|Spiders in and out of Court, or, 'the long legs of the|
|styles of spider divination in their sociological|
|Different aspects of social life requiÉre different types of explanation and have
different types of
history. The patterns and forces of social history underdetermine cognitive aspects of
phenomena whose broader features may indeed be sociologically constrained and therefore
answerable to historical explanation. This poses a challenge: how to produce revealing, helpful
accounts which both offer explanations for developments while still remaining true to the
complexity of the society being described. The challenge lies in dealing with the complexity of
social causation. A variety of functionalism is the usual recourse of anthropologists (this will
be further discussed in the conclusions below).
|I shall focus on spider divination as one aspect of social life in several Cameroonian|
|societies. As a social phenomenon spider divination is widespread throughout
half of the country. I do not pretend, however, that it is the most important aspect of those
societies. The particular task which I have set myself is to be faithful both to the cognitive
work undertaken in divination and to its social role.
|At the same time I wish to ask how we should explain both the similarities and the|
|differences between these systems of spider divination. In the broadest sense
I shall indicate
two types of explanation, one cognitive and the other sociological. It is my contention that
each type of explanation identifies factors which underdetermine but constrain those of the
other explanatory type.
|Divination in court, examples from Mambila, Banen and elsewhere|
|The use in divination of spiders which live in holes in the ground is widespread
southern Cameroon. There is a common term, , which is used both for the spiders and,
generically, for divination. There seems little question that the technique has spread from a
single source over this area. Vansina (1990: 13) takes as an example of a recent
innovation on the basis of its continuous distribution over a well-defined area. This is further
discussed in Blench and Zeitlyn, 1989/90. The relation of social structure to particular social
forms is thrown into particular focus by such a phenomenon. The fact of dispersion from a
common origin implies nothing about the social role of divination, nor does it imply much, if
anything, about the divinatory practice.
|The political systems of the groups in question may be summarised as follows.|
|Mambila, who are found on both sides of the international boundary, have rudimentary
in Nigeria. Among Cameroonian Mambila the institution of the chief has been strengthened by
borrowing from the
|FIG. 1. Banen and Mambila territory in Cameroon|
|neighbouring Tikar. They lack, however, any form of unilineal descent system. To the south|
|of the Mambila lies the large city state of Foumban, which dominated the area at
the end of the
nineteenth century. An important and highly organised court dominated many smaller vassal
chiefdoms. Farther south still are the Bamiléké and their neighbours, the Banen, who, like the
Bamoun of Foumban, have polities based on chiefdoms and lineages. Mambila may use the
results of spider divination as the principal evidence against someone accused of witchcraft.
The Bamiléké and Banen use spider divination to diagnose the best response to illness but its
results are not used as evidence in court (Hurault 1962: 78).
|I shall compare the use of spider divination among the Mambila, whom I know best,|
|and among another group to the south for which there is good documentation. The
will be made both of technique and of social role. In particular I am relying on the work of
Idelette Dugast on the Banen. Dugast worked in the Ndiki chiefdom of the Banen over a
twenty-year span from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s.1
|Part of the motivation for the comparisons which follow may be seen in the political|
|role of the Zande benge oracle in its classic description by Evans-Pritchard
(1976 ). All
decisions made on the strength of benge oracles may be referred up to a higher court. The
ultimate appeal is to the king and
|thereby to the king's oracle (a benge oracle which is no different in kind or technique from the|
|In Zandeland [the poison oracle's] verdicts derive an historic sanction from the fact that|
|its verdicts were traditionally backed by the full authority of the king. ... In
disputes, therefore, the authority of the poison oracle was formerly the authority of the
king, and this in itself would tend to prevent any serious challenge to its veracity' p.
|Only princes (in charge of provinces) and the king are aware of the contradictions inherent in|
|the system. For example, death may be held to be caused by witchcraft
performed by that person's kin. A different kin group may believe that the same death is
caused by vengeance magic aimed at a witch. Royals are the only group to know both
diagnoses. However, they do not discuss these problems, so no consequences follow from
such contradictions (p. 7). I would suggest, and I hope that the examples considered below
corroborate the suggestion, that it is no coincidence that the benge oracle is of political
importance and that it possesses the cognitive features which it does. The cognitive features I
refer to are those of independence from operator manipulation (a topic which Evans-Pritchard
discusses at length) and the extent to which operator interpretation is reduced by the oracle
providing answers to yes/no questions.
In Cameroon a telling example of the political importance of spider divination may be found in
Foumban. Foumban is the capital of the Bamoun people, who dominated the regional politics
of western Cameroon in the nineteenth century. A city state with imperial pretensions, its
rulers exacted allegiance over a wide area. In the late nineteenth century the famous ruler
Njoya converted to Islam and invented his own writing system. With this script he wrote his
'History and Customs of the Bamoun'. By the time (c. 1910) that he began writing he was
secure in alliance with the Germans. This afforded him some protection from competition for
the throne so he could repeal some of the laws which entrenched his position. The history
includes lists of laws repealed and new legislation. Among the old laws which were repealed
are the following (my translation from the French)
|16. If one consulted a diviner on the subject of an important man who was ill, if
affirmed that he would not die then were he to die they also killed the person who had
consulted the diviner.
|Moral: the clients of bad or mistaken diviners are punished!|
|17. Those who consult the spider die. p 126 [p. 226 in Njoya's pagination]|
|The latter is not concerned with errors of divination. Bamoun spiders do not
lie. They are
symbols of wisdom in myths, stories and on carvings: another law which Njoya repealed was
a restriction on the use of spiders as a decorative motif on bedposts (p 128). The use of spider
divination was banned as treasonable. The health and safety of the chief could be discovered
through spider divination and therefore its use was prohibited in order to preserve State secrets.
