Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Koumen: The Unriddling of the Knots

The Unriddling of the Knots
—Table of Contents—

Koumen went ahead of Silé and escorted him to beneath the tree. Day after day, he taught him the rites of the ngaynirki, after which Foroforondou came towards Silé and presented him with a rope having twenty-eight equally spaced knots.[1] She said, “Since you desire to know the secret name of the sacred bovine, tell me which among the knots of this rope are empty knots, which mysterious knots and which magically charged knots and what are the names of the latter?”

Koumen intervened, “Jam! This means peace. Ndiyam, this means water, and water is the precious gift of Doundari. It is the preliminary offering. Before supplicating, O supplicant! serve the chieftain water to drink and “milk to eat”.[2] Before divining the oracle, O diviner! serve the spirits something to drink. Before questioning, O Foroforondou! serve a drink to Silé who has sat astride the sacred cow. Pacing up and down, it bellowed a booming moo:
Bujaan! Aabjuni! Jaabun junbaa bunjaa juban[3]

Silé recalled that at the moment when he had found himself on the back of the bovine, it had indeed grunted the above sounds.

Foroforondou uttered a special cry and immediately the hermaphrodite cow bounded towards her. She said, “Bovine of Mori-Mawɗo, raise your urine and your blood and lower your milk and your butter.” Having said this, she went behind the hermaphrodite cow who allowed her to do so, she lifted its tail and she blew strongly into its unique vulva-anus opening. She milked the miraculous bovine who never gives birth yet provides milk.

Silé received and drank this marvellous milk in great gulps.[4]Thus quenched by the supreme milk of knowledge of pastoral things, Silé grabbed hold of the knotted rope and said, “Now that I have drunk the milk and eaten the jujubes, I am blessed with sacred wisdom. No knot will be enigmatic to me, no emanation dangerous. I will know everything, and instinctively, like the new-born knows how to suck with the first movements of its lips.
Eurika Urbonavičiūtė, Moment
I ask Doundari for forgiveness. The first knot belongs to him. None could hope to know it fully before death. The last knot belongs to him. It is the last word on everything. These two knots are the enigma of the twelfth clearing; they belong to Doundari.[5]

These knots set aside and not counted, I offer the next seven to the seven suns who have lit my way up to now. Their loops are knotted emptily, that is to say without the breath of any virtuous sacred word. They are therefore the empty knots. The seven penultimate, I dedicate to the spirits of the night. They too contain nothing. They are likewise empty and without breath.[6]

As for the twelve central knots, I introduce myself to them and I introduce them to myself: O knots! I am Silé Yougo. I pledge myself to you according to the custom of serfs, but I will marry you according to the ceremonial fashion of nobility.[7] To those who stand by and support me, I will give three times ten cubits of thin white strips, without fail and without abating; a ten-year old rooster, without fail and without abating. These gifts will be my constant propitiatory offerings.

The knots are as follows:

The first of the twelve central knots and the ninth in the entire sequence contains the secret of jalaañ. It is her who appears among men in the form of a hermaphrodite deity, always inebriated with a bloody brew. Alone in a straw hut, she is gifted with 18 transmission components working under the combined action of 122 magic knots. She is called jalaañ.”[8]

“Well answered,” replied Foroforondou. “You know the first of the twelve and the 9th of the 28 secret loops. But what are the three other names with which jalaañ is confused?”

“They are maysa, silinte and dembanyaasooru.”

“Do you know the invocation to jalaañ?”


“Save it up for the ultimate battle.”


Foroforondou said, “Greetings to Silé who has seen the light of the seven suns. Here, take my right breast, suck it, fear nothing. You are my son and friend of my husband.”

Silé said, “I prefer Foroforondou’s tongue, from which flows a sweet and tasty milk, and not from her breast.”

“Go ahead, Silé, suck my tongue.”

Silé sucked Foroforondou’s tongue and that of Koumen, each in turn.

“Silé, what is this one?” Foroforondou asked.

“This is the second of the twelve and the 10th of the 28 loops. It contains the intrigues of sambalaasooru.[9] It appears to sons of Adam as a god without nectar,[10]always angry, always ready to beat, to drown and to bury.”

Foroforondou said, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the second of the twelve and the 10thof the 28 loops. Here, take my left breast. Suck it.”

“I would rather a lock of Foroforondou’s hair.[11]These hairs are a good-luck charm for the shepherd.”

