Kessington Aigbovia and Harrison Okao
Succinctly put, every human community, be it the African, Caucasian, the Orientals or the Olives is nurtured by the principle of set beliefs or a belief system which emanate from the traditions, customs, norms and certain taboos of the people. It is primarily noteworthy to state that these things are sine qua non for both the physical and spiritual development of any human community whether in primordial times or in the jet age. This essay takes an analytical approach to superstitious beliefs and taboos of the Benin Kingdom of Nigeria and those of the Russian people and thus uses this methodology to juxtapose the two cultures together so as to be able to assess their similarities and dissimilarities. We submit that language is inseparable from the culture and tradition of any community or society and thus posit that, in terms of transference of knowledge, a putative attention ought to always be paid to the cultural aspects of the language since language itself is a carrier of culture and tradition. More so, it is a known fact that internalized traditions and cultures aid learners of the language to respond, as it were, to the norms, taboos, cultures and traditions of such a society.
Key words: superstition, taboo, culture and tradition.
Superstitious beliefs and taboos can be said to be an integral part of any culture of all nations of the world. They are as old as languages, cultures and traditions. They are embedded or rooted in individual cultures and traditions of the world. They came into existence because there was the need for mankind to use certain things as checks and balances to the physical environment and thus, it can be argued that taboos and superstitions were used to regulate the activities of mankind in order to have a moral world. Indeed, they are fundamental ingredients of any human society. The Longman Contemporary Dictionary of Current English, (2005) defines superstition as: a belief that some objects or actions are lucky or unlucky, or that they cause events to happen, based on old ideas of magic. It can also be described as excessively credulous beliefs in the reference for the supernatural. Critically, they have been perceived as firm and sometimes, irrational beliefs, because they are deeply rooted in magic, certain spiritual or physical actions and ritualism since they may likely portend either a bad or good omen when either performed or obeyed in reference to certain contexts because they are imperatively, social phenomena and therefore, products of the particular cultures, traditions and societies from which they emanate. While this is so, taboos can also be viewed to be those negative things that are forbidden and prohibited within a cultural and traditional context. Ideally, taboos can be said to be instruments through which cultures and societies tend to disapprove certain actions of man as being harmful, negative and destructive. Within this context, there are certain actions or behaviour which are very harmful to the members of the society or community and therefore are termed to be taboo. Taboos therefore inhibit members of such society from touching or interacting with such harmful things as it were. In such quarters where these things happen, words such as abomination, desecration and sacrilege are the parlance.
From a critical point of view, taboos and superstitious beliefs have over the years been perceived to be things that are inseparable from culture because they happen to be integral part of the traditional system of educating the people within the context of the cultural setting itself as it pertains primarily to the society or community in question. This is because every society must interact with itself in the form of socialization, and thus has the responsibility of educating and transforming its future or young generations using the tools of its norms, cultures, traditions, moral systems, its belief systems in terms of religious or spiritual practices, and lastly, its superstitious belief systems .It becomes very much imperative at this juncture to juxtapose or situate the Russian and Bini cultures and traditions which are the embodiments or the vehicles through which taboos and superstitious beliefs in both cultures thrive.This paper compares the two cultures and also posits their dissimilarities which are quite helpful to understanding the total worldview of these two individual cultures as they exist and operate in a twenty first century global world.
THE NEED FOR A SUPERSTIOUS BELIEF SYSTEM AND TABOO: A NECESSITATED EVOLUTION
According to Faloju, “A civilized society cannot be in existence without normative order. Order, stability and predictability are products of societal norms and in any human society, and there are many ways of regulating the behavior of people (Faloju 2017)”. It was the quest to have order that actually necessitated the introduction or establishment of both taboos and superstitions in both cultures in human history. Furthermore, such things as fear, and spiritual factors created the room for protection from harsh occurrences and events in the life of man which he lives on daily basis. The existence of ignorance in most cases in terms of understanding the nature of events and how it should shape things around the people also was another factor that affected and precipitated the need for the establishment of superstitious beliefs and taboo to be practiced in such societies and communities and invariably, can be argued to have become part of the 21st century life of man. And thus it can be further argued that superstitious beliefs are simply the representation of the people’s fear of such things already mentioned above which came about by the unpredictability of certain occurrences in the day to day life of the people or the society in which they live as members of their terrestrial environment.
