15 February 1890
Pall Mall Gazette
THE unexpected and extraordinary amount of interest excited by my article in the Pall Mall Gazette of the 3rd ult., and the numberless letters of inquiry which I have received, have decided me to give a few particulars with regard to obeeyahism which will, I think, give all the information my correspondents' desire. First, then, the very root and essence of obeeyahism is "devil worship "-i.e., the use of rites, ceremonies, adjurations, and hymns to some powerful and personal spirit of evil, whose favour is obtained by means of orgies which for horror, blasphemy, and obscenity cannot have been exceeded-if, indeed, they have ever been equalled-in the history of the world. These things are too utterly horrible even to be hinted at. It is the fashion at present to deny the existence of Satan, Shaitan, Ahrimanes (or whatever you please to call the incarnation of all evil). But all occults, of whatever school, know that everything in Nature has its counter-part, that you cannot have light without shadow, heat without cold, good without evil, nor yet a personal Deity without an equally personal evil principle.
The term Obeeyah (vulg. Obi, pronounced Obee) conveys a truer idea of the sound of the word than Obi, because always after the pronunciation of the last syllable there is the African pant or grunt, which I have roughly endeavoured to represent by the syllable yah-O-bee-yah. One curious fact in connection with the Obeeyah, and which seems almost to link it with bygone ages as a remnant of the old serpent worship is that we read in the Mosaic Scriptures about the "Witch of Endor." The Hebrew phrase, thus freely rendered by the translators, literally means "one who asks or consults O-B-not Ob, but O-B, the combination of the two letters signifying "a serpent." Now, the Obeeyah women always wore a serpent on the head, and some of them would even have a live one twisted round their necks. Some of my correspondents, I am glad to find, mention feats which to their own knowledge, or by the testimony of unimpeachable witnesses, have been performed by Indian and other operators, and which certainly approach in some degree the marvellous feats of Subč.
I shall have more to say about her powers directly ; but in the meantime I will mention a feat done by a party of Hindoos. They finished their al fresco performance by building a ladder of long and short pieces of bamboo, balancing it on end on the earth, and ascending to the top, and disappearing there and then from the gaze of the spectators ! Now, this feat, simplicity itself when compared with what I have seen was vouched for by a man of unimpeachable veracity, great acumen and "smartness," as having been seen by him-no less a personage than the late Rev. Norman Macleod, D.D., her Majesty's chaplain in Scotland. Again, the book on the subject of Indian Magic, written (from his own experience) by the late Dr. Hunter, of Wilton-place (father of the perhaps better known surgeon of the same address), will be found to contain many examples quite as startling.
What resident in India has not seen "the mango-trick"? A mango seed or orange pip planted in a flower-pot full of earth ; a cloth thrown over it, an incantation muttered, and the cloth rises to a height of three or four feet ; a luxuriant young tree being then unveiled. It is again covered and rises, almost instantaneously, higher; the cloth removed shows a large shrub covered with blossom. Again the process is repeated, and finally a tree covered with ripe fruit is shown. The performers gather and distribute the fruit, which is eaten by the bystanders. Once more the cloth is thrown over the tree and at the word of command it rapidly sinks down to the ground. When removed for the last time there is nothing but the large flower-pot, in which the operator digs with his finger and produces the original seed. Now, they do this in your own compound on hard earth or stones, on a chunam pavement as hard as granite, or anywhere you like ; and, as they are perfectly naked, with the exception of a cummerbund (wrapped like a waist-cloth and bathing-drawers), it is evident that nothing can be concealed. These are generally travelling "jugglers"-as they are called by the British.
