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This article concerns the concept of fetishism in anthropology. For other uses, see Fetish (disambiguation).
Depiction of a fetish in South Africa by the London Missionary Society, circa 1900

A fetish (from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius, "artificial" and facere, "to make") is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.



Initially, this concept was used by the Portuguese to refer to the objects used in religious cults by the West African natives.

The concept was made known in Europe by Charles de Brosses in 1757, while comparing West African religion to the magical aspects of Ancient Egyptian religion. Later, Auguste Comte used the concept to apply an evolution theory to religion. In Comte's theory of the evolution of religion, he proposed that fetishism is the earliest (most primitive) stage, followed by the stages of polytheism and monotheism.

That said, some artifacts of monotheistic religions are fetishes according to ethnography and anthropology. For example in some forms of Christianity, which is a monotheistic religion, the Holy Cross and consecrated host are examples of fetishism. However, this vision is denied by monotheist practitioners.

In the 19th-20th century, Tylor and McLennan held that the concept of fetishism allowed historians of religion to shift attention from the relationship between people and God to the relationship between people and material objects. They also held that it established models of causal explanations of natural events which they considered false as a central problem in history and sociology.


Theoretically, fetishism is present in all religions, but its use in the study of religion is derived from studies of traditional West African religious beliefs, as well as Voodoo, which is derived from those beliefs.

Blood is often considered a particularly powerful fetish or ingredient in fetishes. In addition to blood, other objects and substances, such as bones, fur, claws, feathers, gemstones and crystals, water from certain places, certain types of plants and wood are common fetishes in the traditions of cultures worldwide.

Fetishes were commonly used in Native American religion and practice.[1] The bear represented the shaman, the buffalo was the provider, the mountain lion was the warrior, and the wolf was the pathfinder.[1]

Theories of fetishism in the West

  • In the 19th century Karl Marx appropriated the term to describe commodity fetishism as an important component of capitalism. Nowadays, (commodity and capital) fetishism is a central concept of Marxism.
  • Later Sigmund Freud appropriated the concept to describe a form of paraphilia where the object of affection is an inanimate object or a specific part of a person; see sexual fetish.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Animals: fact and folklore," New Mexico Magazine, August 2008, pp. 56-63, see New Mexico magazine website.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

FETISHISM, an ill-defined term, used in many different senses: (a)the worship of inanimate objects, often regarded as peculiarly African; (b)negro religion in general; (c)the worship of inanimate objects conceived as the residence of spirits not inseparably bound up with, nor originally connected with, such objects; (d)the doctrine of spirits embodied in, or attached to, or conveying influence through, certain material objects (Tylor); (e)the use of charms, which are not worshipped, but derive their magical power from a god or spirit; (f)The use as charms of objects regarded as magically potent in themselves. A further extension is given by some writers, who use the term as synonymous with the religions of primitive peoples, including under it not only the worship of inanimate objects, such as the sun, moon or stars, but even such phases of primitive philosophy as totemism. Comte applied the term to denominate the view of nature more commonly termed animism.


The word fetish (or fetich) was first used in connexion with Africa by the Portuguese discoverers of the last half of the 15th century; relics of saints, rosaries and images were then abundant all over Europe and were regarded as possessing magical virtue; they were termed by the Portuguese feiticos (i.e. charms). Early voyagers to West Africa applied this term to the wooden figures, stones, &c., regarded as the temporary residence of gods or spirits, and to charms. There is no reason to suppose that the word feitico was applied either to an animal or to the local spirit of a river, hill or forest. Feitico is sometimes interpreted to mean artificial, made by man, but the original sense is more probably "magically active or artful." The word was probably brought into general use by C. de Brosses, author of Du culte des dieux fetiches (1760), but it is frequently used by W. Bosman in his Description of Guinea (1705), in the sense of "the false god, Bossum" or "Bohsum," properly a tutelary deity of an individual.


The term fetish is commonly understood to mean the worship of or respect for material, inanimate objects, conceived as magically active from a virtue inherent in them, temporarily or permanently, which does not arise from the fact that a god or spirit is believed to reside in them or communicate virtue to them. Taken in this sense fetishism is probably a mark of decadence. There is no evidence of any such belief in Africa or elsewhere among primitive peoples. It is only after a certain grade of culture has been attained that the belief in luck appears; the fetish is essentially a mascot or object carried for luck.

Ordinary Usage

In the sense in which Dr Tylor uses the term the fetish is (1) a "god-house" or (2) a charm derived from a tutelary deity or spirit, and magically active in virtue of its association with such deity or spirit. In the first of these senses the word is applied to objects ranging from the unworked stone to the pot or the wooden figure, and is thus hardly distinguishable from idolatry. (a) The bohsum or tutelary deity of a particular section of the community is derived from the local gods through the priests by the performance of a certain series of rites. The priest indicates into what object the bohsum will enter and proceeds to the abode of the local god to procure the object in question. After making an offering the object is carried to an appropriate spot and a "fetish" tree set up as a shade for it, which is sacred so long as the bohsum remains beneath it. The fall of the tree is believed to mark the departure of the spirit. A bohsum may also be procured through a dream; but in this case, too, it is necessary to apply to the priest to decide whether the dream was veridical. (b) The suhman or tutelary deity of an individual is not an object selected at random to be the residence of the spirit. It is only procurable at the residence of a Sasabonsum, a malicious non-human being. Various ceremonies are performed, and a spirit connected with the Sasabonsum is finally asked to enter an object. This is then kept for three days; if no good fortune results it is concluded either that the spirit did not enter the object selected, or that it is disinclined to extend its protection. In either case the ceremonies must be commenced afresh. Otherwise offerings and even human sacrifices in exceptional cases are made to the suhman. It is commonly believed that the negro claims the power of coercing his tutelary deity. This is denied by Colonel Ellis. It is certain that coercion of deities is not unknown, but further evidence is required that the negro uses it when his deity is refractory.