The axiomatic thing is this: most of the so called superstitious beliefs and taboos being practiced today by these two cultures or other cultures of the world are nonetheless, ancient and there is no gain in denying this fact. In fact, in certain cultures, especially, in Bini kingdom, the people would always avow affirmatively that what we refer to as superstitious beliefs from a holistic perspective in today’s modern world are in fact, ‘age long cultural practices’ which are passed on from one generation to the other as cultural transmission and thus, are the embodiment of the cultural heritage of the people which must not be tampered with by civilization or any force or invasion or cultural encroachment. However, it must be emphasized that scholars and researchers from different schools of thought especially those of them from cultural studies have posited one view or the other about superstitious beliefs and taboos (Schreiber and Sarbin 1965; Wheen 2004; Hira et al (1998). And Sherma (1998) is of the opinionated view that superstitions are the adaptive outcome of a general belief engine that evolved with humans and to enable man to reduce anxiety and help humans also to make casual association with one another. In the words of Kagan (2012), a superstition is a belief or practice that is not based on facts or events which can be proven.
While this is so, the Russian scholar V.I. Dahl (2003:6) opines that superstitious is a mistaken, deceptive believe in something; a faith in the cause and effect, where there is no connection. Writing on the etymological evolution of superstitious beliefs and taboos, Faloju traces the etymology of the English word taboo and opines that it is derived from the Polynesian word tapu and the Hawaiian word kapu. In his view, the literal meaning of the word is simply marked off or of limits and that it is both a combination of ta that is, to mark off, and pu (exceedingly).
On the other hand, taboo was employed by primordial cultures as spiritual instrument for moral guidance and objectivity so as to make room for the protection of the sanctity and sacredness of such places of worship as shrines and sacred altars. And so, from a historical undertone, taboo has been described by scholars alike as a “sacred lexicon of cultic or religious group” that is normally established by both the traditional and religious powers that hold sway at such moments for the community. Bierstadt (1970: 213) states that for every human society, there appears to be the prescriptive and proscriptive norms; these norms primarily prescribe and prohibit certain things within and for the society. He expatiates further that “the prescriptions frequently come in pairs, if not legal prohibitions are known as taboos. Care must be taken also to state categorically that, taboos as they appear or seem to criticism are one of the oldest set of unwritten human codes used during primordial times and are also known to have existed before either Christianity or Islamic religion. And so in order to checkmate people and keep them away from certain regions where they ought not to venture as it pertains to morality and extremism, taboos were therefore introduced to scare them away from such. These inhibitions were quite necessary for the proper functionality and wellbeing of the human community. It was directly intended for a prescriptive cause, to protect its human species and have a psycho-spiritual equilibrium in relation to its culture and society.
THE BINI AND RUSSIAN LANGUAGES IN PERSPECTIVE: A HISTORICAL APPROACH
The Edo or Bini people are an ethnic group who are primarily found in the present day Edo State of the south-south geopolitical zone of Nigeria. Geographically, the Edos or the Bini spread across the Delta, Ondo and Rivers States of Nigeria. They speak Edo language and are the descendants of the founders of Benin Empire. They are closely related to other ethnic groups that speak Edoid languages such as the Esan, the Afemai, and the Owan. Factually, the name Benin and Bini are simply a Portuguese corruption from the original word Ubinu which had come into use during the reign of Oba Ewuare the Great in 1440. The word Ubinu was used to describe the royal administrative seat of power, city or centre or the capital of the kingdom and not necessarily the ethnic group itself. It was later corrupted into Bini by the mixed ethnicities which dwelt together in the city state at the centre at the time. The Bini or Edo language is grouped under the Kwa, a sub group of languages normally under the Niger-Congo linguistic family.
