Home » What Are Minkisi, and What Form Did They Take in the Americas

What Are Minkisi, and What Form Did They Take in the Americas

African Minkisi have been used for hundreds of years in West Central Africa, This area where they are traditionally from was once known as the kingdom of Kongo, when Europeans started settling and trading with the BaKongo people. Kongo was a well-known state throughout much of the world by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The BaKongo, however, had probably long used minkisi before ethnographers and anthropologists ever recorded them. Minkisi are complex items that are used to heal and to harm people, and there is no equivalent term for nkisi in any European language.

A seventeenth century Dutch geographer first wrote of the nkisi, and said that, “These Ethiopians [that is, the BaKongo] call moquisie [minkisi] everything in which resides, in their opinion, a secret and incomprehensible virtue to do them good or ill, and to reveal event of past and future” (Williams, 13). The term illness, in this context, is quite different than what we refer to illness. Illness, to the BaKongo, meant anything from sickness, to loss of property, and the inability to succeed in things like school and work. The perpetual struggle with the unseen forces that cause illness and misfortunes was (and is) called “war” in Kongo” (MacGaffey, 98).

A war is ended when one side of the struggle proves that they have better magic. The objects themselves are extremely complex, and most of them require hours of, “painstaking labor to construct” (MacGaffey, 33). “All minkisi, whether in the form of wooden figures, snail shells, raffia bags, or clay pots, are containers for “medicines” that empowers them” (MacGaffey, 43). “The usual containers included the shells of large snails, antelope horns, cloth bags, gourds, and clay pots.

Although minkisi in museums are usually wooden figurines and statues, containers of this kind may well have been the minority” (MacGaffey, 63). Without medicines, the minkisi are nothing, they are not alive, nor can they perform their functions. “To BaKongo, all exceptional powers result from some sort of communication with the dead” (MacGaffey, 59). Chiefs, witches, diviners/prophets, and magicians could all do this, especially through and with the help of the minkisi. There are rules and ways of doing things with them, to them, that exemplify so many aspects of Kongo culture.

To understand minkisi, you must first understand the Kongo people that made, used, and discarded them. To understand the people, you also must first understand their worldviews, their history, religion, economic conditions, how advanced their scientific knowledge was, etc. By learning about this one item used in Kongo culture, I have learned an enormous amount about the Kongo culture and the BaKongo, and have come to a new level of awareness about material culture. The goals of this paper have changed throughout the course of my research.

At first, I didn’t even know what an nkisi was, let alone did I know where I wanted to go with this paper. After doing my research though, I have decided against a paper completely focused on original ideas. Instead, my goal of this paper is to use the things that I learned in our anthropology class, and apply them to minkisi. By applying the things I have learned in the readings from our class, I have learned a lot more about minkisi than I could ever gain by just reading a few books. I will especially focus on the works of Deetz, Vlach, and the authors about folk objects.

I will also focus on what we talked about in class about “usable truth” when referring to objects associated with slave resistance. The first conclusion I have come to during the course of my research, is that I don’t know how anybody could reduce African religion to being anything less than complicated. At first the minkisi seem “savage”. “Until quite recently, our (the Western world) response to these objects was purely visual with little or no understanding of history, meaning, and function” (Williams, 14). But when you look at the whole picture, they are really fascinating.

The second conclusion I have come to is that because these items are kind of fascinating, I can see why they are not only collected for their aesthetic worth, but how they archaeologists and other people studying them could get wrapped up in the object and read more into them than is actually there. Also, because I can see why people could read more into them, they could try to make them something they were not. One author I read said that, “During the course of history, periods of crisis and hardship have often caused people to turn to supernatural means to relieve their suffering.

Minkisi are both a dramatic example of Kongo resilience and a visually spectacular response to such needs” (Williams, 12). Robert Farris Thompson said that, “Aspects of Kongo culture retained by blacks enslaved in the Americs inspired men and women to come together as brothers and sisters in Kongo-American societies virtually devoted to the idea of being Kongo” (Thompson, 106). Were minkisi really a form of resilience, or was it just a part of their religion, just like prayer is today for many Westerners? Why does clinging onto tradition have to automatically be a form of resistance?

Nothing in my research has convinced me or pointed me in the direction of thinking that the use of minkisi in the Americas was anything more than people trying to make slave life more bearable, and making it their own. Just like Vlach recognized in his book about how slaves did things, like taking paths other than the one’s white planters’ created, so they could make the landscape their own. If Africans in the Americas took wooden Saint sculptures and assimilated them into their culture, I would think this would be a form of conserving traditional practices.

