Spirit Spouses & Corpse Brides: Marrying the Dead - Part Two
Yoruban spirit husbands, Afro-Brazilian demon spouses and Siberian shamanism
You can read Part One here - focusing on posthumous marriages and the Chinese ghost bride tradition
Marrying the dead, whether by legal fiction or physically exhuming a corpse to stand at a ceremony, is just one half of the spirit spouse phenomenon. We now turn to the more ephemeral and unsettling realities, where people engage in relationships and sexual activity with a spirit, or a ghost, or a demon. For European readers familiar with elements of late medieval or early modern Christianity, there are parallels here with the incubi and succubi. Similar creatures or malevolent beings are staples of folklore all over the world, generally manifesting as a shapeshifter or violent and ugly spirit who sexually assaults and rapes both men and women: the tikoloshe of Zimbabwe; the Swahilian Popobawa; the Chilean Trauco and so on. For this article we’ll explore a few lesser known examples where such relationships are consensual, to some degree, rather than involving a named being. We start with the Yoruban spirit husbands, then look at Afro-Brazilian demon spouses, and end with Siberian shamanic beliefs in spirit spouses.
“During sleep the spirit seems to desert the body, and as in dreams we visit other localities and even other worlds, living as it were, a separate and different life, the two phenomena are not unnaturally regarded as complements of one another…”
This quote from Sir John Lubbock, the esteemed archaeologist and anthropologist, helps explain the basic dualism found among almost all peoples - that there is a world of the living and awake, and another, which connects to the dead and the invisible. What Lubbock does not explain though, is how someone could engage in romance and even sexual activity with a spouse who was never alive to begin with. This is the position some women in Nigeria find themselves in, being married to a living, breathing husband during the day, and then having a separate marriage to a spirit spouse while asleep.
The Yoruba of West Africa are one the largest ethnic groups on the continent. Their home, Yorubaland, stretches across Togo, Benin and Nigeria. The Yoruba, like many of their neighbours, possess a complex animistic and polytheistic religion, one which shares features with the Vodun (Voodoo) tradition. Their belief in the Orisha deity pantheon, the ability for spirits to enter the world through childbirth and the importance of the ancestors has had a profound effect on global religion - in particular through the syncretism of Yoruba cosmology in the Americas leading to the development of Umbanda, Santería, Candomblé and many other belief systems. The permeability of the spirit world for the Yoruba often leads to all kinds of trouble - many spirits, demons and mischievous entities can enter the life of a person, such as an abiku child, who wishes to constantly be reborn and so dies during infancy as a human baby, only to reincarnate again and again, bringing misery to the mother.
“Abiku” and “ogbanje.” have also been linked and/or culturally explained with affliction from water spirits popularly called “Mammy Water” or “water goddess” or “Queen of the Coast” or “Eze nwanyi” (in Igbo land) or “Yemoja" or “olokun” (in Yoruba land). It is believed that these water spirits are very powerful, troublesome, unfriendly and wicked. They are said to live under streams, rivers, seas and oceans. Water spirits are further believed to appear on few occasions as handsome men but usually as beautiful ladies to the extent that beautiful ladies in real life are usually nicknamed “mammy water” to show how they resemble the female water spirits. The cultural link between “ogbanje.” and “abiku” is the belief that during transition, the water goddess who is pretty and very tempting will try to bring one away from his/her original life contract to fulfill her own. Those who get enticed by the water goddess will be under the influence of her group and herself
-Culture–bound syndromes and the neglect of cultural factors in psychopathologies among Africans (2011) OF Aina, O Morakinyo
Alongside these spirits is the universal phenomenon of witchcraft, typically performed by females amongst the Yoruba, sometimes translated as aje. Nocturnal attacks by witches can result in a form of dream-time warfare known as ogun-oru, where an individual might be tormented in the early hours of the morning by magical forces.
An interesting combination of both these aspects of Yoruba culture is the phenomenon of the ‘spirit husband’ or occasionally ‘marine husband’ (oko orun). This arises from the belief that a man and woman can be married in the spirit world, and that sometimes a man will allow the woman to enter the physical world. He will continue to visit her, to have sex with her, even to impregnate her. But he might also torment her, become jealous of her earthly husband or make her barren.
