Primitive Secret Societies

Date: 1908

[Tribal Secret Societies]

The operation of the various motives which explains the formation of tribal societies explains also the assumption by them of various functions of an important nature. They arouse the universal sentiments of curiosity, fear, and awe; they surround themselves with that veil of mystery so attractive to primitive minds the world over, and they appeal with ever growing power to the social and convivial aspects of human nature, to feeling of prestige and exclusiveness, and to the consciousness of the very material privileges connected with membership. Under these circumstances it is natural to find secret societies of the tribal type widespread among savage and barbarous peoples. By the side of the family and the tribe they provide another organization which possesses still greater power and cohesion. In their developed form they constitute the most interesting and characteristic of primitive social institutions.

In communities destitute of wider social connections, such societies help to bring about a certain consciousness of fellowship and may often, by their ramifications throughout different tribes, become of much political importance. African societies supply pertinent examples. Among the Korannas of South Africa, a fraternity exists whose initiates are marked by three cuts on the chest. Said one of their members to an inquirer: "’I can go through all the valleys inhabited by Korannas and by Griquas, and wherever I go, when I open my coat and show these three cuts, I am sure to be well received.’" After a Nkimba novice has acquired the secret language and has become a full member, he is called Mbwamvu anjata, and the members in the other districts "hail him as a brother, help him in his business, give him hospitality, and converse freely with him in the mystic language." Those who belong to the Idiong of Old Calabar are thereby enabled to travel through the country without danger. Representatives of the Ukuku, a society found among the tribes in the Spanish territory north of Corisco Bay, sometimes "meet together and discuss intertribal difficulties, thereby avoiding war." Mwetyi, who presides over the secret society of the Shekani and Bakele of French Congo, is always invoked as a witness to covenants between neighboring tribes. Such treaties are usually kept; otherwise Mwetyi would visit the violators and punish them. The Purrah of Sierra Leone was formerly a most effective instrument for preventing conflicts between the tribes; its deputations sent out to make peace were always respected. The society was organized with a headman in every district who presided over the local and subordinate councils. A grand council, managed by the Head Purrah man, had jurisdiction over all the branches of the society. While the Purrah law was in force, no blood must be shed by contending tribes. Transgressors were punished by death.

In the absence of the stronger political ties afforded by the existence of a definite chieftainship, or where the chief is as yet endowed with little power, the secret societies assume or reënforce his functions of social control. Where the societies are still essentially tribal in character, and in their membership include nearly all the men of the tribe, such authority naturally centres itself in those who hold the higher degrees. Probably the earliest ruler is often only the individual highest in the secret society; his power derived from his association with it and his orders executed by it. Thus the control exercised by the New Pomerania chieftains is immensely strengthened by the circumstance that such individuals are always high in the secrets of the Dukduk. In some places the society seems to be largely under the power of the chiefs. The importance among Melanesian peoples of the Suqe and Tamate of Banks Islands has always obscured the appearance of such power as the chiefs would be expected to exercise. Any man who was conspicuous in his community would certainly be high in the degrees of these societies; and no one who held an insignificant place in them could have much power outside.

With growing political centralization, the judicial and executive functions of the secret society may be retained; and its members, as the personal agents of the ruling chief, may constitute the effective police of the state. Africa affords us instances of such societies in affiliation with the government. Members of the Sindungo order of Kabinda were originally secret agents of the king, and as such were employed to gather information and accuse powerful masters who were unjust to their inferiors. The king of the Bashi-lange-Baluba nation (Congo Free State) is ex-officio head of Lubuku. Belli-paaro among the Quojas of Liberia had the chief or king of the tribe at its head. Members were in close affiliation with the government. Such centralization of political power is not accomplished, however, without a struggle. These societies often put many restrictions upon the influence of the chiefs. Ogboni, among the Egbas of Yoruba, is more powerful than the king. The Nkimba fraternity likewise once formed a useful check to the greed and violence of the chiefs.

