A Congo Fetish

Or Divining Image From the Coast Region

By: Henry Usher Hall

Originally Published in 1924

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This very interesting and important wooden statuette, of a class commonly referred to as nail fetishes for a reason which a glance at the illustration will make clear, has lately been acquired by the University Museum and is now on exhibition in the African room.

Wood carved figure, standing, with one arm on hip and one arm in the air, covered in holes, many empty, many with nails driven in
A Congo Nail Fetish
Museum Object Number: AF5361

The figure, about 32 inches in height, represents a man standing with feet slightly apart in a threatening attitude with the left hand resting on the hip and the other raised as if to throw the spear, or inflict a blow with the bush knife, which it formerly grasped. The huge thumb is held vertically, the four fingers with their phalanges well differentiated are curved inwards so that the dorsal aspect of the middle two is in contact with the palmar aspect of the thumb. The latter is represented as being partly between the two fingers in question. The relations of fingers and thumb are, realistically regarded, quite impossible; but imagining the gap bounded by them to be filled with the shaft of the lance or the handle of the knife, the whole gesture is dominated and directed by the magisterial, even colossal, thumb, and the effect, mere realism apart, is imposing. This, in spite of the fact that other conditions of reality are violated in the carving of the hand. An attempt is made to represent the proportionate length of the three phalanges in each finger, but the fourth and fifth digits are considerably longer than the other two. This is no doubt an instance of a kind of compromised realism often illustrated in negro wood sculpture; the tips of the shorter fingers do in fact tend to be nearer the ground than the others when the clenched hand is held above the shoulder in the position which it is sought to represent here. The general effect is the important thing for the negro sculptor; the minuter details of the means by which it is impressed on the attention are not interesting.

The thumb of the left hand points backward on the hip. All five digits are stumpy and small out of all proportion to the other hand. Realism in art and philosophy are not the same thing. The pragmatism of the sculptor here was in conflict with artistic realism: it reminded him that, whatever size he made that hand, it would soon be hidden with nails. And it was not the important hand in any case. The thumb nail of the right hand is carefully modelled, and the nail is represented with some care on the otherwise slighted left thumb also. No nails appear on the other fingers of either hand, though they are marked on all the toes.

On the right wrist appear two bracelets. There are no other ornaments of any kind.

In the case of the arms there is some attempt at modelling. The bent elbow of the left is marked by a ridge, of the right by a conical prominence.

From the top of the short thick column of the neck the head is tilted slightly backwards, the face looking upwards, in consequence, and full to the front.

The trunk, in front, shows no modelling apart from a simple rounding off at the sides and lower portion. On the back the shoulder blades are marked below by two curved lines meeting in the middle and bounding a field in scarcely perceptible relief. From the junction of these two lines a groove realistically follows the line of the backbone down to the commissure of the buttocks, which are carefully modelled.

The legs taper somewhat, but there is otherwise no attempt to mark off the thigh from the lower leg. They are implanted almost in the middle of wide splay feet which project behind as if to emphasize the characteristic spur heels. This hinder part appears not much narrower than the region of the toes.

Each foot rests on a separate flat base. The whole figure together with these supports is carved from a single block of wood.

The style is in all respects similar to that of the two smaller nail fetishes exhibited in the same room, even to the small protuberances representing at the ankle the internal and external malleoli. These are insignificantly small in the case of the large figure with which we are concerned here; but, if final proof were needed of the common origin of the three figures, this would afford it. The figure we are now considering is shown by its size and by the number of nails, knife blades, and other iron points which have been driven into it to be, regarded as a fetish, the most important of the three. One of these figures was published in the MUSEUM JOURNAL for March, 1920 (Vol. XI, No. 1), where also a short account is given of the manner in which some of the nail fetishes were employed.

The Bavili are the people of Loango proper, the coast district north of Kakongo, which itself is situated immediately north of the Congo mouth. These were formerly two provinces or subkingdoms of the old kingdom of Kongo, south of the river. The name employed for the inhabitants of these two northern provinces together, who seem to form a single cultural unit, by our two principal authorities on the region, Dennett and Pechuel-Loesche,1 is Fjort, or BaFioti. Their fetish observances are all of the same pattern, so far as is known, and seem to have been derived largely from the south, when the King of Kongo was supreme in the whole region before the coming of the Portuguese in the 15th century.

