernatural

Few Britons have seen bacteria. We rarely think about them unless they cause
disease. And even today many people are ignorant that bacteria are essential to
healthy organic life. If we have to deal with them, whether to kill the malign
bacteria which cause dysentery or to increase their benign activity in a compost
heap, we consult a specialist. Normally, if we think about them at all, we
simply take them on trust. But most of us, if challenged, would say that they
are a natural and inescapable part of our environment.

No traditional Baganda have seen a ghost (Baganda ghosts are not expected to be
seen. They work in other ways). Although custom directed that shrines to the
dead should be tended regularly, they usually were neglected unless the ghost of
the deceased caused trouble. The benign activity of ghosts was so much taken for
granted as to be hardly mentioned except on very special occasions. If, however,
a ghost caused trouble a specialist was consulted. But, if challenged,
traditional Baganda would say that ghosts were a natural and inescapable part of
their environment. There was nothing "supernatural" about them. Indeed, the
contrast between "natural" and "supernatural" cannot be expressed in the Luganda

The idea that religion has to do with the supernatural, that is with miracles
and the breaking of "natural law", is deeply ingrained in Western thinking. We
think of the "natural" and "supernatural" as two entirely different realms to
such an extent that some of us find it extremely difficult to believe that a
supernatural world exists at all.

Contrast our way of thinking with two folk-tales which show how differently the
Baganda thought about what we would call "the supernatural":

When Kintu, first king of the Baganda, came to the country, he was alone except
for his cow. He ate its dung and drank its urine and enjoyed its company. One
day, sliding down the rainbow from the sky, which was ruled by a king called
Ggulu, came Ggulu's sons and daughters to have a look at the earth. One
daughter, Nnambi, fell in love with Kintu and determined to marry him. Her
brothers told their father, who advised them to steal Kintu's cow so that he
would die. But Nnambi saw what happened and took Kintu to the sky to recover it.

Ggulu set Kintu impossible tasks: to eat 10,000 helpings of food and beer; to
use a copper axe to cut a rock into firewood; to collect a pot of drinking water
from the dew; and finally to find his own cow among 40,000 others. All these
Kintu accomplished and drew wondering praise from Ggulu. He married Nnambi; and
they went back to earth to breed the Baganda.

Whatever the moral of this story, it is clear that the wonder-worker was Kintu
the man, not Ggulu the "ruler of the sky" whom we would call a god. Kintu and
Ggulu dealt with each other as any Baganda suitor would deal his potential
father-in-law. Earth and sky, man and heavenly being, do not represent
different, incomparable, levels of existence in this story but are part of a
single, intercommunicating, whole.

Nnambi's brothers, Walumbe, followed the happy pair to earth and, out of
jealousy, became the spirit of disease and death. He was eventually chased away
and lived in a hole in the earth. But he was finally responsible for all death;
and all ghosts had to visit him before returning to their clan graveyards. On
one occasion a hunter, called Mpobe, followed his dog, which was chasing an
edible rat; and the rat ran down Walumbe's hole. At the bottom was a village and
many people and, a little further on, an old man who was Walumbe. Mpobe was, not
unnaturally, afraid; and he knelt down, as any Muganda would kneel to a chief.
He explained how he had come and was allowed to go home on condition that he
told nobody where he had been. Else, Walumbe would kill him. In the end, of
course, he blabbed to his mother and Walumbe came to claim him. Mpobe asked if
he might first sell his things, buy a cow and eat it. Permission was given; and
Mpobe made the deal last over several years before he finally had to pay his

There is no suggestion here that death not something to be avoided. But Death
does not appear as a terrible figure but as a patient creditor-having certainly
the last word but, dealing with man on almost equal terms.

The recent experience of a Marakwet woman in Kenya, interviewed in the 1960's,
tells the same story. In a dream she was visited by the ghost of her dead son,
who asked her to get him his favourite fruit. This she did, leaving it at the
spot he indicated. The next night he again asked for fruit. She replied, 'If you
can't come home without making a nuisance of yourself, why don't you stay where
you are?' So the third night he just came for a chat.