Minkisi were powerful devices for enforcing conformity” (MacGaffey, 87). “Many African Americans recognize conjure’s great sway over African Americans than over whites”(Arnett, 131). I am not convinced it is as glorious as some anthropologists have made it out to be. The second set of conclusions I focused on were about how the minkisi were very traditional objects, therefore they were highly conserved. “The important point is that minkisi, like many Kongo traditions, demonstrate continuity through time” (Williams, 13). They stayed pretty mush the same for hundreds of years.

An anthropologist, named Wyatt MacGaffey, has done much research about the minkisi. He says that the word n’kisi meant then what it does now, for the BaKongo people, and that is, “it meant charm, a novice, ngangaa nature spirit, or the king himself” (Williams, 13). When slavery first appeared in the Caribbean, so did minkisi. “Historically enslaved people were brought to the new world, and one should not be surprised to find that here and there fragile fragments of custom and belief have survived; survived, perhaps, in response to new changes and crises. The visual reality, however, was transformed” (Williams, 14).

Kongo civilization and art were not obliterated in the New World: they resurfaced in the coming together, here and there, of numerous slaves from Kongo and Angola” (Thompson, 106). The people from Kongo and Yoruba came together to form the religion of Santeria. Santeria is a combination of African culture, white planter culture, like Catholicism, and Native culture as well. After the Cuban Revolution, slaves from this country dispersed from Haiti, and this is why remnants of this religion can be seen along the waterways of the United States, just like the shotgun house.

I would argue that due to this, nkisi in areas not along waterways, if they were to be found, would look different. They would look different because plantations in the United States smaller operations than those found in places like Cuba. The nkisi would not probably be influenced by Roman Catholic and Yuruba culture. Also, because these operations were small-scale, I can see how the making and using of nkisi in these situations would be more of a sign of resistance than those found in the islands. I would argue that after minkisi were transformed in the islands, they became a form of popular, and not so much as traditional culture.

This would be terribly hard, if not impossible, to prove, though. I feel that is important to include a little about Kongo religion to add to my description of the nkisi. “The religion of Kongo presupposes God Almighty (Nzambi Mpungu), whose illuminating spirit and healing powers are carefully controlled by the king (mfumu), the ritual expert or authority (nganga), and the sorcerer (nkondi)” (Thompson, 106). The first nkisi originated in God (Funza), and it came to Earth with many minkisi, each with special powers, and they were distributed among the BaKongo.

The cosmogram of the Kongo people is that of an equal-sided cross with four points. “The horizontal line divides the mountain of the living from the kingdom of the dead” (Thompson, 109). God is at the top point, the dead at the bottom, and the line is the water in between. The four points represented the circular path that is followed by the sun. It also represents the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as a never-ending cycle. Additional descriptions are needed in order to understand anything about the nkisi.

Minkisi were probably around for a long time before Europeans showed up in West Central Africa. “Between 1885 and 1910, the landscape of Lower Congo was violently transformed” (MacGaffey, 23). Atlantic trade brought an end to Kongo. Towns sprung up, along with government poets, mission stations, and the railroad. Some BaKongo were drawn to missions where they were converted, others went to work as porters, and some retreated deep into the forests. The government officials created arbitrary dividing lines that, “divided KiKongo speakers among the French Congo, Belgian Congo, and Angola” (MacGaffey, 26).

The combined influence of missionary and district commissioner destroyed the indigenous political system; it also suppressed and drove underground but did not destroy, the apparatus of minkisi by which the BaKongo had regulated disputes and protected themselves against misfortune, disease, and witchcraft” (MacGaffey, 26). Many of the colonial powers saw minkisi as a form of African resistance, so they captured and destroyed many of them. Wooden minkisi, the most often identifiable and collected of minkisi, are often composed of strips of cloth, feathers, mirrors in the belly, and sacs containing a variety of things.

They are life-size, to being small enough to hang on a necklace. Minkisi are nothing without their medicines. The medicines are usually located in the belly, the back, the top of the head, between the legs, and are usually held in with resin behind a mirror. Many times the medicines were located in the belly, because in KiKongo, belly means “life” or “soul”. The “soul” of the nkisi could be the soul of an ancestor coming back from the dead, or a victim of witchcraft captured and forced to do work. “Properly composed, the nkisi takes on attributes of a person: it can be cajoled, invoked, mobilized, even insulted” (Olupona, 232).

