African Folk Traditions, Ethnic Stigma, and Taboo

THe word "Taboo" written in block seriph letters across the open ocean at night, a common motif for the series.
Official logo for the FX Network television series, Taboo.

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

This Folklore Thursday is taking a dark turn as we delve into the rich history of African religious and folk traditions, though we will then turn our attention to the Western stigmatization of pagan cults through the lens of the new FX television series, Taboo.

 West African Voudo and Juju, and Ashanti Obeah

Voudo and Juju

I’m keeping to the Western or Gold Coast for the purposes of exploring the major folk traditions of the Africans who were captured and sold into slavery during the Atlantic Slave Trade, as these are the ones who were most likely to be encountered by Western Culture, and whose magic is most closely associated with the television show, Taboo.

Voudo was largely practiced on the Gold Coast among tribes that belonged to what we now call Nigeria and Ghana. Voudo came to the United States through the slaves traded into the Carribean first–Haiti and Jamaia. It was later carried to Louisiana,the Carolinas, and Virginia, and is now unlovingly referred to as Voudon or Voodoo. However, Voudo does not always have the haunting and evil repugnance assigned to it by Christian slave owners of the Antebellum South. Voudo refers to the monotheistic religion that stems from Mesopotamian traditions centering around a single Creator with two aspects, the moon (female) and the sun (male) along with a pantheon of lesser spirits (Loas).

Voudo worshipers believe the gods of Voudo appear in their every day lives, and that pleasing the gods with small rituals will ensure health and prosperity. Though the manifestations of the Loas can sometimes occur, it is only under certain ceremonial circumstances along with the necessary offerings. Author Gail Z. Martin explores Voudon traditions among the Gullah people of Charleston, South Carolina in her Deadly Curiosities novels, Deadly Curiosities and Vendetta.

There are evil or dangerous spirits among the Loas, particularly the Guédé family headed by Baron Samedi, or “Saturday”, the Evil Doer. This group of Loas is closely associated with the dead. Baron Samedi can be ritualistically summoned with proper offerings of tobacco and rum.

Baron Samedi stands in what appears to be a Louisiana Graveyard, standing with his traditional staff and top hat, smoking a cigar. He has a boa draped across his shoulders.
Cosplayer Rick Lacour depicting the dangerous Haitian and Creole Loa Spirit, Baron Samedi, who is the traditional Loa of the Dead, and head of the Guédé family Loa, part of the overall Voudo pantheon. Photo by Matt Barnes.

Juju is often mistaken for Voudo, but the two words are not interchangeable. While Voudon worshipers believe in a spiritual connection to the gods and Loas that can be accessed through ceremony and offerings, Juju is the practice that binds or forms the pact, or agreement, enforcing compliance. The witch who practices good or bad juju can bind spirits and elements to amulets and talismans for use for against others. This is where the image of the Voodoo doll comes from, though it is in fact not at all related to Voudo.

Ashanti Obeah

It is the from the Obeah traditions that Southern white plantation owners came to fear the power of African magic.

Obeah is still commonly practiced among Western Africans and their descendants. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of Western Africa were of the Akan ethnicity that formed the Ashanti state, Asanteman, and were the geographical neighbors to the Dahomey and Fon tribes that went on to become the caretakers of Vodou in the Caribbean and Gulf territories of the United States. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of what is now called Ghana were some of the only Africans to successfully repel British occupation.

Obeah and Voudo are fairly similar. The practice of Obeah is second part of the two-part magic practiced by the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, and then later among the Jamaicans and Gullah practitioners of the Carolinas. The first part is an herb-based medicinal practice. Among the Gullah and in Jamaica, these are sometimes called “Root Workers”. It was purely for treating bodily ailments.

An African-looking man squats before a thatch hut. Though African in appearance, this photo was more than likley taken in the Carribean islands, where many Gold Coast Africans were sold as slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
An Obeahman, sometimes called a “Root Worker” by Carribeans and the Gullah practitioners of South Carolina. Photo by Vlad Sokhln.

Obeah targets the spirit of the person. The Obayifo worked to heal spiritual wounds and ailments inflicted by witchcraft. The Obayifo traditionally had access to two spirits, one evil, and one neutral. Failure of the Obayifo to stay vigilant could result in the complete takeover of his body, which would require cleansing by another Obeah man.