Where these societies are powerful their members enjoy many privileges which are not granted their less fortunate tribesmen. In the Dukduk mysteries "everything which by the uninitiated is held as of particular obligation is here chanted as something that the initiated must rigidly impress upon the profane, yet which for themselves they may disregard. The tabu is to have no force for them except the great tabu, with a flock of hair on it, and that they must not break through. All others they may transgress, if only they do it slily, and so as not to raise public scandal among the women and the others who are bound by its provisions. They must teach the uninitiated that there are malign spirits abroad by night, but they themselves need not believe anything so stupid.

.. One only belief do they profess, and that is in the spirit of the volcano-fires, and even that is discarded by the inner degree of the Dukduk, those half-dozen men who sit within the mystic house and dupe the initiates of the minor degree as all unite to trick those outside. And the reason is this: the half-dozen members of the most secret rank profess to one another that no better system of governing a savage community could be devised than this ceremonial mystery of the Dukduk. All the Tamate associations of the Banks Islands have as their particular badge a leaf of the croton or a hibiscus flower. To wear the badge without being a member of a Tamate society would subject the offender to a fine and a beating. A member of this society, by marking with his badge the fruit trees or garden which he wishes reserved for any particular use, may be sure that his taboo wil be respected; the great Tamate is behind him. Other prerogatives of the members in Melanesian societies include "the right to land in certain portions of the beach, which the uninitiated were prevented from doing save by the payment of a fine—the right of way along certain parts—and, above all, a share in the fines in food and money from their less-privileged fellow-countrymen or visitors." Purrah of Sierra Leone places its interdict "upon trees, streams, fishing-pots, fruit trees, oil palms, bamboo palms, growing crops, and in fact upon all and everything that is required to be reserved for any particular use."

Privileges such as these readily pass over into a much more extended system of social control. Ruling chiefly by the mys terious terror they inspire, and providing for infractions of their laws the penalties of death or heavy fines, the tribal societies of Melanesia and Africa represent the most primitive efforts towards the establishment of law and order. They recall the Vehm-gerichte which flourished in Westphalia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or the Vigilantes and White Caps of a more modern age.

One of the most powerful of these organizations—the Dukduk of the Bismarck Archipelago—exhibits at once the good and bad features of the tribal society. In its judicial capacity it fully merits its description as an "internationale Rechtsgesell-schaft," providing in the midst of conditions, otherwise anarchical, some semblance of law and order. Where the Dukduk prevails, the natives are afraid to commit any serious felony. One observer describes the Dukduk as the administrator of law, judge, policeman, and hangman all in one. But the Dukduk conception of justice is not modelled on Ulpian’s famous definition, for the Dukduk law bears down most unequally upon the weaker members of the community, upon those who for one reason or another have been unable to join the society or have incurred the enmity of its powerful associates. Its forced contributions impoverish those who are already poor, while those who are rich enough to join share in the profits of the mystery. The fraternity exhibits in the clearest light the culmination of that process of fraud and intimidation which, having its roots in the puberty institution, becomes more and more prominent when the tribal society stage is reached.

