Culture December 13, 2018 at 04:00 pm

How spiders, crabs and mice were used to tell the future in ancient West Africa

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson December 13, 2018 at 04:00 pm

December 13, 2018 at 04:00 pm | Culture

Bedik Diviner from Senegal -- Photo: Pinterest

Divination is well vested in the African culture and it is defined as the art and process of being possessed by a revered and unknown supernatural power that helps to seek knowledge, understanding and to predict the future.

This unique art is one of the oldest religions in Africa and has, through westernisation, been put into the bracket of traditional African beliefs.

In many parts of ancient Africa, humans used divination to communicate with their gods, Supreme Being and ancestors for various reasons. The practice was and still is more popular in West Africa.

According to an extensive article published by Harvard, the 
cross-world communication often takes the form of “spirit possession” of the diviners whereby “silent” ancestors or spirit entities speak through the diviner.


Senufo Sandogo diviner, Côte d’Ivoire — Photo: Philip M. Peek

Diviners are usually chosen people by the Supreme Being and gods blessed with special powers to perform these rites and more. Aside from this, they are also healers and protectors of their people and keepers of history popularly known as Griots in West Africa.

A Griot/diviner interpreting something to the king 

Diviners mainly use objects and creatures as mediums of communication with the higher or spiritual world, as well as, the land of the dead. However, in ancient Africa, animals, insects and rodents were the first choice as they provided a proper means of channelling to the spiritual world through human-like mediums.

Different animals were used for different purposes depending on the type of request the diviner was asked to answer.

Among the Higi and Kapsiki people of Cameroon, crabs were used by diviners to predict the future or read meaning into an unclear message. For these two ethnic groups, the diviners mostly used the crabs to read into people’s lives and predict their future.

Special chants were said to possess the crabs which were then left to freely walk their path on the sand. Usually, the patterns left by the crabs or the manner in which they walked, either in a straight path or in circles, were used to reveal a person’s future or current situation.

Crabs and spiders were also used among the Mambila people of Nigeria for similar reasons, however, there was no exact difference between a crab and a spider and they could be used in place of the other. According to an article by David Zeitlyn, the Mambila people used the crabs and spiders for a special ritual of divination known as Ŋgam dù. This ceremony is the most important form of divination for the people and their diviner. It is performed at the Bonya court and the results are sometimes used as evidence to convict a witch. 

Diviner 

Typically, in ancient African religion, it is believed that a diviner must see to every person who comes to them and could be punished by the gods for refusing to listen to the person.

Baule diviners of Ghana and Ivory Coast also use mice to interpret or predict a person’s life and future. Upon request, the mouse is placed in a special cylindrical cage and given something to eat. Little droppings from the mouse are passed through a tortoise shell to create a unique pattern on the ground which is then used by the diviner to predict the future.

In other parts of Africa, such as the Zande people of Central Africa, chickens are also used by diviners to predict the future. Upon request, a diviner tells a person to look for a spotless white chicken which is then given poison and left to its fate within a specific area. The reaction of the chicken and how the chicken dies; either with its face towards the sky or the ground, is then used by the diviner to answer the person.

Other animals such as sheep, monkeys, bats, porcupines, rabbits, doves, goats, cows and dogs are used by diviners in other parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, but the practice is most popular among West Africans and some Central Africans.

Today, divination in Africa is still practised especially among ethnic groups in rural areas, but its general practice has been lost to Christianity. The practice of predicting the future was carried on to the Carribean through the Atlantic slave trade. In modern times, several Caribbean groups are still inclined to their African roots and have merged Christianity with the African practice.

Divination can be linked to the Chinese zodiac which has similar symbols such as dog, crab, rabbit, rat and others that help predict people’s future.

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