Nkisi (Power Figure)

Lunkanka (Menace Power Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Nkisi, also referred to as nkishi (pl. minkisi / mankishi / zinkisi) is the general name for an object (wooden figures, clay pots, gourds or bundles) containing an empowering spirit(s). An object only becomes an nkisi when it is filled with medicines (bilongo) and a spirit resides within the object. The spirits residing in minkisi can include ancestors (bakulu), local spirits (bisimbi bankita) or ghosts (minkuyu). Banganga (meaning diviners; literally 'masters / priests of minkisi') defend community members against illness, witchcraft, infertility, and can even provide success in specific pursuits like hunting, by leveraging minkisi figures. They however can also be used for evil; clients may turn to an nganga for an nkisi that aids in the misfortune, sickness and death of his neighbours, foes and relatives.

A type of nkisi figure is the lunkanka (meaning 'menace') used by an nganga diviner to sanction the transfer of people (slaves, women or refugees) from one household and lineage group to another. Considered an extremely violent and vengeful nkisi, those who break their oath of servitude are at risk of a very painful death.

Distinguishing Features
Common features among all nkisi figures:

  • Body (nitu) often a gourd, bag, bark box, pot, snail shell or wooden figure
  • Medicines (bilongo) added to body (NOTE: without the medicines, the container is just a shell). Nkisi bilongo typically include:
    • Luyala - a fruit used to 'rule' hostile witches
    • Luhemba - white chalk used to brighten the eyes of the nkisi and the nganga
    • Kala zima - charcoal used to strike down all evil
    • Nkandikila - red kernel used to block the path of witches
    • Tondo - mushroom used to praise spirits
    • Luhezomo & ngongo - fossil resin and Calabar bean used to scare away witches
    • Nkiduku - nut or kernel used to protect the patient
  • Grave dirt, kaolin and stones taken from place where spirit abides, incorporated into figure
  • Some exhibit remnants of chewed kola-nut and blood

Sub-type variations (Lunkanka 'menace' power figure):

  • Kneeling female figure
  • 'Monkey' face
  • Figure hold hands to head (ntaala mourning gesture - woman grieving over death of child)
  • Iron ring necklace
  • Resin pack of medicines attached to chest of figure
  • Iron knives driven into chest (representing individual oaths)
  • Female genitalia
  • Tangle of cords attached to figure
  • Short loincloth attached to figure
  • Miniature knife attached to figure
  • Miniature nkutu bag attached to figure
  • Piece of poisonous bark attached to figure
  • Medicine packets attached to figure (usually include fangs of venomous vipers)
  • Whistle attached to figure (carved in form of woman with hands raised in ntaala gesture)
  • Feather attached to figure
  • Shell of tortoise attached to figure

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