Hostname: page-component-f7d5f74f5-qtg9w Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-10-03T13:13:39.763Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Northern Gothic: Witches, Ghosts and Werewolves in the Savanna Hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s–1950s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2011


This article examines witchcraft, shape-shifting and other supernatural beliefs among the Talensi and neighbouring Gur-speaking peoples on the frontier of the Northern Territories Protectorate of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the first half of the twentieth century. Its starting point is the succession of religious movements dedicated to the eradication of witchcraft that swept through the southern forest region of the Gold Coast in the inter-war period. Most of these movements were animated by exotic deities originating in the savanna zone, a cross-cultural passage in part propelled by the ambivalence with which the Akan peoples of the forests viewed the so-called Gurunsi of the remote north. While the ‘Gurunsi’ were generally regarded as primitive barbarians, they were also seen to have an intimate relationship with the spiritual realm and therefore to be free from the ravages of malevolent witchcraft. This intimacy with dangerous spiritual forces was most clearly manifested in the widely reported ability of ‘the grassland people’ to transmogrify into animals. Evidence suggests, however, that far from being free from witchcraft, stateless savanna societies had their own problems with malevolent occult powers. Moreover, their reputation for shape-shifting was not simply a lurid, fantastic stereotype of northern brutishness on the part of the Akan. Animal metamorphosis – and especially the ubiquity of were-hyenas – was widely reported in the northern savanna, where it was imbricated with ‘witchcraft’ and with notions of personhood and collective identities.


Cet article examine la sorcellerie, la métamorphose et d'autres croyances surnaturelles chez les Talensis et les peuples voisins de langue gour à la frontière du protectorat des Territoires du Nord de la Côte de l'Or (Ghana) dans la première moitié du vingtième siècle. Il prend comme point de départ la succession de mouvements religieux consacrés à l'éradication de la sorcellerie qui s'est propagée rapidement dans la région forestière du sud de la Côte de l'Or pendant la période d'entre deux guerres. La plupart de ces mouvements étaient animés par des déités exotiques originaires de la savane, un passage interculturel en partie poussé par l'ambivalence avec laquelle les peuples akans des forêts considéraient ceux qu'ils appelaient les Gourounsis des régions reculées du nord. Si les “Gourounsis” étaient certes généralement considérés comme des barbares primitifs, on les croyait également intimement liés au royaume spirituel et par conséquent à l'abri des ravages de la sorcellerie malveillante. Cette intimité avec des forces spirituelles dangereuses se manifestait le plus nettement dans la capacité souvent rapportée des “peuples des prairies” à se métamorphoser en animaux. Les faits suggèrent, en revanche, que loin d'être à l'abri de la sorcellerie, les sociétés apatrides de la savane avaient leurs propres problèmes avec les pouvoirs occultes malveillants. De plus, la réputation qu'ils avaient de pouvoir se métamorphoser n'était pas un simple stéréotype de la bestialité du nord, fait de fantasme et d'épouvante, de la part des Akans. La métamorphose animale (notamment le pouvoir d'ubiquité dela hyène-garou) a souvent été rapportée dans la savane du nord, où on la mêlait à la “sorcellerie” et à des notions de personne et d'identités collectives.

