Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/416

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neither good nor harm, and troubles himself only about the whites, who owe their skill and wealth to him.

The woods and fields, however, are supposed to be inhabited by numerous sprites which go out to trouble and vex the blacks, never doing them any good, but are at their best when they are satisfied to be harmless. The dead are regarded as in the same position as toward the living. A third, still more dangerous class of hostile powers, consists of the wicked enchanters among the black's own neighbors, with whom he is in daily intercourse. The magicians are also capable of doing harm to the whites, while the genii and spirits of the dead are not. All sickness, all loss in business, every misfortune, even strokes of lightning, are referred to one or another of these evil influences. The religious aspirations and ritual of the Bantu relate chiefly to provisions against these three negative principles. Among the defenses against evil are oracles, medicine-men, and prayer. The technic of the oracle, the duties relating to which are generally performed by some person who has gained a repute for skill in the art, is extremely childish and ridiculous, and depends upon the crudest and most palpable deception. A favorite method of managing it is to take a piece of board with a smooth groove cut upon it. The oracle-priest rubs a stick back and forth in the groove, all the time asking, if, for instance, the object is to discover who has been guilty of some trespass or witchery: "Was it the Shamuhongo?" "Was it Joao?" and so on. All at once the stick will stop and refuse to slide any more in the groove. The person whose name has just been pronounced when this happens is the guilty individual. None of the by-standers will have any doubt on the subject; for, it is fair to remark, the priest has generally previously taken care to inform himself of the state of public opinion in the matter. Men's lives are frequently risked by these experiments; for the person who is accused in them has afterward to undergo the ordeal of poison. Another method is for the oracle-priest and the person consulting the oracle to take a position in the open air and both grasp with their right hands the handle of an axe which has been placed upright on the ground, the questioner's hand uppermost. The questioner tries with all his might to hold the axe fast to the ground, the oracle-man exerts his strength to lift it up. The answer is given when the axe sticks so fast to the ground that it can not be moved at all. The fear which prevails and is generally quite strong, of beings accused by some of the oracles, has a beneficial effect in restraining malicious mischief and promoting peaceableness.

Of the two chief motives of European prayer—the fervor of devotion and the strength of desire—the negro is acquainted only with the latter, or selfish one. He has a kind of instinctive, unconscious idea that he may attain his wish by giving it constant utterance, and every other higher blossoming of religious wants is strange to him. Prayer is made with a sort of litany, in which the praying-master, swinging