Sacred Groves and Rituals in the Kabye Land (Togo)

This is a translation of a French article from Geoconfluences.

The Kabye land occupies around 1000 km² in the northeast of Togo. It is made up of several highly anthropic mountain ranges with little spontaneous vegetation. There is a lot of intensive agriculture in this highly populated region. The land also features numerous natural sites which remarkably contrast with the uniformity of crops. These sites are considered to have great symbolic and cultural value. As in other voltaic societies, most of the mountain summits, hills and promontories, forests and groves, stretches of rivers and ponds, are considered to be forms taken on by certain divinities of the land.

We will address the main representatives that surround these entitites occupying protruding tips in the village countryside, and thereby understand how these pieces of “nature” can be seen as places of divine manifestation, and essential places for the activities of a religion that affects the lives of groups and individuals.

Among the diverse ritual acts that take place in the sacred groves, we will pay particular attention to the treatment of living plants and animals. This treatment show a specific ritual logic, in which the Kabye, as Bwaba of Burkina Faso puts it, “don’t think of the world of nature for itself (in this sense they are not naturalists), but they think of it as an element that lets them act upon (and understand) the social world, which is their real object of interest.” (Dugast 2006: 421)

The Divinities of a Land

The word generally used by the Kabye for the land’s divinities is “egolyme”. This word’s etymology is unclear. But in the north they are called “tree” (tew). Each of these powers exercises its influence on a limited territory, which could correspond to a whole village or a subdivision of one. Each is competent in one or several domains: rain, harvests, wind, hunt, war, controlling insect pests, human fertility, illness, etc. They are believed to have the capacity to act as intermediaries between the world of men and the heavenly realm, which is associated with the Supreme God (Eso) and contains the seeds of everything in the world.

The divine powers called “egolyme” or “tree” can be divided into two categories. There are the first men, who are the mythical founders of villages and clans. The first man is usually conceived of as having been sent down from heaven by Eso. Groves mark the place where he first landed, as well as the places where he stopped before definitively settling. He is identified with the small grove where he finally built his home, which bears his name. His spiritual principle resides in the site, under a small box representing his ancient house, which contains the sacrificial altar. In the legends, this man is paired with a woman who came down from the heaven at the same time as him, or who was already present on the earth at his arrival. Their children dispersed across the empty lands to found the principal clans and lineages. The place where each group settled down is marked by a grove, where the remains of a settlement are sometimes found.

The second category of egolymes are non-personified entitites, whose initial form bears witness to their aptitude for forming a link between the heaven and earth. They first appeared to men in the form of a tree or rock that reached all the way to the sky and plunged deep into the ground. The people, in order to permanently establish themselves in a land, had to ally themselves with these egolymes by means of sacrificial offerings. In these natural sites, religious arrangements are minimal; the altar is merely a stone or tree trunk, beside which a circle of stones make up the seats for ceremonial participants.

The aptitude of these two subcategories of divinity to procure needed resources for men from the Supreme God is likewise revived and maintained by prayers and sacrificial offerings.

Birthplaces of Social Elements

The mesh formed by the sacred sites thus outlines a cultural and religious geography that is closely tied to the way this society views the construction of spaces in inhabited lands. Besides the fact that the “tree” or egolyme divinities make the land inhabitable for humans, these natural beacons in which powers manifest themselves can be seen as the multiple “birthplaces” of the village.

This is notably seen in the initiatic rites surrounding ascension to the status of adulthood. These rites require boys and girls to return to their home village for a pilgrimage to the sacred groves that their lineage and clan depend on. To be “reborn” as a full member of the community requires them to collectively go on several paths retracing the different stages of their lineage group’s establishment on the land. This process is completed after all the initiates of the village (maybe hundreds of people) parade through the unique founding grove to which they owe their origins. After this contact with the generative land where the founding ancestor first landed, the initiates are authorized to procreate.

Sites Modeled by Rituals

As in other voltaic socities, it is generally forbidden to enter into sacred groves except in specific ritual contexts. It is forbidden to take their wood, move their stones, kill their animals, or cultivate their land. To meddle with the composition of a grove is to risk upsetting the balance of the natural elements that act upon the corresponding territory.

Nevertheless, in the Kabye region, the plant cover of a sacred site is viewed as something that can be altered to influence rain, wind, earth, etc. During certain annual rituals, changing the composition of a grove is considered necessary as part of the ritual protocol prescribed by the divinity of the site. Just as with prayers, libations and sacrifices, the act of more or less drastically changing the appearance of a grove can influence the onset of seasons, or affect the elements of nature.

This type of modification can be seen in the dry season, for example. A rite is arranged to accompany the departure of the harmattan wind, which is symbolic of this season. In several groves associated with wind, the grass and tree branches are cut in a part of the grove which is considered “the route” followed by the wind to reach the village. Reed stems are planted at specific spots in the newly cleared space. By assisting the departure of the wind, this marking lets us see the invisible path of the wind that gives rise to the harmattan.

Other rituals require more radical modifications of sacred sites. Some of them have to be periodically covered with fire. On these occasions, only the vicinity of the altar is spared from the flames. A firewall is set up around this place (the location of the divinity) by cutting the surrounding grass in advance. Depending on the site and the ritual in question, the goal intended by this burning is different.

During a rite for the beginning of the the hunt, the relevant sacred groves are often burned. The crickets and possible rodents fleeing the flames represent the wild animals that may be killed by the hunters during their future hunts. They are captured and buried in a specific place. Thus a prolific hunt is done throughout the reduced sacred grove, which facilitates the emergence and capture of wild animals in the hunting grounds several kilometers away.

Land regeneration rites, which take place annually or every five years depending on the village, also require some groves to be burned or cleared. These sites often mark a territorial border: an intersection between several subdivisions of a village, or a border with a neighboring village. This location predisposes them to acquire a specific form of pollution, which the Kabye call “death”. This term designates the traces left in the soil from the breaking of laws prescribed by the territory’s divinities. The spilling of blood on the land (due to an accident or fight), an outdoor sexual relation, souls captured by sorcerers and stored under stones: such things endanger the fertility of the land and affect the egolymes’ ability to intercede. The “cleanings” by clearing or fire are associated with the piercing vision of clairvoyants, who go from sacred site to sacred site in search of reptiles, amphibians, and scorpions, creatures that represent “death” and should be killed and evacuated to the neighboring village.

Conclusion

Kabye sacred groves, which Western eyes see as pieces of nature, are in local thought first and foremost places of divine manifestation. The structure of society leans upon the cultural relation maintained with these sites, and the survival of the group depends on the regular performance of ceremonies prescribed by the divinities. While in other places the permanency of a social unit is enabled through the stable preservation of the appearance of the sacred groves the group originated from, this is not the case among the Kabye. The “natural” elements of sacred groves are envisaged as material arranegements that must be acted upon sometimes to communicate with the divinities and intervene for the territory. The “filtering” role played by some of them, against the effects of law-breaking incidents, necessitate their modification. A good number of these sites are thus regularly remade. Depending on the time of year, they may be more or less thick or holey, and pass from the blackness of burning to the greenness of a small bush. Regularly altering the appearance of sacred groves is an ordinary way of responding to the demands of divinities and ensuring their goodwill so that society may persist.

Further Information (In French)

Original article by Marie Daugey, Doctor of Ethnology. Published on Geoconfluences on October 19, 2016. Translated from French by Zebulon Ulysses Goertzel, published here with the permission of Geoconfluences.

http://geoconfluences.ens-lyon.fr/informations-scientifiques/dossiers-thematiques/fait-religieux-et-construction-de-l-espace/corpus-documentaire/bois-sacres-togo