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The power and reality of witches in Yorubaland


Yoruba legend has it that certain women once went to the malevolent trickster god Eshu to ask for the power of witchcraft. Eshu was willing to give it to them but he had to refer them to Orunmila, the god of Fate. Orunmila would not allow them to go out into the world with the power of witchcraft until they promised to honour certain signs and materials to serve men as protections against their power.

They agreed to this but it was necessary for them to go on to Olorun, the Lord of all, to make their agreement binding. This transaction is mentioned in certain ancient Ifa verses of unknown origin which are used in divination. “ldi ogbungbun, aworo niye,

They went to Alara’s house and kill him,

They went to Ajero’s house and kill him,

They went to Orangun’s house and kill him.


It is clear then that in Yorubaland, witchcraft is a feminine art and has its power from Eshu, the trickster god, and was sanctioned, if somewhat reluctantly, by Orunmila (lfa) the god of Fate, and by Olorun, the Lord of all. This power is generally attributed to older women, but young women or even girls can sometimes be involved.

According to some informants, witchcraft power is a kind of immaterial substance which may be kept in a calabash hidden in a hole in the wall of the witch’s house, or in a hollow tree. The power itself may be lodged in the roots of a tree or even in a young child (age 1 to 8 years). In the latter case the witchcraft power will not harm the child but, on the contrary, will protect the child from other witches as the child is serving one of them as a refuge. The red tail-feather of the parrot is used as a sign of witchcraft power, and may be placed in the calabash or in the tree containing the witchcraft power. (I have been unable to find out the origin of this use of the red feather or why it should come to have this association with the witch.)

Other informants regard the power as a more concrete substance which is present in the woman’s abdomen. As one man said: “I have seen two women vomit it out. It was like a stone or a hard ball of something. Witchcraft seems generally to be held as a desirable skill because of the great power it provides; however, there is also the idea that the spirit of the witch after death becomes a restless and disconsolate ghost who wanders about the world in a distraught state. The power is usually passed from mother to daughter, but it may also be bestowed as a gift, or maybe purchased. When passed from one person to the other it is often given mixed with certain foods. It is sometimes held that a woman cannot die possessing witchcraft power but must pass it on to someone before her death; in fact, she will not be able to die unless she does so. Perhaps some actual comments by Yoruba informants would help clarify these aspects.

Witchcraft power is like a breeze, you can’t see it but it has effect. A woman can’t die possessing it-when she dies, she vomits out the invisible witchcraft and it passes to her daughter.

A woman can buy witchcraft power or may, as well, inherit it from another person. This mostly depends on the interest or love the witchcraft woman has in the person that is going to possess it. Some people when they suffer too much, seek for this power. In this case she has to buy it. But it is very necessary, and matter of must, to give this witchcraft power to somebody before she should die. In this case, if she could not get anybody either to buy it or to give it out as a gift to her friend outside, or to have a daughter she loved that can inherit it, she has to take it to an Iroko tree that is very young. This will become a spirit in the tree. Other witches will be coming to this tree to have their meetings. It is such trees that herbalists carry their sacrifices to in case they have a patient that is seriously sick.

Through many informants people believe that a woman may buy, inherit or be presented with this power. This is not given directly. It can be given through foods such as baked beans(Akara), Kola, Porridge, red Yam (Esuru) and many other native foods. When this is taken the power will start to grow, until when the person will start to fly in the night.


Witches are considered to have great power-“They are the rulers of the world, they get their power from God who gave them permission to kill. They have no mercy. They can do anything.” They are said sometimes to have favourites whom they protect and make wealthy but these positive aspects are not emphasized-they are mostly spoken of in connection with their malevolence. The Yoruba word for witch is Aje. word Aje is avoided as much as possible or at least spoken in a whisper (for fear of attracting the witch’s attention or offending her). The expressions “Agbalagba” witchcraft (old people), “awon iya” (our mothers) or “Awon eni toni aiye” (those who a calabash rule the world) being substituted. A witch’s malignancy may be turned upon a man for almost any reason-for some slight impoliteness, or because he accuses her of being a witch, or because he is getting too high in the world or often for no reason “just because they are evil women”. One of the commonest fantasies about the powers of the witch is that she can transform her “heart-soul” (Okan) into a bird or animal. This occurs at night and her physical body remains in a deep sleep while her transformed heart-soul moves abroad. A woman who sleeps on her back with her mouth open and arms outstretched is probably a witch. She cannot be awakened while her heart-soul is abroad and if someone captures the bird or animal into which her soul has been transformed she will not be able to wake up; if the creature is killed the witch will die. Most witches transform themselves into night birds of some type…these have been variously described as “a white bird with a long red beak and red claws” or “a brown bird like a bush fowl with a long red beak” Alternatively they may transform themselves into owls, cats, rats or bats, the common feature being that these creatures are all active by night, for it is believed that witchcraft is a nocturnal thing, the witches being most active between 12 and 3 a.m. in the realms of dream and nightmare. If the witch’s activities are brought into the light of day, they lose their potency, e.g., by confession. It is believed that the witch bird perches by night in a tree close to the victim’s house. An owl perched in a tree near a man’s house will cause considerable alarm to the householder. The actual manner in which the witch bird damages her victim is obscure but I have been told that it pecks its victim’s head or neck and sucks out his blood. There is a saying, “Aje ke lana, omo ku loni” (the witch bird chirped yesterday, the child dies today).

Witches are considered to take part in some obscure nocturnal orgies (ajo) for which one member of the witchparty must supply a human child.

Content created and supplied by: omotoshoEminent (via Opera News )

Alara Eshu Olorun Orunmila Yoruba


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