The Bori Magadjiyar

Max Dashu

The Bori religion of the pagan Hausa resembles the Tungutu shamanism of the Bosso. This is an excerpt from Leo Frobenius, THE VOICE OF AFRICA, who compares the sacrifice of black animals described in the story of Pa Sini Jobu with an account in the Kano chronicle of northern Nigeria. Everything below in italics or brackets is my commentary, the rest is direct from Frobenius, who wrote a century ago. (He renders Hausa as Houssa.) He was pretty forward-thinking for a European of his time, but still expresses offensive assumptions and language, such as the occasional use of “demons” or attributing African culture to "Eastern" influence, which passages I have deleted. However, he did commit priceless testimony of the griots and elders to writing at a time when few other Europeans saw their value. This testimony offers a valuable window into African shamanic culture. Scroll down to the area highlighted in red to read about the ecstatic dance of the Bori Magadja.

This old Houssa religion is the Bori, a treasure-house of legends which con-
tains a mass of documentary evidence essential to the comprehension
of the previous interdependence of the Houssa tribes.

Here we once more have another parallel between the Songai
and the Houssa. The Songai traditions are preserved in the
religion of the Tungutu, or Shamans, and make mention of demonic
spirits, the Djins. The Houssa traditions tell of the Ailed jenu,
certain spiritual beings who can be identified with the Djins. The
myths of the Songai describe a mighty giant race and give an account
of its beginning. The legendary stories of the Bori people of the Houssa
country are chronicles of great cosmogenetical powers and events. But :

The Tungutu faith resisted Islam, which therefore thrust it
aside on to the road of decay ; whereas the creed of the Bori [539]
adapted itself to Islam in the sects of the Fakirs and Dervishes and
so managed to incorporate itself with the faith of Mahommed that
it was able to prolong its own life under its wing and its light. …
The legends of the Bori religion form different groups. There
are, firstly, the cosmic sun and moon myths, the story of Maikaffo,
the lord of the buffaloes, of the primeval lifting up of the sky, then
of the building of the Tower of Babel, of the Gods of Volcanoes
and Rivers and so forth. As an example of this branch of tradition
I quoted Ra-Rana, the Sun-goddess, in the chapter on the
Yoruban Thunder-god, Shango.
… . Djiberri, the Alledjenu of God (Houssa-Kano). Every
Alledjenu and every human has his star in the heavens. When he
dies, the ownership of the star passes to some other person. But
the star of a very great King is said to fall down at his death.
[The Khoisan people of South Africa also have this tradition that
everyone has a star, but for them it is the shamans whose stars fall
when they die.]

Stories of people seized by the spirits (alledjenu):

… Kundari came again as an Alledjenu eight days after his grave
had fallen in. The Alledjenu Kundari entered Pati's house and
seized Pati (such a " seizure " or taking possession of a female is
in Houssa called Jakama-ta ; if of a male, Jakama-shi ; a woman [553] 
thrown down by Alledjenu is called Jabuge-ta ; a man, Jabuge-shi).
Pati, then, was caught hold of by Kundari and at once began to
scream. His wife heard him, ran up, and asked : " What ails
thee, my man ? How is it with thee ? " Pati answered her not.
The woman asked : " What ails thee ? My husband, what ails
thee ? '' The woman asked the man again and again, but Pati
did not reply. He screamed. His wife was frightened and ran
away. She ran to a hunter and said : " Come to our house with
speed. Only come quick and look at Pati. Since this morning
my husband no longer sees me. He covers his eyes and screams."
The hunter said : " I will come with you at once. We will look
at Pati in a moment." The hunter went with her, saw Pati and
spake : " We will sit your man down." The hunter and the
woman wanted to sit Pati down. But they could not. They could
not open Pati's hands. The hands were clenched and pressed together
as hard as stone. Pati's limbs were as stiff as wood. He was as rigid
as a corpse. But tears streamed from his eyes.

These streaming tears are also described in many mystical traditions of the world,
such as the Hindu and Sufi and Christian.

