In a previous entry, I looked at the lore surrounding the nature spirit, Sasabonsam, who lives in deep in the forests of West Africa. Sasabonsam has a wife, Shamantin who is the subject of this month’s post. Unlike her husband, Shamantin doesn’t kill those who travel through the forest. Instead, she uses her long legs to catch people who wander beneath her cotton tree abode. She teaches the captured travellers forest lore: where the water sources are, which herbs are edible, which have medicinal properties (Bane, p. 301; Kingsley, p. 512).
In appearance Shamantin differs very much from Sasabonsam. Whereas he is described as a large, humanoid creature covered in hair, with bloodshot eyes, long legs and feet which point both ways, descriptions of Shamantin say little beyond that she is being extremely tall and completely white (Williams, (1934), p. 61), (Rattray in Williams, (1932), p. 130; (Bane, p. 301).
The idea that Shamantin, a benevolent spirit, is white, corresponds with the association in parts of Africa of the colour with peace, purity, good luck and the spirit world. For example, the Yoruba pantheon contains over fifty white divinities. Obatala, one of the principal gods is depicted as white; his names include “King of the white cloth” (Booth, p. 163). White has another connection to the African spirit world as in some cultures, for example in Kongolese cosmology, it is associated with the underworld (Kaufmann, p. 172).
A pale skin tone also appears in some traditional African art and rites of passage rituals involving women. For instance, as Jill Salmons has pointed out, some Nigerian carvings of women or female spirit beings are painted in “very pale colors” and light pigments are applied to the skin of female initiates in a number of cults (Salmons, p. 14).
Next time… it’s back to the animal kingdom when I look at the role cats played in Jamaican Obeah practice.
Teresa Bane, Encyclopaedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology (North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013).
Newell S. Booth, Jr, “God and the Gods in West Africa”, in Newell S. Booth, Jr, (ed.), African Religions (New York, London, Lagos: NOK Publishers International, 1977), pp. 159-182.
Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (reprint, One World Publications, 2019, of orig. edn, One World Publications, 2017).
Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 2003, of orig. edn, London & New York: Macmillan, 1897).
Jill Salmons, “Mammy Wata”, African Arts, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Apr., 1977), pp. 8-15+87.
Joseph John Williams, Voodoos and Obeahs: Phases of West Indian Witchcraft (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: L. MacVeagh, Dial Press, inc., 1932).
Joseph John Williams, Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (reprint, Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, date unknown, of orig. edn, New York: Dial Press, 1934).
Image credits: Shamantin by H.R. Sparkes