Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/The Indwelling Spirits of Men


By Hon. Major A. B. ELLIS.

IN the spring of 1889 an officer of the United States Army, who was visiting Nassau, N. P., for the benefit of his health, lent me a pamphlet, a reprint of Dr. Washington Matthews's "The Prayer of a Navajo Shaman," which had originally been published in the "American Anthropologist" for April, 1888, and at page 19 of that pamphlet I read as follows:

"The suppliant is supposed, through the influence of witch-craft, exercised either in this world, or in the lower world when in spirit he was traveling there, to have lost his body, or parts thereof—not his visible body, nor yet his soul, his breath of life—for both of these he knows himself to be still in possession of, but a sort of spiritual body which he thinks constitutes a part of him—the astral body, perhaps, of our theosophic friends. This third element of man belongs not only to his living person, but to things which pertain to it, such as his ejected saliva, his fallen hair, the dust of his feet, etc."

What struck me in this passage was the curious analogy between the belief thus stated to be held by the Navajos and one which, in the course of my investigation of the religious systems of the negroes of West Africa, I had discovered to be held by the various tribes of the Gold and Slave Coasts; and it is with the object of calling the attention of American anthropologists to this third element in man that I venture to put forward this paper.

The Navajo believes that there are three entities in man: (1) The corporeal man; (2) his soul, the vehicle of independent personal existence, which, at the death of the body, survives and continues its career in the land of spirits; (3) his spiritual body, which Dr. Matthews terms his "third element." The Tshi-speaking negroes of the Gold Coast—that is, the Ashantis, Fantis, Wassaws, Gamans, and several other tribes—believe similarly in three entities: (1) The corporeal man; (2) his soul, or ghost; (3) the indwelling spirit of the living man, which they term his kra.

Now, though the kra has frequently been confounded with the soul or ghost, it is essentially distinct. The soul or ghost only comes into being when the corporeal man ceases to exist, and so may be considered to be the latter deprived of his material body; but the kra, the Tshi-speaking negro believes, existed independently before the birth of the man, and after his death will continue to exist equally independently of the soul or ghost. A kra may have, and almost always has, been a kra in the bodies of other men since deceased, and, at the death of the individual whose body he is now tenanting, will seek to enter the body of some new-born human being. Failing this, it enters the body of an animal, and, if unable to enter the body either of a human being or of an animal, it becomes a sisa, a kra without a tenement, and wanders about the earth, causing sickness to mankind. The ghost or soul which, at the death of the corporeal man, proceeds to Dead-land, and there continues the former vocations of the man, and for whose service in Dead-land slaves and wives are sacrificed, and arms, implements, and clothing buried with the corpse, is the vehicle of individual personal existence, the true soul; and the kra, whose connection with the man commences with the birth and terminates at his death, is something quite different.

The difference between the kra and the soul is also well shown by the different results which ensue when they quit the body. The kra can and does quit the body at will. Usually it does so only during the sleep of the man, who is unconscious of its departure, and its adventures are the occurrences of which the man dreams. If it should leave while the man is awake, the latter is only made conscious of it, if at all, by a yawn, a sneeze, a shudder, or some such slight convulsion, which indicates to him that his kra is going out. In any case, whether sleeping or waking, he suffers no pain, feels no inconvenience, and is subject to no apparent change consequent on the departure of his kra. The absence of the kra is, however, dangerous, as it affords an opportunity for a sisa, or kra without a tenement, to enter the vacant body, for which the insisa are believed to be always on the lookout. The man is not conscious of the entry of the sisa, and nothing happens until the kra returns and attempts to eject the intruder, when the effect of the internal struggle is to throw the man into convulsions. In this manner the West African negroes seek to account for epileptic and similar seizures; they are what used to be termed cases of "possession," but they are not directly attributable to the departure of the kra, per se.