The next story is interesting for its description of ritual—the smudging over a pot, and the stringed instruments used in ecstatic dancing. It also tells how a woman comes into contact with spirits through the powers of nature, in this case a river, and picks up the widespread theme of “spirit marriage.” A woman became the wife of Serki Rakin (the river “king”) by going to the water at noon. She was held there for hours, then emerged dry. The spirit later came to her house and promised her husband he’d get a son, and performed a ceremony over the wife:

The herald went back to Serki Rafin and said to him : " Thou
wilt receive what thou askest." Serki Rafin came into the house.
Only the woman could see him. The man offered up to Serki
Rafin white cloth, white cowries, white rams and other male and
female white animals. At night the man embraced his wife.
Serki Rafin made a Magani (" medicine ") for the woman. He
made fire in a saucer ; he strewed fine powder on the fire. Smoke
went up. The woman sat herself over the pot from which the
vapour was rising. She threw her garment round herself and round
the pot. All the vapour entered into her mouth and she breathed it in.

Serki Rafin said : " I will now depart again. Thy wish will
very soon be fulfilled." He went back into the water. A very [559]
few months later the happy event was very near. Serki Rafin came
out of the water again (meaning possessed the woman again). She
screamed aloud : " Fetch hither a Goye (fiddle). I would dance.
Fetch hither a Goye. I would dance."

The people said : " That is bad. Wait till thy child be born.
Then thou canst dance again. If thou dancest to-day, a misfortune
will happen." The woman screamed : "Fetch me a Goye. I will
dance. Fetch me a Goye, I must and shall dance!" The people
fetched a Goye. They played on the Goye and the woman danced
to the Goye. It did her no hurt ; she remained sound. She bore
a child which was sound. Since that time the Goye is played when
a man or a woman is possessed by an Ailed jenu.
Some Houssas think that Serki Rafin has a wife in the water
who is also an Alledjenu. This Alledjenu is called Magadja Rafin. …

My object in this chapter is to discuss the Bori, whose material
record is legendary. Some of their legends were given
in the previous chapter. The Bori have a religion which is widely-
spread over the Soudan and very little more than its general
meaning and a list of spirits, compiled by Dr. Alexander, have so
far been brought to our notice. The Bori's religion prevails from
the Nile to the Niger, from the Atlantic Coast regions to the
dwellers in the Sahara. [He’s referring to the more widespread Zar religion,
including its Moroccan variant known as Aisha Qandisha, rather than the
specifically Hausa form of Bori veneration.] The smaller "primitive and disruptive "
tribes nowhere believe in it and everywhere it is the dominant,
broadly disseminated peoples and, above all, the inhabitants of large
non-Mahommedan cities who practise it. It is a most interesting
cult, not only because of the extent of its spread, but on account
of its relation to its original source.

[561] The Bori religion, as stated, spreads from Nubia over Kordofan,
Darfur, Wadai, and the Bornu tribes as far as the Houssas, and from
the Lake Chad-Niger line to the South right across the Benue
river, as far as the Yorubas, and its "runners" may be traced
even towards Senegambia. The name of this religion as such
varies. The spirits, whose great diversity of office was made evident
in the last chapter, are almost everywhere known as Alledjenus,
Djins, Jenne, etc. The purest form of this religion is found in the
districts lying between the Great Desert, Lake Chad, and the rivers
Benue and Niger. It has become largely absorbed in the religion
of the Prophet, in consequence of the advance of Islam fostered
by the Arabs, as far as regards the East, and is, in fact, here con-
sidered to be the "Islam of the blacks," because only the older black
races adhere to it, and the more recent tribes pressing forward from
the North do not profess it. To the West, however, the Bori has,
in part (among the Mande), been fused with the old clan organiza-
tion of the more ancient stock, and, in part (among the Songai),
assumed the position of a pagan religion in violent contrast with
Islam, and thus become the religion of those it repelled. This
method of its dissemination is a proof that the Bori could not have
come into the land at the same time as Islam. Therefore, this
religion of possession is an individual form of belief, and this being
so, I call it the African variety of "Shamanism."

The chief introduction of the notion of metamorphic possibility,
based on the power of attracting supernatural intelligence or force
into the Soudan, is due to Shamanism. … The Shaman
selected is the favourite designated by the demon's untrammelled
choice, and he often has to practise the "call" against his own will.
He is moved by the spirit and suffers under the influence of its
possession. The genuine Shaman, so understood, came into Africa
with this form of Shamanism and, therefore, with the Bori.