Another experience that confirms the reality and manifestation of spirit husband is the sexual encounter that transpires between it and its victim. The encounter is usually so real that the woman not only enjoys it but also experiences ejaculation. When she wakes up, she sees virginal discharge which confirms the fact that her experience is not an illusion. In consequence of the frequent sex in sleep, another manifestation is that the woman might see herself pregnant in her dream; while at the same time she begins to notice physical changes in her body anatomy which confirms the reality of her dream. Such changes include fullness of the breast, nausea and in some cases, temporary seizure of her menses, breastfeeding in dream etc… Yoruba women who have spirit husbands believe that there are certain benefits and privileges that they enjoy from spirit husbands such as lavishing them with gifts of varying kinds and magnitude. When they physically lack or are in need of anything, the spirit husband appears to them in dream with the promise to fulfil their needs
Women who have spirit husbands also claim to enjoy maximum protection from them. The spirit husbands guard them jealously and attack their perceived enemies even if it needs soliciting the supports of other members of their spiritual cult. They all rise in support of the spirit husband and in defense of their member (the woman) by attacking the adversary and causing disruptions in his or her affairs.
-The Yoruba Concept Of Spirit Husband And The Islamic Belief In Intermarriage Between Jinn and Man: A Comparative Discourse (2015) Shaykh Luqman Jimoh
The advantages of this system for some women are obvious - being happily married to a good spirit husband might prevent her from being married off to someone she doesn’t like, or she can enjoy a personal and private satisfaction that others can’t interfere with. However, many women do not want the attention of these husbands, and go to great lengths to be rid of them. A quick internet search reveals hundreds of Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social media pages offering relief from the oko orun. Worse still are the potential physical side effects of spirit spousal conflict, which can turn into an exhausting protracted form of nocturnal combat:
Mrs MO, a 38-year-old housewife and mother of three children, two girls and a boy, was apparently well until six months before presentation when she developed an irrational fear of having contracted a venereal disease following a generalized body rash with pruritus in her last child. She slept only very briefly at night and relatives noted that characteristically between midnight and 5 a.m., she would be awake and exhibit very strange behaviors. She would shout at top of her voice to the extent of disturbing the neighborhood. She sometimes cried like a baby and rolled on the floor, making statements of regret for her life and saying that her family was doomed to be wiped out by HIV/AIDS. She disorganized items around her home. Usually, she would not remember these actions at daybreak, and she might burst out crying when told by relatives of her strange behaviors during the night. During the day, she had occasional panic attacks with brief episodes of breathlessness and weeping. Over time, she became socially withdrawn, unable to carry out her housekeeping tasks, and was very sad most days. She had poor appetite with slight weight loss. Her husband and a pastor interpreted this behavior as evidence of being bewitched and also under the influence of a curse.
Prayer and deliverance sessions were organized to cast out the spirit of witchcraft and sever the patients’ connection to a spirit husband who might have been tormenting her with the ogun oru. However, there was no response to the spiritual treatment, hence the patient was taken to a babalawo (native healer) for further intervention for the problem. Several items were procured for deliverance activities including: pieces of white candle, a piece of red cloth, spiritual perfume, a whole coconut, and a white egg laid. She was made to rub her whole body with the raw egg, the candle and coconut in turn saying, ‘my illness should go back to my enemy, and I don’t want this sickness.’ Thereafter, she threw the piece of red cloth, the intact egg and candle into the bush (where the major trash dump of her village is located). Under cover of darkness, she broke the coconut in pieces at a T-junction of a road. Next, she was made to bathe with water fetched in a black pot from a stream, using a new sponge and soap. After this bath, she was made to break the pot into pieces and throw away the soap and sponge to be carried away by the flowing stream. Finally, she was given a native concoction to drink.
-Ogun Oru: A Traditional Explanation for Nocturnal Neuropsychiatric Disturbances among the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria (2007) O. F. Aina & O. O. Famuyiwa
Despite Christian and Islamic inroads into Yoruban culture, belief in spirit husbands continues, and both preacher and imam struggle to cast out these devils and djinns from their faithful. Nigeria might be a relatively prosperous and modern country by African standards, but the spirit world still breaks through and torments its denizens, by both night and day.
Afro-Brazilian Demon Spouses