The word also underwent a further corruption when the word Benin actually came into existence during the period of 1485 when the Portuguese began commercial relations with the kingdom and with Oba Ewuare. Similarly, it is on record that the first Portuguese to have set his foot in the forest city state of West Africa known as the Bini Kingdom was Ruy De Sequeire in 1472, and during the reign of Oba Ozolua, Alfonso de Avienro in 1485 (Hubbard 1948:173) and subsequently, trade and diplomatic relations had been established between the two entities. For the forest kingdom of West Africa, Bini Kingdom maintained its independence until 1897 when it fell to the superior power of the British who were at the time amassing and partitioning the continent of Africa for their colonial interests. From a historical standpoint, the people of Edo were reputed to have one of the most fashionable and richest dress cultures on the continent. Accordingly, their fashion accessories commanded royalty and typically included coral beads, body marks and bangles for the wrists and anklets for the legs, raffia works for the waist e.t.c. Spiritually, for the Edos, there exists besides the physical human world, an invisible world of supernatural beings who act as intercessors for the human world through the invisible world of sacred shrines. And so for a peek into some of the Edo words for instance, Osanobua in divinity is the creator and supreme God. His son or daughter Olokun the ruler of all bodies of water and its boundaries and is primarily responsible for the prosperity and advancement of his or her human followers and devotees. Another of his sons, Ogun, is the patron god of all metalworkers.
The word Osanobua–Noghodua means God Almighty. The word Osanubua is an all-encompassing word including an endless number of divine principles, the divine state of being merciful and executing mercy itself, timeless, goodness, justice, sublimity, and supremacy. Within the confines of the Edo belief system, Osanobua has the divine attributes of omnipresence (orhiole), omniscience (ajoana), and omnipotence (udazi). For them, the supreme deity or God Almighty is believed to be present everywhere. In the words of Igafe (1982), Osagie et al, (2015), “The kingdom was probably one of the oldest, most remarkable, famous and at one time, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the forest region of West Africa”.
Although, it is an East Slavic Language, the Russian Language belongs primarily to the Indo-European group of languages. It was formally the official language in communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republic until its defunct state and until now, it is the official language of the Federation of Russia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. It is also the largest indigenous or native language in Europe with the population of more than one hundred and forty four million speakers alone in Russia, and Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and in some parts of Ukraine. The language is equally one of the official languages adopted for work by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council besides the English, Chinese, French, Arabic and Spanish languages. Similarly, it is also the unofficial language spoken in countries of Moldovia, Estonia, Ukraine, and Latvia while not forgetting the fifteen other nations which had constituted the confederacy of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic which had fallen apart in 1991 during the reign of late Gobachev.
Like most languages of the world, the Russia Language is made up of many dialects but the fact still remains that the official and literary standard form had evolved primarily from the Moscow dialect (Pulkina1984:1), after the city of Moscow had emerged as the seat and capital city of the Russian State during the 4th century BC.
THE SOCIOLOGICAL COMPARISON BETWEEN THE RUSSIAN AND BINI OF NIGERIA’S CULTURAL BELIEF SYSTEMS OF SUPERSTITIONS AND TABOOS
According to Osei (2006), from African perspective, a taboo can be said to be a “symbol of the guiding principle that controls and guides individual and communal behaviours towards a supreme Being”. The Bini culture, for instance, comprises the Bini social norms, values and rules which dictate the manner in which Bini or the Edoid language speakers act and behave. Furthermore, the rules, values and social norms go a long way in determining the method a Bini would act naturally and also responds towards certain occurrences as a result of the cultural norms, traditions and customs. Historically, the Bini culture and tradition are passed from one generation to the other and particularly through the family units, the hamlets, clans, kindred and villages and lastly from the elders as well. The Bini culture and traditions having come thus far, have become a vehicle to carry these values, norms, principles and rules and thus, taboos within the context of the Bini worldview are affective of all the facets of life of the Bini. Again, this is reflected in the dress patterns of the Bini, the kinds and varieties of foods they eat and how they eat them, when they should and should not eat certain types of foods, the mode of communication embedded in the cultural dictates, social, communal and traditional etiquettes in relation to livelihoods on daily basis which is lived or done by the people themselves. These things also set standards for nonnative-speakers of the language to know how to relate with the people since these guiding principles are there to always direct their paths. The culture of any group of persons be it either the Bini or the Russian always convey everything which concerns the people, that is the owners of such a culture and tradition; in particular. It includes the belief system of the people, their values, their position in terms of what is right or wrong and others such as material objects and rules for behaviour in the society or community for a peaceful co-existence. A scholar from cultural studies Maconis (2000), had posited that culture is seen as the social heritage of a people. These heritages include those learned patterns of thinking, and feeling and acting that are transmitted from one generation to the other. This in particular is the pride of the people since they cherish these values and work hard to make sure that each member of the same society transmits this correctly to the new generation.
Russian language, culture and traditions and beliefs also include superstitions and taboos which can be noticed as part of the customs of the Russian people. Most of the Russian cultural practices, traditions, customs and beliefs in modern times cannot necessarily be isolated from the life of an everyday Russian. This is because these things have their origin in Russian superstitious belief system. This is what is passed on from one generation to another because a Russian child or baby must be in cognizance of these beliefs, customs, and norms from childhood and thus, the child becomes a carrier of these and must necessarily transmit them to the next generation that will come after him or her. These things are what make a child a Russian. The followings are the superstitious beliefs and taboos of both Russian people and the Bini people of Southern Nigeria.
In Russian culture and tradition, superstition has it that it is preferable to keep silent rather than boast and talk about a future success in relation to a venture or dream that is yet to materialize; otherwise, this obviously would generally bring bad luck and failure to the person. Alternatively it is rather better to sound pessimistic and be quiet about it until the success has been recorded or achieved.
Another of such Russian superstitious belief is that a person may not step on another person’s foot accidentally, if he or she does so, the first person whose foot had been stepped upon must proceed to step upon the other person’s foot as well. It is believed that the practice will prevent future conflict or fight between the two individuals.
In Russian culture and tradition, wood knocking is a very common practice. This practice is also common in other cultures of the world. But the Russians have been able to device something further in their act of traditional knocking and this is that the person knocking must spit three times which is primarily symbolic anyway, this symbolic spit is usually done over the person left shoulder or alternatively, with the person’s head turned to the left. In Russian tradition, it is strongly believed by the Russians the person knocking is spitting on the devil.
In Russian culture and tradition, returning home suddenly because one had forgotten an item before exiting the house and is back to pick that thing is believed to be a bad omen on its part. It is therefore advisable for the person who has forgotten that particular item to proceed on his or her journey and leave the item behind. On the other hand, if one must return home in order to pick up the item because perhaps the item forgotten is very essential then the person must look into the mirror before leaving the house. If this instruction is not followed the impending journey will be disastrous or fruitless.
Another of such Russian superstitious belief has it also that if a person leaves his house on a long journey and is not to return in days, the person’s room or things generally must not be cleansed up until the safely arrival of the person back home or perhaps, a day could have passed in an interval if the person happens to be a guest in a house.
In Russian cultural setting, superstitious belief has it that it is generally forbidden to celebrate one’s birthday before the official or the real day. This is because in Russian culture, there is a huge superstitious belief on birthdays. Birthday parties must be celebrated on or after the actual date and not before the real date of the person’s birth date. This is because superstition has it that if a person celebrates his or her birthday before the actual day or date, the action must necessarily bring some very terrible misfortune on the celebrant. And so, if a person’s birthday falls during the week days, it becomes imperative therefore that the person celebrates it the following weekend. In addition to this, the superstitious belief which surrounds the birth of a new born baby, items bought for the baby, journey, and items and gifts which are to be presented to the baby are very strong among the Russian people within their cultural settings. Similarly, it is a very strong taboo to buy such items as baby clothes, toys and furniture before the actual birth of the baby being expected, these things must be bought after the birth of the baby.
It is against traditional Russian custom to look at a new born baby twice who is probably between two months or one year old. A stranger must not do this. It is also considered to be bad luck to compliment anew born baby. But should the person wants to compliment the baby, there exist such acceptable expression and that is that, the person should say, “Oh what an ugly baby!”
In Russian culture, the superstitious belief has it that evil spirits can easily possess such items as clothes and toys which have been bought for the unborn baby. Critically, it is therefore generally believed that among the Russians this superstitious belief has given birth to such superstitious phenomenon. And so the custom is indeed, a widespread or very prevalent among the Russians till date.
The superstitious belief of having a seat close to the door: is another of such superstitious practice among the Russians; it is equally prevalent in Russian culture and customs. Russian travelers and those who are to seeing them for their journey are required to sit down somewhere very close to the door inside their house for a brief moment before leaving the house to embark upon such a journey. It does not matter even if it is just a person or a couple that is travelling, the entire family or group of persons in that house must sit down for as little as thirty seconds or a minute before the journey or travel can actually commence properly. Traditional Russian culture has it that if this is done, it will prevent a disastrous journey and the individual would have a very successful journey indeed. However, the advantage of this very act is that the time spent sitting down would normally afford the individual or individuals the opportunity to sit and think about any particular item or things that may have been forgotten so that the person can pick it up or include such in his or schedule.
It is also believed that couples or friends should not walk on different sides of a pole or a tree. This belief centres on the fact that the act is seen rather as end to the friendship or relationship. Russians generally take this very seriously and therefore, are very conscious of it.
In typical traditional Russian society, mothers do not show their new babies to anyone except to the boys, midwife and such other close relatives for a span of forty eighty hours after the baby is born into the world. Russian superstition has it that ill luck, misfortune or something bad can come upon the baby should that happen.
There are others, generally on food, and they as follows:
In traditional Russian society, bread must generally be cut with the knife and not with one’s hands. It is believed that the life of the person who cuts bread with his or her hands will be broken in pieces. And one must never lick food off a knife during meals, doing so will turn one into an angry person like an angry dog or that such individual would become a very cruel person.
To spill salt either on the table or floor is a bad omen.
Furthermore, a funeral procession brings good fortune. Although it is a superstitious belief in Russian traditional society that seeing a funeral procession brings good fortune but at the same time, the reverse is usually the case should that same individual behold the funeral procession and then crosses the path of such a procession.
There are other such superstitious beliefs in Russian traditional society which deal with curses, dressing, itchy fingers or palms and cats too. Let us look at a few of them.
If a person feels that he or she may have been cursed by someone that has an ‘evil eye’, put on him or her or just has the feeling of a hostile presence, Russian superstitious belief advises that such individual should remove and then put it back on starting of course with the hand opposing the usually used one. Now it is equally recommended for one to pin a French pin inside of one’s clothing so as to avoid the curse of the evil eye in the very first instance.
In traditional Russian society, superstition holds it that if one wears his undershirt inside out he or she will get beaten. It is therefore expected a friend to this individual should point this error out and wait for the individual to fix the clothes. And moreover, the friend must punch his friend who had worn his or her clothes inside or wrongly; symbolically, this is to avert danger.
In traditional Russian society, if the finger of an individual itches, this simply means that the individual is going to get money soon, it could also mean that the person whose finger is itchy is going to greet someone. But traditional Russians belief that if a person’s left hand is itchy, it means that the person is going to part with his money by giving someone money.
