Antiwitchcraft Shrines among the Akan, Part 3

Sat, Dec 13, 2008

Culture, Research, Traditional Afrikan

During my fieldwork in the district, very few women were in actual fact ever accused by a shrine-priest of witchcraft; the relative rarity of the event made the amount of time shrine-priests devoted to talking about this topic seem strangely disproportional. However, witchcraft discourses, I want to argue, serve another purpose. They allow shrine-priests to demonstrate to their clients first-hand knowledge of witchcraft, and they allow the priests to illustrate awareness of peoples’ hidden intentions and “guilty” actions and desires, both locally and around the globe. One young priest told me that everyone knows a lot about witchcraft, but it is the priests who know the most because they come face-to-face with the witch. Unlike many of the victims of witchcraft who, if they survive, are too terrified and threatened by their ordeal to reveal much about it, the priest lives to tell the tale. Priests revel in this information and use the details they know about witch-craft to enhance their reputation. Hence the popularity of witchcraft discourses among many shrine-priests is explained, at least in part, by their attempt to cover up their own fallibility and Uieir inevitably shakey grasp of most of the facts most of the time. Except for witchcraft confessions, most of their knowledge is acquired indirectly, and they are never even in complete possession of this material. It is each god alone who has the total picture, in the form of knowledge that is so all-encompassing that it is never fully transmitted to anyone else. Indeed, priests often expressed astonishment when I questioned them on this matter. As one priest laughed, “I do not have the mind to understand this knowledge…. It is too much for a man.” Another priest compared this knowledge to suddenly being told ever.

Gods and Shrine Disputes
Protection against witchcraft at a shrine often takes the form of a protective charm (suman) or medicine. Matters often become confusing, however, when, as is often the case, different parties involved in a dispute seek help from different shrines and have different ideas about the perpetrator of their suffering. In one instance, Robert, a university student from a village in the district, developed a raging toothache which, despite visits to the dentist, persisted. Worried, he speculated with his close family about the cause of his pain. he felt that a witch was attempting to make him fail his upcoming university law examinations. he visited a shrine where the priest told him that the god had warned him that the toothache was the result of an attack by a witch, although the god could not mention her name. Robert was given some protective medicine and told to return to the shrine at a specified date when the witch, having by then been caught, would confess to her sins and his toothache would disappear.

In the meantime, Robert’s sister, Joy, who lived in Sunyani, believed her brother to be the victim of evil medicine left in his path by her sister-in-law, who felt rebuffed because Robert had refused to lend her money to buy malaria tablets. This woman, the sister told me, had left a needle, a favorite form of evil suman, in Robert’s path. he had stepped on it and now had sharp pains in his mouth. Meanwhile, the sister-in-law heard about the accusation and went to another shrine to swear to the god that she had not committed such an act. There she was given medicines to protect her against the “evil” thoughts of “an unnamed witch who wished to steal my life-savings.” Then her niece also fell ill and went to yet another shrine to report what she assumed were more evil-doings by her aunt and to have the curse removed. There, the god told her that her illness was the result of her own bad thoughts and she was ordered to pay a substantial sum of money to the shrine in order to pacify the god she had angered with her maliciousness.

At no juncture were the conclusions of each shrine priest doubted or compared. They were simply taken as given, with each god believed to have complete knowledge of all the cases brought to each shrine. Of course, given that each god purports to see the whole, a serious clash between priests cannot be discounted, since that which appears as truth to one obosom may appear as a partial story to another. This contradiction leads to arguments and disagreements between accusers and accused as to the accuracy of interpretations put forward by different shrine-priests. Yet the gods are thought to possess true knowledge of the workings of people’s lives in the district.

Indeed, the mark of a powerful deity is that he or she knows a lot about each client before the client even comes to the shrine. In truth, priests also keep their ears and eyes open; at various times they mentioned that gods do not always pass on their knowledge about shrine-clients, so it is up to the priest to remain alert! They play down, however, their various intelligence-gathering activities in deference to the god’s all-encompassing knowledge. The believe they are passing on to the obosom only the small details and incompatible fragments of information about the lives they are watching, whereas the obosom has an overview of the “whole.” Besides gathering details from the priests, the gods collect the bits and pieces of information from dwarfs, who memorize the gossip they hear at shrines and other public places. They swarm unseen throughout the crowds in any large town or city, scrambling into crevices, cracks, and fissures in order to eavesdrop on private conversations. The dwarfs report this information to the gods in their high-pitched whistle, which can also be heard by priests who have had the special herbs rubbed in their ears. Gods also gather visual intelligence as they fly across vast stretches of the night sky all around the world. Visual observation of this type is thought to be more reliable than the unstable and uncertain gossip reported by the dwarfs. Those who fall under the gaze of the abosorn as they comb the night skies are swooped upon and noted, and the dwarfs are informed to watch these people attentively as they go about their activities.