women in white adorned with cowries and other regalia

Priestesses of the Bori religion, Hausa country

Animism is the religious basis of the Bori, a philosophy which,
through the agency of spirits or demons, endues every object and
especially parts of nature such as stones, trees and rivers, with a soul.
These spirits are the Alledjenu, of which two kinds are, in fact,
assumed, namely, black ones dwelling in the bush, in trees and
rocks, and white ones who inhabit the streams. The black ones are
honoured with black, the white ones with white, sacrificial offerings.
Now, these Alledjenu enter into human beings and thus "possess"
them. Sometimes this possession is desired and prayed for from
the "daimon" invoked ; sometimes, however, it seizes the body
of the personality selected of its own accord and from sheer love.
In that case the priest can hold converse with the spirit by the
mouth of the person possessed. Such conversation, however,
[563] requires the use of music, mostly only the guitar, sometimes the
Soudanese violin or Goye. It was but seldom I heard of drums
being used, and, actually, only outside the Sahara. This fact, per se,
assures the Bori an individual domain in which it is supreme. Islam,
the religion of the Prophet, which (so small was its musical endow-
ment) stopped its ears at the sound of a flute, was content with
the rhythmical intonation of a name, whereas Manism and social
cosmogony know only the bell and the drum. The Bori alone
demands a stringed instrument.

Two priests, one male and one female, are its hierarchs, the
former named Adjingi, the latter Magadja. The education and
initiation of the Magadja in particular call for definite examination.
Adjingi and Magadja are apparently always celibate, but altogether
interdependent in the exercise of their priestly office. Neither of
them can act without the other. Certain spears or peculiarly
formed iron implements are used as insignia of power or as conductors
of spiritual energy. The Bassarites explained this to me by saying
that the person selected by the spirits as their Shaman finds on the
fields small pieces of iron, called Agomma, which chase him until
he picks them up and thereby accepts his election as a priest of this
religion. When placed in the hut these pieces of iron then grow
into long rods with upper and lateral branches. The Yorubans
call them Ille and they are badges of the Ada-ushe. It is these which
have been given the intelligible name of "fetish trees" in the
literature dealing with Benin.

The Bori's usual appearance in the streets does not convey an
impression of a profoundly significant or intellectual company ; its
procedure reminds one rather more of a skilful conjuring performance
than anything else. [You see what I mean about the assumptions; but
what follows is a very valuable description.]
Martins gives an account in the records of the
expedition based on the notes made at Ilorin in illustration of
this. It runs as follows :

The Bori folk gather for the dance in the afternoon about two
hours before sundown. Soon the sounds of fiddles (Goye) and
guitars (Molo) strike the ear, accompanied by the calabashes (Koko)
either beaten with sticks or, if furnished with grooves, held before
the player's chest, who scratches them with his nails in turning
them round and so produces a humming sort of sound. Then the
Magadja rises to her feet. She wears two girdles of cloth (called
[564] Damara), in which the amulets are sewn, knotted together over her
breasts and hips and in her hand she holds a slender rod of bronze.
Scarcely lifting her feet from the ground, she steps slowly forwards ;
her movements soon get more lively and she follows the accelerando
music by beating its time on the ground with the soles of her feet.
Suddenly she makes a leap and falls on the earth with her legs spread
apart, only to get up and repeat this performance. A large mortar
is brought along. The Magadja gets on to this and ventures the
jump as aforesaid also from this, shaking the firm earth as she falls
on it. She does this three or four times, until she falls exhausted
into the arms of her attendants, who comfortingly cover her with a
cloth while the hitherto breathlessly gazing crowd thanks the dancer
and musicians with an ample largesse of cowrie and kola.

Then the novices, young girls anxious to penetrate the mysteries of the
Bori dance, appear. With lightly balancing steps and waving a
cloth in their hands, they dance to the music and then kneel down
before the Magadja who, as it were, blessing them, lays her hands
on their backs. Another Bori woman is already dancing, a bronze
staff resting on her hip, her frenzied eye on the heavens. While all
this is going on the Adjingi stands aside unmoved. But now his
body is suddenly convulsed, he snatches at the air with cramped-
up fingers and stammers words without meaning. The crowd
now makes way for him and some women cover him with cloths.
The attack is soon over and the Adjingi begins to put on his gar-
ments. Chest and body are covered with cloths and several
" Damara " are knotted over them. The Adjingi takes his staff
in his hand and, thus bedecked, appears in front of the protecting
cloths of the women in order to perform the dance and the bold leap
from the mortar, and even sometimes from a tree or a house-top,
without hurting himself.

Darkness has meanwhile set in and the Adjingi gathers up the
last cowries and kola-nuts ; the crowd deserts the square well
pleased. I called the Magadja and the Adjingi to me next morning.
I wanted them to repeat their performance of the previous day
without the gaze of the profane upon them. Neither love nor
money could move them ; the Alledjenu was not hovering over them.