“There you go, Silé. Take this lock of my hair.”

Silé took the lock, but he also sucked the tongue of Koumen who had come to put it in his mouth.

“Silé! What is this?” Foroforondou asked.

“This is the third of the twelve and the 11th of the 28 loops. It contains the chicaneries of muse, known to sons of Adam as the second child of jalaañ and sometimes as her brother. He is an intervening god. He suffocates bureaucrats and muzzles gossips and chatterboxes.”

Foroforondou said, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the third of the twelve and the 11thof the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

“I ask from Foroforondou a milk whisk (sirgal).”[12]

Foroforondou gave the whisk and continued with her questioning.

“Silé! What is this?” Foroforondou asked.

“This is the fourth of the twelve and the 12th of the 28 loops. It contains the mystery of siti kon, called samba, considered by sons of Adam as the third son of jalaañ or simply her brother; siti kon is a god who quenches his thirst on toad blood and requires fumigation. In serious cases, he must be consulted down a well while reciting with prescribed intonation the magic words:
takko takko! takko nyaar nyaar!

Foroforondou said, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the fourth of the twelve and the 12thof the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

I ask for a ɓirdugal.[13]Foroforondou continued her questioning, “Silé, what is this?”

“This is the fifth of the twelve and the 13th of the 28 loops. It contains the secret of pellel, known among the sons of Adam as a deity without nectar dressed in white, sometimes as the brother of jalaañ, sometimes as his son, but in any case coming after siti kon. This deity is the bearer of an occult thunderbolt which when directed on a man pulverises his spirit and reduces his bones to dust. Flattered by: jatikon, matikon, jati matikon mawikon, what pellel knots, none can unknot.”

“Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the fifth of the twelve and the 13th of the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked for a danngol.[14]

Foroforondou gave the danngol and continued with, “Silé, what is this?”

Silé replied, “This is the sixth of the twelve and the 14th of the 28 loops. It contains the secret of communing with kumbasaara, the feminine laare who gives birth in the cemetery after three days labour.[15]Sister of jalaañ, sometimes considered as her daughter, younger than pellel, kumbasaara is dressed in a snakeskin sheath abandoned by a snake after it has shed its skin.”[16]

Foroforondou said to him, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the sixth of the twelve and the 14th of the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked her for a maagol.[17]Whereupon Foroforondou gave him a maagolmeasuring 360 cubits and continued her questions, asking, “Silé, what is this?”

“This is the seventh of the twelve and the 15th of the 28 loops. It contains the mystery of the laare considered by sons of Adam as the youngest of jalaañ’s children. He presides over spring nights and shepherds the stars in space. He never sees the sun out of fear of drawing its fire to the earth and engulfing it in flame. His spirits reside in the waters or in the air, but never directly on earth. He quenches himself on blood drawn from a chameleon by cutting its tail. He is flattered by: kuy-kuy mbeelu, kay-kay mbeelu, kuy dote jay dote. This laare goes by the name of ndett or nden.”[18]

Foroforondou said, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the seventh of the twelve and the 15thof the 28 knots. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked for a raɗoode.[19]Foroforondou gave it to him and continued her questions asking, “Silé, what is this?”

Silé replied, “This is the eighth of the twelve and the 16th of the 28 knots. It contains the secret of maysa who derives his attributes from jalaañ. He is a laare of secondary power. He sits at the centre of what is called the “second halo”, batu lewru.[20] He has as his attendant nduppa.”

“Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the eighth of the twelve and the 16th of the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked for a shepherd’s staff, called an aynirdu.[21]

Foroforondou gave him a staff of kelli and continued her questions, asking: “Silé, what is this?”

Silé replied, “This is the ninth of the twelve and the 17th of the 28 loops. It contains the secret of silinte, relative of maysa, having likewise the attributes of jalaañ of which he is an emanation. He is in the second halo. He has as courtesan bona-jayte.

Foroforondou said, “Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the ninth of the twelve and the 17thof the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked Foroforondou for a ring.[22]Foroforondou gave him the ring and continued with her questions by asking, “Silé, what is this?”

“This is the tenth of the twelve and the 18th of the 28 loops. It holds within the secret of dembanyaasooru, related to jalaañ and considered as her emanation. He is from the second halo and has as courtesan dubbel.”

“Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the tenth of the twelve and the 18th of the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked for a provision of calabash seed grains.[23]Foroforondou gave them to him and continued with her questions asking: “Silé, what is this?”

