Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 43.djvu/252

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AN institution peculiar to Central Africa is the prophetess,[1] who combines with her prophetic functions the office of witch detective. As she is the most terrible character met with in village life, a detailed account of her office and method of procedure may be interesting. It is to the prophetess the gods or ancestral spirits make known their will. This they do by direct appearance, and in dreams or visions. The prophetess, who is frequently the chief's free wife, dreams her dreams and then gives forth oracles at intervals, according to the exigencies of the case. These are generally delivered in a kind of hysterical frenzy. When she sees the gods face to face, which always happens at the dead hour of night, she begins by raving and screaming. This she continues till the whole village is astir, and she herself utterly prostrated by her exertions. She then throws herself on the ground, and remains in a state of catalepsy for some time, while the villagers gather round her, awe-stricken, waiting for her revelations. At last she speaks, and her words are accepted without question as the oracles of God. Has she not seen the ancestors face to face? Has she not heard their voice sending a message to their children? Is she not their friend, to whom they have shown favor? Must not all hear the words of those who have gone before?

After these revelations, the prophetess may impose impossible tasks on men, and they will be attempted without question. She may order human sacrifices, and no one will deny her victims. Suppose she, for any reason, declares that a person must be offered in sacrifice to a mountain deity—for there are gods of the valleys and gods of the hills, deities of the rivers and of the forests—the victim is conducted to a spot indicated by her, and bound hand and foot to a tree. If during the first night he is killed by beasts of prey, the gods have accepted the sacrifice, and feast "on his fat," which is "as the smell of spices in their nostrils." Should the victim not be devoured, he is left to die of starvation, or is thrown into lake or river with a sinker attached. "The slave was not worthy of the god's acceptance. He is worth nothing to any one." Fowls and other animals killed in sacrifice are not burned; they are simply left near the "prayer tree," and when devoured during the night the sacrifice is accepted. Among the tribes

  1. Walolo triVje and Lake Shirwa district generally.