Born Again in the motherland

In Dahomey mythology the abiku (“one who is born, dies”) is a type of otherworld being, part human and part spirit, which is locked into a continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This belief is particularly strong in southern Nigeria where it is said the abiku begins the cycle in the spirit world; there, among its companions, it makes a pact to leave the realm but sets a date on which it will return. The abiku enters the world via a woman’s womb and is given birth from her; it then lives a short life, willing its own death to happen before the abiku can complete a full and natural life-cycle; the process is then repeated, with the abiku often returning to the world by use of the same mother.

While it is alive in our world, the cantankerous abiku has great power over its parents, who live in constant fear of its too early demise. Typically, this creature is seen as having a mental state somewhere between eccentric and insane as it is often observed having long conversations with its invisible spirit companions. Prone to fights and unpredictable behavior, this creature is also perennially sick and in need of ongoing medical attention. Should the creature die within days of its birth the body must be whipped into a mutilated condition in order to prevent it from returning—especially to the same mother.

It is possible to sever the link the abiku has with the spirit world and permanently bind it to its earthly home if its magic token is found and destroyed; this item is said to be buried in a secret location in a remote area. Another method is to find the abiku’s “sealed words,” its secret oath containing the circumstances, method, and time of its return to the spirit world. If a babalawo (witch doctor) can discover this item, he will be able to break the abiku of its death wish. There are some tales of an abiku choosing to break its own sacred oath in order to remain in the world of the living; when this occurs its spirit world companions will try to lure it back, first by means of persuasion and then by force.

The West African Yoruba translation for abiku means “children born of the spirit world” or “ancestral soul being reborn” (see ANCESTRAL SPIRIT). Here, the belief is that an abiko is the returning soul of a child who died prematurely. Mothers will cut a notch in the ear of a child so if it should die they will have an easier time finding it upon its return.

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