Again, " the basket-trick," a wretched imitation of which has been shown in England, is equally common. As I said before, with bare trunk and legs, they take a little girl about four years of age, and on hard ground place her under an old hamper or rice basket, scarcely large enough to cover her kneeling down. It is made to do so, however, and the child pressed to the ground by one of the men sitting on it. The other then begins his invocations, and taking a tulwar (sword), as sharp as a razor, thrusts it rapidly and furiously through and through the old basket in every direction, leaving not an inch untouched. The shrieks of the child are fearful, the blood spouts along the blade, the man sitting on the basket has evidently difficulty in keeping the child down by reason of her terrible struggles, which gradually grow fainter and fainter, as do her shrieks, until at last all is over. A deathly stillness prevails, the " juggler" calmly wipes the blood from his sword and lifts up the basket. There is nothing there ! The crowd opens, and the child comes running into the circle unharmed. Now, thousands of English officers and civilians have seen these two feats, and will vouch for them upon their honour. I have only mentioned them to prepare to some extent the minds of my readers for one or two more things I intend to relate which I have seen Subč do.
Parenthetically, I would observe that the Hindoo conjurers always employ a little girl, and are unable to perform the feat with a boy-why, I have not quite been able to fathom, although I have a theory on the point. Also I can produce a lady now living, the daughter of an English missionary, who was operated on in the manner described, to the great terror of her mother, who witnessed the performance, and was only presented from jumping from the flat roof of the bungalow into the compound to save her child through being held fast by the missionary, who had seen the performance frequently, and knew the child would be unharmed. That lady, like all the other female children whom I have seen, put under the basket, and afterwards closely questioned, has not the slightest recollection of the fact. Her father and mother, with others, can, however, substantiate the circumstance.
The Obeeyah seem to worship the arch-demon under different forms: Subč, of the Cameroons, and her tribe believing that he occupied the body of a man-eating spider, to whom they offered living human beings. I shall most probably, enter fully into this subject, and give a description of one of these sacrifices in my forthcoming book, " Subč, the Obeeyah, " a work of professed fiction. Its readers will have to decide for themselves how much is absolute matter of fact-whether all or none-and how much imagination. It will not be my part to give any clue to the student of occultism; it may convey many new ideas, and indicate the true lines on which his investigations should proceed : to the holiday maker and simple novel-reader it will certainly give a fresh and hitherto unexperienced sensation. One point alone, the awful and mysterious bar placed by Subč between the hero and his love Ismč, the granddaughter of the Obeeyah woman, has never before been attempted-never even been dreamed of by the wildest romaces of fiction. Neither has anything like the terrible death of Ismč through the magical arts of Subč, ever been imagined.
But enough of this : let me revert for a moment to the religion of the Obeeyah before I give some further details of Subč's powers. And here I do not think that I am committing a breach of confidence in quoting two sentences from the private journal of a gentleman (Mr. G. Wilmot Brooke) who has just returned from the Congo. He says"A very curious, institution of the place is the Egbo, or Ekpč, secret society. Egbo, or Ekpč, is supposed to be a mysterious person who lives in the jungle, from which he has to be brought, and whither he must be brought back and loosed by the initiates alone, after any great State ceremonial. All initiates are bound together by a bond like Freemasonry. The more I inquire, the more I have got mystified by its many ramifications, its religion, and its social aspect. The people recognize two persons-Abusi buni (God) and Ekpč or Egbo (Satan)." Now, although it is " a far cry" from the Congo to, the Cameroons, yet it is a curious and significant fact that while the Obeeyah recognize no God nor a beneficent spirit of any kind, yet the name which they give to the demon whom they believe to be incarnated in the form of the Terrible Spider is Egbe, which is evidently derived from the same root as Egbo or Ekpč.
In my first article I stated that none of Subč's marvellous powers was non-natural ; but I scarcely think that I made my meaning sufficiently clear. I must premise that she professed to exercise "all power" at first ; and my chief amusement in the weeks in which I was kept a prisoner by her (and undergoing the process of being fattened up to form an appetising bonne bouche for the spider god) was in proving to her that she not do this, that, and the other-in fact, what schoolboys call " setting her cappers." Vide the instance of the stone and trade dollar. But on what I call " natural lines " she was perfect. Thus, when she took up a toad to change it into a tic-polonga, it was not done by any word of command, or "word of power" (as in Hindoo and Talmudic magic), but she rolled it between her bands for a few moments, and pulled and manipulated it until it was more like a lizard than anything, having distinctly the legs intact. The next process was to rub away the legs, the body all the time gradually lengthening ; and, last of all, to manipulate the head, and putting her fingers into its mouth, pull out and develop the long, flexible, split tongue of the serpent. When we wanted food, it was only a variety of the Indian "mango trick." If mealies were wanted she would plant a grain of mace in the earth, and gaze steadfastly upon the place, her lips moving, but no audible sounds issuing from them. In a few moments (no covering up) a bright green shoot would come up, which grew and grew, and in five minutes' time was a considerable tuft of mealies (Indian corn), every head ripe and fit for use. She would gather these and boil them for our dinners : but I always noticed that within half an hour the stalks, leaves, &c., of the plants had turned black, wet, and rotten., although the food was satisfactory.
