Nkisi Nkondi: the Power Figure of the Kongo people

A Power Figure is an object used by the Kongo People. It is used for many purposes and is believed to activate spiritual powers. The Power Figures of the Kongo people are made of wood.

Power figures are usually easy to recognize because they have many sharp objects stuck into them, such as nails or pegs. There are different meanings given to the figure depending on the type of object and how deeply these objects are put into the figure. The objects can range from pegs, blades, nails or other sharp objects. These sharp items are placed by a specific person, called a ngana, who is spiritual specialist.

The power figures often have hollow bellies where combinations of medicinal and spiritual herbs (called bilongo) are placed. In front of the hole in the figures’ belly, there is a piece of glass, mirror or other reflective material inserted. This mirror is thought to represent the world of the spirits of the dead.

WHY ARE POWER FIGURES MADE?

The Kongo people believe in sacred medicine and divine protection (protection from God). They believe the great god, Ne Kongo, brought the first sacred medicine (called nkisi or minkisi if more than one) down from the heavens in a clay vessel. Nkisi loosely translates to “spirit”.
Minkisi are usually represented by containers of sacred substances. These substances are thought to be activated by supernatural forces which can be invited into the physical world. Gods and spirits make the material an effective medicine.

Normally, minkisi can be as simple as pottery or containers holding sacred herbs. However, they can also be shells, bundles or carved wooden figurines. Wooden figurine minkisi are used for social or human problems. The sacred herbs placed in the minkisi are thought to be useful for helping with physical illness or social problems. The spiritual powers believed to be contained in the minkisi can have both positive and negative effects on the community.

NKISI NKONDI

An nkisi nkondi is a special kind of Power Figure. Nkisi nkondi can look like people or dogs (then called nkisi kozo). It can be used to take an oath specified for solving verbal disputes or lawsuits (called mambu). Nkisi nkondi can also be called avengers or guardians if magic or evil crimes have been committed. The two arguing sides must lick the pegs that are inserted into the figure, and their saliva seals the oath. If one of the parties breaks the oath, then the herbs are thought to be activated.

Once the herbs are activated, the spirits are believed to come to Earth and fulfil their mission of protection or destruction. The nkisi nkondi is a good example of the strength Power Figures are thought to have.

ANNA BUSUTTIL

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