Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa

by Kirk H. Beetz
To the medieval African, the distinction between magic and religion was tenuous. For example, the Yoruban god Shango was traditionally considered a king who became a god. Two versions of his story exist. One says that he was a cruel king who was overthrown and forced to flee into the forest, where he hanged himself. The other says that Shango was a magician as well as a king who accidentally caused lightning to kill his wives and children and that, overcome by remorse, he hanged himself in his palace. In either case he ended up becoming the god of storms and magic. Thus, a Yoruban magician might call on him for aid in casting spells.

Is Magic a Religion?

The traditional anthropological definition is a useful resolution of the dilemma: Magic is the use of supernatural powers to control people or the forces of nature. Another challenge in studying African alchemy and magic is the patchy nature of the information. Most medieval Africans did not leave written records of their magical practices. Thus information about African magic is found primarily in the writings of outsiders, mostly Arab explorers and traders in West Africa and East Africa and Portuguese explorers traveling Africa’s coast. For some African cultures archaeologists try to determine magical practices from rock paintings and the occasional shrine. One technique anthropologists use is observing the present-day practices of an old, continuous culture, like the Yoruba, Dogon, or San, and from those observations inferring what the magic of those peoples was like hundreds of years ago. This method is not always productive, however, because Africans tended to be very pragmatic about their magic; when a spell or potion seemed to lose its power, it was abandoned for a new, more potent one, making African magic a practice that was constantly changing.

The subject of alchemy is an example of the challenge faced by historians and archaeologists when studying Africa, because the practice of alchemy in Europe and Asia was different from that in Africa. Alchemy is often associated with mixing substances to create a chemical reaction that results in the so-called philosopher’s stone or in the transmutation of base metal into gold. Most Africans, however, were not interested in such endeavors. For them the purpose of creating a new substance from a mixture was to improve everyday life: healing people, making crops bountiful, or preventing misfortune. A good magician was expected to be able to concoct potions that when drunk would have magical effects. Peoples in western and central Africa believed that alchemical concoctions could have fearsome consequences, because a magician might slip a bit of potion into someone’s drink or a bit of doctored food into someone’s meal and the ingested substance would confer magical powers on its victim. Some African cultures believed that this was how magicians passed their supernatural powers to the next generation. What made this practice fearsome is that the victim could unintentionally cause havoc in the community. For instance, while victims slept, their spirits might leave their bodies and roam the village, spoiling people’s food, causing people to trip and hurt themselves, giving people ghastly nightmares, or causing other suffering or calamities. If their identities were ever revealed, the perpetrators of these problems would not be punished because it was understood that they were the victims of a wicked magician and could not help creating supernatural disruptions. The substance used for creating a magical effect, usually called a potion, tended to be a mixture of substances each considered potent already or capable of becoming supernatural when placed in the presence of other substances. Thus a potion slipped into someone’s food might be composed of thread, needles, and resin. Magicians spent much time working on potions. Such mixtures were given not only to people but also to spirits in the home or at a shrine or painted on stones or other objects. Some potions had practical benefits because magicians and shamans in most regions of Africa knew about herbs and other plants that could help cure certain illnesses. When they were smeared on rocks, some potions were supposed to protect farms from thieves and disease. Magicians were constantly modifying their potions because the magic would seem to disappear. If the application of a potion caused a calamity that it was supposed to prevent, such as a crop failure, people generally responded not with anger toward the magician but with the conviction that some other magician had cast a more powerful malevolent spell to counter the potion.

When misfortune happened to a person, Africans in the medieval period took a very matter-of-fact approach to analyzing the event and understood that the cause was usually mundane. When a person suffered snakebite or when a kiln broke or a roof collapsed, Africans knew full well that it was an ordinary snake, a flaw in the kiln’s construction, or a very heavy wind that was the immediate cause. Yet most Africans believed that underlying every misfortune, no matter how prosaic, was a supernatural force. An example commonly given by anthropologists is of a man who is walking along a road toward home when a snake bites him. After receiving treatment for his wound, he asks a seer why the snake was on the road at just the right time to bite him. The seer tells the man that a jealous family member paid a magician to make a snake slither on the road just when the victim was walking past or that angry spirits had sought to harm him. The victim asks the seer for magical protection against whatever had caused the snake to be on the road when he walked by.

