The peoples of Africa have not been known, in spite of their elaborate mythology, to hold a prominent belief in vampires. Montague Summers, in his 1920s survey of vampirism around the world, could find only two examples: the asasabonsam and the obayifo. Since Summers, very little work has been done to explore vampirism in African beliefs.
The obayifo, unknown to Summers, was actually the Ashanti name for a West African vampire that reappeared under similar names in the mythology of most of the neighboring tribes. For example, among the Dahomeans, the vampire was known as the asiman. The obayifo was a witch living incognito in the community. The process of becoming a witch was an acquired trait—there was no genetic link. Hence, there was no way to tell who might be a witch. Secretly, the witch was able to leave its body and travel at night as a glowing ball of light. The witches attacked people—especially children—and sucked their blood. They also had the ability to suck the juice from fruits and vegetables.
The asasabonsam was a vampirelike monster species found in the folklore of the Ashanti people of Ghana in western Africa. In the brief description provided by R. Sutherland Rattray, the asasabonsam was humanoid in appearance and had a set of iron teeth. It lived deep in the forest and was rarely encountered. It sat on treetops and allowed its legs to dangle downward, using its hook-shaped feet to capture unwary passersby.
Working among the tribes of the Niger River delta area, Arthur Glyn Leonard found a belief that witches left their homes at night to hold meetings with demons and to plot the death of neighbors. Death was accomplished by “gradually sucking the blood of the victim through some supernatural and invisible means, the effects of which on the victim is imperceptible to others.” Among the Ibo, it was believed that the blood-sucking process was done so skillfully that the victim felt the pain but was unable to perceive the physical cause of it, even though it would eventually prove fatal. Leonard believed that witchcraft was, in reality, a very sophisticated system of poisoning (as was a certain amount of sorcery in medieval Europe).
P. Amaury Talbot, working among the tribes in Nigeria, found witchcraft a pervasive influence, and that the most terrible power attributed to witches was the “sucking out the heart” of the victims without them knowing what was happening to them. The witch could sit on the roof at night and by magical powers accomplish the sucking. A person dying of tuberculosis was often thought to be the victim of such witchcraft.
Among the Yakö people of Nigeria, Daryll Forde discovered that disembodied witches were believed to attack people while they slept at night. They could suck their blood, and ulcers were believed to be a sign of their attack. They could also operate like an incubus/succubus and suffocate people by lying on top of them.
The question of witchcraft was evoked by anyone who suffered a hurtful condition, and anyone accused was severely dealt with by various trials by ordeal. Generally women who were barren or post-menopausal were primary subjects for accusations. It was not uncommon to sentence a convicted witch to death by fire.
Melville Herskovits and his wife Frances Herskovits were able to trace a witch/vampire, whose existence was acknowledged by most West African tribes, to similar vampire figures found in the Caribbean, the loogaroo of Haiti, the asema of Surinam, and the sukuyan of Trinidad. These three vampires are virtually identical, though found in colonies of the French, Dutch, and English. The vampire beliefs seem an obvious example of a common view carried from Africa by the slaves, which then persisted through the decades of slavery into the present.
More recently, John L. Vellutini, editor of the Journal of Vampirology, took up the challenge of exploring the whole question of vampirism in Africa. The results of his discoveries have been summarized in two lengthy articles. Like researchers before him, Vellutini found scarce literal vampirism in Africa. However, he argued that beneath the surface of African beliefs about witchcraft, much material analogous to the eastern European or Slavic vampire could be found. Witches were seen as powerful figures in African culture with numerous powers, including the ability to transform into a variety of animal shapes. Using their powers, they indulged themselves in acts of cannibalism, necrophagy (i.e., feeding on corpses), and vampirism. These actions usually constituted acts of psychic vampirism rather than physical malevolence. For example, Thomas Winterbottom, working in Sierre Leone in the 1960s, noted:
A person killed by witchcraft is supposed to die from the effects of a poison secretly administered or infused into his system by the witch; or the latter is supposed to assume the shape of some animal, as a cat, or a rat, which, during the night, sucks the blood from a small and imperceptible wound, by which a lingering illness and death are produced.
With similar results, the obayifo, an Ashanti witch, sucked the blood of children as it flew about in its spirit body at night. Among the Ga people, M. J. Field found that witches gathered around a baisea, a type of pot, which contained the blood of their victims—though anyone looking into it would see only water. In fact, the liquid was believed to hold the vitality they had taken from their victims.
When a person was accused of witchcraft, he or she was put through an ordeal to determine guilt, and if found guilty, executed. The methods adopted by some tribes bore a strange resemblance to the methods applied to suspected vampires in eastern Europe. For example, one tribe began the execution by pulling the tongue out and pinning it to the chin with a thorn (thus preventing any final curses being given to the executioners). The witch was then killed by being impaled on a sharpened stake. On occasion, the head was severed from the body and the body burnt or left in the woods for predators.
Even more closely tied to the practices of European witchcraft were the efforts taken to ascertain if a deceased person was a witch. The corpse of the accused witch would be taken from the ground and examined for signs of blood in the burial plot, incorruption, and abnormal swelling of the corpse. The grave of a true witch would be found to have a hole in the dirt that led from the body to the surface that the witch could use to exit the ground in the form of a bat, rat, or other small animal. It was believed that the witch could continue to operate after his/her death, and that the body would remain as at the time of death. By destroying the body, the spirit was unable to continue its witchcraft activity.
Witches also had the power to raise the dead and to capture a departed spirit, which they turned into a ghost capable of annoying the kinsmen of the departed person. There was also widespread belief throughout West Africa in the isithfuntela (known by different names among different peoples), the disinterred body of a person enslaved by a witch to do the witch’s bidding. The witch reportedly cuts out the tongue and drives a peg into the brain of the creature so that it becomes zombie-like. The isithfuntela similarly attacked people by hypnotizing them and then driving a nail in their heads.
Vellutini concluded that Africans shared the belief with Europeans in the existence of a class of persons who could defy death and exert a malignant influence from the grave. Like the European vampires, African vampires were often people who died in defiance of the community mores or from suicide. Unlike the literary vampire, the African vampires were simply common people like the vampires of eastern Europe.
Vellutini speculated that African beliefs in witches and witchcraft might have spread to the rest of the world, although anthropologists and ethnologists did not encounter these beliefs firsthand until the nineteenth century. While certainly possible, further research and comparison with evidence for alternative theories, such as that proposed by Devendra P. Varma for the Asian origin of vampire beliefs, must be completed before a consensus can be reached.
- Forde, Daryll. Yako Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1964. 288 pp.
- Leonard, Arthur Glyn. The Lower Niger and Its Tribes. London: Macmillan and Co., 1906.
- Rattray, R. Sutherland. Ashanti Proverbs. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1916. 190 pp.
- Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench,Trubner, & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books,1960. 356 pp. Talbot,
- P. Amaury. In the Shadow of the Bush. London: William Heinemann, 1912. 500 pp.
- Vellutini, John L. “The African Origins of Vampirism,” Journal of Vampirology 5, 2 (1988): 2–16
- .———. “The Vampire in Africa,” Journal of Vampirology 5, 3 (1988): 2–14.
- White, Luise. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.