“This is the eleventh of the twelve and the 19th of the 28 loops. It holds within the secret of makanja, laare which makes one invulnerable because he controls iron.[24]

“Greetings to he who has just unriddled the enigma of the eleventh of the twelve and the 19th of the 28 loops. May Silé choose what he wishes to possess?”

Silé asked for a second shepherd’s staff. Foroforondou gave him a staff made of the wood of the nelɓi tree and continued with her questions, asking: “Silé, what is this?”

Silé crouched down and said, “It is not for me, O wife of Koumen, goddess of earth and mammals to violate the secret of your father Mori-Mawɗo.”

Foroforondou smiled and said, “Silé, this is the twelfth of the twelve and the 20th of the 28 loops. It is the knot which contains within it another of 22 loops. It is the charm of all pastoral charms.[25]It has the name buubu, a specific Pullo first name. The cattle bellows it in two breaths: buubu[26]To reward your discretion, I give you absolute property of ndett. I give you power over the primeval spirits under the earth.

In this way, Silé received all the power of Koumen and of his wife Foroforondou.[27] He gained possession of the ring, which symbolised his wedding the lareeji, and secured the two staffs of pastoral leadership. It only remained for him to take leave of his initiators and to return to the land of men.

Koumen said to Silé, “I will take you to the edge of my domains and leave you to your own devices, relying on your own strengths. You will have but one more battle to wage, against the lion between jeeri and waalo.[28]Between its eyebrows, it has a tuft of fur. You must kill this lion. To do so, it will suffice to recite the incantation of jalaañ and to hit it on the nose. It will lose consciousness and will be at your mercy. You will cut its throat.[29] You will burn it entirely having snatched the tuft of fur. The latter must be sewn into a strip of cotton cloth. This talisman, once put under the head of a sleeping person, whoever he may be, will induce a dream during which the true name of the cow will be given by a water spirit who is a pastor of marine cattle.”