Copyright © International African Institute 2006

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Allman, J. (2004) ‘“Let your fashion be in line with our Ghanaian costume”: nation, gender and the politics of cloth-ing in Nkrumah s Ghana, in Allman, J. (ed.), Fashioning Africa: power and the politics of dress. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
Allman, J. and Parker, J. (2005) Tongnaab: the history of a West African god. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
Apolala, G. (trans.) (n.d.) [2000]. Sacred Heart Parish Di’anes.Bolgatanga: Sacred Heart Mission.Google Scholar
Calame-Griaule, G. and Ligers, Z. (1961) ‘L'homme-hyène dans la tradition soudanaise’, L’homme 1: 89118.Google Scholar
Cardinall, A. W. (1920) The Natives of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast: their customs, religion and folklore. London: Dutton.Google Scholar
Cardinall, A. W. (1927) In Ashanti and Beyond. London: Seeley, Service & Co.Google Scholar
Cardinall, A. W. (1931) Tales Told in Togoland. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Christaller, J. G. (1933) A Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language Called Tschi, second edition, Basel: Basel Mission Society.Google Scholar
Debrunner, H. (1959) Witchcraft in Ghana: a study of the belief in destructive witches and its effect on the Akan tribes. Accra: Presbyterian Book Depot.Google Scholar
Delafosse, M. (1912) Haut Senegal-Niger, 3 vols. Paris: Leroux.Google Scholar
Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Drucker-Brown, S. (1993) ‘Mamprusi witchcraft, subversion and changing gender relations’, Africa 63: 391–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Eisler, R. (1978) [orig. 1948]. Man into Wolf: an anthropological interpretation of sadism, masochism andlycanthropy. Santa Barbara: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Field, M. J. (1937) Religion and Medicine of the Ga People. London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Field, M. J. (1940) ‘Some new shrines of the Gold Coast and their significance’, Africa 13: 138–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Field, M. J. (1948) Akim-Kotoku: an oman of the Gold Coast. London: Crown Agents.Google Scholar
Field, M. J. (1960) Search for Security: an ethno-psychiatric study of rural Ghana. London: Faber and Faber.Google Scholar
Fortes, M. (1945) The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press, for the International African Institute.Google Scholar
Fortes, M. (1949) The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi. London: Oxford University Press, for the International African Institute.Google Scholar
Fortes, M. (1975) ‘Strangers’, in Fortes, M. and Patterson, Sheila (eds), Studies in African Social Anthropology. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Fortes, M. (1987) Religion, Morality and the Person: essays on Tallensi religion, edited by Goody, J.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fortes, M. and Mayer, D. M. (1966) ‘Psychosis and social change among the Tallensi of northern Ghana’, Cahiers d'Études Africaines 6 (21): 540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Freeman, T. B. (1968) [orig. 1844]. Journal of Various Visits to the Kingdoms of Ashanti, Aku, and Dahomi, in Western Africa. London: Frank Cass.Google Scholar
Geschiere, P. (1997) The Modernity of Witchcraft: politics and the occult in post-colonial Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.Google Scholar
Goody, E. (1970) ‘Legitimate and illegitimate aggression in a Wes African state’, in Douglas, M. (ed.), Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. London: Tavistock.Google Scholar
Goody, J. (1962) Death, Property and the Ancestors: a study ofthe mortuary customs of the LoDagaa of West Africa. London: Tavistock.Google Scholar
Gottlieb, A. (1992) Under the Kapok Tree: identity and difference in Beng thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
Howell, A. (1997) The Religious Itinerary of a Ghanaian People: the Kasena and the Christian gospel. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
Iliffe, J. (2005) Honour in African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Jackson, M. (1982) Allegories ofthe Wilderness: ethics and ambiguities in Kuranko narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
Jackson, M. (1990) ‘The man who could turn into an elephant: shape-shifting among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone’, in Jackson, M. and Karp, I. (eds), Personhood and Agency: the experience of self and other in African cultures. Uppsala: Academiae Upsaliensis.Google Scholar
Jedrej, M. C. and Shaw, R. (eds) (1992) Dreaming, Religion and Society in Africa. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Kramer, F. W. (1993) The Red Fez: art and spirit possession in Africa, trans. Green, M.. London: Verso.Google Scholar
Kruuk, H. (1972) The Spotted Hyena: a study of predation and social behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Martin, H. G. (19131914) ‘A voice from the Northern Territories’, The Foreign Field 10: 275–7.Google Scholar
McLeod, M. (1975) ‘On the spread of anti-witchcraft cults in modern Asante’, in Goody, Jack (ed.), Changing Social Structure in Ghana. London: International African Institute.Google Scholar
McCaskie, T. C. (1981) ‘Anti-witchcraft cults in Asante: an essay on the social history of an African people’, Historyin Africa 8: 125–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McCaskie, T. C. (1992) ‘People and animals: constru(ct)ing the Asante experience’, Africa 62: 221–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McCaskie, T. C. (1995) State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Obeyesekere, G. (1997) [orig. 1992]. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Otten, C. F. (ed.) (1986) A Lycanthropy Reader: werewolves in western culture. Syracuse: University of Syracuse Press.Google Scholar
Parker, J. (2004) ‘Witchcraft, anti-witchcraft and trans-regional ritual innovation in early colonial Ghana: Sakrabundi and Aberewa, 1889–1910’, Journal of African History 45: 393420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Piot, C. (1999) Remotely Global: village modernity in West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Rattray, R. S. (1923) Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Rattray, R. S. (1927) Religion and Art in Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Rattray, R. S. (1929) Ashanti Law and Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Rattray, R. S. (1932) Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Rosenthal, J. (1998) Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.Google Scholar
Sahlins, M. (1995) How ‘Natives’ Think: about Captain Cook, for example. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schildkrout, E. (1979) ‘The ideology of regionalism in Ghana’, in Shack, W. A. and Skinner, E. P. (eds), Strangers in African Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Shaw, R. (2002) Memories ofthe Slave Trade: ritual and historical imagination in Sierra Leone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Tait, D. (1963) ‘A sorcery hunt in Dagomba’, Africa 32: 136–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tait, D. (1967) ‘Konkomba sorcery’, in Middleton, John (ed.), Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. New York: Natural History Press, for the American Museum of Natural History.Google Scholar
Tauxier, L. (1912) Le Noir du Soudan: pays Mossi et Gourounsi. Paris: Leroux.Google Scholar
Tauxier, L. (1921) Le Noir de Bondoukou: Koulangos, Dyoulas, Abrons, etc. Paris: Leroux.Google Scholar
Warner, M. (2002) Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: ways of telling the self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Ward, B. C. (1956) ‘Some observations on religious cults in Ashanti’, Africa 26: 4761.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Werbner, R. P. (1993) Ritual Passage, Sacred Journey: theprocess and organization of religious movement. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar