Date: Thu, 30 Oct 1997 01:12:15 EST
From: Chris Jenks <>
To: Multiple recipients of list <>
Subject: Article about Bwiti (2/3)

        The roof is covered with ordinary matting or with raphia leaves or
preferably with leaves of sclerosperma, a sort of dwarf palm. The curved
canopy must always be made of sclerosperma leaves. The framework is
supported by different columns.
        The great column with a highly sculpted base, situated at the entrance to
the temple, partly hidden by the canopy, has an essential symbolism. At the
foot of it burns a torch of oleoresin of Copaifera religiosa from the
sacred tree Olumi or Andzem. Among the Mitsogos, the column rests on the
remains of ancestors (skulls and tibias) and it is strictly forbidden to
lean against it out of respect for the ancestors.
        When it is no longer used because of its deteriorated condition, it is
laid down with care and takes its place in a corner of the temple or
against the sacred tree.
        The sanctuary proper is located in the completely closed back part. This
is where the musicians and the chief of the community, the Kombo, will take
their places. In the same location, we can see the Bwiti symbolized in the
form of small carved statuettes.
        The side walls of the temple are sometimes bare or may be decorated,
painted, or may be hung with emblems: snake skins, trophies, musical
instruments. There are often bas-reliefs highlighted by very lively colors
and wooden boards decorated with paintings. The use of iboga which gives
colored visions may not be unrelated to this decorative art.
        Despite the sacred character of the temple, travelers or strangers may
stop there for a rest, and one often sees old people sitting there, smoking
their pipe.
        Indeed, everything there is a symbol. Bwiti writings describe perfectly
the significance of its principal elements. This temple represents the
image of man lying on his back. The ground covered by the canopy represents
the legs. The back of the temple, the sanctuary, represents the head. An
indoor wood fire is the heart. The navel is depicted by a round piece of
basketwork or a bicycle wheel suspended from the roof. It symbolizes the
place where all the world's creatures are connected to the divinity, and
what an excellent symbol is the use of the wheel and its infinite number of
spokes to express complex metaphysical concepts.
        The carved main column represents the external sex organ of this man
stretched out on his back, as the bwitists say, "a link between the sky and
the earth". It supports the crest of the roof which, with the rafters,
represents the spine. Along the axis of the temple, the center of the
column is pierced with a hole of 10 to 20 centimeters in diameter which is
far higher than it is wide. This is the female external sex organ. Binet
has specified its symbolism and has emphasized this complementarity of the
sexes. It is the door that every man goes through as he comes into the
world. It is the "ozamboga", the opening to the future hoped for by the
Fangs after completing their migration with so many difficulties. At the
same time, it is a window that opens out on the beyond which permits
communication from one world to the next. A second smaller hole above
represents the gate of heaven through which one must pass to join God.
        It divides the temple into a left and a right part. According to Binet,
who has made a particular study of the Bwiti of the Fangs, one should enter
on the right side, i.e., the "left foot", and go out on the left side. The
right side symbolizes life, the sun and man: it is the men's chamber. The
left side symbolizes death, the moon and woman: it is the women's chamber.
        At the location of the neck is a second pillar that represents Nyingone in
a state of expiation for the incest, the Nsem, that she committed with None
under the influence of Evus. For this purpose, she must have her hands
raised and lift up the earth above her head; the planet is then both a
diadem and a burden. Above is a depiction of a knot symbolizing the bond
between the here and now and the beyond, between earthly existence and
divine existence.
        Thus, the first half of the temple presents binary realities, the male
side and the female side, with the influence of None and Nyingone. The
deepest part, that of the chancel, situated past the fire, has a ternary
symbolism, because we also see the action of the sky with Nzame. That is
where the breath of God passes.
        In the back is the harp player and the two musicians who play the obaka, a
sort of sonorous rod symbolizing the sound of the hammer on the anvil
originally made by None. That is the place where the Kombo, chief and
father of the community, holds office; he will direct all of the
ceremonies, dominated by chanting and dancing.
        The musical instruments are numerous and symbolic.
        The rattle is carried by the initiates in the right hand. It symbolizes
the genital organs of Bunenge who, according to Fangs mythology, died while
picking fruit in an "atangatier". His body was found by his wife Benzogho
in the river.
        The fly-whisk symbolizes the genital organs of his wife Benzogho,
sacrificed after taking iboga which had made it possible for her to see her
husband again. Benzogho, initiated by the Pigmies, paid with her life for
the knowledge she acquired and is responsible for the foundations of the
        The musical bow symbolizes Nzame, whose wood represents the spinal column.
It is very difficult to play this instrument and the Mitsogos are the only
        The clear-toned rod or obaka punctuates all events, and notably the
bursting of the divine egg. It symbolizes the deafening din of thunder.
