Yakö - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Yakö recognized a creator, Obasi, who was invoked as the ultimate power in many rituals and at many shrines, but their beliefs about Obasi were not elaborated. More immediately significant were the Dead, the Yabö (who were not necessarily direct ancestors) and the various spirit agencies that might act independently (but more commonly were intermediaries with the Dead, who were the source of blessings and of all the information revealed to diviners). The Yakö borrowed and incorporated a wide range of cults from neighboring peoples, fitting any that seemed powerful into the appropriate category of spirit agency, hoping that they would be an effective defense against witches, sorcerers, and other malign influences. Each territorial and kinbased group had at least one associated cult. The Yakö were unusual as compared with the neighboring Mbembe (who were also people with double unilineal descent) in that they ascribed mystical powers to matrilineal priests. The head of a matriclan was a male priest who was believed through his induction rite to gain fellowship with the Dead: this enabled his spirit, or kidom, to mingle with them. By ritual, he could make fertile both women and the earth itself. Jointly, the matrilineal priests within each town performed the seasonal rituals that were considered essential for the well-being of all its people. These rituals, because they united people across the great secular divisions between wards and patrikin, seem to have been politically crucial in that they created a sense of town unity that transcended these divisions. The leader of the village, the obot lopon, was the ritually senior matriclan priest; as such, no matter what his patrilineal affiliation, he took up residence in a particular compound that was adjacent to the ritual center of the matrilineal cult. The obot lopon was in close contact with, and in some sense dominant over, the town's corporation of diviners. The final induction of a new diviner into the corporation depended on formal acceptance by the obot lopon. Matriclan priests and diviners each wore on one finger a ring given to them in the ritual of induction. It was this ring that enabled them to "see" and move among the Dead and the water-traveling sorcerers, who included sorcerers from the Dead among their number. Some believed that the wearer, however sick, could not die until this ring was removed. Priests and diviners were linked in ritual; in the absence of formal dogma, much of what people believed, the essential ideology, depended on what they were told by diviners when these were consulted about illness and misfortune. Matriclan priests seem generally to have denied that they used their powers for nefarious purposes, but the diviners so commonly ascribed death and illness to the sorcery activities of the priests that their clients must have doubted their innocence. The strength of the people's beliefs in the mystical powers of the matriclan priests seems to account for the politically significant role of the matriclan priests in uniting each town through matrilineal rituals, although effective secular power seems to have rested with the leaders of the wards. The balance was achieved not by some Machiavellian conspiracy but by the very potent beliefs about the mystic powers for good and ill that were controlled by these "Lords of the Rings"—beliefs in some ways reminiscent of those ascribed to the chiefs of the Bangwa of southern Cameroon.

Religious Practitioners. A new matriclan priest, usually a middle-aged rather than an old man, was chosen by the elders of the clan—in consultation with the other matriclan priests of the town because, in principle, the latter could veto the elders' choice. The rituals of induction then gave him his mystic powers. A new diviner, who might be male or female, first manifested signs of a kind of possession by a deceased diviner, always related, and only subsequently underwent a final induction by the senior diviner, in the presence of the other diviners and the matriclan priests. A new diviner, once possessed by a former diviner, could "see" the Dead and was driven/taken to the bush by them to be shown "medicines" and small objects of mystical power, which were then collected to form the core of a shrine through which the Dead could subsequently be contacted in séances. Public sign of the new vocation was given by the diviner when he or she brought uprooted "trees" back to the town and tossed leaves from the trees onto the veranda of each of the other diviners. Between this announcement and the final induction, the diviner could see and hear the Dead and those with mystic powers—but not ordinary people; he or she necessarily passed them in silence, without returning any greeting. At the final induction, the head of the diviners put medicines in the eye of the novice, who, looking at the sun, claimed to see certain stereotyped indications of blessing. The ring was put on the diviner's finger and, afterward, contact with the Dead was in the diviner's control. Effectively, the novice had returned, for most purposes, to the mundane world. Diviners were consulted when people had serious problems. Ailments believed to be minor were treated by men or women who used various leaves and roots as nonmystical cures.

Ceremonies. The principal Yakö ceremonies are linked to agriculture, to the life cycle of the individual, to the induction of diviners, to the induction and burial of priests, and to the induction and burial of members of important societies. The burial and funeral ceremonies for adults involved presentations of gifts between the different kin groups and social organizations to which the dead person belonged, and thus made manifest the complexity of each individual's social ties; naturally the funerals of the politically and ritually important were the most elaborate. The ceremonies of greatest general significance, however, both ritual and political, were the agricultural ceremonies, of which the main ones were those of First Planting, First Fruits, and Harvest. The rites were conducted by the matriclan priests, and the First Fruits and Harvest rites were highly elaborated and necessitated the collaboration of the most significant social groups in each town: the wards; the important men's societies and women's societies, with their masked dancers; and the corporation of diviners. The core rituals included processions lasting several days to all of the matriclan shrines and to other important shrines of the town. At least in formal terms, the Yakö acknowledged the dominant ritual position of the matriclan priests. The themes of the rites stressed the appeal to spiritual forces for the well-being of the town as a whole and for its defense against mystical enemies. In addition, especially through the parading of the men's societies, the ceremonies asserted the power of the town against secular external foes. During the First Fruits rites, which persisted into the 1950s, it was dangerous for a stranger from another place to travel within the territory of the celebrating town or wander through its streets at night.

Medicine. The Yakö regarded almost all but minor illnesses as the result of attacks or errors made by humans. They could be caused by witches; by water-trave ling sorcerers; by vengeful people who covertly placed small objects in powerful shrines and later removed them to wreak harm on some particular enemy; by ghosts of the recently dead; or by the spirits that were associated with shrines if, through some carelessness or greed, an individual trespassed on the places that they guarded. The early illnesses of infants were usually attributed to the desire for recognition by the reincarnating ancestor. It is possible to make certain generalizations about diagnosis—for example, that the conditions that involved pneumonia were likely to be ascribed to water-traveling sorcerers. The Yakö were, however, essentially pragmatic: if the treatment prescribed by the diviner who had made a particular diagnosis failed to result in a speedy cure, the patient could have recourse to another diviner who, finding out about the first failure, might diagnose not only a different treatment but a different cause.

Death and Afterlife. A person's spirit (kidom), which in the case of a matriclan priest, diviner, water sorcerer, or witch can travel separately from the living body, journeyed at the death of each individual to the linked town of the Dead (located beneath each town of the living), where behavior, involving farming and going to market, was much the same as in the town of the living. In the normal case, the proper burial rites insured a swift journey for the kidom; if, because of some unclean sickness, the rites were abnormal and the body were buried outside the town, then the transition was delayed. Until this transition had been effected, the dead person could not indwell a child. A dead person was not restricted to being reincarnated within a single child (diviners who had to name the reincarnating ancestor were quite likely to associate the name of a well-known person with several children). There were also some beliefs about Bad Dead: if the Bad Dead indwelt a child, he or she quickly died; a woman who lost a succession of children was assumed to be the victim of the Bad Dead and had to make special sacrifices. Except in this sense, however, no moral distinction was made between the different Dead. In dealing with the affairs of the living, the Dead were motivated by their own interests; they were not believed to make value judgments between the living based on the behavior of the living toward one another.

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