Esan Laws On Witchcraft

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Suspicion of witchcraft might follow frequent deaths in a compound, an epidemic in a village, or one might be involved because a very sick person had ‘CONFESSED HIM’ as a fellow criminal in the evils of the land, or in some cases, particularly amongst Ugboha people, and also amongst native doctors, a man might just to enhance his prestige in the community and to strike awe into his fellow beings, publicly-declare that he is a wizard.

During my studies of Esan custom I took a very keen interest in these confessions and my profession which makes me a frequent witness to the last few hours of people on earth, has given me the signal opportunity of studying the method of obtaining these confessions and their effects on the rest of the community. There are two types of confessions which I have come to term, COLD and HOT. A cold confession is one in which a person, usually an anxious and terrified mother, seeing her child gravely ill and being warned by the juju priest that it is her crime that is making her child ill and that unless she confesses it the child must die, is urged to confess ah her lapses, usually in connection with adultery by actual deed, words or intention. in many cases the woman’s anxiety over her child’s illness makes her too willing to commit crimes against herself. In this world it will be hard to get a woman who has never answered a word of salutation from a man who is not her husband, or whose clothes have never been touched willingly or unintentionally or who has never returned a kind smile from a man in the circumstances that lead to a cold confession, ah these are compatible with adultery! So the poor woman racks her brain for something to say - anything that might save her sick child. If she was totally innocent and fully aware of the insistent warning that it is her crime and her crime ALONE that is making her child face an untimely death, she invents a crime which she knows in her tortured soul she has never committed, if only her child lives! Rubbing his wicked hands gleefully, the native doctor tells the woman what to do as atonement. This of course is quickly done, but the child still dies and the marriage is broken.

The hot type consists of pieces of words or incoherent sentences mumbled by a delirious patient suffering from such high fevers as accompany acute malaria pneumonia (EFEN IFENMEN ELINMIN, meaning THE CHEST WITH THE DEVIL’S ARROWS), Meningitis’ etc, and pieced together by over –zealous relatives. No one cares to know or notices that the unfortunate person can never be made to repeat what he has just said and in every case, that after the illness he denies every word he is said to have spoken! He has made a confession often against himself and this may concern a crime from stealing through adultery to witchcraft. If any person’s name is mentioned, and like a man in a game of dominoes, quickly follows with another name of a person who is dead, the relatives and herbalists sitting around, treacherously fill the gap and. within a few minutes ‘the story filters through the village that the sick man has made confession that he caused the death of the dead man. Sometimes if a person’s name was mentioned in connection with any death in the village, the suspected person is later brought to the village square and subjected to an inquisition which is painful whichever way the accused takes. If through fear he admits the allegation, he may escape sure death by being drummed out of the village a undesirable. In the olden days rather than drum him out of the village with ignominy that would make it impossible for him, to get an asylum within a radius of some thirty miles, he was sent onto the Onojie where he become a slave if his life was spared. If fully aware of these grave consequences, the accused denies the allegation, it will be hard for us in modern times to imagine what was such a man’s fate only ninety years ago He was more or less doomed. Justice for a man suspected of witchcraft but denying it, consisted of TRIAL BY ORDEAL. There were two methods, each painful to the extreme.

(a)Itan: This was essentially a trial of endurance and in most cases the result depended upon the vagaries of the Itan -Priest: if he himself suspected the accused or if he knew public opinion was heavily against the man or if the Onojie was interested in the man’s guilt, the result was definite GUILTY, would be the verdict.

The actual trial consisted of the suspect being taken to a circle marked with chalk. Kneeling and protruding his tongue, he was told the charge and the priest repeated: “you are said to be a .wizard; if you are innocent may you be WHITENED but if you are not, may you be caught right here”, and he proceeded to pass a thick cock’s feather, root first, through the tongue of the unfortunate man. The ordeal of passing a blunt ended feather through a man’s tongue can only be imagined. With the person in utter agony, salivating and the priest repeating the incantations, the ordeal went on until he succeeded in lacerating the tongue through with the feather passing from below upwards. This could only happen if he wanted the man freed or whitened or the man is so dead to pain that he just allowed the priest to tear his tongue as much as he pleased. If the accused was a coward, as soon as the pain was beyond what he could bear, he begged the torturer to stop and pronounced himself guilty. Sometimes even where he was really courageous, the priest after pulling tui he was herself tired stopped and pronounced the man guilty. This verdict was obtained by his saying that the feather had become tuck ha1f’ay and nothing on earth could get it through. Everybody at the trial including the accused man’s immediate family like his wife or mother took that as a fair trial and left the arena believing their beloved man QUITE GUILTY: The man then was left to face the prescribes punishment.

(b) Sasswood: Again this depended more or less upon what the pubic thought and their feeling towards the accused, although in some fortunate cases where the feeling of antipathy was so strong that the public desired immediate death, the trial was over-enthusiastic and queerly, the person was saved by his God.

A man accused of witchcraft who denied it was taken to the sasswood centre and a decoction from the bark of the Sasswood tree was made; this was given to the man to drink with the words, “If you are guilty may this fluid kill you and if you are innocent may you vomit and recover”. If the public feeling against the accused was strong, one or both of two things might happen: at the centre an extra large dose was given him to drink with a vengeance. Because of the extreme and excessive distend ion of the stomach vomiting began early before enough of the alkaloid was assimilated into the blood stream to cause a sure poisoning. The man vomited copiously, thus ridding his stomach of the entire decoction he had taken a short while ago, such a man recovered due to overdose. A less lucky and much hated man after drinking the potion was subjected to a wicked physical strain that told mortally on his heart and body: he was  made to run and dance up and down the village square with the village Igene and Inotu at hand to ensure death. They danced round him as he stopped now and then to have bouts of vomiting that sapped one’s strength: as soon as he was through with that they urged him on, running and dancing until he collapsed and died of sheer physical exhaustion, even before the poison did its work. He was declared guilty and was given a burial befitting a rat.

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