The suhman can, it is believed, communicate a part of his powers to various objects in which he does not dwell; these are also termed suhman by the natives and may have given rise to the belief that the practices commonly termed fetishism are not animistic. These charms are many in number; offerings of food and drink are made, i.e. to the portion of the power of the suhman which resides in them. These charms can only be made by the possessor of the suhman. On the Guinea Coast the spirit implanted in the object is usually, if not invariably, non-human. Farther south on the Congo the "fetish" is inhabited by human souls also. The priest goes into the forest and cuts an image; when a party enters a wood for this purpose they may not mention the name of any living being unless they wish him to die and his soul to enter the fetish. The right person having been selected, his name is mentioned; and he is believed to die within ten days, his soul passing into the nkissi. It is into these figures that the nails are driven, in order to procure the vengeance of the indwelling spirit on some enemy.

In many cases the fetish spirit is believed to leave the "godhouse" and pass for the time being into the body of the priest, who manifests the phenomena of possession (q.v.). It is a common error to suppose that the whole of African religion is embraced in the practices connected with these tutelary deities; so far from this being the case, belief in higher gods, not necessarily accompanied with worship or propitiation, is common in many parts of Africa, and there is no reason to suppose that it had been derived in every case, perhaps not in any case, from Christian or Mahommedan missionaries.

See A. B. Ellis, Tshi-speaking Peoples, chs. vii., viii. and xii.; Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvolker, ii. 174; R. E. Dennett in Folklore, vol. xvi.; R. H. Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa 0904); also Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. 143, and M. H. Kingsley, West African Studies (2nd ed., 1901), where the term is used in a more extended sense. (N. W. T.)

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Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Fetishism means the religion of the fetish. The word fetish is derived through the Portuguese feitiço from the Latin factitius (facere, to do, or to make), signifying made by art, artificial (cf. Old English fetys in Chaucer). From facio are derived many words signifying idol, idolatry, or witchcraft. Later Latin has facturari, to bewitch, and factura, witchcraft. Hence Portuguese feitiço, Italian fatatura, O. Fr. faiture, meaning witchcraft, magic. The word was probably first applied to idols and amulets made by hand and supposed to possess magic power. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese, exploring the West Coast of Africa, found the natives using small material objects in their religious worship. These they called feitiço, but the use of the term has never extended beyond the natives on the coast. Other names are bohsum, the tutelary fetishes of the Gold Coast; suhman, a term for a private fetish; gree-gree on the Liberian coast; monda in the Gabun country; bian among the cannibal Fang; in the Niger Delta ju-ju -- possibly from the French joujou. i. e. a doll or toy (Kingsley) -- and grou-grou, according to some of the same origin, according to others a native term, but the natives say that it is "a white man's word". Every Congo leader has his m'kissi; and in other tribes a word equivalent to "medicine" is used.

C. de Brosses first employed fetishism as a general descriptive term, and claimed for it a share in the early development of religious ideas (Du Culte des Dieux Fétiches, 1760). He compared the phenomena observed in the negro worship of West Africa with certain features of the old Egyptian religion. This comparison led Pietschmann to emphasize the elements of fetishism in the Egyptian religion by starting with its magic character. Basthold (1805) claimed as fetish "everything produced by nature or art, which receives divine honor, including sun, moon, earth, air, fire, water, mountains, rivers, trees, stones, images, animals, if considered as objects of divine worship". Thus the name became more general, until Comte employed it to designate only the lowest stage of religious development. In this sense the term is used from time to time, e.g. de la Rialle, Schultze, Menzies, Höffding. Taking the theory of evolution as a basis, Comte affirmed that the fundamental law of history was that of historic filiation, that is, the Law of the Three States. Thus the human race, like the human individual, passed through three successive stages: the theological or imaginative, illustrated by fetishism, polytheism, monotheism; the metaphysical or abstract, which differed from the former in explaining phenomena not by divine beings but by abstract powers or essences behind them; the positive or scientific, where man enlightened perceives that the only realities are not supernatural beings, e.g. God or angels, nor abstractions, e.g. substances or causes, but phenomena and their laws as discovered by science. Under fetishism, therefore, he classed worship of heavenly bodies, nature-worship, etc. This theory is a pure assumption, yet a long time passed before it was cast aside. The ease with which it explained everything recommended it to many. Spencer formally repudiated it (Principles of Sociology), and with Tylor made fetishism a subdivision of animism.