Broken kilns and fallen roofs could be caused by angry spirits. Perhaps the victims had failed to say the spirits’ names as often as the spirits would like. In West Africa, in particular, many cultures believed that ancestor spirits remained alive only if their descendants spoke their names; they would disappear if no one spoke their names. Broken crockery, spoiled food, and other everyday events could be spirits trying to communicate with their descendants. In such a case the victim would consult a shaman, who could be either a man or a woman. Shamans typically kept abreast of events in the lives of local families as well as gossip among the villagers and used that information to explain victims’ misfortunes.

Perhaps a man was being rude to his sister-in-law, and spirits were breaking the man’s belongings until he apologized to his sister-in-law and treated her respectfully. The magical ability of a talented shaman was comforting for Africans because the shaman provided explanations for seemingly random events and offered ways for people to end their troubles.

Efforts to use magic to control people and nature were sometimes dramatic. The Igala of present-day Nigeria have a tale about a king named Agagba who had to sacrifice one of his daughters to defeat an invading army of the Jukun. In exchange for her death a magician gave Agagba charms that when scattered in water would make fish poisonous. Agagba scattered the charms in a river beside the Jukun army’s camp, and the Jukun warriors died when they ate the fish.

Magic rarely required gestures as dramatic as human sacrifice, but the belief that taking a life could have magical effects appears to have been fairly common among the people of central and western Africa in medieval times. For instance, after a person died, a magician might sacrifice an animal such as a goat and compel the deceased’s spirit to inhabit the animal. The sacrifice was then cooked and eaten in an effort to incorporate the spirit into another person and prevent its running loose to do harm. This practice could take a more sinister turn: Among the Ibibio a person could be killed by having his or her spirit forced into an animal that was then eaten.

Charms and fetishes had special powers. A magician had to consider the person for whom the charm was intended and create one that specifically suited that person. Magic that worked for one person would not necessarily work for anyone else. In tropical Africa some general principles seem to have underlain the making of charms. For example, bundles of feathers could protect a room from invading spirits, animal teeth could ward off physical injury from people or animals, and whistles could defend against evil

Amulet; Coptic Egypt, ca. 200-ca. 800 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Carl W. Thomas, Photograph © 2006 Museum Associates/ LACMA)magic.

In sub-Saharan cultures that were not predominantly Muslim, some Muslims were seen as having special powers because they were literate. Even if the Africans themselves were not literate, they had respect for written words. Thus in some communities Muslim magicians would sell charms consisting of an Arabic word written on paper, which was then sealed in an amulet or a pouch. Warriors often wore several such charms for protection in battle. In societies where people seldom lived to 50 years old and infant mortality was high, magicians provided charms for use in evading the evil magic that was at the source of premature deaths.

Fetishes usually were carved wooden statues. A statue of a human being could give a spirit a home where it could be consulted in mystical matters and where it would behave itself and not torment the living. When a fetish cracked from age, it ceased to be magical and had to be replaced. Statues of animals were used to help hunters.

People were ambivalent about the status of a magician in the community. Healers and seers were valued members of some communities. Their magical explanations could ease conflicts by persuading people that the turmoil was the result of magic that could be understood and sometimes countermanded. On the other hand, many communities feared magicians, especially evil ones, and deemed any socially deviant behavior to be a sign that someone might be a source of bad magic. In East Africa people suspected of practicing malevolent magic could be killed, and people in many cultures conjectured that a magician was responsible for every death. These suspicions led to witch hunts. A corpse carried high might point out its killer before burial. In some eastern communities a person suspected of practicing evil magic would  be given a poison that would cause either vomiting or dysentery. Vomiting indicated innocence, and dysentery could mean a sentence of death.


Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Asia

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Europe

Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Americas


One thought on “Alchemy and Magic in Medieval Africa

  1. Interesting history and almost thorough facts. Thanks for sharing. Just so that you know, there were quite a few groups that had their own writings/characters, like the Vai people of Libera and a few other groups from Sudan area. My point being is not all Africans were illiterate to writings. If you are referring to foreign writings, just as English speakers are ignorant to Japanese writings, then I see your point, but not in totality.

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