It is not necessary to continue with the intricacies of Bamoun history to appreciate the
|TABLE 1: Banen and Mambila compared|
|Spiders in court||No||Yes|
|Degree of constraint||Low||High|
|was accorded to spider divination. Among other groups its place may not have
had such a
great political significance. One of the tasks of the sociologist is to explain how this variation
has come about and what other features accompany it.
Table 1 summarises the comparisons which will be made in more detail in the remainder of
Generalised account of spider divination
The common elements of spider divination are as follows.
|The divination technique consists of posing a question to a spider which lives in|
|a hole in the ground. An inhabited spider-hole is located and the area immediately
cleared of vegetation. Alternatively the spider can be dug out of its hole and taken to a more
conveniently sited abandoned hole in which it will be kept. Over the hole is placed an old pot
(about 40 cm diameter), the upturned base of which is knocked out. This is covered with a
shard or piece of tin as a lid which can be removed to inspect the entrance to the burrow and its
When a question is to be posed various markers are placed inside the pot near the hole, and
these are associated by the diviner with alternatives posed in the question, or with the
individuals concerned. Most systems involve a set of leaf-cards. These are made either from
the leaves of particular trees or may be cut from the skin of raffia palm ribs. They are
individuated with a set of ideograms; often each ideogram is repeated, once on one card, twice
on another. Such pairs of cards are seen as bad and good respectively. For instance, the card
with one symbol meaning palm-tree refers to a problem associated with palms, that with the
palm-tree doubled means that good is to be expected from the palms.
Large numbers of such cards are used: Gebauer published four sets of cards used by Yamba
diviners. The numbers in these vary from 206 to 290 (1964: 46). Contemporary Mambila use
fewer cards, thirty eight being the largest number of ideograms being used in one set, giving
seventy six cards in all. After the question has been asked, the objects and the set of leaf-cards
are placed in the enclosure, and the pot is covered. It is usual for some cards or other objects
to be placed over the entrance to the spider hole. The diviner now waits (often overnight) for
the spider to emerge. When the spider emerges it disturbs the objects and the cards. The
diviner interprets the pattern resulting from the spider's passage to answer the question posed.
The meanings of the cards may be referred to in relation to some of the other objects. For
example, where stones are placed round the hole, as
|FIG. 2: Palm-tree cards: good - bad (approximately actual size).|
|occurs in the Banen variant described by Dugast, each stone may be associated
with a different
individual. Cards placed near each stone are interpreted with regard to the individual associated
with that stone. Were I the consultant and the card meaning 'bad palm' was found on or near
'my' stone then I would be told not to climb palm trees, that this would be dangerous, and so
forth. Different systems have different rules for interpreting combinations, and diviners have
more or less freedom to read a story from the resulting pattern.
Various identifications have been published for the spiders used in spider divination.2 It
should be noted that among the Mambila, 'spider' divination is usually performed by land
crabs (Sudanonautes (convexonautes) aubryi) although spiders are also used. In Mambila both
spider and crab can be referred to as . This appears to be peculiar to those groups such
as the Mambila and the Wute3 who live on along the escarpment of the Adamawa Plateau.
|The Mambila lie on either side of the Nigeria/Cameroon border, the bulk of them living
Mambila Plateau in Nigeria. A smaller number (c. 12,000) are to be found in Cameroon,
especially at the foot of the Mambila Plateau escarpment, on the Tikar Plain. My fieldwork
was restricted to these groups, and in particular to the village of Somié. Somié had a
population of approximately one thousand (based on the official 1986 tax census) at the time of
my fieldwork. Self-sufficient in food, the villagers have grown coffee as a cash crop since the
|Cameroonian Mambila on the Tikar Plain have adopted the Tikar institution of the|
|chieftaincy, yet their social structure otherwise closely resembles that described
Nigerian village of Warwar by Rehfisch (1972) based on fieldwork in 1953. Nigerian
Mambila did not have the same type of institutionalised chieftaincyas is found in Cameroon. In
Nigeria villages were organised on gerontocratic principles, and lacked well developed political
offices. The system of exchange marriage described by Rehfisch (1960) has now vanished,
and with it the two sorts of named group which recruited through different combinations of
descent, marriage type (exchange or bridewealth) and residence. Marriage is viri-patrilocal,
|increasingly on the basis of courtship, although the provision of bridewealth is still a major|
|factor. However, bridewealth may be paid in instalments over a number
of years. It is not
cited as a reason for the failure of young men to marry. In Cameroon most people in the
village are members of either the Catholic or Protestant Church; Islam is of greater importance
among Nigerian Mambila. However, both men's and women's masquerades are still
performed, and cases heard at the chief's palace are regularly concluded with a ritual oath
(suàgà). The results of spider divination are held to be authoritative evidence, and when
witchcraft cases are passed from the chief's court to the national legal system the diviners are
called as witnesses.
My earlier work on Mambila divination has examined the different types of divination used by
the Mambila in Cameroon. The rules of interpretation of spider divination were explained and
an example was examined (Zeitlyn, 1987; 1990a: chapter 3). Further analysis of this case
focused on the role of contradictions and the way in which diviners reacted when the answer to
one question contradicted an earlier answer (see Zeitlyn, 1990b, c).