While we may with Tylor consider the theory of Comte as abandoned, it is difficult to admit his own view. For the spirit supposed to dwell in the fetish is not the soul or vital power belonging to that object, but a spirit foreign to the object, yet in some way connected with and embodied in it. Lippert (1881), true to his exaggerated animism, defines fetishism as "a belief in the souls of the departed coming to dwell in anything that is tangible in heaven or on earth". Schultze, analysing the consciousness of savages, says that fetishism is a worship of material objects. He claims that the narrow circle of savages' ideas leads them to admire and exaggerate the value of very small and insignificant objects, to look upon these objects anthropopathically as alive, sentient, and willing, to connect them with auspicious or inauspicious events and experiences, and finally to believe that such objects require religious veneration. In his view these four facts account for the worship of stocks and stones, bundles and bows, gores and stripes, which we call fetishism. But Schultze considers fetishism as a portion, not as the whole, of primitive religion. By the side of it he puts a worship of spirits, and these two forms run parallel for some distance, but afterwards meet and give rise to other forms of religion. He holds that man ceases to be a fetish-worshipper as soon as he learns to distinguish the spirit from the material object. To Müller and Brinton the fetish is something more than the mere object (Rel. of Prim. Peop., Philadelphia, 1898). Menzies (History of Religion, p. 129) holds that primitive man, like the untutored savage of to-day, in worshipping a tree, a snake, or an idol, worshipped the very objects themselves. He regards the suggestion that these objects represented or were even the dwelling-place of some spiritual being, as an afterthought, up to which man has grown in the lapse of ages. The study of the African negro refutes this view. Ellis writes, "Every native with whom I have conversed on the subject has laughed at the possibility of its being supposed that he could worship or offer sacrifice to some such object as a stone, which of itself would be perfectly obvious to his senses was a stone only and nothing more".

De La Saussaye regards fetishism as a form of animism, i. e. a belief in spirits incorporated in single objects, but says that not every kind of worship paid to material objects can be called fetishism, but only that which is connected with magic; otherwise the whole worship of nature would be fetishism. The stock and stone which forms the object of worship is then called the fetish. Tylor has rightly declared that it is very hard to say whether stones are to be regarded as altars, as symbols, or as fetishes. He strives to place nature-worship as a connecting link between fetishism and polytheism, though he is obliged to admit that the single stages of the process defy any accurate description. Others, e.g. Reville, de La Saussaye, separate the worship of nature from animism. To Höffding, following Usener, the fetish is only the provisional and momentary dwelling-place of a spirit. Others, e.g. Lubbock, Happel, insist that the fetish must be considered as a means of magic -- not being itself the object of worship, but a means by which man is brought into close contact with the deity -- and as endowed with divine powers. De La Saussaye holds that to savages fetishes are both objects of religious worship and means of magic. Thus a fetish may often be used for magic purposes, yet it is more than a mere means of magic, as being itself anthropopathic, and often the object of religious worship.

Within the limits of animism, Tiele and Höffding distinguish between fetishism and spiritism. Fetishism contents itself with particular objects in which it is supposed a spirit has for a longer or a shorter time taken up its abode. In spiritism, spirits are not bound up with certain objects, but may change their mode of revelation, partly at their own discretion, partly under the influence of magic. Thus Höffding declares that fetishism, as the lowest form of religion, is distinguished from spiritism by the special weight it attributes to certain definite objects as media of psychical activity. In selecting objects of fetishism, religion appears, according to Höffding, under the guise of desire. He holds that religious ideas are only religious in virtue of this connexion between need and expectation, i. e., as elements of desire, and that it is only when thus viewed that fetishism can be understood. Hübbe-Schleiden, on the contrary, holds that fetishism is not a proper designation for a religion, because Judaism and Christianity have their fetishes as well as the nature religions, and says the word fetish should be used as analogous to a word-symbol or emblem. Haddon considers fetishism as a stage of religious development. Jevons holds magic and fetishism to be the negation of religion. He denies that fetishism is the primitive religion, or a basis from which religion developed, or a stage of religious development. To him, fetishism is not only anti-social, and therefore anti-religious, he even holds that the attitude of superiority manifested by the possessor towards the fetish deprives it of religious value, or rather makes it anti-religious.

The fetish differs from an idol or an amulet, though at times it is difficult to distinguish between them. An amulet, however, is the pledge of protection of a divine power. A fetish may be an image, e. g. the New Zealand wakapakoko, or not, but the divine power or spirit is supposed to be wholly incorporated in it. Farnell says an image may be viewed as a symbol, or as infused with divine power, or as the divinity itself. Idolatry in this sense is a higher form of fetishism. Farnell does not distinguish clearly between fetish and amulet, and calls relics, crucifixes, the Bible itself, fetishes. In his view any sacred object is a fetish. But objects may be held as sacred by external association with sacred persons or places without having any intrinsic sanctity. This loose use of the word has led writers to consider the national flag (especially a tattered battle-flag), the Scottish stone of Scone, the mascot, the horseshoe, as fetishes, whereas these objects have no value in themselves, but are prized merely for their associations -- real in the ease of the battle-flag, fancied in the case of the horseshoe.

The theory advanced by certain writers that fetishism represents the earliest stage of religious thought, has a twofold basis:

  1. philosophical;
  2. sociological.

Philosophical Basis: The Theory of Evolution

Assuming that primitive man was a semi-brute, or a semi-idiot, some writers of the Evolutionist School under the influence of Comte taught that man in the earliest stage was a fetish-worshipper, instancing in proof the African tribes, who in their view represent the original state of mankind. This basis is a pure assumption. More recent investigation reveals clearly the universal belief in a Great God, the Creator and Father of mankind, held by the negroes of Africa; Comber (Gram. and Dict, of the Congo language) and Wilson (West Guinea) prove the richness of their languages in structure and vocabulary; while Tylor, Spencer, and most advocates of the animistic theory look upon fetishism as by no means primitive, but as a decadent form of the belief in spirit and souls. Finally, there are no well-authenticated cases of savage tribes whose religion consists of fetish-worship only.

Sociological Basis

Historians of civilization, impressed by the fact that many customs of savages are also found in the highest stages of civilized life, concluded that the development of the race could best be understood by taking the savage level as a starting-point. The life of savages is thus the basis of the higher development. But this argument can be inverted. For if the customs of savages may be found among civilized races, evident traces of higher ideals are also found among savages. Furthermore, the theory that a savage or a child represents exclusively, or even prominently, the life of primitive man, cannot be entertained. Writers on the philosophy of religion have used the word fetishism in a vague sense, susceptible of many shades of meaning. To obtain a correct knowledge of the subject, we must go to authorities like Wilson, Norris, Ellis, and Kingsley, who have spent years with the African negroes and have made exhaustive investigations on the spot. By fetish or ju-ju is meant the religion of the natives of West Africa. Fetishism, viewed from the outside, appears strange and complex, but is simple in its underlying idea, very logically thought out, and very reasonable to the minds of its adherents. The prevailing notion in West Guinea seems to be that God, the Creator (Anyambe, Anzam), having made the world and filled it with inhabitants, retired to some remote corner of the universe, and allowed the affairs of the world to come under the control of evil spirits. Hence the only religious worship performed is directed to these spirits, the purpose being to court their favour or ward off their displeasure. The Ashantis recognize the existence of a Supreme Being, whom they adore in a vague manner although, being invisible, He is not represented by an idol. At the commencement of the world, God was in daily relations with man. He came on earth, conversed with men, and all went well. But one day He retired in anger from the world, leaving its management to subaltern divinities. These are spirits which dwell everywhere -- in waters, woods, rocks -- and it is necessary to conciliate them, unless one wishes to encounter their displeasure. Such a phenomenon then as fetish- or spirit-worship, existing alone without an accompanying belief in a Supreme Being who is above all fetishes and other objects of worship, has yet to be discovered. Other nations, holding the fundamental idea of one God who is Lord and Creator, say that this God is too great to interest Himself in the affairs of the world; hence after having created and organized the world, He charged His subordinates with its government. Hence they neglect the worship of God for the propitiation of spirits. These spirits correspond in their functions to the gods of Greek and Roman mythology, but are never confounded with the Supreme Being by the natives. Fetishism therefore is a stage where God is quietly disregarded, and the worship due to Him is quietly transferred to a multitude of spiritual agencies under His power, but uncontrolled by it. "All the air and the future is peopled by the Bantu", says Dr. Norris, "with a large and indefinite company of spiritual beings. They have personality and will, and most of the human passions, e.g., anger, revenge, generosity, gratitude. Though they are all probably malevolent, yet they may be influenced and made favorable by worship."

In the face of this animistic view of nature and the peculiar logic of the African mind, all the seemingly weird forms and ceremonies of fetishism, e.g. the fetish or witch-doctor, become but the natural consequences of the basal idea of the popular religious belief. There are grades of spirits in the spirit-world. Miss Kingsley holds that fourteen classes of spirits are clearly discernible. Dr. Nassau thinks the spirits commonly affecting human affairs can be classified into six groups. These spirits are different in power and functions. The class of spirits that are human souls, always remain human souls; they do not become deified, nor do they sink in grade permanently. The locality of spirits is not only vaguely in the surrounding air, but in prominent natural objects, e.g. caves, enormous rocks, hollow trees, dark forests. While all can move from place to place, some belong peculiarly to certain localities. Their habitations may be natural (e.g. large trees, caverns, large rocks, capes, and promontories; and for the spirits of the dead, the villages where they had dwelt during the lifetime of the body, or graveyards) or acquired, e.g. for longer or shorter periods under the power wielded by the incantations of the nganga or native doctor. By his magic art any spirit may be localized in any object whatever, however small, and thus placed it is under the control of the "doctor" and subservient, to the wishes of the possessor or wearer of the object in which it is confined. This constitutes a fetish. The fetish-worshipper makes a clear distinction between the reverence with which he regards a certain material object and the worship he renders to the spirit for the time being inhabiting it. Where the spirit, for any reason, is supposed to have gone out of that thing and definitively abandoned it, the thing itself is no longer reverenced, but thrown away as useless, or sold to the curio-hunting white man.

