Religion and Art in Ashanti

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The first intimation that the king had breathed his last would be, so I am informed, the sight of blood pouring from the royal bathroom. Here the body had been carried to be washed and dressed; at each stage of the process some attendant or other had been killed, one "to carry his bath mat, one the sponge and soap, one the bathrobe," and so on. The Queen Mother, perhaps the most powerful person in the kingdom, was immediately informed. She in turn dispatched messengers to the royal harem, for certain of the late king’s wives to prepare themselves to accompany their husband on the journey upon which he had set out. The king, before his death, might have informed the Queen Mother which of his women he wished to go with him, and she also might choose others for this privilege. Others again would volunteer to share their fate. The message delivered to these women of the harem was, "Me ka kyere wo se wo ko bi"("I bid you set out for a certain place"), and the answer always was, "Ma te Akoranto" ("I have heard Akoranto"). These women then sent for their relatives, bade them farewell, decked themselves in white, as for a ceremonial feast, and put on all their gold ornaments. On the night the royal body was removed from the palace to the first and temporary mausoleum (the Barim Kese), the women, who had drunk themselves into a state of semiconsciousness with wine or rum, were strangled with leather thongs (abomporo) by men or women executioners. An alternative method of killing them was to twist their necks "with strong hands." Strangling in Ashanti is considered the aristocratic method of killing, because blood is not shed and there is not any mutilation.

Representatives of each section of household officeholders were killed in order to accompany the king; these included many young boys to act as elephant-tail switchers and heralds. The latter had their necks broken over the large elephant tusk upon which the king used to rest his foot when bathing; they were smeared with white clay as a sign of joy. Besides all those who had not any option, freemen and sometimes slaves would volunteer for death. "Okom de me" ("I am hungry") they would say, and should the executioner refuse to dispatch them they would swear the great oath, saying: "Me ka Ntam Kese se wonkum me na me ne me wura nko, na okom de me" ("I swear the great oath . . . that you must kill me that I and my master may set out, for I am hungry"). Such volunteers could always choose the manner of their death; some choose to be shot, others preferred to be strangled, and they were also accorded full funeral rites. They could, moreover, choose such articles as they wished to take with them; these were put into the grave. . . .

It will be recollected that certain of the wives of the dead king had already been strangled, and dispatched to join him in the samandow (place of ghosts); the saman yere (wife of the ghost) must not be confused with them. These "wives of the ghosts" had never been wives of the kings during their lifetime but were women chosen from certain families to minister perpetually to the supposed wants of their respective skeleton spouses. Each of the royal skeletons had his "wife." She was "wedded" to a ghost for her life; when she died she was buried behind the harem and her place was immediately filled by another. These women brought their ghost husbands their food. Each week, when the day for the "washing of the soul" came round, they would shave their heads, and dress in white and come with their chewing sticks and sit beside the bones of their "husband." They had to observe all their "husband’s" ntoro tabus that he had observed during life, just as if they expected to bear him children. No one, not even the reigning King of Ashanti, might have speech with them. Should they ever have occasion to leave the precincts of the mausoleum, they were preceded by boys carrying whips who continually shouted fwe! fwe! (look out! look out!); anyone who saw them coming had to kneel down and cover his head with a cloth. Food, clothes, and personal adornments were supplied them by the King of Ashanti, and they were guarded by eunuchs; not even a cock bird was permitted within the walls of the hia (harem).

The skeletons at Bantama had their own special men cooks. These cooks had to "drink the gods" that they would not poison the reigning king, the reason for this being that the food exposed before the skeletons on the Monday following a Sunday adae ceremony, and on the Thursday following a Wednesday adae, was afterwards taken to the king, who, having previously fasted, was compelled to eat it. "It made the king fruitful," I was told. Any of the food left over was eagerly sought for by women who were barren. The skeletons were fed about 11 a.m. and were served with palm-wine about 4 p.m. All their food (ntoro) tabus were rigidly observed; we have already seen that their wives observed the same tabus. . . .

An immense treasure in gold dust and massive gold ornaments was stored near the bones, possibly in the "brass coffers" mentioned by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. This wealth belonged to the "ghosts," but could be "borrowed" from them in cases of great national emergency and also to finance national festivals.1

1Rattray, R.S.n/an/an/an/a, , 108–120, passim (Clarendon Press. By permission).

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Chicago: Religion and Art in Ashanti in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed December 5, 2023,

MLA: . Religion and Art in Ashanti, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 5 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , Religion and Art in Ashanti. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 5 December 2023, from