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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

Abstract

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.

Résumé

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.

Type
Articles
Copyright
Copyright © International African Institute 2006

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