Everything the African negro knows by means of his senses, he regards as a twofold entity-partly spirit, partly not spirit or, as we say, matter. In man this twofold entity appears as a corporeal body, and a spiritual or "astral" body in shape and feature like the former. This latter form of "life" with its "heart" can be stolen by magic power while one is asleep, and the individual sleeps on, unconscious of his loss. If the life-form is returned to him before he awakes, he will be unaware that anything unusual has happened. If he awakes before this portion of him has been returned, though he may live for a while, he will sicken and eventually die. If the magician who stole the "life" has eaten the "heart", the victim sickens at once and dies. The connexion of a certain spirit with a certain mass of matter is not regarded as permanent. The native will point out a lightning-struck tree, and tell you its spirit has been killed, i. e., the spirit is not actually dead, but has fled and lives elsewhere. When the cooking pot is broken, its spirit has been lost. If his weapon fails, it is because some one has stolen the spirit, or made it sick by witchcraft. In every action of life he shows how much he lives with a great, powerful spirit-world around him. Before starting to hunt or fight, he rubs medicine into his weapons to strengthen the spirit within them, talking to them the while, telling them what care he has taken of them and what he has given them before, though it was hard to give, and begging them not to fail him now. He may be seen bending over the river, talking with proper incantations to its spirit, asking that, when it meets an enemy, it will upset the canoe and destroy the occupant. The African believes that each human soul has a certain span of life due or natural to it. It should be born, grow up through childhood, youth, and manhood to old age. If this does not happen, it is because some malevolent influence has blighted it. Hence the Africans' prayers to the spirits are always: "Leave us alone!" "Go away!" "Come not into this town, plantation, house; we have never injured you. Go away!" This malevolent influence which cuts short the soul-life may act of itself in various ways, but a coercive witchcraft may have been at work. Hence the vast majority of deaths -- almost all deaths in which no trace of blood is shown -- are held to have been produced by human beings, acting through spirits in their command, and from this idea springs the widespread belief in and witches and witchcraft.

Thus every familiar object in the daily life of these people is touched with some curious fancy, and every trivial action is regulated by a reference to unseen spirits who are unceasingly watching an opportunity to hurt or annoy mankind. Yet upon close inspection the tenets of this religion are vague and unformulated, for with every tribe and every district belief varies, and rites and ceremonies diverge. The fetish-man, fetizero, nganga, chitbone, is the authority on all religious observances. He offers the expiatory sacrifice to the spirits to keep off evil. He is credited with a controlling influence over the elements, winds and waters obey the waving of his charm, i. e. a bundle of feathers, or the whistle through the magic antelope horn. He brings food for the departed, prophesies, and calls down rain. One of his principal duties is to find out evil-doers, that is, persons who by evil magic have caused sickness or death. He is the exorcist of spirits, the maker of charms (i. e. fetishes), the prescriber and regulator of ceremonial rites. He can discover who "ate the heart" of the chief who died yesterday; who caused the canoe to upset and gave lives to the crocodiles and the dark waters of the Congo; or even "who blighted the palm trees of the village and dried up their sap, causing the supply of malafu to cease; or who drove away the rain from a district, and withheld its field of nguba" (ground-nuts). The fetish doctors can scarcely be said to form a class. They have no organization, and are honoured only in their own districts, unless they be called specially to minister in another place. In their ceremonies they make the people dance, sing, play, beat drums, and they spot their bodies with their "medicines". Anyone may choose the profession for himself, and large fees are demanded for services.

Among the natives on the lower Congo is found the ceremony of n'kimba, i. e. the initiation of young men into the mysteries and rites of their religion. Every village in this region has its n'kimba enclosure, generally a walled-in tract of half an acre in extent buried in a thick grove of trees. Inside the enclosure are the huts of the nganga and his assistants, as well as of those receiving instruction. The initiated alone are permitted to enter the enclosure, where a new language is learned in which they can talk on religious matters without being understood by the people. In other parts of the Congo the office falls on an individual in quite an accidental manner, e.g. because fortune has in some way distinguished him from his fellows. Every unusual action, display of skill, or superiority is attributed to the intervention of some supernatural power. Thus the future nganga usually begins his career by some lucky adventure, e. g. prowess in hunting, success in fishing, bravery in war. He is then regarded as possessing some charm, or as enjoying the protection of some spirit. In consideration of payment he pretends to impart his power to others by means of charms, i. e. fetishes consisting of different herbs, stones, pieces of wood, antelope horns, skin and feathers tied in little bundles, the possession of which is supposed to yield to the purchaser the same power over spirits as the nganga himself enjoys.