It is with the head of this figure, as is usual in the case of larger wooden statuettes from this region, that most pains have been taken. The treatment of the features of the face is quite similar to that of the other examples of woodsculpture published in the JOURNAL, Vol. XIV, No. 1, in particular, Fig. 9. The top of the head is left unfinished. This is because it was formerly covered with a hardened paste, of which portions still remain, forming a cap or coiffure embodying, no doubt, in part, at least, the fetish force or power of which the figure was the vehicle, and which was known as ngilingili. This was of the most varied composition, but contained usually some poisonous elements, supposed suited to the function of the fetish as avenger or dispenser of justice.

“In figures of animals and men the ngilingili was often attached to the head, but usually in a conspicuous addition in the form of a casket, one or several, to the belly or the chest. “2

These figures were in fact the holders or vehicles of the fetish power, whose essence was in the ngilingili, and without the addition of the latter the figure had no power.

The ngilinigili casket, as well as the fetish headdress, has been removed from the figure we are considering. The rectangular mark which the removal of the casket has left on the front of the body can still be distinguished, though it is partly concealed by the frame of the broken mirror which has taken its place.

To the equipment especially of the fetishes which were represented in human form belong looking glasses or even bits of ordinary glass which were inlaid in the force container on the belly, or in the breast, head, back, or eyeholes. Thus, through the introduction of European goods, fetishism was enriched with a new idea; fiends and ghosts, which in fact cannot endure anything shining, or miscreants, catch a glimpse of themselves in the reflecting or glittering surface of the fragment, are terrified thereat and flee.”3

The lobes of both ears of this figure are pierced, and a small iron bell hangs from a ring which is passed through the perforation of the left ear lobe. The use of bells in connection with fetish observances was referred to in the description of two wooden bells or rattles in the MUSEUM JOURNAL, VOL XIV, No. 1. Bundles containing fetishes of different functions and furnished with bells were carried by a woven band slung over the left shoulder of the owner. Fetish figures in human form were sometimes provided with such bundles, which presumably enhanced their powers. The attachment of bells not only to these bundles but directly to fetish figures was a common practice, and no doubt served the same purpose of giving the alarm in the presence of harmful influences with which the fetish itself could not cope. Usually the bells were attached to the neck or waist of the fetish figure; the suspension from an earring is unusual.

The custom, almost universal elsewhere, of making holes in the ear lobes for the reception of ornaments is common to both sexes in Loango. The lobe is pierced with a thorn or with a bit of the rib of a palm leaflet dried and sharpened.

The eyeballs, it will be noticed, are missing in this figure. They were certainly formed of fragments of glass or glazed pottery, which was often the case even with figures which probably had no fetish significance. From all this it will be seen that this nail fetish has been dismantled, so to speak—deprived of its original powers. A fetish master will, in fact, rarely part with such a figure as long as its powers are unimpaired.

It is not clear whether the existing remains of the mirror are still potent against bad characters in the flesh or in the spirit. The fragments may be all that is left of the original which covered the ngilingili casket. In that case there can be no doubt of their potency.

The polish of the wood of the parts of the arms that are not covered with nails, as well as the large number of the nails themselves, is evidence of the long and toilful career of this discloser and discomfitor of evildoers. The bare parts of the arms are those by which the figure would be most easily and naturally lifted and carried. The darker sheen of the more prominent parts of the face—the middle of the forehead, the nose, and lips, and the two dark lines at the right side of the chin are to be explained in another way.

Fetishes are not worshipped; but, like their owners, they may grow tired, lazy, lax in the performance of what is required of them. They are then refreshed or incited to new efforts in various ways.

A stimulant of which the West African negro is very fond is the kola nut. ” Certain parts of West Africa are rich in cola nuts; at palavers and on the march the negro is glad to make use of this fruit. The consistency of the kernel, which is about the size of a small hen’s egg, is that of our chestnut. The fruit tastes very bitter; the enjoyment of it is heightened by eating at the same time with the nut small pieces of ginger.”‘4 What refreshes a fetish owner will refresh also his fetish. The fetish in the form of a human being, therefore, is stuffed with kola nut, or juice from the quid of kola is squirted upon it.5 A fetish, tired or for other reasons remiss in performance, with an open mouth would be an alluring mark. The marksmanship of the master of this one was apparently rather uneven. Hence the stains on forehead, nose, and chin. Kola nuts and Congo pepper, according to Bastian, are food for fetishes.6

The open mouth of the figure reveals what is left of the four upper incisor teeth, and the tip of the tongue resting on the lower lip. It is difficult to account for this protrusion of the tongue. Fetishes of this kind are often represented with open mouths. The ceremonies that accompany their employment are usually characterized by a good deal of shouting and singing, and perhaps the fetish figure is intended to be regarded as joining in this. In the case of a particular kind of nail-fetish, to which this figure may belong, Bastian says: “The nails were first “—before being driven in—”drawn over the head of the accused and then placed in the mouth, filled with herbs, of the idol.” This, if it does not fully account for the open mouth, shows what use was made of the aperture in some cases. But it leaves the protruded tongue unexplained. The same feature may be observed in certain masks of the western coastal region further north.

