The Fang are well known for their Byeri statues. A Byeri is a statue (either a complete statue, the bust or head) sculpted from wood and which sits on the top of a high round box made from bark. This box contains ancestral bone remains, finger joints, skulls and wooden bowls used for libations and medicaments.
The Ngil is a society that goes beyond the division of the different Fang clans. The Ngil mask is long; the bottom of the face is concave and becomes progressively narrower from the arch of the eyebrows down. The mask as a whole is in the shape of an elongated heart with a straight nose. It is coloured with white pigment, the colour of the spirits. The Ngil mask intervenes at the request of the inhabitants when there have been several unexplained deaths in the village and which were attributed to witchcraft due to their mysterious nature.
The Fang live in the north of Gabon, in the south of Cameroon and in Equatorial Guinea.
Life in the Fang Society
This is a patrilineal society. In the village is the men’s meeting house, where the men of the village meet to talk, have their meals and entertain visitors. The blacksmiths and sculptors work in this house and are held in very high esteem, and young unmarried men also live there.
This is a patrilineal society. It is the eldest born who has charge of the Byeri, which contains ancestral skulls and other ancestral bone remains. The eldest born is also responsible for sharing out the family’s money between the different members, notably to pay the dowries of the children and his brothers. He chooses when the initiation ceremonies will take place.
Circumcision is carried out between the ages of 8 and 12 years. This is when the young man learns about his genealogy, knowledge that will stop him entering into an incestuous relationship when he marries. The newly circumcised boy can now participate in masculine activities such as war, hunting and clearing the fields. He cannot however, participate in the men’s decision making, until he has been initiated in the Sô and the Byeri.
Marriages are made between members of different clans. The clan is the largest family unit of the Fang people, with its members frequently regrouping around the eldest born. The clan is also patrilineal and 80 or so clans can be found within the Fang community.
The Fang have no political unity, and the cohesion between the clans is maintained through the intermediary of religious and judicial societies such as the Ngil or the Sô.
The Fang Sô Society
Sô is the name of the antelope that the uninitiated are forbidden to eat.
The aims of the Sô society are both social and religious.
The initiation takes place in a sacred enclosure, erected in the forest after a Sô tree has been cut down. The initiation consists of some physical tests: sleep deprivation, crawling along a tunnel covered in thorns, pepper and ants, climbing the ant tree. After these tests, a 6 month journey would ensue, followed by the initiate’s return to the village as a new member of the Sô society.
The religious aims of the Sô were the most important, and the society intervened when taboos were broken, for example in the case of incest.
The social objectives were to arrange marriages and participate in the resolution of conflicts or differences between villages.
The Byeri Cult of the Fang people
This cult is dedicated to ancestors who can protect the living. The ancestor is the central axe of society, the guarantor of the living world and the life thereafter.
A Byeri is a statue (either a complete statue or the bust or head) sculpted from wood and which sits on the top of around high bow made from bark. This box contains ancestral bone remains, finger joints, skulls and wooden bowls used for libations and medicaments. The Byeri are honoured by prayers and sacrifices. Blood is poured on the bone remains and meat is left along with reliquaries so that the ancestors can feed themselves out of the sight of the men. This meat is then recuperated and consumed by the initiates in the men’s meeting house.
Byeri sculptures sometimes carry objects in their hands. This is often a cup or more unusually a horn containing medicines that can kill people who are unauthorized to touch the Byeri. It might also be a whistle with the power to harm someone who whistles into it. Finally, the Byeri might contain a knife or a stick that plays a role in protection.
The statues are naturalistic, sometimes highly stylized, with a developed musculature, and a face with a high rounded forehead. The chin and mouth are often protruding which gives the statue an unfriendly appearance. The eyes are often round, downward looking and incrusted with metal. The nose is often small. The coiffure is helmet like with three strands of hair, conforming to the style worn by Fang women in the past. It often has a shimmering patina. With its big head, its long body and short limbs, the Fang Byeri statues have the same proportions as a new born baby. In this way, the Byeri statue symbolized the missing link between the dead ancestors and the living by taking the place of unborn children. It allowed for a continuity to be established between the ancestors and the living.
Owning a Byeri statue brings both force and wealth to its owner.
The Byeri was a cult object, with prayers, libations (the action of taking a liquid) and sacrifices made for the ancestor, whose skull was daubed each time with paint and powder.
The Byeri is the representation of the founding ancestor. As such it may be consulted for various reasons, before a war, a hunt, at village meetings, the displacement of the village, or the installation of a new plantation. The answers to the head of the family’s questions are formulated by the ancestors in the form of a dream.
Women and children were not permitted to see the Byeri, only the men initiated into the Sô, and who had at least one son could be initiated into this cult.
Byeri initiation is called Melan. This name derived from ‘alan’, a hallucinogenic plant used to contact the ancestors. The initiation into the Byeri takes place in three stages.
b- The consummation of the hallucinogenic ‘alan’ plant.
c- The dance of the Byeri statues and the presentation of the ancestral skulls.
The area where the initiation takes place is an enclosure divided into two parts: one is where the initiates enter and stand at the beginning of the ceremony; the other contains the Byeri statues and cannot be seen by the uninitiated.
The initiation takes place between men of the same family. If there are several Byeri, this is because there has been a division in the family midst. And so, if the youngest son decided to found a new village his elder brother would give him pieces of bones from the family reliquary in order that he take them with him into a new Byeri. Later, after the village had been created and its founder deceased, his skull would also be placed in the reliquary. Old reliquaries can contain up to eight skulls. Initiation festivities were an ideal moment to reunite the whole family, the younger brothers grouped around the eldest brother, thus strengthening the links between the clan members.
- Purification :
The initiation candidates cleanse themselves with water in which had been brewed a cocktail of leaves, flowers, roots and bark. They put it on their heads, faces and on the chest in front of their heart.
- Taking the hallucinogenic ‘alan’ plant :
This begins with the ingestion of small pieces of bark which are chewed and then swallowed. The effects of the plant are reinforced by the dances, song and music. The candidates fall into a cataleptic state sometimes lasting two or three hours. At this point they have the impression that they can both see and hear the ancestors who offer them advice.
At the same moment, in the enclosure containing the Byeri, sacrifices of cocks or kid goats are made and their blood is mixed with oil and poured over the bone remains.
- The presentation of the ancestor’s skulls and dancing of Byeri statues
The candidates are carried into the enclosure with the Byeri statues. Once they have revealed their visions to the elders they have the right to see the ancestral skulls. They must then swear that they will never reveal what they have seen and heard to the uninitiated.
Finally, the initiation ends in a dance with the men and the Byeri statues and which takes place in the villages. Their aim is for the ancestors to bring happiness to their families. After the dance, the Byeri statues are brought back and placed on the round boxes that act as reliquaries for the bone remains.
Each clan, each family head preserves his Byeri in a little hut outside of the village.
The Ngil Society among the Fang
The Ngil is a society that goes beyond the division of the different Fang clans. Ngil, a unifying factor between the clans, intervenes on both a judicial and political level. The great Ngil masters have total immunity and can pass through warring clans with perfect impunity.
The objectives of the Ngil are:
- To hunt out witches and kill them
- To resolve wars between clans in a peaceful manner.
Initiation into the Ngil takes place after the Byeri initiation. Firstly, the candidate participates in a retreat into the forest with a diminished alimentation and the ingestion of substances that will enhance his sensibilities and plunge him into a mystical state. The candidate must then tell his dreams to his tutor who judges if the candidate is worthy of continuing his initiation. Next, the candidate undergoes a series of physical tests. If he completes this with success, the secrets of the Ngil are revealed to him; passwords, and the means of recognising and communicating with other members from afar.
The Ngil mask intervened at the request of the inhabitants when there had been several unexplained deaths in the village and which were attributed to witchcraft due to their mysterious nature. In the past, the great master was clothed in a leaf mask, then later the mask evolved into wood, coloured with white pigment, colour of the spirits. The Ngil mask is long; the bottom of the face is concave and becomes progressively narrower from the arch of the eyebrows down. The mask as a whole is in the shape of an elongated heart with a straight nose.
The masked man was assisted by a young boy who announced his arrival and then joined the women and children in hiding in their houses. This rite took place in the evening by torchlight and with a skull and an earth statue as accessories. Firstly, a white chicken was decapitated and his writhing movements interpreted by the masked individual. Then the chicken’s blood was poured over the ancestor’s skull. During this rite an orchestra accompanied the song and dances of the initiated. If the aim was to uncover a witch, the masked man walked through the village hitting the houses with the ancestor’s skull and cursing the guilty witch. Next, the village inhabitants had to parade in front of the statue and plant a hunting spear. He who trembled or stumbled was the guilty party and was killed.
Other masks exist in the Fang community. The Ekekek mask serves to frighten women, children and strangers. The Ngontang helm mask represents the ancestral spirits. A four faced helm mask illustrating the ability of its wearer to hunt out witches wherever they are, given his capacity to see in all directions at the same time.