Again in traditional Russian society, it is believed that if a black cat crosses one’s path, superstition has it that the person will experience misfortune. This one happens to be a very popular Russian superstitious belief in the whole of Russia as a nation and as well as other western nations in Europe. This superstitious belief evolved in England precisely around the 17th century BC. Then in England, there was the belief that having a black cat on the ship spelt doom. However, having cats of other colours on the ship meant fortune and it was quite popular around the 17th and 18th centuries BC.
In traditional Russian culture, it is a taboo for the groom to see the bride before the wedding in her wedding dress before being led to the altar by her father. Such gifts as knives and other sharp harmful objects are perceived to be taboos because they spell bad omen. The taboo can be avoided by the person who can instead give a symbolic payment in one Russian Rubble in exchange as if it was an exchange in trade and not a gift.
It is also a taboo for a Russian bride to engage herself in sexual intercourse before marriage. It is also noticeable among the Bini people.
Russian traditional culture is averse to giving someone a wristwatch as a gift because Russian superstition believes that this causes a separation between the giver and the receiver. A wrist watch as a gift is therefore frowned at since it is perceived to be symbol of separation between the giver and the receiver.
In traditional Bini Kingdom, it was considered to be a negative spiritual attack to point a finger at the palace, throne or the Oba and his chiefs.
Whistling at night is considered a medium through which mortals can communicate with spirits and the dead.
Wearing red and black apparel at the palace of the Oba meant that one was inviting some evil spirits.
Carrying a bunch of banga (palm fruits) on one’s head signified an evil omen because the fruits are red and the omen is usually deadly.
Women are not allowed to enter into the Alaka area of the shrine, a place solely dedicated for the Oba Ehengbuda shrine and any woman who dares it becomes immediately infertile, it is therefore a taboo for women to venture there because the shrine is believed to contain his immortal spirit.
Makers of caskets are not allowed to open their wares in the land because opening it depicts lack of growth and untimely death in the kingdom.
No male visitor is allowed to touch the queen who is usually in the royal harem except those from the royal blue blood.
Burial ceremonies are not permitted to take place during the Igue Festival, doing so is a taboo.
It is also believed in traditional Bini society that evil spirits roaming about will enter into the womb of the pregnant woman and then inhabit the baby in it should such a woman be seen walking about either in the sun or at night.
The superstitious beliefs and taboos which we have critically examined in this study reveal and exemplify the total world view of the Bini people of Southern Nigeria and that of the Russian people as well. In this study, we were able to established similarities and differences in both taboos and the superstitious beliefs among these peoples. In all, religious taboos are the most common taboos common to both peoples. Now while it is a fact that women in traditional Russian society must dress in a certain way while entering the Russian orthodox church buildings during church services, in Bini Kingdom, a woman must not enter the shrine or else she will become infertile or barren immediately and no male visitor or her relative is permitted to touch the queen in both the ancient and contemporary times according to tradition. Pregnant women are also not permitted by taboos and the superstitious belief system to walk about in certain hours of the day and at night so that evil spirits will not inhabit them and possess the babies they carry in their wombs. However, there is not such taboo about pregnancy in the Russian culture. In this study, we further reaffirm the universality of the concept of taboo and those superstitious belief systems.
Although this is a 21st Century world, the fact that superstitious beliefs and taboos play very vital roles in any society of the world cannot be overemphasized. Briefly put, the languages and the cultures of the Bini and the Russian people are primarily the integral and inseparable part of the Bini and Russia. Thus, teaching these languages, the cultures of these two peoples must be brought to the fore basically because of a fact that internalized cultural norms learnt especially through the learning of a language is advantageous because it gives room for the promotion of understanding of the language while helping the learner to respond correctly to the set norms within the society.
Finally, in this paper, we have examined critically two unrelated cultures: the Bini and the Russian cultures and while doing this, attempt was made to focus on the superstitious belief systems and taboos among the above mentioned nations. Thus, in concluding, we reaffirm that the superstitious beliefs and taboos are factually universal although the intricacies of superstitious beliefs and taboos differ in each culture, as illuminated in this submission.
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