A great many African tribes file or chip their front teeth for reasons chiefly aesthetic. In some cases this fashion of personal adornment serves as a tribal mark. It is difficult to determine whether the latter is always the case in the Congo coastal region, for the accounts of travellers are not in agreement on this point. Nor are they agreed as to whether teeth, in a particular locality, are filed or chipped. Chipping must have been the usual method before the use of European files became common.

Dennett7 attempts a classification of the results of such mutilation among the tribes between Loango and Brazzaville on the Congo. Among the groups named are the Bavili, who, he says, reduce their front teeth to four points; the Bateki “who say they are from the same mother as the Bavili,” to two points; and the Bayaka and the Basanji, to two points. The wording is ambiguous. We do not know whether in the case of the reduction of the front teeth to two points, each tooth was so reduced, or whether two points were got by the treatment of certain of these teeth only; where four points are mentioned, it cannot be determined from the content whether each of the four incisors was reduced to a single point, or whether by removing parts of the incisors and canines the appearance of four points was achieved. Again he does not state whether the procedure involved both jaws or only one.

“On the Loango (Kakongo) coast,” says H. H. Johnston,8 “the men still file their upper teeth in semicircles so as to reduce the first and second incisors and the canine on each side to sharp points.” This involves six teeth, giving twelve points, or seven, if the adjacent filed parts of two teeth are taken together as forming one point. A similar account illustrated by a diagram is given by Wilkes9 from observations made on Kabinda negroes in Brazil.

H. von Jhering, in a general account10 of this practice, describes the mutilation of the front teeth of two skulls, one from an individual among the “inland people of the Loango coast,” and the other from Kabinda, both identical in this respect. “In each of the four upper incisors only one point is left in place, which, in the case of the inner or medial incisor, is the lateral prong, in that of the outer [incisor] the medial [or inner prong], so that the points of both teeth are contiguous.” This gives two points, one on each side, each point formed by two triangular portions of adjacent incisors. Here, then, are two accounts from independent observers which affirm the existance of two distinct fashions in Kabinda. Further, Johnston, who, however, seems to confuse Loango with its southern neighbour on the right bank of the river, assigns the first mode to a wider territory than Wilkes. Taking the three statements at their face value, it would seem that the mode of chipping single teeth in the middle so as to leave each with two prongs is common to Loango, Kakongo, and Kabinda, three adjacent states immediately north of the mouth of the Congo, while the composite two point mode, if one may call it so, belongs to Kabinda and the back country of Loango, presumably the forest country of Mayombe to the east, concerning which the practice of mutilating the teeth has been both affirmed and denied.11

Of Loango, Falkenstein,12 who studied the physical anthropology of these negroes on the spot, says that the four incisors of the upper jaw are treated as follows: “The two inner are filed off inwards and upwards obliquely, that is, a triangular gap with the base below is produced, while the two outer [incisors] run outwards and upwards obliquely so that in each case a smaller triangular gap arises.” This seems to be the same fashion as that reported by von Jhering for Kabinda and the back country of Loango; and we have, then, the two point fashion common to Loango and Kabinda, and the seven or twelve point fashion, common to Loango, Kabinda, and Kakongo. Falkenstein reports still another fashion, apparently a modification of the former, from Loango.13 Probably Dennett’s four points for the Bavili (Loango) correspond to the two composite points of von Jhering and Falkenstein. The truth seems to be that two or three different fashions of tooth mutilation prevail indiscriminately in all three of these states, whose customs and manners are in other respects similar if not identical; indeed, the name Loango is sometimes used to cover all three divisions and sometimes still more territory.

