Northern Gothic: Witches, Ghosts and Werewolves in the Savanna Hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s-1950s

By Parker, John | Africa, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Northern Gothic: Witches, Ghosts and Werewolves in the Savanna Hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s-1950s

Parker, John, Africa


This article examines witchcraft, shape-shifting and other supernatural beliefs among the Talensi and neighbouring Gur-speaking peoples on the frontier of the Northern Territories Protectorate of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the first half of the twentieth century. Its starting point is the succession of religious movements dedicated to the eradication of witchcraft that swept through the southern forest region of the Gold Coast in the inter-war period. Most of these movements were animated by exotic deities originating in the savanna zone, a cross-cultural passage in part propelled by the ambivalence with which the Akan peoples of the forests viewed the so-called Gurunsi of the remote north. While the 'Gurunsi' were generally regarded as primitive barbarians, they were also seen to have an intimate relationship with the spiritual realm and therefore to be free from the ravages of malevolent witchcraft. This intimacy with dangerous spiritual forces was most clearly manifested in the widely reported ability of 'the grassland people' to transmogrify into animals. Evidence suggests, however, that far from being free from witchcraft, stateless savanna societies had their own problems with malevolent occult powers. Moreover, their reputation for shape-shifting was not simply a lurid, fantastic stereotype of northern brutishness on the part of the Akan. Animal metamorphosis- and especially the ubiquity of were-hyenas--was widely reported in the northern savanna, where it was imbricated with 'witchcraft' and with notions of personhood and collective identities.


Cet article examine la sorcellerie, la metamorphose et d'autres croyances surnaturelles chez les Talensis et les peuples voisins de langue gour a la frontiere du protectorat des Territoires du Nord de la Cote de l'Or (Ghana) dans la premiere moitie du vingtieme siecle. Il prend comme point de depart la succession de mouvements religieux consacres a l'eradication de la sorcellerie qui s'est propagee rapidement dans la region forestiere du sud de la Cote de l'Or pendant la periode d'entre deux guerres. La plupart de ces mouvements etaient animes par des deites exotiques originaires de la savane, un passage interculturel en partie pousse par l'ambivalence avec laquelle les peuples akans des forets consideraient ceux qu'ils appelaient les Gourounsis des regions reculees du nord. Si les "Gourounsis" etaient certes generalement consideres comme des barbares primitifs, on les croyait egalement intimement lies au royaume spirituel et par consequent a l'abri des ravages de la sorcellerie malveillante. Cette intimite avec des forces spirituelles dangereuses se manifestait le plus nettement dans la capacite souvent rapportee des "peuples des prairies " a se metamorphoser en animaux. Les faits suggerent, en revanche, que loin d'etre a l'abri de la sorcellerie, les societes apatrides de la savane avaient leurs propres problemes avec les pouvoirs occultes malveillants. De plus, la reputation qu'ils avaient de pouvoir se metamorphoser n'etait pas un simple stereotype de la bestialite du nord, fait de fantasme et d'epouvante, de la part des Akans. La metamorphose animale (notamment le pouvoir d'ubiquite de la hyene-garou) a souvent ete rapportee dans la savane du nord, ou on la melait a la "sorcellerie" et a des notions de personne et d'identites collectives.


   All things are always changing,
   But nothing dies. The spirit comes and goes,
   Is housed wherever it wills, shifts residence
   From beasts to men, from men to beasts, but always
   It keeps on living.

-- Ovid, Metamorphoses. (1)

In July 1939, government anthropologist Margaret Field composed a memorandum on the anti-witchcraft cults that over the past decade had repeatedly swept through the southern forest region of the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). (2) Field's investigations into these movements had been focused on the Akan kingdoms of Akyem Abuakwa and Akyem Kotoku, but in 1939 her attention switched to the Anlo-Ewe region across the Volta River to the south-east, where the followers of a powerful new witch-finding deity named Kunde were believed tobe responsible for widespread extortion, murder and political disorder.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Northern Gothic: Witches, Ghosts and Werewolves in the Savanna Hinterland of the Gold Coast, 1900s-1950s


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?