The mirror was a kind of “crystal ball in which the diviner could see what occult forces were at work” (MacGaffey, 54). Some mirrors were even marked off with directions, which some say was used so the diviner could see which way the danger laid. Thompson claims that, “objects as mirrors or pieces of porcelain attached to the exterior of the nkisi may also signify power – the flash and arrest of the spirit” (Thompson, 117). The mirror could also be seen as a symbol for the water that separates the land of the living with the land of the dead.

Minkisi were also wrapped up with cords, etc. cause it gave the visual expression of the idea of contained forces. The more important the nkisi was, the more elaborate it was. The more elaborate the nkisi was, the more expensive it was as well. An nkisi had to be modeled after an original nkisi, and it had to be put together correctly in order not to anger it and for it to work. If an nkisi didn’t “work”, the person who designed it was ridiculed. “To see the backside of a nkisi is strictly forbidden” (MacGaffey, 84). Most had inconspicuous genitals, and often times they were covered. The genitals represented nothing really, about fertility at least.

As I said earlier, medicines were the most important item for an nkisi to have. “Ingredients of minkisi were chosen for linguistic and figurative reasons rather than pharmacological ones” (MacGaffey, 62). There were minerals taken from the land of the dead, items that were chosen because of their names, and metaphorical materials. For items that were collected because of their association with the dead, this group included clay from graves, streambeds, and especially white clay. “An nkisi can be thought of as a sort of portable grave in which the spirit personality from the land of the dead is present” (MacGaffey, 61).

Therefore, grave dirt is also included, and it is often taken selectively from graves where the people buried there are known for something needed for that specific nkisi. There were many things that were chosen because of their names that were attributes of functions of what the nkisi was to be used for. For example, quartz was associated with lightening, and it was used because lightening was thought to awaken spirits. The metaphorical materials were things used for certain diseases that they were believed to control. Minkisi are split into two categories; those “of the above”, and those “of the below”.

Minkisi “of the above” are concerned with the problems of men. They could inflict diseases mainly of the upper body, like pains in the head, neck, chest, and could produce nightmares. Their signs included lightening, fire, weapons, fierce animals, birds of prey, and the color red. The minkisi “of the below” were concerned with women’s affairs and healing. They were associated with reproductive functions and diseases of the lower part of the body. Their signs were seashells, and being colored mostly white. There are many classes of minkisi figures.

There are Kodya, that deal with problems of the womb and of the gut, there’s Kula, that seek out people that responsible for a person’s death (BaKongo people believed that people only died as a result of a form of witchcraft), and there’s Kozo, the double-headed dogs that hunt out wrongdoers. Nganga also set things called “nkisi guns” on graves, so that if a witch passed by a person they have killed, they would go home and die a sudden death. A loosely defined class of minkisi is called minkondi (Nkondi in the singular), and is often used to hunt “witches” (people that harm their neighbors) and other wrongdoers.

Many things were considered a form of witchcraft, and the BaKongo believed they needed protection from it. For example, “The slave trade was (and is) understood as a witchcraft activity”(MacGaffey, 99). They were minkisi “of the above” and were also called “nail fetishes”. These have become the focus of much esteem by African art collectors. Nkondi is another word for “hunter”, and that is exactly what it was meant for. It was used to hunt down witches, thieves, adulterers, and other wrongdoers. Minkondi usually have a raised and threatening looking arm usually holding a knife.

Nails and Mbau (blades) are often driven into the Nkondi. There is much controversy over what nails represent. Some say that by driving nails in, that this is a person’s, “request to be saved from evil” (MacGaffey, 33). Other people claim that nails are requests to hunt down certain people, and the “driving in nails, are ways of arousing the anger of a powerful personality”(MacGaffey, 80). Others think that by hammering in a nail or blade was like putting a curse on someone. Sometimes there are mfunya, or things attached to the nails to help remind them what to do or where to go.

Also, sometimes there is bits of cloth attached to the nails, and are referred to as “dogs”, and there is a strong association between dogs and minkisi. Other people think that the nails are drove into the nkisi by many parties, and they represent agreements between people, and are a way to make peace and seal agreements. In some minkisi, there are holes and slits are left from metal objects. Some think that they are removed after they have completed their mission. Most of the time, however, the nails are left in. If somebody was accused by an nkisi, there were ways of testing if the nkondi found the right person.