But the Obayifo has a darker side to it. Among the Ashanti, an Obayifo can make pacts with the spirits, including the Sasabonsam, or Asabonsam, an evil spirit that was commonly connected to the Obayifo. This association has given rise to the belief among scholars and folklorists that the Obayifo is the root of the legend of the vampire. Several of the depictions I discovered included a creature who could hang upside down. According to Scribol, the creature was said to have wings that could be as wide as twenty feet. Other depictions include an simian type creature, like the one below from deviantARTist Darrel Tan.

Two clearly African warriors are stalked by the Asabonsan vampire, a creature who could hang upside down from a tree buy it's feet and fed off the blood of the living. It is unclear whether or not the creature was supposed to resemble a simian creature, or if this is a common trope assigned by Western folklorists.
A deviantART depcition of Asabonsam, the evil spirit that may have given rise to the legend of the vampire, most closely associated with the Ashanti witch, the Obayifo, who could form pacts with this spirit. Art by Darrel Tan.

According to  John L. Vellutini, author of the Journal of Vampirology, the Ashanti Obayifo (whose name is sometimes synonymous with the Sasabosnam or Asasabonsam), shares many similarities to the European vampire, though the literal vampire is not often found in African tradition. It was common among white slave owners to free Obeah men that were enslaved to keep them from practicing their black magic against the slave owners who bought them.

Other African Magic Systems

Witchcraft takes on many forms in African folk traditions, varies from tribe to tribe, and seems to have a very definite gender designation. For example, an old anthropology paper draws comparisons between the Nupe and Gwari tribes and their adherence to witchcraft, with women always as the witches (gacic), and the male possessing the power to see and deal with witches (eshe). Some central tribes believe that the witch lays in the belly of a person and controls their actions. The Zulu and Bantu use “witch smellers”, and they are always women.

But it is perhaps the Obeah from the Ashanti on the Gold Coast that loaned some of their witchs’ evil intent to the one “sworn to do very foolish things” in FX’s new television show, Taboo.

But first, a quick primer on British occupation.

What British Occupation Meant at the Close of the Eighteenth Century

It’s important to start off a comparison to Western pop cultural appropriation of African culture with the hefty reminder that much of what Western Civilization considered “magic” in the eighteenth century stems from the heavy stigmatization of pagan religions, though not just African religions. It is also important to note that religious and magical traditions among African slaves was actively suppressed. Not only did it further marginalize the already enslaved black people under British rule, but it can also be surmised that suppression also prevented the kind of fear that spread throughout the Colonies and Britain before the Enlightenment and that resulted in the European witch hunts. Not to mention that there was indeed a superstitious streak among white slave owners. If I had been a slave owner, I’d probably be a little afraid of the resentment that stemmed from enslavement that might drive a person to witchcraft.

In a grossly oversimplified reduction, by the end of the eighteenth century, the British empire was well on its way to colonizing much of the globe. The new television sensation, Taboo, opens on the story of James Delaney, who left home in 1800 on a purchased commission in the widely prosperous monopoly, the Honorable East India Company. This colonization, and the rape of the cultures unfortunate enough to fall under British occupation, came with a lovely Conversion to the Christianity best favored by the monarch of the time. In the year of our Lord 1802, when James Delaney sets out for Africa, that is King George III, who lost the Revolutionary War to the disloyal British colonists in New England in 1783, and who practiced Protestantism through the Church of England (Anglican church), which kept up a network of churches known as the Anglican Communion throughout the British colonies–with possibly the exception of the US. By 1814, when James Delaney returns to England under George III’s prince regent, George IV, the 15 United States were not doing anything England was doing.

Those who could not be converted spiritually where often converted permanently by way of an unmarked grave. Only those who converted served any purpose to the Crown. This was no exception to the Western African merchants who were only too happy to sell their native traditions out for a cut of the profits in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Some Representations of African Magic in Western Art

Magic from the Dark Continent has been a source of fear and confusion for centuries. There are two references to African black magic in Western culture that I can name off the top of my head.

The first is not actually Western. The OVA adaptation of Kota Hirano’s Hellsing originally included the ultimate villain of season one as a magician from the Dark Continent, Incognito.

Incognito, the African Vampire, confronts the English vampire Alucard in the Tower of London. He holds a machine gun pointed at Alucard, straps and gold chains hang from his naked, tatooed body.
The sexless demon or vampire Incognito is clearly modeled after the Ashanti Sasabonsam. Here he holds a machine gun full of depleted uranium shells. Alcuard unlovingly makes fun of his “magic from the Dark Continent” as “quaint”. Full images of Incognito also show warped legs, as if he might be able to hang from a tree. On the backdrop of London in this anime, this is incredibly racist.