: Earth divination
is the most important form of Mambila divination In the account which follows the
meanings of the leaf cards are scarcely referred to. This is because the contemporary form of
Mambila spider divination uses the relative positions of the cards rather than their meanings.
We shall concentrate upon the actual process of divination and the principles of interpreting the
positions of the cards.
|Most adult men apparently know at least the basic principles of interpretation even if they|
|have not formally been taught how to divine. More men have been taught than
practise . Amongs those who do, some are widely regarded as experts and attract
clients from far afield. There is no formal requirement that a diviner should be a household
head but most active diviners are of that status. Since the commonest reason for divination
arises from illness there is more incentive for fathers to divine than there is for single men.
One senior man (Wajiri Bi) has clients who have travelled from Nyamboya and Bankim (70 km
away) for a consultation. In Somié centre I know of five regular practitioners, and in
immediately outlying hamlets were three highly reputed men (Wajiri Bi among them) whom
people from the centre regularly consulted.
|The political role of divination, and of in particular, is ambiguous. I was told|
|that it is regarded as an essential skill, expected of all senior men. However,
this is not
formalised, and I suspect that the only explicit statement I received to this effect was little more
than an inductive generalisation. Knowledge of is neither necessary nor sufficient
for political success. Yet it is a common means of achieving influence, and thus can contribute
to the exercise of power. That it is not sufficient is clear since there are successful and
acknowledged practitioners who do not take an active role in village politics. That it is not
necessary is illustrated by the Chief of Somié, well-respected and influential chief, who yet
|how to divine, nor consults , although neighbouring chiefs are known
However, when I repeated Rehfisch's 'opinion poll' asking who are the elders of Somié
(Zeitlyn 1990a: 26), all those named (apart from the chief) knew even if they were
not regular practitioners.
|New chiefs are selected through divination by the headman of Njerup, and Papa the|
|headman of Gumbe. On them alone rests any formal requirement to practise divination,
only for this one purpose.
|plays a crucial role in the detection of witches since it provides an authoritative|
|verdict. For this, divination must be carried out by two respected diviners
who are not
personally involved in the case. It is likely that the chief will have increased his authority by
stressing his non-involvement with this activity, so that his judgements on the basis of
divinatory results are accepted as being more neutral. This is especially important as it
concerns the role of the Chief in referring witches accused in the village court to Bankim where
they are committed to the national system of justice in which witchcraft is an imprisonable
offence (article 251 of the Penal Code).4 At a trial in Banyo the diviners who 'caught' the
witch appear as witnesses for the prosecution. People are sentenced with terms between six
months and ten years. Several people from Somié were remanded in custody for over a year
before being acquitted. Yet , although powerful, is not merely a technique by which
social control is achieved. It is one of the ways by which men maintain their authority over
women, since women are not allowed to divine. These considerations alone, however, cannot
explain the observed practices. As has already been said in the introduction, such
'functionalist reduction' is inadequate: it can give no account of intellectual behaviour,
particularly of the ratiocination of the diviners.
Basic techniques of
In Mambila is generic for divination. (lit. divination ground) is practised with
both crabs and spiders. No distinction is made in the treatment they receive. As was described
in the general account, the area around the spider (or crab) hole is cleared and covered by an
old pot. To begin divination a stone is rubbed around the top of the pot which the diviner
blows into saying '' (come out, come out). The procedure for asking a question
involves placing a stick and a stone inside the pot, one either side and slightly in front of the
hole, usually the stick to the left, the stone to the right. Opposite the hole, about 10 cm. away,
the divination leaf-cards5 are neatly stacked, pointing at the hole.
Two cards are placed over the hole. These are usually those meaning 'End' and 'Male'
although 'Walk' is also used. Their meanings however, are not usually referred to during
interpretation. Some diviners6 put a stone on the stack in the early stages of divination so that
only the two cards over the hole can be moved. This stone is only removed when further
details are needed. These are then obtained by allowing the crab to disturb the stack.
However, the stack is often undisturbed even when unweighted.
The question is posed: a small stone in the right hand is tapped on the pot following the rhythm
of the speech which is often muttered. I was told
|FIG. 3: set-up|
|that actual vocalization is unnecessary. Moreover, when I stumbled over the
phrases in I
was told that I could speak English, and divination would understand. No matter what is at
issue, questions follow a fixed schema allowing two possible responses, one associated with
the stick and one with the stone. The general form for a question is as follows:
|My divination, you shape-changer, you witch, if XXXXX then take the stick, my|
|No, it is not that, not-XXXXX / YYYYY / divine further, then take/bite the stone, my|
|The choice is between one option (XXXXX) and either its direct negation (NOT XXXXX)
an element from its contrast set (YYYYY) which may be more or less precisely specified.
Commonly the vague alternative , (divine further) is offered which always has a
negative connotation: further divination is about something evil.
The opening phrase can be extended to include other sorts of witches and idioms for
witchcraft, thus becoming a list of possible sources of danger. The crab is described as being a
witch since 'it must be one otherwise it would not know about witchcraft.' When enquiring
further about this I was told that 'it takes one to know one,' and reminded that people who
have inherited witchcraft have 'open eyes,' and can detect witches without necessarily
practising witchcraft themselves.
Once the question has been put, the pot is re-covered and the diviner(s) retire for ten to fifteen
minutes to allow the crab to emerge and disturb the cards, thus giving its answer. Often
another pot is inspected and further questions put while the answer from the first pot is
awaited, so a set of parallel questions may be operated. This provides a consistency check on
the veracity of the divination. (Truth-telling is considered separately below.)