        The eight-stringed harp (Ngoma or Ngombi) issued forth from the body of
Benzogho. It is a cithara in which each string represents a part of his
body. It also symbolizes maternal and paternal relationships and is a
veritable family organization chart.
        The harp made of Anzem wood is the object of exceptional veneration. It is
considered as a living being. Initiated, dressed and bathed, it possesses a
celestial spirit within its body.
        A high priest poetically described the role of the instrument and the
music as follows: "To see God, one must eat the body of God symbolized by
iboga, and the cithara, Ngoma, takes us by the hand and leads us toward
God. It is a pirogue that takes us from the here and now to the beyond,
from the profane world to the sacred world, from the world of the living to
that of the dead".
        When the harp plays, it is woman who cries, and the woman is Benzogho, the
first victim of Eboga.
        The great moments of the cult are announced by the horn, usually an
antelope horn, and the hand bell which plays an essential role and sets the
rhythm of the prayers. It notifies the arrival of new participants and the
deposit of offerings at the foot of the second column. It symbolizes the
heartbeats of God.
        The audience also sings to the rhythm of tom-toms and cattle bells made of
round fruits, sort of leguminous plants with large seeds.
        Like most religions, Bwiti has initiation ceremonies, a ritual, a liturgy.
        The initiation ceremonies remain secret, and among the Fangs take place on
a Wednesday or a Thursday. They are followed by several ritual nights. The
initiation, which takes place from the age of 10 to 12, the age of
discretion, must be received as a great honor and is indispensable for
understanding the ways of the "things of the earth". No one may be
initiated without first chewing iboga in a sufficient quantity to bring
about visions of the beyond.
        The plant of initiation, the Ndjimba, is situated in the midst of the
forest, among the Mitsogos. It is the site of secret sessions. It is
located in a place fairly far from the village, under a Copaifera
religiosa, Olumi or Andzem, a tree with a red trunk whose color contrasts
with the green of the forest, the tallest tree, a mysterious tree that
resounds when struck because of the hardness of its wood, a tree that
insures riches, honors and fame. The resin of its bark is used to prepare
torches, and a decoction provides the lustral water necessary for washing
the Bwiti statuettes and the purification of the followers.
        Among the Fangs, the Ndjimba, against the backdrop of the forest, is a
short distance from the temple and often right opposite in a place swept
perfectly clean, surrounded by tree trunks that serve as benches. That is
where the future initiates gather. One always finds there the tree with a
straight trunk whose size symbolizes how difficult it is for a man to rise
to the divine level.
        Between the Ndjimba and the temple is the Otunga, the very place of the
sacrifice that must be paid to be accepted for the new spiritual birth. The
Otunga is often a tree. It is in fact a trial and symbolically the leader
of the chorus is beaten there and thrown to the ground.
        The initiation begins with a bath in a forest stream while the cithara is
        The candidates receive a handful of freshly picked iboga roots, a set
quantity chosen for each of them. They use small baskets of woven rattan,
the size of saucers, manufactured for this purpose and tied together three
by three. The young sometimes show a certain reluctance to chew these
roots, and they may be given the contents of a gourd to drink, consisting
of water in which the iboga root has been macerated. The boy often vomits,
but that is a good sign because "you must vomit (everything) up to the
first drop of milk", meaning that you must totally reject earthly life to
accede to another life. Very quickly, highly colored images appear, the
initiates lose consciousness of the outer world and fall into a deep sleep
on a mat laid out on the ground. The state of lethargy depends on the dose
of iboga ingested and may last 4 to 5 days during which time no food is taken.
        The purpose of absorbing this "beverage of bitterness" is to be able to
see the beyond thanks to the hallucinogenic properties of iboga, to
communicate with God and the ancestors, and to die on this earth in order
to be reborn closer to God.
        During the period of lethargy, the initiate sees fantastic apparitions. An
endless procession of masked, bony, lame, crippled, grimacing, terrible
dead files past rapidly. The belly is always open, as a consequence of
ritual autopsy.
        Gradually, the specters disappear, the visions dissipate and the initiate
recovers from his state of inebriation and dazed condition.
        The initiates then undergo a thorough examination by the Kombo and must be
able to answer the questions to determine whether they have seen Bwiti, how
he appeared to them and what he told them. If the answers are satisfactory,
the successful candidate is admitted into the sect. In the opposite case,
which is rare, a new initiation with iboga must be performed.
        However, it is not all over yet for the young initiate. Ibama Ngadi, the
thunder plant, a ritual solution that burns like pimento, is poured into
his eyes while he stares directly at the sun. The purpose is to show him
that now that he has experienced the initiatory light, he can henceforth
look at the profane light of the sun without being blinded by its rays.