Dennett himself classed the nkisi into three categories. This one he referred to as a ‘gilly-gilly’, a small nkisi that was carried, either hung from the shoulder or in a sling, used for protection.
“… a small wooden figure, with a large box for a stomach; this figure is almost always embedded in some skin or other, to which is attached a thick fringe, composed of many ends of different pieces of cloth, which in turn serve to wrap malongos in…”
Minkisi (sing. nkisi)
When Europeans first encountered power figures (minkisi) in the Congo, they believed them to be man-made deities (‘fetishes’) that were worshipped. However, minkisi belonged to an age-old complex cosmology, one that was centred on a reciprocating universe. This meant that there existed a constant interchange between the visible ‘world of the living’ and the invisible ‘world of the dead’. Minkisi created a physical connection between these worlds.
Their potency included ‘medicinal’ substances (bilongo) that would help to bind the powers of the invisible world to the figure. Bilongo included ingredients associated with the specific ability of the figure. They could be used to heal, alleviate hardship, locate witches or bring harm – they were mainly created for the benefit of people.
Minkisi were activated by a specialist called an nganga. Power figures were constructed with great care to produce a visual effect, they were viewed as items of great power. When not in use they were stored in the nganga’s hut.
This object is on display at RAMM in the World Cultures gallery.