Do not let us be led astray by these external mummeries, but [565]
let us listen to what the Bori folk told us about their internal
ceremonial when we succeeded in gaining their friendship.

The division of all Alledjenu into two kinds is very important.
It has been said that there are white spirits and black. The Ibi
people definitely state that the white Alledjenu, who always live in
the water, are, on account of their colour, called Fari-faru (white-
white), while the black ones always inhabit the bush and are called
Babaku (black-black), because of their hue.

The Origin of the Bori. — Now, what is the source of this singular
religion of possession ? I was talking one day with a man in
Kordofan about the origin of this peculiar belief not originally
inherent in genuine Africans, but certainly only engrafted on
their own indigenous creed in historical times. The man
questioned said : " These spirits are winds ; they came out of
Persia." At first I attached no importance to the statement, yet
now, on turning over my records, I find several notes which make
it worth some attention. The Houssa, for instance, call their
demons Iska, or winds, as well as Alledjenu. The Bori in Bornu
maintain that the spirits called Alledjenu, or Djindi, have nothing
to do with the demons of their own religion, which are more properly
named Kaime, or Kurua, and came in winds.
[Frobenius then goes into an unsubstantiated imagining that all of this did
not originate in Africa, but came from Persia and the East.]

…For a few tribes in Kordofan also profess the
Bori religion as well as the Nubians, but call it Desatir, and say
that the demons of possession ride on the whirlwind.

[570] … But the religion of possession
prevails to a very large extent on the Nile. W. Ch. Plowden already
described it long ago as " Zar," a wide-spread form of religion
and civilization in Abyssinia. Enno Littmann recently studied it
among the pagan Kumanas. Some of the Fundji call it Bum, and
in Kordofan, too, it is considered very ancient. I found no trace
of it among the Shillu and Dinka tribes, nor generally in the Nilotes.
From the basis of Abyssinia-Kordofan it had then made a strong
northward movement in the last century, and had already gained
such a foothold in Upper Egypt in 1875 that the Government saw
reason to adopt measures to stay its continued progress. Whereas
that famous Egyptologist, E. W. Lane, was not cognizant of its
existence in Lower Egypt at all, it is to-day so widely spread under
the cognomen " Zar " as to play a great part not only among the
lower strata of the populace, but even the better educated class.
Paul Kahle published a book about the " Zar " conspiracy, which enables
us to gain knowledge of the subtler details of the Egypto-Abyssinian
religion of demonic possession [sic]. (Magazine : "Islam in 1912.")

A priest and priestess, who are neither blood relations nor married,
are also at the head of individual communities who profess the
possessional creed in the Nile countries. In Kordofan the priestess
is called Amena, in Egypt simply Shesha. She plays the principal
part, and, for instance, in Nubia, stirs up the earth with a staff
(of wood, but not as in the Soudan, of iron), from whose smell she
then ascertains the name of the bringer of pestilence. Here and
there the diabolic spirits are divided into black (Desatir tumburra)
and white ones (Desatir buri), but in general they are locally grouped.
The treatment of those possessed consists in the inauguration of
sacrificial and adjuration festivals lasting from one to seven days
at stated times and places. I was unable to detect any distinction
as to sex or colour in the victims offered up in the East, but I observed
that here, too, the result of the adjuration depended on the appro-
priate clothing of the person possessed and the effect upon him
or her of music. In this region, too, every demon has his own tune,
which is played on a lyre-shaped stringed instrument in Southern [571]
lands, but produced on drums in the North. No agreement can be
arrived at with the spirit without his proper melody having been
found. [This is typical of Bori, Zar, Aisha Qandisha, and also the Tarantella
trance-dances of Apulia in southernmost Italy.]
But here, too, it is especially the " love " for a person which
causes the spirits to fall foul of their victims.

Taking it altogether, Zar and Desatir may be identified
with the Bori. Here, then, we can obtain points of view based
on phenomenal extension which will help to solve the problem
of the origin of the Bori religion. Its general survey is unclouded.
… But I emphasize the point that this religion is not
indigenous to the Northern fringe, for it is absent in Tunis and
Algeria and lacking also among the older Soudanese "disruptive"
tribes. …

NEXT: Nana Miriam, great shaman of the Soroko

For more on the way racism has shaped historical discourse, see this article.

Suppressed Histories Archives | More Articles | Catalog