Nkisi fetish from D.R. Congo | Janus Spijkerbeeld fetisj
Spijkerbeeld uit Congo
circa 35 cm
Beautiful Nail fetish from Congo
Nkisi (plural minkisi) are spirits or an object that a spirit inhabits. It is frequently applied to a variety of objects used throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa, especially in the Territory of Cabinda that are believed to contain spiritual powers or spirits. Close communication with ancestors and belief in the efficacy of their powers are closely associated with minkisi in Kongo tradition. Among the peoples of the Congo Basin, especially the Bakongo and the Songye people of Kasai, exceptional human powers are frequently believed to result from some sort of communication with the dead. People known as banganga (singular: nganga) work as healers, diviners, and mediators who defend the living against black magic (witchcraft) and provide them with remedies against diseases resulting either from witchcraft or the demands of bakisi (spirits), emissaries from the land of the dead. Banganga harness the powers of bakisi and the dead by making minkisi. Minkisi are primarily containers - ceramic vessels, gourds, animal horns, shells, bundles, or any other object that can contain spiritually-charged substances. Even graves themselves, as the home of the dead and hence the home of bakisi, can be considered as minkisi. In fact, minkisi have even been described as portable graves, and many include earth or relics from the grave of a powerful individual as a prime ingredient. The powers of the dead thus infuse the object and allow the nganga to control it. The metal objects commonly pounded into the surface of the power figures represent the minkisis' active roles during ritual or ceremony. Each nail or metal piece represents a vow, a signed treaty, and efforts to abolish evil. Ultimately, these figures most commonly represent reflections upon socially unacceptable behaviors and efforts to correct them. The substances chosen for inclusion in minkisi are frequently called "bilongo" or "milongo" (singular nlongo), a word often translated as "medicine." However, their operation is not primarily pharmaceutical, as they are not applied to or ingested by those who are sick, and perhaps bilongo is more accurately translated as "therapeutic substances". Rather they are frequently chosen for metaphoric reasons, for example, bird claws in order to catch wrongdoers or because their names resemble characteristics of spirits in question. Among the many common materials used in the minkisi were fruit ("luyala" in Kikongo), charcoal ("kalazima"), and mushrooms ("tondo"). Minerals were collected from various places associated with the dead, such as earth collected from graves and riverbeds. White clay was also very important in the composition of minkisi due to the symbolic relationship of the color white and the physical aspects of dead skin as well as their moral rightness and spiritual positivity. White contrasted with black, the color of negativity. Some minkisi use red ochre as a coloring agent. The use of red is symbolic of the mediation of the powers of the dead. Minkisi serve many purposes. Some are used in divination practices, rituals to eradicate evil or punish wrong-doers, and ceremonies for protective installments. Many are also used for healing, while others provide success in hunting or trade, among other things. Important minkisi are often credited with powers in multiple domains. Most famously, minkisi may also take the form of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden carvings. Minkisi and the afflictions associated with them are generally classified into two types; the "of the above" and the "of the below". The above minkisi are associated with the sky, rain, and thunderstorms. The below minkisi are associated with the earth and waters on land. The above minkisi were considered masculine and were closely tied to violence and violent forces. The minkisi of the above were largely used to maintain order, serve justice, and seal treaties. Birds of prey, lightning, weapons, and fire are all common themes among the minkisi of the above. They also affected the upper body. Head, neck, and chest pains were said to be caused by these nkisi figures. Some figures were in the form of animals. Most often these were dogs ("kozo"). Dogs are closely tied to the spiritual world in Kongo mythology. They live in two separate worlds; the village of the living, and the forest of the dead. Kozo figures were often portrayed as having two heads – this was symbolic of their ability to see both worlds.