When, however, the soul quits the body, the latter falls at once into a motionless and lifeless condition. Sometimes, though but rarely, the soul returns, and then the man has been in a swoon or trance; more frequently it does not return, and then the man is dead. It is in the hope that the soul may return that appeals to the dead to come back are always made, and that the corpse is kept until the signs of corruption show that the soul has gone forever. The difference, then, between the results of departure is clear. When the kra departs, there is no direct and immediate result, though the departure may lead to "possession"; but when the soul departs, the direct and immediate result is suspended animation or death.

The Ewi-speaking peoples of the Slave Coast the—Awunas, Krepis, Dahomis, Mahis, etc.—hold exactly similar views; the third element, or indwelling spirit of man, being by them termed a luivo. The Ga-speaking peoples of the eastern districts of the Gold Coast have modified the more original conception, and believe that each individual has two kla (the Ga-term for kra), a male and a female, the former being of a bad disposition and the latter of a good.

By all the tribes of these three lingual groups the indwelling spirit is believed to afford some protection to man. It receives occasional thank-offerings, and the anniversary of each individual's day of birth is held as a day sacred to the spiritual tenant. On this account the kra may be regarded in some respects as a guardian spirit, dwelling in the body of the man; but it is more than that. Its close connection with the man himself is indicated by the fact of its nocturnal adventures during its absence from the body being remembered by the man when he awakes. The latter even feels physically the effects of his kra's actions; and when the negro awakes from sleep feeling stiff and unrefreshed, or with limbs aching from muscular rheumatism, he invariably attributes these symptoms to the fact of his kra having been engaged in some struggle or some severe toil. If, moreover, a man dreams of other men, he believes that his kra has met theirs; consequently, the kra is held to have the outward appearance of the man whose body he tenants. Hence the kra is more than a mere tenanting or guardian spirit. He has, though doubtless only in a shadowy form, the very shape and appearance of the man; and both the mind and body of the latter are affected by and register the results of the kra's actions. How the notion of such an existence came into being it is beyond the province of this paper to inquire. It is sufficient that it does exist, and that the kra is believed to be essentially distinct from the soul or ghost, which, at the death of the body, proceeds to Dead-land, and there continues the life that the man led in the world.

I am unaware if American anthropologists have considered this third element of man, and its bearing upon the theory of animism, or even if instances of the belief being held, other than that mentioned by Dr. Washington Matthews, have been recorded; but in Europe it seems quite to have escaped notice, and the belief is not referred to in any one of the text-books of anthropology that I have examined. This is doubtless in consequence of the German missionaries in "West Africa having translated the words kra, kla, and luivo as "soul" a term which is not at all applicable, and which has led to the third element being confused with the soul proper.

It is in its bearing upon that branch of animism which is termed Nature-worship that this third element seems most important. The negroes of the Gold and Slave Coasts, like every other people low in the stage of civilization, believe that inanimate as well as animate objects have souls or ghosts—a belief which is proved by the practice of burying arms, implements, utensils, etc., for the use of the dead in Dead-land. The soul or ghost of the dead hunter goes to Dead-land, and there continues the former pursuit of the man, using the souls or ghosts of the weapons buried with him; but the negroes have gone beyond this, and, just as they believe man to possess a third element or indwelling spirit, so do they believe that every natural object, everything not made by human hands, has, in addition to its soul or ghost, a third element or spiritual individuality. They hold that just as, when the man dies, the kra of the man enters a new-born child, and the soul or ghost-man goes to Dead-land; so, when the tree dies, the kra, so to speak, of the tree enters a seedling, and the ghost-tree goes to join the ranks of the shadowy forest in Deadland. And it is these animating or spiritual tenants of natural objects and natural features that the negro fears, and consequently worships.