A new line of questioning is marked by the diviner breaking a twig and throwing away the
fragments as he states that he will adopt a fresh approach, and that the divination is to follow
|Principles of Interpretation.
When the diviners return, if the crab has emerged and disturbed the cards, the resulting pattern
is read. Often an abbreviated version of the original
|question is spoken over the pot immediately before removing the lid and inspecting
This section outlines the general rules by which the pattern is interpreted.
Expertise in reading the patterns is acquired firstly by divining with elders expert in divination,
and especially with one's teacher. Although the stereotypical cases can be recounted (see
below) the proper interpretation of an equivocal response can only be learnt through seeing a
similar response and being taught its interpretation. The success of a particular interpretation
can only be evaluated in the light of subsequent events. While learning to divine, use is made
of truth-testing questions whose answers are easily verified for example: 'Will I eat maize
porridge today?' Controlling the question not only tests the veracity of the crab but also
exercises the skill of the diviner. Later one begins to divine alone, but always refining the
technique by induction from past cases. Thus I suspect that more experienced diviners rarely
reject a response as 'saying nothing,' while this is more common among beginners.
It should be stressed that these rules were presented to me as such. In general conversation
about divination a circle would spontaneously be drawn on the ground to represent the spider
hole, and a stick, a stone and scraps of leaf positioned to illustrate examples. I asked how the
divination gave its answers, how it could respond to the questions asked of it. The cases
illustrated below were presented to me through the use of the diagrams as paradigm cases.
The simplest responses do not involve the whole stack of cards but only the two cards which
are placed over the hole (usually 'End' and 'Male'). If a card is moved towards or onto the
stick then the stick has been chosen (); similarly, the stone may be chosen. The position of
each card is interpreted firstly on its own according to these rules, and secondly with reference
to the positions of the other cards. Thus the two cards left over the hole may contradict one
The first complication of this simple system is the possibility of the cards 'looking,' which is
illustrated below. A card may be viewed as an arrowhead due to the symmetry of its shape7
and with this in mind it can be taken to indicate a direction. Mambila diviners express this by
saying it 'looks' in a certain direction. Hence, if, when on the stick, it 'points' at the stone it is
the stone which has been chosen and vice versa. However, one diviner did not use this
interpretation. He disregarded the 'pointed-ness' of the cards, concentrating instead on
whether the cards had been turned over; this distinction is also covered below.
Thus far we have considered the four following possibilities:
The idea of a card 'looking' can be used to elaborate on the basic answer which is read from
the alternatives attached to the stick and the stone. If a card on the stone 'looks' outside the pot
as in a) and b) above, this can be used to give more information about the evil which threatens.
For example, when trouble in a compound is at issue, a card 'looking' outwards directs the
diviners to consider a cause outside the compound. This sort of detail is often ignored when
the answer selected is the alternative which the client prefers.
In principle these four basic possibilities may be doubled by further
|FIG. 4. basic responses|
|distinguishing whether the cards are upside down (). Normally the cards are
with the rib uppermost, and this is how they are laid over the hole. In abstract discussion of
interpretation I was told that an inverted card was 'bad', possibly warning of unforeseen
problems, so a card on the stick as in a) above, but inverted, is similar to one 'looking' at the
stone... It is possible to use this principle to aid difficult interpretations, although, in observed
divination Wajiri Bi ignored this feature. B\b\, who does not refer to 'looking,' equated
' on stick' to 'stone' but said that all cards near the stone were bad. Despite these
variations between diviners there is far more consensus than is reported among Bamiléké
diviners (Pradelles 1986:311-313).
Some responses are portents of death: the pulling of cards down into the hole, the balancing of
cards against the pot wall so that they point (or 'look') down into the ground, or the pushing of
the cards outside underneath the pot. B\b\ made the distinction between the simple pulling of
cards which remain flat into the hole, signifying a 'bad' situation which must be corrected, and
the cards being folded over in so doing, which tells of a death to come.
|Further rules of Interpretation|
|FIG 5. Further responses|
|divination is taken to have selected the card above the place of entry. The
meaning of this card
is referred to in the result, usually in the context of the positions of other cards. This is the
only instance in which the meaning of the cards is invoked in Mambila divination.
2) A card balanced on its base against the pot wall augurs well, whereas balanced on its point it
These basic rules are sufficient to interpret the simple cases. The skill in divination lies in the
ability to interpret equivocal results, for example when one card is on the stick and another on
the stone. Most often, however, such a result will be rejected as saying nothing.
Divination and Truth
The veracity of any particular divination result may be questioned by the participants. Other
types of Mambila divination such as (divination of the vine) can only be
checked inductively by asking easy questions and, unlike its more serious counterpart, no
remedial procedures are available if it is found to be lying. It is possible that this omission
relates to the degree of operator-dependence. Manipulation by the operator is possible in
in a direct manner unlike Hence the operator can be blamed whenever the
divination is proved wrong. The suspicion of manipulation prompted sarcastic comments at a
demonstration of another type of divination8. On the other hand, a variety of tests and
techniques is employed to ensure the truthfulness of which is not operator-
The most routine check is applied during every divination session by repeating the same
question in the same pot. On the second occasion the stick and stone are transposed. This
enables the diviners to reject answers resulting from the leaves being pushed repeatedly in one
direction. The divination must appear to be paying heed to the question being asked.
