FETISHISM, an ill-defined term, used in many different senses: (a) the worship of inanimate objects, often regarded as peculiarly African; (b) negro religion in general; (c) the worship of inanimate objects conceived as the residence of spirits not inseparably bound up with, nor originally connected with, such objects; (d) the doctrine of spirits embodied in, or attached to, or conveying influence through, certain material objects (Tylor); (e) the use of charms, which are not worshipped, but derive their magical power from a god or spirit; (f) the use as charms of objects regarded as magically potent in themselves. A further extension is given by some writers, who use the term as synonymous with the religions of primitive peoples, including under it not only the worship of inanimate objects, such as the Sun, Moon or stars, but even such phases of primitive philosophy as totemism. Comte applied the term to denominate the view of nature more commonly termed animism.
Derivation. - The word fetish (or fetich) was first used in connexion with Africa by the Portuguese discoverers of the last half of the 15th century; relics of saints, rosaries and images were then abundant all over Europe and were regarded as possessing magical virtue; they were termed by the Portuguese feiticos (i.e. charms). Early voyagers to West Africa applied this term to the wooden figures, stones, etc., regarded as the temporary residence of gods or spirits, and to charms. There is no reason to suppose that the word feitico was applied either to an animal or to the local spirit of a river, hill or forest. Feitico is sometimes interpreted to mean artificial, made by man, but the original sense is more probably "magically active or artful." The word was probably brought into general use by C. de Brosses, author of Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760), but it is frequently used by W. Bosman in his Description of Guinea (1705), in the sense of "the false god, Bossum" or "Bohsum," properly a tutelary deity of an individual.
Definition. - The term fetish is commonly understood to mean the worship of or respect for material, inanimate objects, conceived as magically active from a virtue inherent in them, temporarily or permanently, which does not arise from the fact that a god or spirit is believed to reside in them or communicate virtue to them. Taken in this sense fetishism is probably a mark of decadence. There is no evidence of any such belief in Africa or elsewhere among primitive peoples. It is only after a certain grade of culture has been attained that the belief in luck appears; the fetish is essentially a mascot or object carried for luck.
Ordinary Usage. - In the sense in which Dr Tylor uses the term the fetish is (1) a "god-house" or (2) a charm derived from a tutelary deity or spirit, and magically active in virtue of its association with such deity or spirit. In the first of these senses the word is applied to objects ranging from the unworked stone to the pot or the wooden figure, and is thus hardly distinguishable from idolatry. (a) The bohsum or tutelary deity of a particular section of the community is derived from the local gods through the priests by the performance of a certain series of rites. The priest indicates into what object the bohsum will enter and proceeds to the abode of the local god to procure the object in question. After making an offering the object is carried to an appropriate spot and a "fetish" tree set up as a shade for it, which is sacred so long as the bohsum remains beneath it. The fall of the tree is believed to mark the departure of the spirit. A bohsum may also be procured through a dream; but in this case, too, it is necessary to apply to the priest to decide whether the dream was veridical. (b) The suhman or tutelary deity of an individual is not an object selected at random to be the residence of the spirit. It is only procurable at the residence of a Sasabonsum, a malicious non-human being. Various ceremonies are performed, and a spirit connected with the Sasabonsum is finally asked to enter an object. This is then kept for three days; if no good fortune results it is concluded either that the spirit did not enter the object selected, or that it is disinclined to extend its protection. In either case the ceremonies must be commenced afresh. Otherwise offerings and even human sacrifices in exceptional cases are made to the suhman. It is commonly believed that the negro claims the power of coercing his tutelary deity. This is denied by Colonel Ellis. It is certain that coercion of deities is not unknown, but further evidence is required that the negro uses it when his deity is refractory.
The suhman can, it is believed, communicate a part of his powers to various objects in which he does not dwell; these are also termed suhman by the natives and may have given rise to the belief that the practices commonly termed fetishism are not animistic. These charms are many in number; offerings of food and drink are made, i.e. to the portion of the power of the suhman which resides in them. These charms can only be made by the possessor of the suhman.
On the Guinea Coast the spirit implanted in the object is usually, if not invariably, non-human. Farther south on the Congo the "fetish" is inhabited by human souls also. The priest goes into the forest and cuts an image; when a party enters a wood for this purpose they may not mention the name of any living being unless they wish him to die and his soul to enter the fetish. The right person having been selected, his name is mentioned; and he is believed to die within ten days, his soul passing into the nkissi. It is into these figures that the nails are driven, in order to procure the vengeance of the indwelling spirit on some enemy.
In many cases the fetish spirit is believed to leave the "god-house" and pass for the time being into the body of the priest, who manifests the phenomena of possession (q.v.). It is a common error to suppose that the whole of African religion is embraced in the practices connected with these tutelary deities; so far from this being the case, belief in higher gods, not necessarily accompanied with worship or propitiation, is common in many parts of Africa, and there is no reason to suppose that it had been derived in every case, perhaps not in any case, from Christian or Mahommedan missionaries.
See A.B. Ellis, Tshi-speaking Peoples, chs. vii., viii. and xii.; Waitz, Anthropologie der Naturvölker, ii. 174; R.E. Dennett in Folklore, vol. xvi.; R.H. Nassau, Fetichism in West Africa (1904); also Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii. 143, and M.H. Kingsley, West African Studies (2nd ed., 1901), where the term is used in a more extended sense.
(N. W. T.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)