The process is something like this: Some day a man falls into a river and is drowned. The body is recovered by the man's comrades, and is found to present no sign of external injury which, in their experience, would account for death. Being necessarily ignorant of the processes by which life is maintained, and seeking for a cause to which to attribute the disaster, they conceive the spiritual tenant or spiritual individuality of the river to have killed their comrade. And to this day, when a negro is drowned, his friends say, "So-and-so" (the spirit or god of the river) "has taken him down." Whether it was with the design of accounting satisfactorily for such accidents—for to man in a low state of culture nothing happens by chance—that the negro extended to natural objects and features the theory of a third element which he had hitherto restricted to himself; or whether he had already formed the belief that such objects and features possessed spiritual individualities, and such accidents only proved to him the malignity and power for evil of those beings, the result would be the same. In either case he would seek to propitiate these powerful beings, and that class of worship which we term Nature-worship would originate.

The theory of animism is divided into two parts, namely: that which treats of the souls or ghosts of individual creatures or objects, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the material part; and that which treats of spiritual beings, or gods, who are held to affect and control man's life and the events of the material world. In explanation of the first belief we have the well-known theory advanced by Mr. Herbert Spencer, Dr. Tylor, and others, and which is now very generally accepted; but for the origin of the second belief we have no such satisfactory explanation, and have to fall back upon the theory that the dei loci—the gods of mountains, rivers, lakes, rocks, and trees—are deified dead men, an explanation that will only apply in a few isolated cases. Here, however, on the Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa, we find ready to hand a belief which explains the origin of such beings. If a tree should fall in the forest and crush a man, those who witness the accident, or find the body crushed under the fallen tree, have no hesitation in immediately attributing the disaster to the indwelling spirit, or third element, of the tree. This is the belief held, and the explanation invariably given. Naturally, those indwelling spirits which time and experience show to be harmless, are not much regarded; the indwelling spirits of stones, bushes, etc., are considered of but little importance, and, though the belief in their existence remains, they are disregarded, and the worship and offerings are applied to propitiate those which are believed to possess both the power and the desire to injure. Hence we find, generally speaking, that the features worshiped are such as rivers, lakes, the sea, cliffs, mountains, etc.—that is, localities in which accidents are more liable to occur. The indwelling spirits or third elements of such features are not regarded as being inseparably bound up with them. Like the kra of the man, each ordinarily resides in its own feature or object, but can and does leave it temporarily. At a later stage, when priestcraft has intervened, the indwelling spirit is held to enter the image, made by the priests to represent it, while sacrifice is being offered, and also the priest himself, who then becomes inspired.

It is clear, from their construction, that the Tshi, Ga, and Ewi languages all belong to one family, and that the tribes now speaking them are descended from one common stock. The question then arises, Is this an isolated belief which will account for the origin of Nature-worship in certain districts of West Africa, and must be limited to them; or is it a wide-spread belief which will account for the origin of that form of worship generally? Further researches can alone determine this satisfactorily, but there are certain indications which tend to show that the belief is widespread. It must be remembered that it is unusual for students of anthropology to come into direct contact with people in that condition which we term savagery, and ordinary travelers possessing, like all Europeans, the belief in one soul only, and perhaps never having conceived the possibility of a man supposing himself to possess a third element, would be very unlikely to make any inquiries in this direction. Even if a communicative native stated to him his theory of an indwelling spirit, or third element, the traveler would perhaps doubt if he really understood him; but people low in the stage of civilization are not communicative on such points. Consequently, we can not expect to find many indications, but there are some.

Cross tells us[1] that the Karens, who inhabit parts of Burmah, Tenasserim, and Siam, believe in two elements in addition to the corporeal man, viz., the thah, which seems to answer to the soul, and the or kelah, which is described as a "life-phantom"; and Williams,[2] that the Fijians say that a man's "shadow" or "darkspirit" goes to Dead-land, and that his "light-spirit" stays near where he dies. These appear to be beliefs somewhat analogous to that in the kra, but these different elements have not yet been defined. The genius natalis of the Romans, too, presents many points of resemblance to the kra. Like it, it entered the man at birth, and attended him till death. It was regarded as a second spiritual self, and the anniversary of the birthday of the man was held as a day sacred to it, libations being offered to the image by which it was represented among the household gods. At a later period of the Roman dominion this belief was modified, and, as among the Ga-speaking peoples of the Gold Coast, a belief in two indwelling spirits, one good and one bad, was formed. It was the latter which appeared to Brutus in the camp at Sardis. "What art thou?" said Brutus; "art thou god or man?" The apparition answered: "I am thy evil genius, Brutus. Thou wilt see me at Philippi."[3]