Other techniques involve administering an ordeal to the spider. At intervals of approximately a
month (porridge [of] divination) is prepared by the diviner who puts it into the holes
while uttering a variety of encouraging phrases such as:
|'Take fiercely, take fiercely, tell the truth, tell the truth, and be strong; tell lies and die.'|
|Two or three days later divination restarts with a set of questions to establish the state of each|
|particular pot. Truth-telling is tested by asking either 'Am I here?' or 'Will
I eat maize porridge
The spiders may also be asked whether any witchcraft is attempting to interfere with them.
This is the only instance where any break with orthodox Western logic occurs. A 'Cretan liar'
paradox results if the answer provided is 'yes'. However, I did not succeed in pointing out the
fallacy. If an answer indicates that witches are interfering then the spider is not consulted that
A less common treatment is to administer the powdered inner bark of a tree10 which has been
scraped onto an old-style Mambila hoe-blade11. The bark is sprinkled into the holes, using
both hands, to the accompaniment of an invocation similar to that described above. It is
unclear whether all practitioners of use this technique, but certainly all use
Central to the learning of divination is acquaintance with the names of the leaves which are
cooked and eaten with a chicken before the remainder is administered to the divination pots.
Subsequent preparation of repeats the essentials of this initiation. It is described as
being an ordeal for the spider: only truth-telling spiders can eat it and survive.
As has been said a consistency check is performed by using several divination pots
simultaneously, or by simply repeating a question several times. Only if several pots give the
same answer will it be believed. I never witnessed a case where this became an issue; most
conflicting results were read as adding detail to a single answer12. Responses which directly
contradict one another are either taken to be 'criticizing the question' or are explained away as
With respect to any particular pot a highly empirical attitude is taken. By using the methods
mentioned above and by inductive tests, practitioners satisfy themselves that a pot and the
spider or crab within it is truthful. If a pot persistently misinforms, giving wrong answers to
the tests and giving answers inconsistent with those received from other pots, then that pot will
simply be abandoned.
|Banen spider divination|
|In her monograph on the Ndiki (Banen) Dugast (196013)
devotes 43 pages to divination and
spider divination is the first of the six divination types described. Ordeals are described
separately under a different heading, a point to which we shall return.
The Ndiki are a group of small-scale farmers with segmentary lineages among which is a
Chiefly lineage. In an area in which there was no land shortage a question may be raised about
the origin of the chief and his authority. In the north of Cameroon there is uncertainty about
rainfall giving rise to a niche for ritual specialists and the possibility of its monopoly by chiefs.
This does not exist for the Banen who are on the margins of the tropical forest, where rainfall
is reliable and plentiful. The situation is very close to that pictured by Kopytoff in his
characterization of 'the African Frontier' (1987) in which competition is for followers (qv
Goody 1971) and successful groups split into factions some of which go into the frontier, the
uninhabited bush, where they settle. If they are successful immigrants are
|attracted and the founding group subsequently becomes the chiefly lineage. A
structure is reproduced by the those who cede from the parent group14. Such a characterization
seems to fit the Bamiléké and Banen, and the zone on the edge of the forest. To summarize:
the Chief and his lineage have a limited set of ritual powers but are not, at base, different in
kind from any other lineage. They have come to dominate as a result of a historical process.
They had (in precolonial times) a monopoly over the use of capital punishment or the selling of
kin into slavery (often a preferred solution to the problems posed by habitual offenders). In
such a group the management of witchcraft accusations is important. Witchcraft accusation is
a means by which political rivalries may be expressed, and may lead to the fission not only of
lineages but also of the group. Since the chief must retain followers in order to maintain a
viable economy such accusations must be managed and resolved. Spider divination does not
play a role in this process. Its use is widespread, however, in response to illness.
|The presence of lineages among the Banen should also be remarked upon unlike the|
|Mambila case in which lineages are absent. Elders have authority by virtue
of their seniority in
the lineage. Lineage heads arbitrate internal disputes. The lineage system 'naturalizes' their
authority. Compared to the Mambila case there is less need for an elder to refer to an external
|When we come to examine the Banen variety of spider divination we must remember that|
|sociologically it is used in response to personal problems but it is not important
problems are placed in a wider arena. It is not an element of political debate. Hence its
operations are not subject to the constraints of public debate or scrutiny as may occur among
the Mambila. The principal Banen responses to witchcraft accusations were to swear oaths
while holding tortoises (it was held to be fatal to lie on this oath) or to undergo a variety of
ordeals. The results of spider divination may have led to the initial accusation but they do not
figure as evidence in court. The results of divination are not subject to public scrutiny in court.
|The interpretation of Banen spider divination occurs as a two stage process which I will|
Who are diviners, who are clients?
Diviners are held to have organs (transmitted matri-laterally) located near the stomach which
enable them to interpret dreams, to divine effectively and to administer the treatments which
may follow. These organs (sing.) are not necessarily present at birth. It is
possible to acquire them and hence the ability to divine by eating the of chickens
together with certain special medicines.