This plot line was never followed through, as it derailed too far from Hirano’s original plot involving the rise of a Fourth Reich, not to mention the fact that it involved a very “colonized” view of Africans. The fact that this anime was set in England did not help matters. Hirano was a miserable writer at best, but one thing he did manage to get right is that the England’s natural enemy was not Africa, but rather Germany.

Another example of the biased representation of African folk traditions comes from the Father of Contemporary Horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft had no love, pun intended, for immigrants of any kind. He had even less love for the people of color he was forced to live with in Brooklyn while in exile following the failure of his marriage to Sonia Greene. Lovecraft had zero problems lashing out at those immigrants he despised in several stories, though the one most closely associated with African folk traditions is “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn.”

In Lovecraft’s story, Arthur Jermyn is the descendant of the decadent line of Jermyn, whose great grandfather had ventured into Africa and taken a strange wife that no one had ever seen from a tribe who seemed to have some strange obsession with an ape princess–Lovecraft was indelicate at best. It is discovered that Jermyn is related to this ape princess, who was mummified and brought to England for him. When he discovers the unwholesome truth of his bloodline, he douses himself in oil and sets himself on fire.

Though not a comprehensive list, this is definitely a pair of examples that best illustrate the overall stigma associated with anything that has come from Africa. Of course, it is much easier for white colonists to enslave blacks if they are first dehumanized and stripped of dignity, even in their religious beliefs. It is this dehumanization that manifests in the absolute hatred and terror that strides on confident legs through London in the early nineteenth century. His name is James Delaney.

Western Stigma: African and Native American Traditions in Taboo

Tom Hardy wearing a suit and hat in the style of Regency England. He is white and ashy, with crackeds in his face paint, and he has a red triangle down one cheek. "Taboo" runs down the image long-ways.
Tom Hardy stars in the FX television series, Taboo.

H. P. Lovecraft says that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Naturally the British and Westerners Civilization as a whole were wary of anything they could not easily and quickly understand. Like the Borg, it was easier for the Empire to assimilate first and ask questions later. I’ll touch on how the empire more than likely used the folklore of the African people to dehumanize them and make it easier to enslave them in my review of Taboo at the end of the series, but right now I want to focus on the stigma surrounding James Delaney.

There are two notable points of disgust regarding James Delaney’s reception by the East India Company and his own relatives: unbeknownst to most, Delaney is half Native American; James Delaney spent a great deal of time in Africa. According to the social norms of Regency England, neither of things are good.

The first point to pick apart is the Native American lineage. Delaney’s mother was bought from the Nootka tribe of Vancouver Island. I’ll get to the importance of this particular setting in my full review, but for now, it is important to remember that in the second episode, Delaney’s mother was insane and committed to Bedlam. No word yet on how this will be further treated in the show, but the trope of mixed-race children going or being born half-insane or fully-insane is not new territory. Author Larry McMurtry often employed villains and madmen and madwomen of mixed-race or racial ambiguity, a sort of stab at a perverse Manifest Destiny that white men are the only thing capable of stabilizing the Western Frontier.

An Indian man, a Comanche, sits in a baren yard. H wears blue coton and has long hair. He is Blue Duck, son of Buffalo Hump. He spread terror across the Great Plains of Texas in Lonesome Dove. Here he is depicted in the prequel, Comanche Moon.
Blue Duck is the son of the Commanche war chief, Buffalo Hump. In the Lonesome Dove saga, he spreads terror and mayhem across the Plains. His mother was Mexican. He is one of the several examples of insanity or madness among mixed race characters in Larry McMurtry’s novels. This is a still from the film adaptation of Comanche Moon.

Where Taboo derails from this norm is the fact that though considered mad by many, Delaney is not insane. Director Anders Engstrom and Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Tom Hardy, Edward Hardy, and Steven Knight take care to differentiate Delaney’s cruel nature, hardened soul, and worldly knowledge from true insanity, unlike writer Larry McMurtry of the 1990s, for whom most of his mixed race characters were cut and dry and possessed no redeemable qualities.

The second point: James Delaney’s venture into Africa.

Ventures into Africa were ill advised and dangerous in Regency England and her Empire, as well as highly stigmatized. Trade with Africa was limited to Egypt and slave trading. Only the insane traveled into Africa. Taboo it set in 1814. Real exposure of the African interior did not begin until 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton began his many dangerous expeditions to Mecca and the African lakes that brought renewed sense of wonder and fancy to a largely ethnocentric English market. Sir Richard nearly died in Africa, which won the continent no points.