The teeth of the fetish figure with which we are here concerned are treated according to the composite two point method, involving the four upper incisors, which are the only teeth shown. This figure is certainly from Loango, in the wider application of that name, and probably from the more southerly portion of the region, i. e. from southern Loango proper or from Kakongo or Kabinda, where the practices connected with nail fetishes are most highly developed, and which for the purpose of these practices may be considered as a unit. Indeed, we are told that the range of power of this class of fetishes embraces these three provinces, but is also limited to them, so that a person against whom their penal forces are directed can avoid painful or fatal results to himself by leaving the region.14

The class of fetishes referred to is that which Pechuel-Loesche calls business fetishes, as distinguished from private fetishes. The latter serve individuals, families and small local groups of people, while the former are at the service of the community at large, though they are controlled by fetish priests or legitimized sorcerers who receive fees for the conduct of the fetish procedure involved in their use. Private fetishes are chiefly of the nature of amulets which may be carried or worn on the person; they serve to ward off evil or to bring good luck. Like the community fetishes their efficacy resides in the ngilingili, or powerful confection, of which they are made or which is attached to them.

Community fetishes function as instruments of healing or of the detection of crime. They are fetishes of the first rank as befits their important services to society in general. Those which are employed in seeking out offenders against the law and punishing them simultaneously are held in the highest esteem. They have various forms: hippopotami having a head at each end of the body, leopards, crocodiles, monkeys with two heads. Some are nothing but lumps of earth, blocks of wood, pots, or baskets. Community fetishes which are in the form of animals or men are usually larger than other such forms which serve as fetishes for ordinary purposes. Fetishes of the first rank in the likeness of men are from one third to a half of the height of a man. This places the University Museum’s example definitely in this class. That it belongs to that division of the class which is concerned with the detection and punishment of evildoers is decisively shown by the threatening posture of the arm which formerly held a weapon.15

Many anthropomorphic fetishes, if not most or all of them, are in origin certainly honorific fetishes of great sorcerers and physicians, representatives and at the same time monuments, though they are in fact made while the former are still alive.”16

According to the same authority, they are not, however, to be regarded as idols, an opinion in which Dennett17 would probably agree, or as the recipients of any kind of worship, but simply as the vehicles of a force condensed in the ngilingili which is attached to them—a force in a sense mysterious and yet subject to the control of the nganga who knows how to concoct the ngilingili and how to set the force working by releasing it from its medium through the proper manipulation of the container or vehicle of the latter. In some manner which, probably, the nganga understands no better than we do, the vehicle, when it is a portrait of an eminent expert, enhances the power of the emanations, if we may so call them, from the ngilingili attached to it.

The explanation of the title of divinatory fetish which I have applied to the figure illustrated here will be seen from the following account of the employment of such fetishes, taken chiefly from the source already so frequently quoted.18

Other means of detection, including the ordeal by poison, of a crime having failed, the fetish priest is applied to, and brings the divinatory fetish to the spot, if that is known, where the offence was committed. It may have been robbery, witchcraft—all deaths not due to obvious violence are attributed to witchcraft—violation of an oath; or the influence of the fetish may be desired for the reform of a drunkard, or for compelling an obstinate debtor to pay, or a defaulting trustee to make good. The offender, if known, is brought to the place where the nganga sets up the fetish. Confession or restitution is expected as a result of the fear inspired by the activity of the fetish, which can strike the offender with death or bring on him a fatal disease. If the offender is unknown, the divining force of the fetish will seek him out and afflict him. If he is not slain by the power of the terrible diviner and judge, the illness with which he is afflicted is evidence of his guilt, and whatever further penalty is required by the law will be imposed, whether it be death or fine.

The fetish master, or nganga, brings out the fetish, which is placed, sometimes on a mat, on a smoothed area on the ground. In the dust about it various cabalistic figures are inscribed, some or all of which may be further defined with powdered colours. The spot on which the fetish stands has been previously powdered with colour also. In the presence of the crowd which has now gathered panpipes are blown by the nganga and his assistants, antelope horns large and small are piped upon or tooted, rattles made of calabashes are shaken, drums beaten. Finally a gun is produced, loaded with gunpowder to which is added some of the ngilingili taken from the fetish figure and occasionally a small shaving taken from the figure itself. The gun is fired. Now let the offender beware. The deadly forces of the fetish are loosed. They pass through the air and alight upon the guilty. It is for certain offences only, among which are those enumerated already, that a nail is now driven in. If the offender is not known, a heated nail is used.

The driving in of the nail, heated or not, is usually said to be of the nature of an irritant intended to inflame the fetish against the criminal and to insure his unrelenting pursuit. Pechuel-Loesche seems to support this view in more than one passage. But neither he nor any other writer, so far as I know, directly quotes a native informant to this effect. The sentence in which Pechuel-Loesche expresses himself most clearly on this matter reads as follows: “The fetish inflamed against him”—the offender—” kills him, eats him up, as the people express it.”19 Here it is apparently only the expression “eats him up,” i. e. destroys him, which is directly quoted as a native opinion.

