Academic journal article Ethnology

The Use of Human Images in Yoruba Medicines(1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Use of Human Images in Yoruba Medicines(1)

Article excerpt

Indigenous healers among the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria regularly utilize small carved and molded three-dimensional human figures in their medicines. These figures are used by individuals in purposeful acts of magical mimesis to manipulate the social world. Four major types of Yoruba medicine figures act as surrogates, messengers, and the Yoruba everyman/woman to activate forces affecting individual lives. (Nigeria, Yoruba, medicine, art, magic)

The centrality of the human body to cultural thought makes it a powerful mimetic referent that "mediates all reflection and action upon the world" (Lock 1993). This is clearly seen in indigenous medical systems throughout the world where the unseeable powers of nature are anthropomorphized in the form of two- and three-dimensional human figures used as ingredients in magical medicines, charms, and amulets.(2) Usually discussed in terms of sympathetic magic, the figures act to direct or store these powers for a variety of positive and negative purposes. In replication of the human form as artifact, supernatural powers are encapsulated and controlled to be brought into the cultural realm where they can be manipulated to benefit individuals or groups.

In the tradition described here, the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria carve and mold human images as part of their technology of indigenous medicine in a system in which both natural and supernatural causation are recognized. Medicine figures(3) in the shape of the human body are one type of the many essential ingredients, natural and artifactual, used by Yoruba medical practitioners to diagnose, cure, protect from, and, in some cases, cause illness and misfortune.


Medicine figures are commonly used by practitioners in those medical systems that have strong elements of what Foster (1976) labels the "personalistic." In a personalistic medical system, illness and misfortune can be caused by the purposeful manipulation of supernatural powers so that the religious and medical systems are intermeshed. A deity, a human witch or sorcerer, or a nonhuman agent such as an evil spirit, ghost, or ancestor can use powers beyond those of everyday experience to harm living human beings or control their behavior. Conversely, the same powers can be protective and assure success in life to those who possess them. The medical practitioner in a personalistic system, whether healer or sorcerer, is an agent who is knowledgeable in culturally determined rules of procedure that can be used to control supernatural powers to bring about predetermined effects for self or client. The assumption is that these forces are part of a coherent interconnected universe in which acts of magic can project specific forces along pathways or connections between things to bring about desired human goals. Sorcery, Stevens (1996:724) suggests, is an attempt to interfere with the course of natural forces and cause them to act contrary to their "natural program." It is important to note that Stevens (1996:723) conceptually separates the forces of nature that can be magically programmed for a specific action from the powers of the anthropomorphized deities, ancestors, ghosts, and spiritual beings who also inhabit the universe. Medical practitioners in personalistic systems are skilled in controlling natural forces, and some also can capture the services of spirits.

Among the many ingredients utilized in the preparation of medicines in a specialist's repertoire are human images molded or carved from natural materials and used as conduits to channel the powers of nature toward cultural goals in acts of "magical mimesis." Mimesis, according to Taussig (1992:11), involves "both copy and substantial connection, both visual replication and material transfer." Magical mimesis, Taussig (1992, 1993) proposes, involves products of human intent that portray something over which the maker desires power. When linked to artistic production, Taussig (1992:11) argues, magic, in its ability to mimic and control, has the "stupendous ability to blend aesthetics with practicality. …

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