Three was one such ritual where the accused would pull the blade out, lick it three times, and the whole idea was that no one that was guilty would ever go through with this because they would fear the revenge of the nkisi. The eyes are also more frightening looking, and many have white lines painted on them, to represent the tears of those it will smite (MacGaffey, 43). The medicines associated with the Nkondi are consistent with its violent nature. Hailstones are used to recall thunderstorms, heads of snakes and lizards, and skins of leopards and buffalo are associated with its attacking powers.

Claws, like those of crabs, are used as a promise that an nkisi will seize its victim. Nkasa bark was used because it was a poison used to test suspected witches. “A village was thought of as an enclosed space, analogous to a human body, whose boundaries and entrances needed to be guarded against witches and evil spirits” (MacGaffey, 75). Nkondi were often placed all entrances into a village to protect or harm the inhabitants. “Neither wooden figures nor nails essential to composition of Nkondi” (MacGaffey, 79). Dogs are also associated with minkisi.

Some minkisi take the form of dogs, others have dogs symbolized on them, or there are “dogs” attached to them. “As domestic animals, they are at home both in the village, land of the living, and in the forest, home of the dead” (MacGaffey, 42). BaKongo also believed that people passed through a village of dogs on their way to the village of dead. Dogs are also used because of their hunting abilities, and because they are believed to have four eyes, meaning they could see in both worlds. Almost everybody had an nkisi in Kongo times, and they were small and usually hangs on the body, in the house, garden, etc.

Important minkisi, however, cost much more and required not just purchase but initiation, a period of seclusion and training in which the apprentice nganga was put in touch with the powers of the dead from whom all minkisi were derived, and learned songs and rules of the one he was acquiring” (MacGaffey, 56). People often went into initiation in response to an illness they had, or because of a dream or encounter that advised them to do so. “Initiation was understood as a stay in the land of the dead, which was reached by plunging under the surface of a deep pool” (MacGaffey, 56).

Some ritual experts, after their initiation, belonged to a healing society that started in the 1660’s, which was called the society of Lemba. Minkisi were not just composed for a profit, but by accepting one of them, the naganga accepted many more rules and constraints upon their life. If one broke the rules of the minkisi, they were punished, by illness, nightmares, or their minkisi could lose its power, which could only be restored at great costs. There was a profit to be gained, though. After people were drug through illness by an nkisi, sometimes the person is treated by it and cured, and the nkisi is often honored.

The people it cured often paid the nkisi’s owner. Minkisi had many rules as to where they had to be kept, some in certain baskets, in roofs of the owner’s house, or sometimes in a special house of its own. Kings and ritual experts “controlled mystic powers for the common good” (Thompson, 107). The Nkondi based their practices upon profit and the insecurity of others. There was a fine line, however, between using them for admirable public service and for purely individual ends. The nkisi itself has also been thought of as a vehicle of witchcraft.

Sinister, violent minkisi are thought to contain the souls of victims mysteriously slain for the purpose” (Olupona, 231). “These cultural ties with the African homeland have been kept alive in the Americas in varying ways – for example. Black religion, healing, and the practice of conjuring – the result of which has been the pursuit of certain creative ideals that relate both temporally and spatially to Black cultural identity” (Driskell, 16). There are very few books devoted solely to minkisi, but because minkisi overlap so many disciplines, there are many sources to read about them.

Minkisi can be found in art resources, anthropology resources, religion texts, accounts of folk tales, etc. Each of these areas gives a great amount of input that was helpful to me in understanding the nkisi. “Santeria has strong Kongo components” (MacGaffey, 68). Voodoo can be traced back 6,000 years in Yoruba culture, and the famous voodoo dolls can too. Pins were not stuck in them, however, until they came to New Orleans. I think this is the Kongo influence, coming directly from Kongo culture coming together with Yoruba traditional practices.

These two groups had different traditions, but many of the same beliefs. Therefore, they were able to meld their ideas into one. “It is estimated that approximately 40% of the millions of Africans who landed in the Americas between 1500 to 1870 were from Central Africa, culturally influenced by the Kongo civilization. Thus Kongo traditions are pervasive in the Americas. Kongo beliefs and iconography are based on sacred protective medicines, minkisi, which are used for physical and social harmony and healing.

Altars are found at river banks, in forests and cemeteries, and at other borders between worlds” (www. art3st. com/various_pages/faceofthegods. html, see attached article). Learning about minkisi has really turned me on to African studies. I went from knowing nothing about the African people, to knowing quite a bit just because I looked at one aspect of their material culture. “Minkisi in their special way are an embodiment and a reflection of Kongo history” (Williams, 11). I have, myself, become quite fascinated with the nkisi.

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