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Museum Mondays: Benevolent or malevolent?

October 30, 2011
Courtesy of Dan Bartlett, curator of Exhibitions and Education at the Logan Museum of Anthropology.


It’s really only a coincidence that this fearsome-looking figure was chosen for this week’s Museum Monday. Halloween had nothing to do with it, although it does relate—in a roundabout way.

Visiting Intructor of History Danny Noorlander’s class, HIST 150: Gods & Devils of the Atlantic World, came to the Logan Museum last Tuesday to look at artifacts related to the processes of religious conversion and syncretism. Students examined objects illustrating indigenous religious traditions; the tools used by Christian missionaries to teach the word of God; and evidence of syncretism—the blending of Christian and indigenous beliefs. We began with objects related to indigenous religious practices prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries.

The object pictured here is a nkisi of the Yoruba people of West Africa. It is a power object, or fetish, carved by man but activated by a nkisi. A nkisi has been described as, “a power emanating from the unseen world of the dead, an omniscient force which is otherwise inaccessible to human perception.” Taking the figure from a wood carver, a nganga (diviner) puts magical substances into a cavity in the body of the figure and then attaches small objects to the body. What these substances and objects are depends on the figure’s purpose. Nkisi can be either benevolent or malevolent. Benevolent nkisi provide protection from witches or other spiritual hazards or are used to cure illness. Malevolent nkisi can cause sickness and harm, not unlike the Voodoo doll of popular imagination.

So which is this one? It certainly looks pretty bad-ass. All those nails sticking in the figure can’t be good, can they? As it turns out even a frightening-looking figure like this one can hold positive forces. The nail pounded into the shoulder on one figure may cause injury to an enemy’s shoulder, but on another figure, the nail cures a person of chronic shoulder pain. The nkisi’s form is a poor indicator of its function. It’s all in the intent of the nganga that endows the object with positive or negative spiritual forces. As for this figure, we don’t know what its purpose was.

But what about its connection to Halloween, you ask? During Noorlander’s class visit we looked at a calaca figure from Mexico. These are the skeletal figures used to decorate for Day of the Dead celebrations. The Day of the Dead is a great example of religious syncretism, and its origins are in an Aztec festival pre-dating the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. Recognizing its similarity to the Catholic Church’s All Saints and All Souls Days, the natives moved and adopted their festival to coincide with, and conform to, the traditions of their new Catholic faith. Our modern Halloween celebration derives from these Catholic celebrations. The nkisi figure represents indigenous religion in a pure form; Halloween (by way of All Souls Day) is an indigenous religion in a syncretic form. Both represent what was a very interesting class discussion. (Told you the connection was very, very roundabout!)