The fetish-man always carries in his sack a strange assortment of articles out of which he makes the fetishes. The flight of the poisonous arrow, the rush of the maddened buffalo, or the venomous bite of the adder, can be averted by these charms; with their assistance the waters of the Congo may be safely crossed. The Moloki, ever ready to pounce on men, is checked by the power of the nganga. The eye-teeth of leopards are an exceedingly valuable fetish on the Kroo coast. The Kabinda negroes wear on their necks a little brown shell sealed with wax to preserve intact the fetish-medicine within. A fetish is anything that attracts attention by its curious shape (e.g. an anchor) or by its behaviour, or anything seen in a dream, and is generally not shaped to represent the spirit. A fetish may be such by the force of its own proper spirit, but more commonly a spirit is supposed to be attracted to the object from without (e.g. the suhman), whether by the incantations of the nganga or not. These wandering spirits may be natural spirits or ghosts. The Melanesians believe that the souls of the dead act through bones, while the independent spirits choose stones as their mediums (Brinton, Religions of Prim. Peoples, New York, 1897). Ellis says, if a man wants a suhman (a fetish), he takes some object (a rudely cut wooden image, a stone, a root of a plant, or some red earth placed in a pan), and then calls on a spirit of Sasabonsum (a genus of deities) to enter the object prepared, promising it offerings and worship. If a spirit consents to take up its residence in the object, a low hissing sound is heard, and the suhman is complete.

Every house in the Congo village has its m'kissi; they are frequently put over the door or brought inside, and are supposed to protect the house from fire and robbery. The selection of the object in which the spirit is to reside is made by the native nganga. The ability to conjure a free wandering spirit into the narrow limits of this material object, and to compel or subordinate its power to the service of some designated person and for a special purpose, rests with him. The favourite articles used to confine spirits are skins (especially tails of bushcats),horns of the antelope, nutshells, snail-shells, eagles' claws and feathers, tails and heads of snakes, stones, roots, herbs, bones of any animal (e.g. small horns of gazelles or of goats), teeth and claws of leopards, but especially human bones -- of ancestors or of renowned men, but particularly of enemies or white men. Newly made graves are rifled for them, and among the bodily parts most prized are portions of human skulls, human eyeballs, especially those of white men. But anything may be chosen -- a stick, string, bead, stone, or rag of cloth. Apparently there is no limit to the number of spirits; there is literally no limit to the number and character of the articles in which they may be confined. As, however, the spirits may quit the objects, it is not always certain that fetishes possess extraordinary powers; they must be tried and give proof of their efficiency before they can be implicitly trusted. Thus, according to Ellis, the natives of the Gold Coast put their bohsum in fire as a probation, for the fire never injures the true bohsum. A fetish then, in the strict sense of the word, is any material object consecrated by the nganga or magic doctor with a variety of ceremonies and processes, by virtue of which some spirit is supposed to become localized in that object, and subject to the will of the possessor.

These objects are filled or rubbed by the nganga with a mixture compounded of various substances, selected according to the special work to be accomplished by the fetish. Its value, however, depends not on itself, nor solely on the nature of these substances, but on the skill of the nganga in dealing with spirits. Yet there is a relation, difficult sometimes for the foreigner to grasp, between the substances selected and the object to be attained by the fetish. Thus, to give the possessor bravery or strength, some part of a leopard or of an elephant is selected; to give cunning, some part of a gazelle; to give wisdom, some part of the human brain; to give courage, a portion of the heart; to give influence, some part of the eye. These substances are supposed to please and attract some spirit, which is satisfied to reside in them and to aid their possessor. The fetish is compounded in secret, with the accompaniment of drums, dancing, invocations, looking into mirrors or limpid water to see faces human or spiritual, and is packed into the hollow of the shell or bone, or smeared over the stick or stone. If power over some one be desired, the nganga must receive crumbs from the food, clippings of the finger-nails, some hair, or even a drop of blood of the person, which is mixed in the compound. So fearful are the natives of power being thus obtained over them, that they have their hair cut by a friend; and even then it is carefully burned, or cast into the river. If one is accidentally cut, he stamps out the blood that has dropped on the ground, or cuts away the wood which it has saturated.

The African negro in appealing to the fetish is prompted by fear alone. There is no confession, no love, rarely thanksgiving. The being to whom he appeals is not God. True he does not deny that God is; if asked, he will acknowledge His existence. Very rarely and only in extreme emergencies, however, does he make an appeal to Him, for according to his belief God is so far off, so inaccessible, so indifferent to human wants, that a petition to Him would be almost vain. He therefore turns to some one of the mass of spirits whom he believes to be ever near and observant of human affairs, in which, as former human beings, some of them once had part. He seeks not spiritual, but purely physical, safety. A sense of moral and spiritual need is lost sight of, although not quite eliminated, for he believes in a good and a bad. But the dominant feeling is fear of possible natural injury from human or subsidized spiritual enemies. This physical salvation is sought either by prayer, sacrifice, and certain other ceremonies rendered to the spirit of the fetish or to non-localized spirits, or by the use of charms or amulets. These charms may be material, i. e. fetishes; vocal, e.g. utterances of cabbalistic words which are supposed to have power over the local spirits; ritual, e.g. prohibited food, i. e. orunda, for which any article of food may be selected and made sacred to the spirit. At night the Congo chief will trace a slender line of ashes round his hut, and firmly believe that he has erected a barrier which will protect him and his till morning against the attacks of the evil spirit.