As I have suggested, the information gathered is never passed on in full detail to the priests, who have at their immediate disposal only unconnected fragments of particular incidents or misfortunes. In the context of an infinite number of events embedded in the flux of everyday life, only the gods can organize and convert seemingly inexplicable circumstances into a coherent narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.

Ritual and Possession Shrines

The protection of the type of knowledge needed by the gods to control evil is dependent on rituals that once involved the negotiation of the spatial division between bush and town ( see McCaskie 1989,1992; McLeod 1981). Okomfo Yaw Kwalie explained how a state of affairs had arisen whereby those prohibitions that protected the town from the anger of the spirits of the bush, although still important, were no longer policed by the gods in the same way. In the past, any person’s violation of a prohibition involving the bush had led to a catastrophe’s befalling the whole town in the form of death to many people. Today this is not the case. Rather, the gods concentrate on upholding the taboos protecting the spirits (asunsum) of the gods and shrine-priests. The gods insist that their priests and those who seek their help obey the prohibitions of the shrines, which consist of an endless enactment of ritual liturgies. In their repetitiveness, these liturgies become a way of ordering time while simultaneously suggesting the expansiveness of the priest’s vision. Priests follow strict routines involving ritual prohibitions. The repercussions of ignoring a prohibition are most keenly felt by those who thereby cause the disappearance of their abosom. Priests must cleanse and bathe their honam (body) before communicating with a god. This is known as the washing of the km (soul), for what happens to the soul affects the body, and vice versa. Priests also must always engage in good deeds in order to keep their souls clean and happy. They must not engage in fights or quarrels or drink or gossip. They should refrain from sexual intercourse as much as possible. Each of the talismans that they wear upon their body also involves prohibitions. Okomfo Kah Nsiah may not eat if someone is sleeping in the vicinity, if someone is whistling, if someone enters the room, or if someone walks past carrying a mortar. Okomfo Kwadwo Yeboah may not bathe in the evening if someone in the afternoon has walked past whistling, but he must bathe twice in the evening if someone has brought red peppers into his compound.


This article has explored the intersection of witchcraft epistemology with the global and postcolonial world. It addresses the interplay between the secret, transcendental knowledge possessed by shrine-gods as they watch people and swoop around the globe, eavesdropping on rumor, gossip, and speculation, and the ambiguous process through which this knowledge is passed on by shrine deities to their priests. The knowledge of the priest, it has been argued, remains contingent because of the mediation process between a god and a priest: Priests remember knowledge retrospectively, whereas gods possess the complete picture of events. Yet, in spite of the very low rates of witchcraft confession, the popularity of witchcraft discourses among shrine priests enables them to reveal their first-hand, thorough understanding of mysterious evils and insecurities, both in the district and beyond. Among the Akan, knowledge of what is near at hand has always been supplemented by information obtained through the gods’ travel beyond the local and across frontiers. In the past this travel included the most spiritually dangerous destination, the bush. Today, in the postcolonial global world, their knowledge can extend to the far reaches of the globe. In this way transcendental knowledge becomes expressive of a continual interaction: a process in which form is made out of unformed fragments derived from widely separated sources.

1. Fieldwork was carried out between 1990 and 1991. During that time, I stayed with the Queenmother of Dormaa. With the permission of the Dormaahene, Agemang Badu I, I visited all the shrines of the district and offered a bottle of schnapps in order to introduce myself and inform the ancestors and gods of my visit. Through one of the priests, I was put in touch with the Dormaa Fetish Priest Association. Their chairman gave me permission to conduct formal interviews with all currently practicing priests in the district. However, although these introductions were invaluable, much of my fieldwork relied on the friendships I formed. It was through such contacts that dialogues could be established with priests and their clients.


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Jane Parish is a lecturer in anthropology and sociology in the School of Social Relations, Keele University. Her fieldwork concerned witchcraft and indigenous shrines in the Brong-Ahafo region. She is the co-editor, with Martin Parker, of the collection Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy and Social Science Theorising (Blackwell, 2001).

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