A curious point here. Unknown to her, I one day abstracted one of the mealies so produced, and after we had had a good feed, I went out to examine it. It was only two hours after its production, but it had begun already to decay, and in a little more time was absolutely perished. As I said just now, I delighted in showing her her incapacity. Thus, I used to challenge her to produce an orange tree from a mango seed or plantains from mealies ; but this was entirely beyond her power. Give her a seed a leaf, or a portion of the plant required, and she could do it ; but she could never in any single instance "gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles." Likewise, from an egg she would develop a full-grown bird in a few minutes, but she could not turn a bird into a monkey, nor a fish into a lynx. The towering rages she used to get into on these occasions generally used to end in a series of violent epileptic fits. She tried all the resources of her magical arts upon me ; but I was proof against any charm in the world but one, and that was one with which she was unacquainted. I possessed a talisman, given me by Bulwer Lytten (who also taught me the use of it), which not only enabled me to defy all her spells, incantations, and curses, but which was eventually the means, not only of her death, but of her absolute annihilation. Still this talisman, ancient and powerful as it was, could only preserve from mimical magical processes, and demoniac agencies ; it could not protect from death or ordinary physical dangers. Such a talisman has yet to be discovered.
When Subč wanted to kill an animal, serpent, or anything else, either for food or other purposes, she simply pointed her tube at it with a steady gaze, as though taking aim with a revolver. Nothing ever appeared to issue from the tube : but in a few moments the animal appeared surrounded by a kind of reddish cloud or thin vapour through which its dying struggles could be seen. On examination, no perforation or injury of any kind could be found. I believe that Subč could do this at any distance ; she could certainly do it up to 800 yards. But the most terrible example, to my mind, of her power was in the transformation of the sexes. One day, being offended with a chief, who sought in vain to pacify her, she said to him. " I will degrade you and you shall become a woman! " Placing her hands upon him while be stood powerless as though turned to stone-his eyeballs staring in horror-she commenced her manipulations. Beginning with his face she rubbed away every vestige of beard and moustache. The prominent cheek bones fell in and the smooth rounded face of a woman became apparent. Next the powerful biceps and triceps were rubbed down, and the lank lean aim of the African woman appeared. Next, seizing hold of his vast pectoral muscles, she began a different process, pinching up and pulling them out until there were shortly visible well-developed mammae. And so she proceeded, from head to foot, until, in less than ten minutes, every vestige of manhood had disappeared, and there stood before us a hulking, clumsy, knock-kneed woman.
Transformations of another kind, and of the most hideous character, were a feature of the orgies which constituted the worship of the demon. During the frantic dances which took place, and over which Subč presided, there was a certain amount of transformation of the faces to the resemblance of certain animals, while the bodies remained human. Not all kinds of animals, only apes, goats, and serpents, were represented ; yet while human lineaments were still traceable, the resemblance to these loathsome objects was utterly horrible, and more like an awful nightmare than anything else. When I was a boy at school I used to read the Greek, Roman, and other mythologies, and when I carne across the transformations of Circe, and descriptions of satyrs, centaurs, &c., I used to admire the vivid imaginations of the ancients. But ever since I witnessed, long years ago, the awful powers of Obeeyah, I genuinely believe that those old writers only related what was actually matter of common knowledge at the time. As to centaurs I don't know ; but as to the former existence of satyrs, the transformations of Circe, and the petrifying action of the Medusa's head, I am as certain as I am of my own existence.