"There is," writes Mr. Romilly, who witnessed some Dukduk initiations, "a most curious and interesting institution, by which the old men of the tribe band themselves together, and, by working on the superstitions of the rest, secure for themselves a comfortable old age and unbounded influence. . . . . The Dukduk is a spirit, which assumes a visible and presumably tangible form, and makes its appearance at certain fixed times. Its arrival is invariably fixed for the day the new moon becomes visible. It is announced a month beforehand by the old men, and is always said to belong to one of them. During that month great preparations of food are made, and should any young man have failed to provide an adequate supply on the occasion of its last appearance, he receives a pretty strong hint to the effect that the Dukduk is displeased with him, and there is no fear of his offending twice. When it is remembered that the old men, who alone have the power of summoning the Dukduk from his home at the bottom of the sea, are too weak to work, and to provide themselves with food or dewarra the reason for this hint seems to me pretty obvious. The day before the Dukduk’s expected arrival the women usually disappear, or at all events remain in their houses. It is immediate death for a woman to look upon this unquiet spirit. Before daybreak every one is assembled on the beach, most of the young men looking a good deal frightened. They have many unpleasant experiences to go through during the next fortnight, and the Dukduk is known to possess an extraordinary familiarity with all their shortcomings of the preceding month. At the first streak of dawn, singing and drum-beating is heard out at sea, and, as soon as there is enough light to see them, five or six canoes, lashed together with a platform built over them, are seen to be slowly advancing towards the beach. Two most extraordinary figures appear dancing on the platform, uttering shrill cries, like a small dog yelping. They seem to be about ten feet high, but so rapid are their movements that it is difficult to observe them carefully. However, the outward and visible form assumed by them is intended to represent a gigantic cassowary, with the most hideous and grotesque of human faces. The dress, which is made of the leaves of the draconœna, certainly looks much like the body of this bird, but the head is like nothing but the head of a Dukduk. It is a conical-shaped erection, about five feet high, made of very fine basket work, and gummed all over to give a surface on which the diabolical countenance is depicted. No arms or hands are visib le, and the dress extends down to the knees. The old men, doubtless, are in the secret, but by the alarmed look on the faces of the others it is easy to see that they imagine that there is nothing human about these alarming visitors. As soon as the canoes touch the beach, the two Dukduks jump out, and at once the natives fall back, so as to avoid touching them. If a Dukduk is touched, even by accident, he very frequently tomahawks the unfortunate native on the spot. After landing, the Dukduks dance round each other, imitating the ungainly motion of the cassowary, and uttering their shrill cries. During the whole of their stay they make no sound but this. It would never do for them to speak, for in that case they might be recognized by their voices. Nothing more is to be done now till evening, and they occupy their time running up and down the beach, through the village, and into the bush, and seem to be very fond of turning up in the most unexpected manner, and frightening the natives half out of their wits. During the day a little house has been built in the bush, for the Dukduk’s benefit. No one but the old men knows exactly where this house is, as it is carefully concealed. Here we may suppose the restless spirit unbends to a certain extent, and has his meals. Certainly no One would venture to disturb him. In the evening a vast pile of food is collected, and is borne off by the old men into the bush, every man making his contribution to the meal. The Dukduk, if satisfied, maintains a complete silence; but if he does not think the amount collected sufficient, he shows his disapprobation by yelping and leaping. When the food has been carried off, the young men have to go through a very unpleasant ordeal, which is supposed to prepare their minds for having the mysteries of the Dukduk explained to them at some very distant period. They stand in rows of six or seven, holding their arms high above their heads. When the Dukduks appear from their house in the bush, one of them has a bundle of stout canes, about six feet long, and the other a big club. The Dukduk with the canes selects one of them, and dances up to one of the young men, and deals him a most tremendous blow, which draws blood all round his body. There is, however, on the young man’s part no flinching or sign of pain. After the blow with the cane he has to stoop down, and the other Dukduk gives him a blow with the club, on the ’tail,’ which must be most unpleasant. Each of these young men has to go through this performance some twenty times in the course of the evening, and go limping home to bed. He will nevertheless be ready to place himself in the same position every night for the next fortnight. The time of a man’s initiation may and often does last for about twenty years, and as the Dukduk usually appears at every town six times in every year, the novice has to submit to a considerable amount of flogging to purchase his freedom of the guild. Though I have never witnessed it, the Dukduk has the right, which he frequently exercises, of killing any man on the spot. He merely dances up to him, and brains him with a tomahawk or club. Not a man would dare dispute this right, nor would any one venture to touch the body afterwards. The Dukduks in such a case pick up the body, and carry it into the bush where it is disposed of: how, one can only conjecture. Women, if caught suddenly in the bush, are carried off, and never appear again, nor are any inquiries made after them. It is no doubt this power the Dukduks possess, of killing either man or woman with impunity, which makes them so feared. It is, above all things, necessary to preserve the mystery, and the way in which this is done is very clever. The man personating the Dukduk will retire to his house, take off his dress, and mingle with the rest of his tribe, so as not to be missed, and will put his share of food into the general contribution, thus making a present to himself. The last day on which the moon is visible the Dukduks disappear, though no one sees them depart; their house in the bush is burned, and the dresses they have worn are destroyed. Great care is taken to destroy everything they have touched, the canes and clubs being burned every day by the old men.