The African believes largely in preventive measures, and his fetishes are chiefly of this order. When least conscious, he may be offending some spirit with power to work him ill; he must therefore be supplied with charms for every season and occasion. Sleeping, eating, drinking, he must be protected from hostile influences by his fetishes. These are hung on the plantation fence, or from the branches of plants in the garden, either to prevent theft or to sicken the thief over the doorway of the house, to bar the entrance of evil; from the bow of the canoe, to ensure a successful voyage; they are worn on the arm in hunting to ensure an accurate aim; on any part of the person, to give success in loving, hating, planting, fishing, buying; and so through the whole range of daily work and interests. Some kinds, worn on a bracelet or necklace, ward off sickness. The new-born infant has a health-knot tied about its neck, wrist, or loins. Before every house in Whydah, the seaport of Dahomey, one may perceive a cone of baked clay, the apex of which is discoloured with libations of palm-oil, etc. To the end of their lives the people keep on multiplying, renewing, or altering these fetishes.

In fetish-worship the African negro uses prayer and sacrifice. The stones heaped by passers-by at the base of some great tree or rock, the leaf cast from a passing canoe towards a point of land on the river bank, are silent acknowledgements of the presence of the ombwiris (i.e. spirits of the place). Food is offered, as also blood-offerings of a fowl, a goat, or a sheep. Until recently human sacrifices were offered, e.g. to the sacred crocodiles of the Niger Delta; to the spirits of the oil-rivers on the upper Guinea coast, where annual sacrifices of a maiden were made for success in foreign commerce; the thousands of captives killed at the "annual custom" of Dahomey for the safety of the king and nation. In fetishism prayer has a part, but it is not prominent, and not often formal and public. Ejaculatory prayer is constantly made in the utterance of cabbalistic words, phrases, or sentences adopted by, or assigned to, almost every one by parent or doctor. According to Ellis no coercion of the fetish is attempted on the Gold Coast, but Kidd states that the negro of Guinea beats his fetish, if his wishes are frustrated, and hides it in his waist-cloth when he is about to do anything of which he is ashamed.

The fetish is used not only as a preventive of or defence against evil (i. e. white art), but also as a means of offence, i. e. black art or witchcraft in the full sense, which always connotes a possible taking of life. The half-civilized negro, while repudiating the fetish as a black art, feels justified in retaining it as a white art, i. e. as a weapon of defence. Those who practise the black art are all "wizards" or "witches" -- names never given to practisers of the white art. The user of the white art uses no concealment; a practitioner of the black art denies it, and carries on its practice secretly. The black art is supposed to consist of evil practices to cause sickness and death. Its medicines, dances, and enchantments are also used in the professed innocent white art; the difference is in the work which the spirit is entrusted to perform. Not every one who uses white art is able to use also the black art. Anyone believing in the fetish can use the white art without subjecting himself to the charge of being a wizard. Only a wizard can cause sickness or death. Hence witchcraft belief includes witchcraft murder.

There exists in Bantu a society called the "Witchcraft Company", whose members hold secret meetings at midnight in the depths of the forest to plot sickness or death. The owl is their sacred bird, and their signal-call is an imitation of its hoot. They profess to leave their corporeal bodies asleep in their huts, and it is only their spirit-bodies that attend the meeting, passing through walls and over tree-Lops with instant rapidity. At the meeting they have visible, audible, and tangible communications with spirits. They have feasts, at which is eaten "the heart-life" of some human being, who through this loss of his "heart" falls sick and dies unless the "heart" be restored. The early cock-crow is a warning for them to disperse, for they fear the advent of the morning star, as, should the sun rise upon them before they reach their corporeal bodies, all their plans would fail and they would sicken. They dread cayenne pepper; should its bruised leaves or pods be rubbed over their corporeal bodies during their absence, their spirits are unable to re-enter, and their bodies die or waste miserably away. This society was introduced by black slaves to the West Indies, e.g. Jamaica and Hayti, and to the Southern States as Voodoo worship. Thus Voodooism or Odoism is simply African fetishism transplanted to American soil. Authentic records are procurable of midnight meetings held in Hayti, as late as 1888, at which human beings, especially children, were killed and eaten at the secret feasts. European governments in Africa have put down the practice of the black art, yet so deeply is it implanted in the belief of the natives that Dr. Norris does not hesitate to say it would revive if the whites were to withdraw.

Fetishism in Africa is not only a religious belief; it is a system of government and a medical profession, although the religious element is fundamental and colours all the rest. The fetish-man, therefore, is priest, judge, and physician. To the believers in the fetish the killing of those guilty of witchcraft is a judicial act; it is not murder, but execution. The fetish-man has power to condemn to death. A judicial system does not exist. Whatever rules there are, are handed down by tradition, and the persons familiar with these old sayings and customs are present in the trial of disputed matters. Fetishes are set up to punish offenders in certain cases where it is considered specially desirable to make the law operative though the crimes cannot be detected (e.g. theft). The fetish is supposed to be able not only to detect but to punish the transgressor. In cases of death the charge of witchcraft is made, and the relatives seek a fetish-man, who employs the ordeal by poison, fire or other tests to detect the guilty person. Formerly mbwaye (i. e. ordeal by poison) was performed by giving to the accused a poisonous drink, the accuser also having to take the test to prove their sincerity. If he vomited immediately he was innocent; if he was shown guilty, the accusers were the executioners. On the upper coast of Guinea the test is a solution of the sassawood, and is called "red water"; at Calahar, the solution of a bean; in the Gabun country, of the akazya leaf or bark; farther south in the Nkami country, it is called mbundu. The distinction between poison and fetish is vague in the minds of many natives, to whom poison is only another material form of a fetish power. It has been estimated that for every natural death at least one -- and often ten or more -- has been executed.