|However, there is great ambiguity in making a claim to possess since the|
|possession of these organs is also a necessary requirement for the (sing. ) -
those who transform at night and eat the internal organs. may be of either sex;
diviners are male. Diviners have 'good' , they are not , they never transform or
eat people. Dugast illustrates some of the types of questions asked in divination, but not who
asks them. I suspect that only men may be clients, but this may be an over-generalization from
the Mambila model. Dugast tells us that spider
|FIG. 6 The four batons, cut to represent male and female pairs, good and bad|
|divination is consulted before a mother visits her daughter, before a man climbs
his palms to
harvest the nuts, or leaves on a journey. It is also consulted about the breakdown of a marriage
or about the possible location of a house. A similar range of questions is asked in Mambila
The timing of questions
A single question is asked in the evening. The pot is inspected the next morning to discover
the answer. If the response is unclear then it may be repeated the next day. Clearly such a
method demands that the questions are not restrictive, since to ask many small precise
questions would simply take too long. In cases of illness it would be inappropriate to spend
several weeks asking a sequence of questions to rule out successive possibilities. Rather, one
large, general question is asked. Dugast gives the following example:
|'I have brought all the (divination) leaves cut by me myself because someone has
so that I can ask you if he is all right. Tell him this. If he will out live this year, tell
him. If he will have troubles, or if a bad fate is attached to him, show it. Show me a
sign by which I will know that his enemies will achieve nothing. Place them before me
in their place so that I can know fully that they don't want ill of him. If they want to
kill him, show it to me. If he will win over them this month then place him over them.'
(p 50, my translation.)
|This type of questioning puts the onus on the diviner. When the question is
interpretation is necessary to arrive at a definite answer. So, overnight questioning using only
one spider at a time, constrains the type of question and increases the work which the diviner
Four batons, cut from the skin of a palm rib are placed over the spider hole, skin side up.
Eight stones are placed about 15 cm from the hole, forming an octagon around it. Different
individuals are associated with particular stones. The stack of cards is propped upright,
wedged between two small sticks stuck in the ground. The end of the stack is over the hole so
that it will be disturbed when the spider emerges.
|The four batons are used to indicate the general form of the answer. The batons
are cut with
patterns and are taken to represent two male-female pairs, a good pair and a bad pair15. The
good pair have notches cut
|FIG 7 A good sign. There is nothing to fear from the enemy.|
|in one edge, the bad pair have notches cut on both edges. Short batons are female,
When the question is posed they are placed over the spider's hole in sequence (from left to
right): good female, good male, bad male, bad female.
The examples of interpretation as given by Dugast are shown in Figs. 7-8. If the order of the
batons is changed, and the bad-female is covered by the bad-male (fig. 9), then 'the good have
taken the place of the bad:' opponents will be overcome and if the man goes hunting he will kill
an animal. Further examples are given of the significance of turning over the batons to reveal
the 'inside' surface (shaded) in Figs 10-12. There are clearly far more possible results than
have been illustrated here. What we are not told is whether there are other standard
interpretations of the form 'turned-over, and pushed away from the hole = a corpse at the
There are 84 different cards, many (21 plants, 12 animals: 33 in all) relate to items which may
be used in treatments to avert, cure or circumvent the problem as revealed by the interpretation
of the batons. The cards covering the stones are taken to relate to the person associated with
that stone. Unfortunately Dugast does not give much information about the possible
complexities of interpretation. For example, we are not told of the significance of the spider
turning over a card.
The relative positions of the four batons provide the key to the main part of the answer. The
cards are then referred to in order to produce more
|FIG. 8 'A bad sign: an enemy will kill the consultant|
|FIG. 9 'The good has taken the place of the bad'|
|detail. In particular they are used to specify the ingredients of any medicine
(Dugast talks of
'amulets') which may be prepared. In fact the preparation of some medicine (or other ritual
treatment, such as circling the patient's head nine times with a particular animal which has been
identified by divination) is the usual outcome of a consultation. In principle it seems possible
for the leaves to contradict the batons, but Dugast does not consider this possibility. If priority
is given to the batons any direct contradiction may be avoided. Conflicting diagnoses may be
seen simply as a warning of different and various threats. It is not a contradiction for a threat
to come from two people simultaneously, nor for two people to be threatened. If the batons
indicate a different person from the cards then this could be taken as revealing both a major and
a minor threat.
Dugast states that the diviner is often unable to interpret the pattern. In this case the diviner will
repeat the question the next night.
|Methods and styles of explanation.|
|In the background to this work lie a set of questions about anthropology and history
different aspects of social life should be explained. A brief account of these questions now
|People bear children and socialise them. They acquire language and much more. They|
|learn not just how to make a living but how to act in society. They find partners
and have their
own children in turn. Thus, at its crudest, do societies reproduce. We could elaborate this
account in many directions to explain different types of continuity between generations.
|FIG. 10 Neither the husband nor the wife should leave their hut during the day because they|
|would be attacked by opponents who would overcome them.|
|FIG. 11 The good-male is said to be 'at the crossroads'.
The consultant must avoid crossroads that day since the diviner 'has seen a corpse.
|But change is harder to explain than continuity, and the direction of change even
Recently some authors have shown how different aspects of society change at different rates.
For example, elements of ritual performances may be relatively invariant while its overall
significance and political role may undergo radical change (Bloch 1986). To say that an
element is 'relatively invariant' means that it must be recognisably similar on the occasions of
different performances. The requirement of such invariance puts constraints upon those
elements. We may term 'cognitive' such constraints as the need to be learnable in the first
place and subsequently to be remembered. Pascal Boyer has discussed the implications of this
(1990). To go much further, one might ask which cognitive constraints are imposed (on us as
a species) by our ability to learn and use language. Macnamara (1982) discusses some of these
issues from the perspective of developmental psychology.
At the most general level different sorts of explanations (involving different factors) must be
given for different aspects of a society. Each factor is under-determined by the forces which
drive the others. Yet forces and
|FIG. 12 If an opponent is 'at the crossroads' then 'the opponent will die',
and the consultant has nothing to fear from crossroads
|factors are constrained and constraining upon one another. The result is a
complex web of
interaction and feedback which accommodates the vicissitudes of real life and social change.