The Dukduk society also finds a fertile source of revenue in its exactions upon the women. In the Bismarck Archipelago, women have the full custody of their earnings and as they work harder than the men, they soon acquire considerable property. The Dukduk "offers a very good means of preventing unfair accumulation of wealth in the hands of the women." If a woman sees the Dukduk masks, she is fined a certain quantity of dewarra. The Taraiu, or lodge, is always tabooed to women, and a fine of thirty to fifty dewarra is impesed upon the curious intruder.

Many of the West African societies Miss Kingsley describes as admirable engines of government; "the machine as a machine for the people is splendid; it can tackle a tyrannous chief, keep women in order, and even regulate pigs and chickens, as nothing else has been able to do in West Africa." As the African initiate passes from grade to grade, the secrets of the society are gradually revealed to him. "Each grade gives him a certain function in carrying out the law, and finally when he has passed through all the grades, which few men do, when he has finally sworn the greatest oath of all, when he knows all the society’s heart’s secret, that secret is ’I am what I am’—the one word. The teaching of that word is law, order, justice, morality. Why the one word teaches it the man who has reached the innermost heart of the secret society does not know, but he knows two things—one, that there is a law god, and the other that, so says the wisdom of our ancestors, his will must be worked or evil will come; so in his generation he works to keep the young people straight—to keep the people from over-fishing the lagoons, to keep the people from cutting palm nuts, and from digging yams at wrong seasons. He does these things by putting Purroh, or Oru, or Egbo on them; Purroh, Oru, and Egbo and Idiong are things the people fear."

Egbo of Old Calabar, perhaps the best-developed of these societies, is divided into numerous grades. The highest of these grades is the Grand Egbo, whose head is the king of the country. Over the other grades preside chiefs who are called the kings of their particular Egbo. Each of the different grades has its Egbo day when the Idem, or spiritual representatives of Egbo, are in full control. When the yellow flag floats from the king’s house, it is Brass Egbo day. Only those who belong to the very highest degrees may then be seen in the streets. During an Egbo visitation it would be death for any one not a member of the order to venture forth; even members themselves, if their grade is lower than that which controls the proceedings for the day, would be severely whipped. When a man "meets the paraphernalia of a higher grade of Egbo than that to which he belongs, he has to act as if he were lame, and limp along past it humbly, as if the sight of it had taken all the strength out of him." Though the society is in many cases an agent of much oppression, it seemingly does not lack its good side. It has jurisdiction over all crimes except witchcraft. Its procedure is especially interesting. A person "with a grievance in a district under Egbo has only to rush into the street, look out for a gentleman connected with the Egbo Society, slap him on the waistcoat place, and that gentleman has then and there at once to drop any private matter of his own he may be engaged in, call together the Grade of Egbo he belongs to—there are eleven grades of varying power—and go into the case. Or, if an Egbo gentleman is not immediately get-at-able, the complainant has only to rush to the Egbo House —there is one in every town—and beat the Egbo drum, and out comes the Egbo Grade, who have charge for that day." The offender will then be promptly punished, or the complainant himself, if the offence be trivial. Calabar people who find it necessary to be absent on a journey, place their property under the protection of Egbo by fastening the badge of the society to their houses. A trader, whether a European or an influential Effik, usually joins the society and endeavors to reach the higher degrees. Lower grades cannot call out Egbo to proceed against higher grades; debtors belonging to such classes "flip their fingers at lower grade creditors." But a trader can call out his own class of Egbo "and send it against those of his debtors who may be of lower grades, and as the Egbo methods of delivering its orders to pay up consist in placing Egbo at a man’s door-way, and until it removes itself from the doorway the man dare not venture outside his house, it is most successful."

Other African societies exhibit functions similar to those of Egbo. Sindungo of the Loango tribes is employed for debt-collecting purposes. Any man who has a debt outstanding against another may complain to the head of the society. The masked Sindungo are then sent out to demand payment. Their simple procedure consists in wholesale robbery of the debtor’s property if the proper sums are not immediately forthcoming. The Zang-beto of Porto Novo constitutes the night police. The young men of the upper class who compose the society have the right to arrest any one in town and out of doors after nine o’clock in the evening. The organization is a valuable safeguard against robberies and incendiary fires. In Lagos, criminals condemned to death are given over to Oro, who is said to devour the bodies; their clothes are afterward found entangled in the branches of lofty trees. Sometimes the headless corpse of one of these unfortunates is left in the forest on the outskirts of the town no one would dare to bury it. Ogboni, a powerful society in most parts of the Yoruba country, in Ibadan, is little more than the public executioner. Egungun and Belli-paaro have similar duties. Nkimba members employ themselves in catching witches. At night they fill the village with their cries as they run through the deserted streets. Common natives must not be caught outside the house, but despite this regulation, the simple folk "rejoice that there is such an active police against witches, maladies, and all misfortunes."