[1] The “rope with twenty-eight knots” represents the twenty-eight lareeji (guardian spirits) and the corresponding ngaynirki(sacramental objects), relating at the same time to the twenty-eight days of the lunar month. It is made from the bark of the baobab tree which symbolises longevity.
[2] The “milk to eat” (nyamde kosam) is a Fulfulde expression that milk is the nutritionally complete food par excellence.
[3] Untranslatable incantation.
[4] The consumption of the hermaphrodite cow’s milk constitutes communion with the very essence of God, Guéno.
[5] The first and last knots belong to God, invoked here by the name of Doundari which means All-Powerful.
[6] The seven subsequent to the first knot belong to the “seven suns”, that is to say to the “seven worlds” emanating directly from Doundari. They have no names. Likewise, the seven penultimate belong to the night (and to the moons) of the seven worlds and their meaning is analogous. The existence of these parallel worlds gives an image of the infinitude of the universe.
[7] The twelve starting at the ninth knot can be called by their name. Silé wants to marry them but not according to the custom of serfs under which the woman becomes subservient to her husband, but in the fashion of nobility, that is to say equality, because a noble woman does not work directly for her husband. Silé will follow the “knots”, but equally the “knots” will follow him.
[8] The twelve middle knots are the lareeji which correspond to the twelve months of the year. The first of these, jalaañ, corresponds to the first month of lootoori. The ritual object representing jalaañ is made up of eighteen knotted cords comprising 122 knots. The first seventeen are made of various plant fibres, each having seven knots. The last cord is made of a human tendon, removed the third day after the burial of a corpse, and contains three knots. This representation of the most important laare is ideally kept on its own in a straw hut. If it has to be kept in a building made of clay and earth, then it must be wrapped up completely in straw or grass. This is because jalaañ is the patron spirit of pastures and must be kept in contact with plants and not with the earth. dembanyaasooru is her knock-kneed second son and alongside her emanations maysa and silinte are associated with later knots.
[9] The second laare, sambalaasooru, is revealed by Silé after he has received the saliva and the speech of Foroforondou.
[10] Nectar is a symbol in many traditions of wisdom, eternal life, as well what is pleasant. Along with ambrosia it is commonly imagined as food and drink of the “gods”. And yet it is not the supreme good. See for example Jnaneshwari’s commentary in 1290 on the Bhagavad Gita where through devotion the world may resound with bliss, giving “light without dawn, eternal life without nectar and God’s vision without Yogic practices” from Shri Jnanadeva, Bhavartha Dipika trans. Yardi (1991), p. 126.
[11] When one wants to control someone or be loved by them, one must have their hair or their nail clippings. It is for this reason that a Pullo never leaves cut hair or nails within anybody’s reach.
[12] After the first three of the middle knots, Silé asks for the milk whisk, sirgal. He will go on to seek from Foroforondou all the instruments relating to milk, of which she is the patron and over which she has total power. Milk is the fruit of pastoral labour and is the greatest good that a Pullo can derive from his herd. The sirgal is a wooden stick at the end of which are fastened four branches of the same wood by means of either cotton cords or fibres of kelli or mbarkeewi. These branches correspond to the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), the four cardinal directions, the four Fulɓe family groupings and the four basic colours of cowhides. As for the whisk belonging to the wife of the chief, each branch has a symbol. The object is oriented accordingly when it is placed on the kaggu. It is used to separate milk from butter, and this work, associated with the initiate in initiation, confers him with considerable prestige. It must be distinguished from the burgal, a natural whisk made from mburri wood, with two branches, considered as incomplete and which must never be used in fresh milk. If this mistake is made, the guilty person purifies himself by plunging his right index finger in the milk, the thumb folded in the three other fingers and by then touching his forehead and his breastbone. The position of the thumb under the three other fingers expresses the absence of intention, the thumb being the finger of the will, and the fault having been made unwittingly. At a deeper level, the three fingers represent the three Fulɓe families who are not at fault, the family of the guilty party represented by the index finger. “The fork of the breastbone is the burgal of the body.” By putting the index finger there having touched the forehead, one transforms symbolically the burgal into sirgal, that is to say into something complete and therefore pure.
[13] After the fourth, he receives the ɓirdugal, a receptacle in wood or calabash in which the milk is collected in milking.
[14] The danngolis a cord tied between two stakes of Diyospirosto which the calves are attached to keep them away from their mothers during milking. This long string represents the “lifeline” of the herds and the stakes that support it, tonteeje, have the same name as the divisions of the lunar month because, like the latter, they symbolise time.
[15] Kumbasaarais a laare associated with resurrection. Her birth is related to the sacrifice made for a deceased the third day after death and it enshrines the separation of the body from the immortal soul. Four sacrifices are done for each deceased: the first after death and before burial concerns the dead body, the second mentioned above, the third on the seventh day enshrines the definitive separation of the soul from the body, and the fourth on the fortieth day, liberates the soul from its debts and from its links with the terrestrial world. From this moment onwards, it may inspire living beings and communicate with them.
[16] The Fulɓe rub their hands and feet with the moulted skin of a snake in order to protect against reptile bites and spiritual attacks.
[17] A maagol is a special belt for shepherds. The rande or maagol attaches the calf to the aforementioned cord daangul.
