How many of us chanted this little jingle growing up as we deliberately stepped so as to not touch any parts of our feet on the offending cracks in sidewalks?
|Admit it...you did this too, right?|
My friends and I would do it for fun, for a few minutes, and then it was back to normal walking and who really cares if we stepped on or over cracks in the sidewalk because we did not believe the ways we stepped would affect our mothers' backs in any way.
Not that this book, African Notebook, is huge or anything, but the author, Albert Schweitzer, devoted a full chapter to Taboos and Magic. As I was reading it last night, thoughts of American Bedu's recent post concerning "Does the Evil Eye Really Exist" came to mind. I know Saudi Arabia is very cultural and sometimes the culture gets mixed up with the national religion and people fault Islam for things that are not in Islam. They are simply cultural traditions predating Muhammad's religion. Evil eye talk exists in even predominantly Catholic Latin American countries from what I understand.
And we all know of superstitions such as the bad luck that follows breaking a mirror, spilling salt, seeing a black cat, walking under a ladder or the number 13. By contrast a rabbit's foot and four leaf clovers are supposed to bring good luck.
You may recall from the Old Testament that the Israelites used the Ark of the Covenant as somewhat of a good luck charm believing if they took it into battle, they were assured of victory over their foes.
How much stock do you put into such things? Are they nonsensical or do they have some supernatural value that people who only believe what they see should note? Is there some element of the supernatural out there that we should take seriously?
In this book, Schweitzer notes how strongly taboos influenced the people of (now) Gabon, Africa. Some were more general: men whose wives were pregnant could not drive nails, eat meat that had begun to smell (despite most of the times their eating meat that was "already almost putrid"), touch a chameleon, step over a procession of driver ants, fill a hole with dirt and have anything to do with a corpse.
Some taboos were very specific and "at the birth of a child the special taboos affecting it as an individual [were] usually disclosed by the father." When the child was old enough to learn to count to five, he was taught his particular taboos. For one woman it was that she never sweep with a broom. Thus she always used her hands for this task. For a young man, it was that he never be hit on his right shoulder. Yet another was prohibited from eating plantains or even from the same pot where plantains were cooked immediately before. (When he accidentally ate fish that had plantain remains in the pot, he immediately got a cramp and died after a few hours!)
|Can you imagine having to sweep with your hands due to a taboo?|
When people died, the villagers often looked for reasons. Instead of attributing death to natural causes, they were quick to consult a witchdoctor who would inform them of the person who had practiced magic or called down a curse on the one who died. In one sad recollection, a French-American observer, du Chaillu, watched with horror and helplessness as the village gathered round and executed quick "justice" over three women who supposedly had caused a young man's untimely death. One of the victims' brothers was forced to participate in this beheading and hacking up of the bodies and throwing them into the river to avoid suspicion. It was not allowed to show sympathy for those accused...even if you knew they were innocent and the one being killed was a close family member! This distraught young man "compelled not only to join in witnessing the murder of his sister, but to shout with the mob in the chorus of rage, [was full of] frightful suffering. [du Chaillu] endeavored to comfort him. He spoke to him of God, Who loathes all cruelty. 'Oh, Chally,' said the poor African, 'when you go back to your country, tell the people there to send people to teach us poor ignorant beings the words that come from the mouth of God.'" (pg. 77)
Apparently some of the natives did believe God freed them from these taboos. I especially enjoyed this recollection:
Nyingone's taboo was that she "must never see her reflection either in glass or metal or water." This was especially hard when trying to cross streams by tree trunks because when she happened to see her reflection in the water, she fainted, fell in the water and nearly drowned. (She'd been rescued from drowning several times.)
In despair over what she had already suffered from this taboo, she came to Monsieur Lavignotte. "This taboo," she said, "is a dreadful force. I can't help being afraid of it. But I know too that God, Whom you know and preach, is stronger than Satan, in whom we have hitherto believed. So with your help I hope to get rid of my taboo. When you have prayed with me, I shall fearlessly turn round the mirror I hold in my hand and look at myself in it."
After the prayer, she had courage to do as she had said. She looked in the glass for a long time glowing with happiness because nothing happened. When at last she raised her eyes, she said to Monsieur Lavignotte, "And to think I never knew how beautiful I am ...'" (pg.62)
|The truth will set you free!|
Maybe I'm wrong, but I tend to believe that Jesus would have appreciated the faith it took for this lady to overcome this strong cultural superstition.
Twins were often considered halves of the same whole. If they were allowed to live, mothers had to treat them exactly the same, give them the exact same amount of food, dress them alike and even twins were forced to marry at the same time. Often when one twin died, the other hid because tradition held that the other half (since s/he was not a whole person) needed to die as well.
What do you think concerning this post? Do you take evil eyes, superstitions, taboos, magic seriously? Why or why not? Do you believe your holy book supports your position or is it more cultural for you? Did any of the stories above interest you? Does the story about the young man dying after eating out of a pot with plantains prove to you that some spiritual force is behind these taboos? What did you think of Nyingone's declaration that God is stronger than Satan when she wanted to be free of her taboo? Other thoughts or impressions?
Want to read more tidbits from this book? Check out this post with more interesting cultural observations from African Notebook.