Reports of the death of functionalism have been somewhat exaggerated. True, functionalism
provides little assistance in explaining change. Also, it gives teleological explanations which
justify the existence of aspects of society in terms of their unintended consequences. Agency is
among the casualties of such an approach (Fardon 1988).
Notwithstanding these limitations, functionalism has a contribution to make. For, at the
crudest level things do get done. Lack of fit between social institution and what it does may
then be seen as a motor of history. But if funerary rites do not dispose of the dead, or if the
processes of dispute resolution never decide who should be farming which plot of land then
they are not what we think they are. I take it that in every society the dead must be disposed of
and that disputes must be resolved, by force perhaps16.
Here lies the remaining utility of functionalism. The role played by an institution acts as a
constraint upon its past and present form. Any dispute resolution procedure must be able to
resolve disputes. The analysis of spider divination shows that such naive and crude a starting
point may still produce revealing results. I should stress, however, that I am by no means
suggesting that functionalism is the be-all and the end-all. Rather, it behoves us to start by
asking: how much can be explained by this type of minimal functionalism. The large part of
social life which will not be amenable to such an approach must be explained differently. To
give a concrete example Atkinson and Drew (1979) analyse the use of language in court-
rooms. Linguistic usage in court-rooms differs greatly from that of ordinary conversation.
Atkinson and Drew seek to demonstrate how much of the formality of court-room interaction
can be explained by the linguistic setting (a barrister asks questions of a witness so as to be
understood by a jury which cannot overtly signal that it is following the exchange). The
silence of the jury necessitates departures from ordinary conversational practice. This alone
can explain much of the strangeness and formality of court-rooms which we may otherwise
attribute to more general sociological factors. The linguistic approach can explain part of court-
room organisation. Other more disparate sociological factors must explain the rest.
The problems with functionalism are many and need not be further rehearsed here. Yet as has
just been suggested its use remains important. If we succeed in making a case for some
constraints on the possible range of human society then we may be guided to look for more
detail in the actual history of an institution, looking within the realm of the possible. Such
guidance may be of great help when attempting to reconstruct the past, particularly when one is
doing this with incomplete and very partial records such as are found in colonial or mission
A functional account
Elster (1979:28 & 1982) has formalized and discussed criteria for a functional
|account which is non-teleological and ideologically neutral. He identifies
summarized by Thompson et al. (1990:201) as follows:
|'1. Y (the function of X) is an effect of X (behavioural pattern).
2. Y is beneficial for Z (the group)
3. Y is unintended by the actors producing X.
4. Y (or at least the causal relation between X and Y) is unrecognised by the actors in
5. Y maintains X by a causal feedback loop passing through Z.'
|This formalization may be applied to the accounts I have given above,as follows:
|'1. Y (the political role of divination - its use in court) is an effect of X (the
of the divinatory style).
2. Y is beneficial for Z (the senior men)
3. Y is unintended by the actors producing X.
4. Y (or at least the causal relation between X and Y) is unrecognised by the actors in
5. Y maintains X.'
|One of the justifications for such an exercise is that it reveals the limits of our
Step five is uncertain. Is it correct to suggest that the use of spider divination in court
maintains the 'objective' style of the Mambila divinatory technique? I am sceptical of the
suggestion, and uncertain about the sort of data needed to answer the question. Is it legitimate
to suggest that the since the senior men use the results of divination in court this affects the
practice of the diviners? Since the diviners are the same senior men who discuss and decide
court cases it is not an implausible suggestion. However, above I have argued for a weaker
proposition, namely, that the style of divination appears objective and hence does not invite
suggestions of manipulation in court. We now see that this negative cast to the argument is not
sufficient to establish the fifth step to a functionalist account which would satisfy Elster's
For the Banen the fifth step of the functionalist argument appears to work although perhaps to
less effect. The results of divination are not produced at court or at moots. They are not subject
to the scrutiny which argument may entail. Individual diviners therefore have more freedom to
develop their own idiosyncratic styles of interpretation, and to produce holistic accounts based
on an interpretation of the overall pattern.
The use of spider divination in court would be non-functional. Compared to the use of
tortoises or ordeal spider divination is open to the charge of manipulation.
|'1. Y (the non-political role of divination) is an effect of X (the 'subjectivity'
2. Y is beneficial for Z (the senior men)
3. Y is unintended by the actors producing X.
|4. Y (or at least the causal relation between X and Y) is unrecognised by the actors
5. Y maintains X.'
|Possible explanations for the features which I have been examining must skirt
the impasse of
functionalism. There is a fit between what is done and the form of what is done. The naive
view would be that it could not be otherwise. Although such naive functionalism is incapable
of allowing for change, nonetheless, what is suggested by the data just presented is that a
functionalist stance may be used in order to understand what different types of explanation are
needed for different aspects of society.
Many questions remain outstanding when we examine the ethnographic map and seek to
explain why things are as they are. The example just considered invites the question why
spider divination does not stand behind the power and authority of chiefs among the Banen in
the way that does for the Mambila chiefs and oracles did for the Zande royalty?
The cognitive features of different varieties of divination provide partial explanation to this.
Where divination is done overnight, and only one question is asked at a time, the questions
must perforce be general. General questions produce vague answers, so the diviner must do
more interpretative work in order to produce a definite answer. Such divination systems are
open to charges of manipulation and bias on the part of the diviner. Therefore, they are less
likely to be used to develop the power and authority of chiefs, and will hence have a lesser role
to play in public disputes and other arenas within which politics is played out.
|1An expanded version of this argument will be found
in Zeitlyn, in prep. This will also include
detailed discussion of the work of Pradelles de la Tour Dejean who worked in the Bamiléké
chiefdom of Bangoua in the 1970s.