In the absence of any unmistakably indigenous utterance on the subject, one can only appeal to native procedure in other similar cases where nails are driven into figures. Gilmont20 speaks of “the great fetish of diseases in the case of which the patient plants a nail in the part of its body corresponding to the affected part of his own.” It is not easy to see why in such a case as this one should wish to inflame the fetish. Rather it would seem to be a question of releasing the force imprisoned in the fetish by making a hole through which the, in this case healing, virtue can escape to become operative on the part of the patient’s body indicated by the nail driven into the fetish figure.

Although the account quoted from Pechuel-Loesche of the employment of nail fetishes in the detection and punishment of crime seems to imply that the discharge of the gun is the means of releasing the pent up forces of the fetish, which is by virtue of this power both judge and executioner, it seems doubtful whether this is really so. It is perhaps rather a means of reenforcing the power released as well as, or perhaps chiefly, a part of the noisy demonstration with which the whole procedure is accompanied, the purpose of which, as the same writer informs us, is to make an impression on the spectators, including the offender. At any rate we are not told that a gun is discharged when oaths are taken and the fetish is called upon to witness them, in such cases as that of a drunkard swearing to reform, or of some solemn engagement being entered into. “Each party strikes a blow or two on one and the same nail and at the same time adjures the fetish in a loud voice to eat him up (vernacular expression) if he breaks his vow. In order to bind themselves with all due ceremony and to make it easier for the forces to discover the person who may become guilty, those who take the oath are accustomed to pass the nail from hand to hand, press it to breast and forehead, or bite it or spit upon it. Sometimes the iron is driven into the fetish with hairs adhering to it.”21

There does not seem to be here any immediate occasion for inflaming the fetish, since whatever injury is to be inflicted is necessarily postponed to an indefinite future. Rather is it a matter of providing an exit for the forces enclosed in the fetish figure and a guide to direct them in following and identifying the malefactor in posse.

The analogy suggested in a former article22 in the MUSEUM JOURNAL with the sticking of pins into wax figures of persons whom it is desired to injure in European (or Asiatic) practice of sorcery is probably also false. This would seem to be sufficiently proved by the case of the healing fetish mentioned by Gilmont. It is the obvious explanation of these curious figures which would at once suggest itself to a European traveller; so obvious that he might not think of asking for a native explanation.

Any small pointed object made of iron or steel may be driven into the figures, a fact which will be at once apparent from an examination of the illustration here. If such things as screws or gimlets are used, they must be driven not screwed in. The productions of native blacksmiths are said to be preferred, although wire nails and tenpenny nails of European manufacture are quite evidently riot despised. There are dark marks about some of the nail holes which may be the result of a very slight scorching rather than charring of the wood due to the driving in of heated nails.


1 R.E. Dennet, Seven Years among the Fjort, London, 1887; Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort, London, 1898; At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind, London, 1906. E. Pechuel-Loesche, Volkskunde von Loango, Stuttgart, 1907.

2 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 364

3 Pechuel-Loesche, pp. 365-366.

4 P. Guessfeldt, Zur Kenntniss der Loango-Neger, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, VIII (1876), p. 210.

5 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 360.

6 A. Bastian, Zum westafrikanischen Fetischdienst, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, VI (1874), p. 14.

7 Op. cit., p. 76.

8 George Grenfell and the Congo, II, p. 571.

9 U.S. Exploring Expedition, I, p. 58.

10 Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, XIV (1882), p. 231.

11 C. Van Overbergh, Les Mayombe, p. 457.

12 Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, IX (1877), p. (168).

13 Cf. H. Lignitz, Die Künstlichen Zahnverstümmlungen in AFrika, Anthropos XIV-XV (1919-1920), Pl. I, Fig. 13.

14 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 396.

15 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 378.

16 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 379.

17 Cf. Cap. VIII, At the Back of the Black Man’s Mind.

18 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 378 ff., 391 ff.

19 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 393.

20 Quoted by Van Overbergh, Les Mayombe, p. 292.

21 Pechuel-Loesche, p. 394.

22 Vol. XI, No. 1, p. 35.

Cite This Article

Hall, Henry Usher. "A Congo Fetish." The Museum Journal XV, no. 1 (March, 1924): 58-69. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1204/


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