[18] ndett, nocturnal and chthonic laare, is the patron of shepherds who are responsible for grazing the herd at night after the evening milking, and for bringing them back before the first cock’s crow. These shepherds receive a particular initiation into astronomy, for they must direct the herd with the aid of the position of the stars. The chameleon symbolises prudence, for it advances slowly one foot after the other in order to be certain of its terrain, but also determination because its roving eyes observe what is happening around it, all the while keeping its head fixed in the direction it is going and keeping to this direction without deviating. The transformation of its colours has a favourable connotation, for it puts others at ease by adapting itself to its surroundings, and an unfavourable connotation for it also represents a certain hypocrisy. Some parts of the chameleon’s body are used in the concoction of magic potions for courage.
[19] After the seventh knot, Silé asks for a raɗoode, raɗoul, or even daaɗol which is a cord which is used to attach the calves by the neck to the front foot of their mother during milking.
[20] The twelve lareeji, associated with the twelve months of the year, are also associated with the sun and moon. Seven amongst them sit in the first halo, the halo of the sun, batu naange; they represent the masculine, for according to Pullo tradition it is desirable for each man to have seven sons. The remaining five sit in the second halo, the halo of the moon, batu lewru, and they represent the feminine, for each man should ideally have five daughters. The twelve descendants in sum represent wholeness, because each of the four ancestral groupings of the Fulɓe must have each of the three kinds of pastor (of goats, sheep and cattle) and three times four is twelve. In Fulɓe society, the meetings referred to as batu naange (halo of the sun) concern the nomination of leaders and the administration of masculine affairs. The meetings referred to as batu lewru (halo of the moon) take place for the discussion of issues relating to women.
[21] This is the first of the two shepherd’s staffs. The aynirdu is made of kelli. As well as being a walking stick, one can swear an oath on the staff, as on milk and butter (watoraade duudurdu e kosam e nebbam).
[22] This ring is made of silver, for silver is reputed to be the metal associated with milk. It is always worn on the left hand.
[23] Calabash seeds are reminiscent of the early life of the initiate. From the age of 14 till 21, he must beg, mow grass or cut dead wood for a little money with which to buy a handful of grains of cereals and of the three varieties of calabash. Known collectively as palpâli, these three are the tumbudewhich are round calabashes, the nyeddudefrom which spoons and gourds are made and the elongated humbali with which a musical instrument, the humbaldu, is constructed with an opening at each end, the name deriving from humbude meaning “floating” because the women who are the only ones who play this instrument accompany its music with their ritual chanting which “floats in the air like the calabash itself does in the water”. Returning to our humble initiate with his seeds, he must secretly clear a space, plant his seeds, harvest the fruit and cereal of his labour and sell it only on Saturdays. After many harvests he must save sufficient funds to buy a goat, a tunic, trousers and a cotton hat. This first stage of his training in the pastoral path tests the adolescent’s patience and perseverance. He is free to follow in this path or not as he wills. Later, he will go on to find a master and in his relationship with the latter he will go on to develop other moral qualities, such as his character, obedience and discipline until the end of his initiation, as well as of course mental qualities, testing his memory and improving his knowledge and intelligence.
[24] The laare makaajan possesses skills related to the extraction of iron and the operation of blast furnaces. These skills are linked to the extraction of gold. Indeed, gold-panners receive teaching from initiated blacksmiths who must know the eleven kinds of mineral substances (made of earth, crystal or metal) and offer them in sacrifices, gold being the eleventh and the most important.
[25] The “charm of all pastoral charms” made of a knot with 22 further loops relates to the 22 ancestral bovines (nogay e ɗiɗi nai mawɗi) led out of the sea by Caanaba, and which are the ancestors of all the others. Each of them has a particular property in relation with the Fulɓe family groupings, the pastorate and the initiation into the pastoral way.
[26] The mooing of the cattle, buu, is repeated twice, these two times underlying the to-and-fro of seasonal migration. The cattle low at jeerijust as at waalo.
[27] After the twelfth knot, Silé possesses all the equipment and sacred objects of the pastoral path listed above, as well as knowledge of the associated magic rites and of the spirits. In this sense, it is therefore said that he has received all the powers.
[28] The battle that Silé must fight, armed now but alone, will take place between “the high bush” (jeeri) and “the river” (waalo), in other words along the route of the seasonal migration. The lion symbolises first of all material strength along with all the grandeur and rigour that implies, but also occult power for it is considered “the cat of jinns”. In this ultimate battle which serves as an ordeal of initiation, he must bring to bear his initiate power against a rival power. Silé must defeat the lion and subjugate it to his will: by draining its blood, the carrier of its strength, he will take on the lion’s strength and so consolidate his own. Once this is done, the initiation is complete and Silé is ready to be a silatigi
[29] In the contemporary era, both lions and salitigi are on the brink of extinction and so conservation efforts of African culture necessarily require conservation and protection of African wildlife also. Any persistence of initiation practices in the name of continuing tradition among either Fulɓe pastors in West Africa or Maasai warriors in East Africa would constitute a derogation of that tradition if it were to harm the delicate natural environment on which tradition is based. While once lions ranged from Senegal to Nigeria,  a distance of 1500 miles, there are now only isolated habitats for the West African lion, and according to an extensive survey conducted by Philip Henschel et al. in 2014, as its title indicates: “The Lion in West Africa is Critically Endangered”. The findings are neatly set out in the review article by Brian Clark Howard in the National Geographic the same week, “Lions Approach Extinction in West Africa”. Fewer than 250 adult lions remain, and these only in small concentrated areas. Moreover, Western and Central African lions are genetically distinct from other varieties, making their conservation all the more important. In this contemporary context, it is needless to say that efforts must be united in conserving the remaining habitats from hostile encroachment. Whilst once the ultimate test of bravery was to face a lion, now the greater test of bravery is to look after the lions that remain.

A. Hampâté Bâ & G. Dieterlen (1961)

English Translation:

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