It is, however, in America that we find the greater number of indications. Foremost stands Dr. Washington Matthews's abovementioned account, in which the belief of the Navajo in the third element of man is directly stated; and in connection with this there is the following passage from the "Ethnography and Philology of the Hidatsa Indians"[4] by the same learned author:

"They" (the Hidatsa Indians) "worship everything in nature. Not man alone, but the sun, the moon, the stars, all the lower animals, all trees and plants, rivers and lakes, many bowlders and other separated rocks, even some small hills and buttes which stand alone—in short, everything not made by human hands, which has an independent being, or can be individualized, possesses a spirit, or, more properly, a shade.

"To these shades some respect or consideration is due, but not equally to all. For instance, the shade of the cottonwood, the greatest tree of the upper Missouri Valley, is supposed to possess an intelligence which may, if properly approached, assist them in certain undertakings; but the shades of shrubs and grasses are of little importance... . Formerly it was considered wrong to cut down one of these great trees, and, when large logs were needed, only such as were found fallen were used; and to-day some of the more credulous old men declare that many of the misfortunes of the people are the result of their modern disregard for the rights of the living cottonwood."

These views are exactly similar to those held by the negroes of the Gold and Slave Coasts. With them, as with the Hidatsa Indians, the shades, or third elements, of shrubs and grasses, which experience has proved to be innocuous, are of little importance; while, like the cottonwood, the Bombax, the giant of the West African forest, whose gray trunk frequently rises to a height of ninety feet before a single branch is thrown out, is reverenced. The Tshi-speaking peoples have indeed classed the indwelling spirits, or third elements, of these trees into a species called Srahmantin—monstrous beings, gray in color and with long hair, who hurl down the decayed trees upon passers-by. How did the Hidatsa Indians form the belief that "everything not made by human hands, which has an independent being, or can be individualized, possesses a spirit, or, more properly, a shade"? Do they, like the Navajos, believe that they possess a third element; and have they, like the negroes of the Gold and Slave Coasts, extended the belief to all nature, or has with them Nature-worship originated in some other way?

Among other instances reported from North America the following may be mentioned: The Algonquins are said to believe in two "souls," one of which goes out during sleep, and whose adventures during its absence are the occurrences dreamed of, while the other stays with the body. The same people are also said to believe that sickness is caused by the man's "shadow" being detached from the body.[5] The Salish Indians of Oregon regard the spirit as distinct from the vital principle, and capable of quitting the body for a short time without the patient being conscious of its absence[6]; while the Dakotas are said to believe in four "souls." The first belief seems to resemble the kra theory; but here, as in most other cases, the use of the word "soul" tends to confuse the subject.

When attention is called to the subject, many more instances will no doubt be forthcoming; but here, at all events, is something to work upon: and, having regard to the great strides which the science of anthropology is making in the United States, it will not be difficult for American anthropologists to determine whether a belief in the possession of a third element by man is common to many tribes of the northern continent, and, if so, whether the origin of Nature-worship among such tribes may be attributed to an extension of this belief to natural objects and features.

  1. "Journal of the American Oriental Society," vol. iv, p. 310.
  2. "Fiji," vol. i, p. 241.
  3. "Plutarch's Lives" (Marcus Brutus), p. 684.
  4. Washington, Government Printing-Office, 1877, p. 48.
  5. Tanner's "Narrative," p. 291.
  6. "Primitive Culture," vol. i, p. 437.