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Nkisi figure 'Chcôca'

This wooden Nkisi power figure is of the violent Nkondi (hunter) type. It depicts a man wearing a hat with his right hand raised. On the stomach of the figure is a projecting boss with a mirrored front that conceals the bilongo or ‘medicines’ (magical preparations). Around the neck is an iron link chain with a smaller bilongo pack attached. The nails would have been hammered in to activate the power of the figure each time it was operated by the mganga (healer or ritual specialist).

The powerful Central African kingdom of Kongo held influence over numerous ethnic and cultural groups. It adopted Catholicism as the religion of state from the Portuguese in the 16th century. The Kongo ruling class already had a good relationship with European missionaries and traders and Catholicism enhanced their cooperation and mutual respect. In the 17th century the slave trade and political interference by the Portuguese helped split the Kongo kingdom into small chiefdoms, so that by 1665 its legendary capital, Mbanza Kongo (in north western Angola), had been abandoned.

The spiritual world of the Kongo

Many Kongo and other Central Africans believe that spiritual powers derive from communication with the dead. Ordinary people do not usually communicate with the dead, as this required special knowledge and preparations that were available only to chiefs, witches and baganga (singular nganga).

Baganga were (and still are) ritual specialists, healers and diviners who defend people against witchcraft and disease. In order to ensure the effectiveness of their work they used powerful objects (minkisi, singular nkisi) containing forces obtained from the graves of the dead. All the nail-studded figures displayed in this section would have been operated by Kongo baganga.

Construction of minkisi

Minkisi were essentially containers of spiritual forces from the land of the dead. They expressed visually the idea of captured forces held under control but they were only effective when filled with ‘medicines’ or magical ingredients (bilongo). The Baganga (singular nganga), or ritual specialists, who made them and selected their ingredients, did so in order to create a deliberately astonishing visual impression and to convey the idea that they were remarkable and powerful things.

Ingredients of minkisi bilongo packs

Mpemba, or white porcelain clay found under water in riverbeds, was one of the most common ingredients applied to minkisi. It was associated with the land of the dead and its presence on an nkisi contributed to its impression of power as something in contact with the other world. Other types of ingredient described, through visual and verbal metaphors, the capacities of the nkisi, especially its vigour, speed of action and perception. Common ingredients of minkisi that describe some of their capacities include:

  • Luyala (a fruit) - that the nkisi may rule (yaala)
  • Kala zima (charcoal) - that it may extinguish (zima) witchcraft
  • Mpezomo (copal resin) - that it may flash (vezima) like lightning and blind the witches
  • Lutete (gourd seed) - that it may cut down (teta)
  • Muzazu (a cocoon) - that it may stitch together (zazula)
  • Lufulangi (a fruit tree) - that it may resuscitate (fulukisa) (Nsemi, Cahier 391)

What we found in the Nkisi figure's hat

The contents of the packs were never intended to be visible - we could only get at the head pack because the ‘hat’ had become detached, exposing the contents. It was not possible to see into the other one on the stomach. Examination of the hat contents revealed a number of interesting ingredients:

  • cubic crystals of magnetite
  • possible mica
  • monocot leaves
  • a small snake
  • charcoal
  • small pieces of animal fur or kapok-like vegetable matter
  • egg of a kestrel or falcon

What is in the stomach pack?

The stomach pack was still intact and could only be examined by x-radiography. This revealed its shape, cut within the body of the figure, and some contents of varying shape and density. X-ray examination alone could not identify or confirm the constituents of the stomach pack, but it was possible to see dense cubic crystals that closely resembled in shape those of magnetite found in the hat. The reasonable conclusion was that they too were magnetite crystals.


Side and front view x-ray images of the Nkisi figure's stomach pack

Why do we want to know what is in the packs?

There are reasons why it is significant to find out what the ingredients are. Firstly, it may help identify new ingredients in themselves, but secondly it can also help broaden understanding of the purpose of the ingredients and the nature of the intended use of the object. The snake attacks by striking victims rapidly, and similarly the falcon or kestrel, from the raptor family of birds of prey, attack swiftly and without warning from the sky to strike at their victims. Hence knowledge of the ideas behind inclusion of these ingredients gives a fuller picture of the way in which the ‘magic’ of the figure was intended to work, in this case by striking an intended victim or striking to warding off aggressors.

We are planning to carry out further investigations of the hat contents, which are now stored separately.

Further information on this figure

The trader, Mr Harbourne, who collected this figure in Landana, Portuguese Congo (now Cabinda), recorded only that its original name was 'Chcôca' and that it was said to “attack its victims with rheumatism and syphilitic sores and swellings.”

Further information on Minkisi ‘power objects’:

"[Minkisi] receive… powers by composition, conjuring, and consecration. They are composed of earths, ashes, herbs, and leaves, and of relics of the dead… These are the properties of minkisi, to cause sickness in a man and also to remove it. To destroy, to kill, to benefit… The way of every nkisi is this: when you have composed it, observe its rules lest it be annoyed and punish you. It knows no mercy."

Simon Kavuna, around 1915.

Nsemi on minkisi:

"Nkisi is the name of things we use to help a man when he is sick and from which we obtain health; the name refers to leaves and medicines combined together. …an nkisi is also something that hunts down illness and chases it away from the body. Many people therefore compose an nkisi … It is a hiding place for people’s souls, to keep and compose in order to preserve life."

Nsemi, Cahier 391

World Cultures gallery

You can see more Nkisi figures on display in the African section of the World Cultures Gallery at World Museum Liverpool.

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