October 22, 2017

Vital force

The Jivaro Indians of Ecuador are (or were) notorious headhunters. They are responsible for the shrunken heads, imitations of which are for sale in all the souvenir shops of Quito and Guayaquil. Heads are not hunted just for the fun of it, but because of the power or vital force their possession confers on the possessor. The Jivaro have two souls, the Aroutam and the Muisak, and it is only by headhunting that one can renew the former which appears to be the most important since it confers upon one invulnerability in war.1

This notion that power can be acquired or lost, increased or decreased, in accordance with a set of carefully formulated cultural rules, appears to be common to most cultures. Among the Polynesians it is referred to as mana, among the African tribes it appears to go under a variety of names: muntu among the Baluba, nyama among the Dogon, etc. Placide Tempels writes in his study of Bantu philosophy:2

“The central theme of Bantu philosophy is that of a vital force: the object of all efforts among the Bantu can only be to intensify this vital force. To maintain and to increase it is the key, the profound meaning of all their customs. . . . It is the only thing for which they are ready to suffer and make sacrifices.”

All illnesses, depressions, failures in any field of activity, are taken as a reduction in this vital force. The only way to avoid them is to increase one’s stock of it. When a Baluba prays, it is to obtain from the ancestral spirits or other deities an increase in muntu. The rituals he performs are designed to increase this vital force. Those performed at birth, circumcision, marriage, etc., involve such important increases that, on each occasion, new names are acquired, corresponding to the type of muntu thereby obtained. Each time, the old name must no longer be pronounced, for fear of reducing his muntu. Taboos are observed for the same reason, as their transgression always involves a reduction of muntu, to an extent proportional to their importance.

Schebesta points to the same notion among the Pygmies of the Ituri forests:

“The Pygmies believe in that impersonal force which specialists call mana, but which they refer to as megbe. Megbe is to be found everywhere but it doesn’t make itself felt everywhere in the same intensity or in the same way. Certain animals are richly endowed with it: humans possess a considerable amount of some types of megbe, less of others. Able men are distinguished precisely by the amount of megbe that they have succeeded in accumulating; witch doctors also possess a lot of megbe.”3

A similar notion of vital force is reported by Monteil among the Bambara of the Mali Republic.4 Griaule and Dieterlen report a similar concept among the Dogons.5 Driberg considers that this notion of a universal power or energy is at the basis of the religious beliefs and philosophy of the Africans in general. He writes:

“This spiritual force consists of an abstract power or natural potency, all-pervasive and definitely never regarded anthropomorphically.”6

He complains that the tribal term used to designate this force has often been confounded with the notion of a high god:

“In point of fact, the ‘high god’ does not exist in Africa.”

Kardiner explains the behaviour pattern of the Comanche Indians in the same way. They appear to have,

“. . . the most ingenious concept of power which can be borrowed, lent, pooled, and freely dispersed among the entire group.”7

They regard all the constituents of the environment as possessing some sort of power. The greatest is personified by the eagle, the earth, the sky and the sun. The highest force is God. After him come the first fathers who founded various clans, and next comes the head of the tribe; the living who also form a hierarchy in accordance with their vital power. Animals, plants and minerals are organised in the same way. However, since their role is to satisfy the need of the humans, they have less vital power. Sorcerers and witches are considered to be capable of manipulating vital power in people and objects, to the detriment and death of their fellows.

The possession of power was double-edged, in the sense that its possession subjected one to corresponding taboos, whose violation automatically reduced the power involved. It appears that all Comanche ritual could be explained in terms of obtaining, getting rid of, increasing or reducing all these different powers. Thus a specific ritual permitted middle-aged men to get rid of warrior powers in order to free themselves from corresponding taboos, which were growing increasingly irksome. Other rituals, such as the sun-ceremony, had the object of obtaining specific powers from the medicine-man in charge.

In the case of both the African and the Amerindian cultures referred to, belief in this vital force, or power, provided them with a complete goal-structure, in terms of which their entire social behaviour pattern could be interpreted.

Since a society’s goal-structure can only be culturally determined, it is probable that the notion of a “vital-force” or one fulfilling a similar function must be a feature of the worldview of stable societies in general.


1. Harner, M. J. Jivaro Souls in American Anthropologist Vol. 64, No. 2 April 1966, pp. 262-264.

2. Placide Tempels, R. P. La Philosophie Bantoue p. 114.

3. Schebesta, Paul, Les Pygmies.

4. Monteil, C. Djenne, p. 135. Quoted by Edwin W. Smith, African Ideas of God, p. 19.

5. Dieterlen, G. Les Ames des Dogon, p. 73 ff. 246 ff. Quoted by Smith, ibid. p. 20.

6. Driberg, J. H. “The Secular Aspect of Ancestor Worship in Africa” in Supplement to the Journal of the Royal African Society, Jan. 1936, Vol. XXXV, No. 138. Quoted by Smith, ibid. p. 21.

7. Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society, Columbia U.P., pp. 63-7.

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