2Mambila use Hysterocrates robustus Pocock, 1899. Gebauer identified (1964:42) the spider
used in Yamba divination as Heteroscroda crassipes, and Leiderer found Phoneyusa bidenta
Pocock, 1899 in use among the Bekpak (1982:116). Nicod (1948, facing p65) describing
neighbours of the Banen, illustrates a spider which is Hysterocrates sp. and Laburthe-Tolra
(1981:469) gives Hysterocrates sp. for the spider among the Beti.
3According to Siran, p.c.
4Rowlands and Warnier (1988) discuss the relation of sorcery, along with its embodiment in
law, to the Nation State.
5Gebauer 1964:35 calls them "leaf-cards", or "cards": a usage I adopt here.
6Nggeyea Abraham, and those that he has taught.
8This was lit. divination of snail, a divination type in which a snail shell is
threaded on a length of string held by the diviner. The ease with which the snail shell moves
on the string is taken to give answers to the questions posed.
9The Zande tests of the efficacy of benge poison are similar, q.v. Evans-Pritchard 1937:337.
10Bop: Albizia zygia (DZ).
11Formerly used for bridewealth, these are now rare and are only used for rituals. I could not
ascertain whether such hoes were once in everyday use.
12This is discussed in greater detail in Zeitlyn 1990b.
13Readers are referred to chapter V 'La Vie psychique', p 27-150. A further divination type is
described in appendix 2, pp 603-15.
14Turner 1957 is the classic ethnographic description of such a process.
15No dimensions are given in the text. The Musée de l'Homme have a set collected by Dugast
in May 1935 (38.114.33 1-4). These are c. 1 cm wide, the 'male' batons are c. 15 cm long,
the female ones c. 12.5 cm in length.
|16This is not to deny that there may be misleading
procedures which mask oppression. Rather
the opposite. It is the observation that such procedures do not in fact resolve disputes that
reveals them as misleading ideological constructs.
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|Dugast, I. 1960. Monographie de la Tribu des Ndiki (Banen du Cameroun). 2: Vie Sociale et|
|Familiale Paris: Institute d'Ethnologie.|
|Elster, J. 1979. Ulysses and the sirens. Studies in rationality and irrationality Cambridge:|
|Cambridge University Press.|
|Elster, J. 1982. Explaining technical change Cambridge: Cambridge University
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|Fardon, R. O. 1988. Raiders and Refugees. Trends in Chamba Political Development 1750-|
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|Kopytoff (ed.) The African Frontier: the reproduction of traditional African societies,
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|Act. Anth. 26-27) Berlin: D. Reimer.|
|Macnamara 1982. Names for Things. A study of Human Learning London:
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|unpublished MA Thesis.|
|Rehfisch, F. 1960. 'The Dynamics of Multilinearity on the Mambila Plateau', Africa 3, 246-|
|Rowlands, M. J., & Warnier, J.-P. 1988. 'Sorcery, Power and the modern State in|
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|Tardits, C. 1960. Les Bamiléké de l'Ouest Cameroun Paris:
Thompson, M., Ellis, R., & Wildavsky, A. 1990. Cultural Theory Oxford: Westview Press.
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|University Press for the Rhodes-Livingston Institute.|
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|Equatorial Africa London: James Currey.|
|Zeitlyn, D. 1987. 'Mambila Divination.' Cambridge Anthropology 12(1), 21-51.
Zeitlyn, D. 1990a. Sua in Somié. Mambila Traditional Religion, a revised edition of 1990
|Cambridge PhD thesis 'Mambila Traditional Religion: Sua in Somié'. Oxford:
|Zeitlyn, D. 1990b. 'Professor Garfinkel visits the Soothsayers. Ethnomethodology and|
|Mambila Divination.' Man (n.s.) 25(4), 654-66.|
|Zeitlyn, D. 1990c Divination as Dialogue: the negotiation of meaning with random responses|
|Paper presented at Colloquium on the Implications of a Social Origin of Human
Intelligence, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. E. N. Goody (Ed.)
|Zeitlyn, D. in prep. The Techniques of Divination.
|The initial research on which this study is based was funded by the E.S.R.C. (grant|
|no. A00428424416) and by a scholarship from Trinity College, Cambridge. My
Cameroon could not have been conducted without the research permits granted by His
Excellency the Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research (R.P. 13/85 and 62/86),
and the help provided by his staff. Further research has been carried out during the tenure of a
Junior Research Fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. Both Wolfson College and the
Faculty of Geography and Anthropology, University of Oxford have been generous with
assistance towards the costs of fieldwork. The writing was completed during the tenure of a
Junior Research Fellowship at Wadham College, Oxford.
|Richard Fardon provided detailed criticism as a reader on behalf of the Editors of|
|Africa. This has improved the argument; the faults that remain are mine not his.|
|Both Banen and Mambila in Cameroon use spiders in divination. The intellectual
the divinatory technique is related to the different sociological contexts of divination. Relative
freedom of interpretation and the posing of questions overnight among the Banen correlates
with its political unimportance. Conversely among the Mambila the interpretation of the diviner
is rule bound, and many simple questions may be asked in quick succession. The results
provide important evidence in the chief's court. Social context and intellectual content are each
constrained but under-determined by the other.
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