I don’t know whether you know about Nkisi nkodi. It is a Kongo nailed figure, a container or statue of forces directed at an end. It is one of the most potent figures of African art. The nails are hammered into the wood whilst ritual curses are spoken. Each object may have dozens of these iron bits. An nkisi is an extraordinary object. The best way to think of it is as concentrated power actively and consciously employed to a goal. The act of forcing the iron into the wood requires muscular tension, sweat, the appropriate words and the requisite atmosphere of terror. This is an example of commitment to an act, to a purpose and is bounded by faith in the possible. Often, the power that is sought for is retribution, for vengeance, or simply to charge envy with venom. But, it is the concentrated commitment that interests me. Think Coltrane playing the saxophone, every note charged with commitment as if his life depended upon it. His breath and spirit, his very vitality and vigor directed at one aim, to transform what is unseen and unheard, what is impalpable into what is concrete and transient, into music.
In Egil’s Saga, we find a Norse example
He took a hazel pole in his hand and went to the edge of a rock facing inland. Then he took a horse’s head and put it on the end of the pole. Afterwards he made an invocation, saying, ‘Here I set up this scorn-pole and turn its scorn upon King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild’ – then turned the horse’s head to face land – ‘and I turn its scorn upon the nature spirits that inhabit this land, sending them all astray so that none of them will find its resting-place by chance or design until they have driven King Eirik and Gunnhild from this land’. Then he thrust the pole into a cleft in the rock and left it to stand there. He turned the head towards the land and carved the whole invocation in runes on the pole.
I know that it is unusual to exemplify commitment to life in the very places that seek to deny life or invoke harm. But it is the focused attentiveness to an act that is alluring here. It displays for our observation, exposes what is often unobserved in the daring and courage of everyday life, the studious seeking of a goal. Egil’s life was lived with as much resolution as demonstrated in this act of poisonous hatred.
My intention is not to romanticize the extreme violence of the Icelandic sagas or even to ignore the surprising amoral tone of the sagas. I am merely drawing attention to the manner of living, the transparency of intentions & how their guiltless and remorseless conduct displayed an arid moral landscape
Egil was paired against a boy called Grim, the son of Hegg from Heggstadir. Grim was ten or eleven years old, and strong for his age. When they started playing the game, Egil proved weaker that Grim, who showed off his strength as much as he could. Egil lost his temper, wielded the bar and struck Grim, who seized him and dashed him to the ground roughly, warning him that he would suffer for it if he did not learn how to behave. When Egil got back to his feet he left the game, and the boys jerred at him. Egil went to see Thord Granason and told him what happened. Thord said, ‘I’ll go with you and we’ll take our revenge’. Thord handed Egil an axe he had been holding, a common type of weapon in those days. They walked over to where the boys were playing their game. Grim had caught the ball and running with the other boys chasing him. Egil ran up to Grim and drove the axe into his head, right through to the brain. Then Egil and Thord walked away to their people.
In the Saga of the People of Laxardal, Unn, a heroine of this saga in her old age held a wedding feast for her favourite grandson, Olaf. At the feast
She entered the hall, followed by a large group of people. When the hall was filled, everyone was impressed by the magnificence of the feast. Unn then spoke: I call upon you, my brothers Bjorn and Helgi, and other kinsmen and friends as witnesses. This farm, with all the furnishings you see around you, I hand over to the ownership and control of my grandson, Olaf’. Unn the rose to her feet and said she would retire to her bedchamber. She urged them to enjoy themselves in whatever way they saw fit, and people could take pleasure in drinking. It is said that Unn was both tall and heavy-set. She walked briskly along the hall and people commented upon her dignified bearing. The evening was spent feasting until everyone went to bed. Olaf Feilan came to the sleeping chamber of his grandmother Unn the following day. As he entered the room, Unn was sitting upright among the pillows, dead. Olaf returned to the hall to announce the news. Everyone was impressed at how well Unn had kept her dignity to her dying day.
There was an indisputable conscientiousness about dying, as there was about living in the Icelandic sagas. Unn’s death in old age followed a format that was well established and perhaps even rehearsed. And we have notions too of ‘bad deaths’-
Kveldulf asked Olvir about the entire incident in Sandes when Thorolf was killed, about the worthy deeds he had done in battle before his death, and who had struck him down, where his worst wounds were and how he had died. Olvir told him everything he asked, mentioning that King Harald had dealt him a blow that by itself would have sufficed to kill a man, and that Thorolf had dropped face down at the king’s feet. Kveldulf said, ‘You’ve spoken well, because old men have said that a man’s death would be avenged if he dropped face down, and vengeance taken on the man at whose feet he fell […]
In our time, the thoroughgoing commitment to a unifying social goal in a single-minded manner seems to be present only in individuals rather than as a set of values widely distributed in society. You find it in athletes, in some academics, in explorers and artists. But, in wider society the explicit display of concentrated idolatry is for wealth and material goods. Here, the nkisi nkodi is a bank account, meticulously anointed and worshipped, studiously examined and protected, the bank account statement has all the status of a fetish, a charm that opens the secret vaults of life.
Photos by Jan Oyebode