The judicial aspect of fetishism is revealed most plainly in the secret societies (male and female) of crushing power and far-reaching influence, which before the advent of the white man were the court of last appeal for individual and tribal disputes. Of this kind were the Egho of the Niger Delta, Ukuku of the Corisco region, Yasi of the Ogowé, M'wetyi of the Shekani, Bweti of the Bakele, Inda and Njembe of the Mpongwe, Ukuku and Malinda of the Batanga region. All of these societies had for their primary object the laudable one of government, and, for this purpose, they fostered the superstitious dread with which the fetish was regarded by the natives. But the arbitrary means employed in their management, the oppressive influences at work, the false representations indulged in, made them almost all evil. They still exist among the interior tribes; on the coast, they have either been entirely suppressed or exist only for amusement (e.g. Ukuku in Gabun), or as a traditional custom (e.g. Njembe). The Ukuku society claimed the government of the country. To put "Ukuku on the white man" meant to boycott him, i. e. that no one should work for him, no one should sell food or drink to him; he was not allowed to go to his own spring. In Dahomey the fetish-priests are a kind of secret police for the despotic king. Thus, while witchcraft was the religion of the natives, these societies constituted their government.

Although sickness is spoken of among the natives as a disease, yet the patient is said to be sick because of an evil spirit, and it is believed that when this is driven out by the magician's benevolent spirit, the patient will recover. When the heathen negro is sick, the first thing is to call the "doctor" to find out what spirit by invading the body has caused the sickness. The diagnosis is made by drum, dance, frenzied song, mirror, fumes of drugs, consultation of relics, and conversation with the spirit itself. Next must be decided the ceremony peculiar to that spirit, the vegetable and mineral substances supposed to be either pleasing or offensive to it. If these cannot be obtained, the patient must die. The witch-doctor believes that his incantations have subsidized the power of a spirit, which forthwith enters the body of the patient and, searching through its vitals, drives out the antagonizing spirit which is the supposed actual cause of the disease. The nkinda, "the spirit of disease", is then confined by the doctor in a prison, e.g. in a section of sugar-cane stalk with its leaves tied together. The component parts of any fetish are regarded by the natives as we regard the drugs of our materia medica. Their drugs, however, are esteemed operative not through certain inherent chemical qualities, but in consequence of the presence of the spirit to whom they are favourite media. This spirit is induced to act by the pleasing enchantments of the magic-doctor. The nganga, as surgeon and physician, shows more than considerable skill in extracting bullets from wounded warriors, and in the knowledge of herbs as poisons and antidotes.

Whether the black slaves brought to America the okra or found it already existing on the continent is uncertain, but the term gumbo is undoubtedly of African origin, as also is the term mbenda (peanuts or ground-nuts), corrupted into pindar in some of the Southern States. The folk-lore of the African slave survives in Uncle Remus's tales of "Br'er Rabbit". Br'er Rabbit is an American substitution for Brother Nja (Leopard) or Brother Iheli (Gazelle) in Paia N'jambi's (the Creator's) council of speaking animals. Jevons holds that fetishes are private only, although, in fact, not only individuals, but families and tribes have fetishes. The fetish Deute at Krakje and Atia Yaw of Okwaou were known and feared for leagues around. In the Benga tribe of West Africa the family fetish is known by the name of Yãkã. It is a bundle of the parts of bodies of their dead, i. e. first joints of fingers and toes, lobe of ear, hair. The value of Yãkã depends on the spirits of the family dead being associated with the portions of their bodies, and this combination is effected by the prayer and incantation of the doctor. The Yãkã is appealed to in family emergencies, e.g. disease, death, when ordinary fetishes fail. This rite is very expensive and may require a month, during which time all work is suspended.

The observances of fetish-worship fade away into the customs and habits of everyday life by gradations, so that in some of the superstitious beliefs, while there may be no formal handling of a fetish amulet containing a spirit nor actual prayer nor sacrifice, nevertheless spiritism is the thought and is more or less consciously held, and consequently the term fetish might perhaps be extended to them. The superstition of the African negro is different from that of the Christian, for it is the practical and logical application of his religion. To the Christian it is a pitiful weakness; to the negro, a trusted belief. Thus some birds and beasts are of ill omen, others of good omen. The mournful hooting of an owl at midnight is a warning of death, and all who hear the call will hasten to the wood and drive away the messenger of ill-tidings with sticks and stones. Hence arises the belief in the power of Ngoi, Moloki, N'doshi or Uvengwa (i. e., evil-spirited leopard, like the German werewolf), viz., that certain possessors of evil spirits have ability to assume the guise of an animal, and reassume at will the human form. To this superstition must be referred the reverence shown fetish leopards, hippopotami, crocodiles, sokos (large monkeys of the gorilla type).


Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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Simple English

Fetishism can be one of the following:

  • The belief that certain natural or man-made things/objects, have supernatural/magical powers. This thing is called a fetish.
  • Sexual fetishism, sexual attraction to objects that do not move on their own.

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