What is Really Taboo about James Delaney?

Though Delaney’s time in Africa isn’t the only taboo featured in the show, his character is largely fueled by the events leading to his return to England.

Rumors fly of unholy rituals performed with powers conferred on Delaney during his time in Africa, which it seems the East India Company was at least aware of. Word of Delaney’s secret doings in Africa traveled annoyingly fast in Regency London. A madman, Old Delaney, standing on the banks of the foreshore of the Thames calling to his son in Africa is bound to stir up gossip. Delaney’s half sister accuses him of eating flesh. Delaney has little interest in confirming or denying any of it.

The accusations of his eating flesh no doubt stem from the folk traditions of the Gold Coast who claimed the creature Asabonsam stalked the woods. Knowing a little of African folk traditions, it’s easy to see where some of the images from Taboo have their source. At the end of Episode 2, we see Delaney savagely rip out the throat of the Malaysian assassin sent to kill him with his teeth, validating accusations from Zilpha that her half-brother ate flesh in Africa (this is the half-sister that is also the other reason why this show is called Taboo). Though it is unclear where this will lead in the show, it is not too hard to imagine that Delaney embodying some version of Sasabonsam.

Tom Hardy is naked and standing in the middle of a shallow stream. He holds a spear. His body is tattooed.
Tom Hardy stalks the jungles of Africa. Notice the similarities to James Delaney’s tattoos and Incognito’s.

We can see that Delaney’s behavior is a sort of backwards hegemony, in which he has been driven to a hatred of half of his own lineage, the white Anglican, by a deep-seated guilt and rage that comes from the treatment of the people he becomes kindred to, and from being mixed-race himself. He embraces the African traditions and turns his black hatred on England, possibly to avenge the people he has seen enslaved, and possibly to avenge his mother, a purchased Native American in exchange for trading rights in the Nootka Sound.

The second episode also seems to suggest that Delaney’s close identification with the African tribes he mingled with is fueling an incredible sense of guilt and obligation, especially towards those slaves who were lost on the slave ship he was sailing on, bound for Antigua and the US, upon which he ostensibly died. We see this in episode two as Delaney, tattooed, sweating, his nerves rattling, possibly with what we call PTSD, uses a ritual to cleanse the hold of a ship he has purchased that formerly transported slaves.

James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy, squats naked in the hull of his ship by lantern light. His tattoos are clearly visible, and he is visibly upset. He has just finished carving a rooster into the hull of the ship in a ritual.
James Delaney huddles in the hull of his newly acquired ship after he cleanses it and performs rituals, ostensibly for those who had been carried as slaves on the ship.

We’ll be able to see in practice that the show’s writers knew that Delaney’s time in Africa would have impaired his judgement by Western Standards. Delaney’s time in Africa is half of the resentment from everyone associated with the Delaney Trading Company, inherited by testate will and by the laws of primogeniture in England. In addition to whatever supernatural powers Delaney possesses as a result of his time in Africa, the Eighteenth-Century implications of what he is are much more mundane. Rumors that he ate flesh further discredit him in the eyes of British society and in the eyes of the organization hoping to take what is rightfully the property of the Delaney bloodline.

I wonder what will happen when the general public is made aware that he is also half Native American…

Conclusion

Though not all African traditions are steeped in blood, it is easy to see how the East India Company and Western slave owners latched onto the darker traditions of the Africans they enslaved. Angry and in pain, it is no wonder that perhaps some of those trafficked into the British Colonies turned to their darker spirits to aid them against the whites that did them harm. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, some of those dark traditions now form part of the overall African folk traditions of the Gulf Coast and Antebellum South of the United States, many of which persist into the Twentieth Century. The new television show on FX Network, Taboo, capitalizes on some of those dark traditions that circulated in back-room rumor and parlor gossip. The popularity of shows like Taboo illustrate that we as a Western society are still drawn to the strange and unfamiliar, as horrifying as it may be.

I will conduct a detailed post-colonial viewing of Taboo in my review following the close of the first season.

TL;DR: African folk traditions are rich and abundant and vary from tribe to tribe, and some of those traditions made it all the way to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern.

Author: Ashley McGee

Ashley is a content marketer and content strategist in Austin, Texas. She has a BA from the University of Texas at San Antonio in English with emphasis on Professional Writing. She has been writing since she was 14, and has turned her interests from Westerns to Fantasy, Horror, the weird, and back again. She works in automotive social media management and freelancing.

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