Abikus: West African Changelings

Kneeling Yoruba worshiper with child; photo by Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The words abiku and ogbanje refer both to a child who dies before puberty and to the evil spirit that brings about that death. Abiku is the Yoruba word; ogbanje is the Igbo word.

An abiku is a “spirit child” sent by his or her other spirit playmates to be born into a family and terrorize them. The abiku spirit world is said to be populated by children who play all day long and are engaged in all sorts of merrymaking. They often choose a rich family as their victim. The child of this rich family then repeatedly falls sick, causing his or her parents to squander their wealth seeking for a cure.

Eventually, at a previously determined date (especially on a joyful occasion like a festival or marriage), the child falls sick and dies. Then he or she is reborn again and again to the same family until they are totally exhausted emotionally and financially.

There is no known way to divest oneself of an abiku. Sometimes, however, when a mother repeatedly gives birth to an abiku, he is branded at death so as to be recognized when he comes back again. They are often spoiled by their parents in a bid to persuade them to stay.

Certain Yoruba names suggest the suspicion that a child is, in fact, an abiku. Such names include Durojaiye (“stay and enjoy life”), Banjoko (“stay with me”), Malomo (“don’t go again”), and Durosinmi (“stay and rest”).

In Igbo folklore, ogbanje are often very beautiful girls.

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West African Monsters and Faeries

James Calbraith has started a new series on less-familiar (to North Americans) mythologies over at Fantasy Faction. Check out the first installment, which deals with a number of creatures from West Africa:

Elves, trolls, dwarves, goblins… There’s no denying that the Western fantasy is strongly entrenched in a Northern European mindscape: those ancient myths of the Celtic and Germanic people that inspired Tolkien and his epigones. Writing about elves and dwarves is always a safe bet; when an author wants to be original and adventurous, they might look into the myths of the Mediterranean: Greek, Roman, Egyptian. Sometimes we venture into the Far East, and populate our worlds with qilin and long dragons, or, even rarer, into India or Persia. This seems to be the farthest horizon of our inspiration. Beyond that is the weird territory, with creatures born out of the writer’s own half-deranged mind in an attempt at uniqueness – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But the world is vast and old, and every culture has its share of strange and fascinating; there is a vast stock of ideas out there that you can tap into before running out of inspiration. In this series I will attempt to present some of these myths and legends. In the first episode, I tackle the mythologies of Western and South-Western Africa, a region stretching from Sahara Desert to the jungles of Congo, populated by a complex mix of cultures, nations, tribes and peoples descended from ancient Empires.

If West African mythology is your thing, you might also enjoy some of my write-ups about West African faery folk:

Monsters of Africa

Courtesy of CNN, of all places.

[P]erhaps no continent has more history of folkloric myths, monsters and demons than Africa.

This is where the human story began, after all, and it remains home to tales of giant reptiles, lost plesiosaurs and snakes with the head of an elephant!

Yet few of these creatures are as well known as the Loch Ness Monster or the ape-men type creatures of the mountains in Asia and the U.S..

To set the record straight, we decided to highlight ten examples of African legends that can compare to anything the Scottish lochs or peaks Himalayas has to offer.

Five Weird Werecreatures

screech_owlWerewolves are probably the most commonly encountered werecreature in mythology by far. But they are not the only kind of shapeshifting monster. Other examples are known from just about every culture on earth. Some are friendly; many are deadly dangerous. Some are animals who can transform into humans while others are humans (perhaps witches or sorcerers) who can transform into animals.

In my previous post, I looked specifically at werewolves. Now, it’s time to track down some more unusual shapeshifters. Here, then, are five interesting and distinctive werecreatures from around the world.

Wereseals

Selkies are found in the traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and the Orkney and Faeroe Islands. They are a race of shapeshifters, switching between human and seal forms by removing or putting on a seal’s skin. They are generally perceived to be gentle creatures who love to dance on the shore and occasionally fall in love with humans. Both male and female selkies are said to be lithe and attractive. A common story tells of a female selkie forced to marry a mortal man when he steals her sealskin. Eventually, she finds the hidden skin and uses it to return to the sea.

Selkies are related to the Finfolk, which are essentially the same sort of creature but with malevolent tendencies.

Wereowls

In Muskogee legend, stiginis (or stikinis) take the form of animals. Although they might take on the shape of any sort of wild predator, they strongly favor owls. In fact, stigini means “screech owl.”

By day, stiginis look like ordinary humans. By night, however, they vomit up their souls—along with their internal organs—and become monsters who like to feed on human hearts. Hearing the cry of a stigini is an omen of approaching death.

In some stories, mentioning these creatures by name puts one at risk of becoming one. Therefore, stories about stiginis are only told by certain medicine men and women. In other communities, however, they are more of a bogeyman figure casually discussed to frighten children.

Perhaps related is Hoklonote’she, a Choctaw evil spirit who often takes the form of an owl. Hoklonote’she can read peoples’ minds and apparently enjoys creeping people out by reciting their thoughts back to them.

Werehyenas

Werehyenas are common in the folklore of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East. In addition to being humans who can assume the form of a hyena, some legends tell of hyenas who are able to take on human form.

In the region around Lake Chad, it is believed that whole villages might be populated by werehyenas.

In Ethiopia, it is traditionally believed that every blacksmith (a hereditary occupation) is actually a bouda: a wizard with the power to change in to a hyena, in which form they rob graves at midnight. It should go without saying that they are viewed with suspicion by most of their neighbors! Many Ethiopian Christians believe that Ethiopian Jews are bouda and accuse them of digging up and eating the corpses of Christians.

Weredolphins

Brazilian folklore has the legend of the encantado or “enchanted one.” These are dolphin shape-shifters similar in some respects to faeries. They are thought to be dolphins with the ability to take on human form and not the other way around. Specifically, most of these legends involve the boto or freshwater dolphin of the Amazon River. Occasionally, the stories involve snakes rather than dolphins.

Encantados come from an underwater faery-land called the Encante. They are excellent singers and musicians who love parties and are often give to romantic liaisons with mortals. They only rarely take on human form, generally at night.

In addition to shapeshifting, encantados have other magical powers. They are able to control storms and exert a form of mind control over humans. They can sometimes turn mortals into encantados like themselves.

Encantados are dangerous, and many people in the Amazon region are terrified of them. They can inflict disease, insantity, and death, and are said to be fond of abducting humans they fall in love with and taking them to live in the Encante.

A Possible Weremesonychid

Mesonychids are an extinct group of carnivores that are most often described as a sort of wolf with hooves. Even though there haven’t been any mesonychids around for millions of years, a mysterious beast that terrorized France in the 1760s apparently bore a striking resemblance to one. Some witnesses described the so-called “Beast of Gévaudan” as a huge (horse-sized) creature combining features of wolf, bear, panther, and hyena. Some reported that it had cloven hooves, or that each digit was tipped with a hoof. Others said its claws were so heavy and thick that they merely resembled hooves. Such a creature would come close to matching the description of a large hyena-like mesonychid like the Pachyaena or Harpagolestes.

Furthermore, the locals claimed that this beast was, in fact, a sorcerer who shapeshifted into a fearsome creature. In other words, the Beast of Gévaudan was a human who apparently assumed the form of a prehistoric nightmare.