African fire rituals and customs can be traced as far back as the oldest human ancestors known to man. The San people in South Africa trace their ancestry to at least 20,000 years ago, and their fire rituals can possibly be traced as far back as their ancestors. The San have two main fire rituals: the “great ‘medicine or healing dance” and the “rain dance.” During both ceremonies, dancers would move clockwise around a fire with the men dancing first and the women following after. As the intensity of the dance increased, dancers were believed to transcend into the spirit world where they either interceded for the sick or asked the spirits to send rain. It wasn’t uncommon to see San fire dancers walk through fire without feeling pain or getting burned in their transcended state.
Similarly, elsewhere on the continent, in West Africa precisely, fire dancers are also able to achieve similar feats. In certain Togolese fire ceremonies, participants can be seen placing hot embers in their mouths while others attempt to put out flaming torches with theirs. Very much like the San in the southern African region, the Tem people of Togo mark their fire ceremonies with music and dancing often culminating in a state of trance during which they are also able to achieve unusual feats with fire.
As with all of the elements in our natural environment, fire served and continues to serve, various functions in the customs and practices of many African religions. This piece focuses on the beliefs, customs, and rituals, of fire as it expressed and lived by the Fang people of Western Africa.
Origin of the Fang
The Fang (aka Fãn) are said to have migrated from north-west Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. They currently inhabit regions in southern Cameroon; mainland Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. As a result of their movement across wide distances and locations, the traditional practices and beliefs of the Fang evolved from what was largely a single belief and cultural system to diverse cultural systems and languages. There are at least five different languages that have been identified as belonging to the Fang group of languages. As a result, many people could identify as being Fang, however, the languages they speak would differ.
Fang Fire Symbolisms
In the Fang belief system, the Sun is regarded as the father (tata) of all heat and thus from whom humans receive fire (Bennett, 1899). Perhaps as a result of this, fire is one of four elements (including the moon, sun, and water) that are venerated among the Fang. These four elements were believed to be represented by specific animals and the animals themselves later became objects of worship alongside the elements in their cults. For instance, the black-backed horned antelope stood for the moon (horned creatures, in any case, were associated with the equatorial crescent moon); the elephant stood for water; the gorilla stood for fire; the cock stood for the sun (Fernandez, 1982).
Among the Fang, fire is known and used for its cleansing power. Once a year all fires in Fang villages are put out and during that time, the entire village is swept and all the trash is dumped in the forest. Once this is done, the fires are then lit in an act that signals a new beginning for the entire village.
Another ritual observed among the Fang involves the wives of recently deceased men. After their period of mourning is complete, Fang widows are required to cross burning flames while being flogged. This act is believed to serve two purposes: first, as a method of purifying women after a period of grieving; and secondly, as an initiation process into a supposedly new path which these women would have to now walk (Bennett, 1899).
Fang Religious Societies
Religious cults and groups were also a prominent feature in Fang societies and fire played a prominent role in two of them.
Bwiti has been referred to as a politico-religious society that emerged from Fang religious customs and traditions. It is an animistic religious system based on a belief in spirits and ancestral veneration. The belief system has since syncretized with Christianity and there are now Bwiti churches in Gabon where Christian and traditional Bwiti rituals are performed side-by-side. For example, the use of a spiritual herb and hallucinogenic (known as Iboga) during Catholic Masses (BBC, 2014).
Being an offshoot of Fang traditional beliefs, Bwiti has certain fire rituals that are similar and might seem to imitate Fang fire rituals. Among Bwiti practitioners, for instance, the practice of cleansing the village with fire, as previously described, happens once a week rather than once a year. However, in the Bwiti belief system, the cleanse is a celebration that lasts all night long and is often marked in remembrance of the creation of the world and the creation of mankind.
Bwiti practitioners also equate stars to fire and one of the common beliefs is that falling (shooting) stars represent a birth that has just taken place or a soul (fire) that has taken up residence of life in a being here on earth. Similarly, it is believed that when a person dies, the fire that is their soul returns to the place it came from.
Ngi is Fang for gorilla and as earlier stated, gorillas are the animal representation of fire. The Ngi Cult was popular across Fang societies was often referred to as the Gorilla Cult or the Cult of Fire (Fernandez, 1982). The cult was largely male-based and was tasked with maintaining law and order within Fang communities. It was also a powerful ‘anti-witchcraft cult’ that mainly thrived during the late pre-colonial and early colonial periods. The leader of the cult had the power to navigate both the physical and spirit worlds and was thus able to strike sorcerers (Cinnamon, 2012).
The symbolism of the gorilla as the totem animal of the Ngi Cult ties back to it being the representation of fire which, as we have seen so far, is an element that cleanses and infuses beings with life. It is thus plausible that the Ngi Cult was responsible for cleansing Fang societies off sorcerers who used their powers for evil, as well as maintaining law and order while protecting lives and property.
Beyond its typical domestic uses, fire lights up our lives, and according to Bwiti practitioners, it is the very stuff that gives us life. Many modern African countries do not have room for the rituals and beliefs of fire as described here, yet, fire is still a potent element that we continue to go back to. Whether during uprisings as a way to express our anger at the state of things, or in customary bush burning to prepare the ground for yet another period of farming, fire continues to retain its power as an element that not only keeps us alive but also purifies us, collectively and individually.