Consulting Ku Jlople: Some Histories of Oracles in West Africa

By Tonkin, Elizabeth | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Consulting Ku Jlople: Some Histories of Oracles in West Africa


Tonkin, Elizabeth, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Introduction: methodology

Divination has long intrigued social anthropologists. Apart from their contribution to philosophical debates on rationality, theories of function, symbolic action, and performance have been developed through studies of divination methods, whose immense diversity has also been charted and increasingly differentiated as 'ways of seeing' (Peek 1991).

This range of scale, scope, and location, from widespread do-it-yourself tests ('he loves me, he loves me not', cf. Zeitlyn 1990) to complex Sri Lankan possession rituals (Kapferer 1991), also raises questions of analytical comparability and the need to connect with appropriate models, e.g., for healing. Where divination legitimates public authority (see, e.g., Shaw 1991; Tonkin 2000), analysis is sharpened when it is exemplified in a dynamic political context, including relations to the state (Feuchtwang 2001; Steedly 1993). I argue that this kind of contextualizing and historicizing is needed if we are to try to explain what it is that accounts for the radically divergent histories of different oracles, and in particular why some are short-lived, while others retain their fame and authority over long periods of time. In this article, I compare and contrast the histories of certain west African oracles. I look at the conditions in which their control could, by the end of the nineteenth century, include profitable involvement in a large-scale economy and enhanced power in a conquest state, and be perceived as a threat to incoming colonialists.

In anthropology, the term 'oracle' has been applied to many types of divination. I use it here to refer to divinations in which deities or spirits answer questions from supplicants through the mediation of priests, who interpret the eerie sounds that are said to emanate from the oracle. Supplicants may be shepherded to the site by specialist guides, who often bring them from some distance away. In other words, the diviner is not regarded as human; the process of divination involves a complex division of labour, and the oracle, whose site is described as a cave in a rocky, dramatic setting, also has a wide regional reputation. (1) In the 1970s, when I was engaged in fieldwork in Liberia, I was told about a spirit, Ku Jlople, who had been consulted as an oracle of this type. He was also a significant figure in local histories (see Tonkin 1988), particularly those of Sasstown, the Kru-group polity on which my research was centred. I learned of other such oracles in the region, all apparently defunct. Consultations with 'country doctors' (diviners) were still taking place, as were trials by 'sasswood' (judicial ordeal). The oracle's operations seem to have ended in about 1918-21, after the polities of the region were finally subjugated by forces of the Liberian state, and Christian converts were installed as its local administrators (Tonkin 1978/9).

Evidence that Ku Jlople attracted supplicants from a wide range of regional and ethno-linguistic backgrounds, and that Sasstown's leaders sent delegates to him asking for advice about their community's future (Tonkin 1988; 2001), suggested that the oracle was worth further research. I could not consult him directly; nor did I ever meet people who had done so, so the title of this article may seem to be misleading. Yet it sums up a process of search and exploration in which I have tried to establish how the oracle once worked, and for whom. When I looked also at studies of oracles in Nigeria and Ghana, these comparisons threw much light on various aspects of Ku Jlople's oracle. They also brought out shared features in what proved to be complex, changing spiritual, economic, and political institutions. Anthropologists have tended to understand divination practices through detailed studies of divination sessions. When these are set in historical perspective, we are in a better position to see how the practices are interwined with broader social features. …

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