The problem of maintaining masculine authority over the women is readily solved in Africa, where the secret societies are powerful. An account, by an old writer, of the famous Mumbo Jumbo order found among the Mandingoes of the Soudan, furnishes a good description of the procedure followed by numerous other societies:—

"On the 6th of May, at Night, I was visited by a Mumbo Jumbo, an Idol, which is among the Mundingoes a kind Of cunning Mystery. It is dressed in a long Coat made of the Bark of Trees, with a Tuft of fine Straw on the Top of it, and when the Person wears it, it is about eight or nine Foot high. This is a Thing invented by the Men to keep their Wives in awe, who are so ignorant (or at least are obliged to pretend to be so) as to take it for a Wild Man; and indeed no one but what knows it, would take it to be a Man, by reason of the dismal Noise it makes, and which but few of the Natives can manage. It never comes abroad but in the Night-time, which makes it have the better Effect. Whenever the Men have any Dispute with the Women, this Mumbo Jumbo is sent for to determine it; which is, I may say, always in Favour of the Men. Whoever is in the Coat, can order the others to do what he pleases, either fight, kill, or make Prisoner; but it must be observed, that no one is allowed to come armed into its Presence. When the women hear it coming, they run away and hide themselves; but if you are acquainted with the Person that has the Coat on, he will send for them all to come and sit down, and sing or dance, as he pleases to order them; and if any refuse to come, he will send the People for them, and then whip them. Whenever any one enters into this Society, they swear in the most solemn manner never to divulge it to any Woman, or any Person that is not enter’d into it, which they never allow to Boys under sixteen Years of Age. This thing the People swear by, and the Oath is so much observed by them, that they reckon as irrevocable, as the Grecians thought Jove did of old, when he swore by the River Styx. . . . . There are very few Towns of any Note but what have got one of these Coats, which in the Daytime is fixt upon a large Stick near the Town, where it continues till Night, the proper Time of using it." Mungo Park, who witnessed the procedure of the society, adds that when a woman is to be punished for a real or suspected departure from the path of virtue, she "is stripped naked, tied to a post, and severely scourged with Mumbo’s rod, amidst the shouts and derision of the whole assembly; and it is remarkable, that the rest of the women are the loudest in their exclamations on this occasion against their unhappy sister."

In the Yoruba villages Oro is the great bugbear god. The Ogboni society, whose members are the personal representatives of the god, use the bull-roarer, the voice of Oro, to keep the women in subjection. No woman may see the bull-roarer and live. Governor Moloney says, "I have seen even persons professing to be Christians awe-struck in its presence." The presence of Oro in Yoruba towns brings about an enforced seclusion of women from seven o’clock in the evening until five o’clock in the morning. On the great Oro days women must remain indoors from daybreak till noon. Egungun (literally "Bones"), another Yoruba bugbear, is supposed to be a dead man risen from the grave. He is "the whip and the cucking-stool apotheosized." Adult males know that Egungun is a mortal, "but if a woman swears falsely by him, or even says that he is not a tenant of the grave, she would lose her life." Mwetyi and Nda of Southern Guinea tribes are similar creations of the secret societies to keep the women in subjection.—HUTTON WEBSTER, , 106–20. (Copyright by The Macmillan Co., 1908.)

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Chicago: Primitive Secret Societies in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. Thomas, William I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1909), 793–803. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . Primitive Secret Societies, in Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, edited by Thomas, William I., Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1909, pp. 793–803. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , Primitive Secret Societies. cited in 1909, Source Book for Social Origins: Ethnological Materials, Psychological Standpoint, Classified and Annotated Bibliographies for the Interpretation of Savage Society, ed. , University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp.793–803. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from