‘There is nothing more natural than the supernatural;’ and any attempt to
understand the religious experience of traditional Africans must begin from a
reversal of our normal secular Western, but not particularly Christian, idea
that the "natural" and "supernatural" are different. Certainly, there is a
recognition, in many African societies, of a hierarchy of power. The Creator
God, if there is a belief in him or it, is the source of this power, as he or it
is the source of all things. But power is found, in descending order, in lesser
spirits, in ancestral ghosts, in chiefs, who are often the focus of
communication with the spirits, in witches and sorcerers. Finally in ordinary
men and women, animals, plants and inanimate things.

Sometimes this power is personalised. The Baganda, for instance, have many
stories of pregnant girls, deserted by their lovers, who gave birth to water
instead of a child. The water became a river; and the girl's spirit might catch
unwary travelers and drown them. Near one village in Uganda there lived a
leopard which kept the people in its care and warned them if other leopards were
coming to steal their stock. An animal's horn, which had been filled with
suitable ingredients and empowered by a spirit, could be used by its owner to do
jobs for him at a distance and could speak to him.

Sometimes the power has to be put into things, as into the horn and articles of
sorcery which will be discussed later. But sometimes it is inherent. A Buganda
man who killed the animal after which his clan is named was believed to have
killed his clan totem and automatically died. If a pregnant woman laughed at a
lame person, her child would be born lame. If a sheep, a goat or a dog got onto
the roof of a house, the inhabitants would leave it at once, saying it was
unlucky to live there. All these things were 'taboo.'

When this power was first described by Europeans, it was called by the
Melanesian word mana. The Melanesians used mana to explain any exceptional
excellence or skill in men - the power of a chief, the success of a warrior,
skill in rearing pigs or raising large crops of food. The attempt to obtain mana
was thought to be the basis of Melanesian religion. A similar idea was later
found in Polynesia, where mana was described as an all-pervasive psychic force
behaving very much like electricity. People and things which were positively
'charged' could pass it by contact to one that was 'negative'. Unless this
process was properly controlled, damage might result. A positively charged
chief, for instance, might come into contact with a commoner. The chief would
lose some of his power; and the commoner might be injured. An example of this
type of reaction in 2 Samuel 6.6f. Therefore 'taboos' were imposed to prevent
the fatal contact.

But the electrical metaphor, which was so effectively used to describe the
action of mana, can be used to illuminate the relation between 'natural' and
'supernatural'. Sir Arthur Eddington once pointed out that a physicist's
description of matter in terms of electrons and protons might easily give the
impression that a chair consists largely of wide-open space - hardly a suitable
support for sitting. The common-sense account is entirely different. Common
sense can normally disregard the electrical basis of matter. Electrical forces
become of concern to common sense when they are not properly controlled - when
lightning strikes, for instance - or when they are harnessed to human welfare to
produce effects which are impossible without them. To harness them requires
specialist skill; lightning may be extremely frightening. But we do not
therefore regard electricity as supernatural. It is an inescapable part of our
natural environment with special powers for good or ill. It is very much in this
way that traditional peoples understand the power which operates in taboos and
magic, through the ghosts and the spirits. It underlies all life; but 'common
sense' can normally disregard it. When out-of-the-way things happen, or when a
man needs special power for a particular purpose - to deal with misfortune or to
seek unusual success - he becomes aware, as we become aware of electricity, of
something which he believes to be around him and available all the time.
But a word of warning is necessary. Electricity can be dangerous as well as
useful. The Doctor Who stories suggest how the popular imagination fears
electricity when it gets into the hands of men who use it for their own evil
ends. An electric iron may give a fatal shock. So a man who can control mana may
be feared as well as admired. If he can use it to improve his own crops, he can
equally well use it to do harm to others. Among the Lugbara of Uganda, a man who
consistently has better crops than his neighbours is liable to be accused of
witchcraft and punished.

There are three ways in which men have looked at the universe (other ways may be
possible). One is that of materialism, which sees all phenomena as matter
organised in less or more complicated forms but, because it is matter,
ultimately subject to control by man. The second, which has been described in
this chapter, sees all phenomena as the expression of a mysterious force, which
may or may not be personalised, which men may try to control for their own
advantage but to which they are ultimately subject. The third divides phenomena
into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’, the one subject to man's control the other
wholly mysterious. In order to understand the ‘religions’ described in this
book, it is necessary to try to suspend judgement as to which of theses views of
the universe is true and to enter as fully as possible into the point of view of
the second.

Return to:Atoms and Ancestors index pages, the Africa pages, or to Nurelweb

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