Yumboes: Senegalese Fairies?
The yumboes are fairies from the folklore of the Wolof people in Senegal, West Africa, on the coast near Goree Island. Yumboes are two feet tall and colored silvery white from head to toe. They are believed to be the spirits of the dead, and attach themselves closely to human families.
They live underground, beneath hills called the Paps. There are many hills named Paps across the world, so-called because they resemble the shape of a woman's breast. I found mentions of some in Senegal, including the Deux Mamelles.
Though the Yumboes have luxurious dwellings where they invisibly host amazing feasts, they eat by stealing human food and carrying it off in calabashes. At least they catch their own fish.
Yumboes appear occasionally in fiction, including the extended Harry Potter universe. In many ways, they're very similar to European fairies. The oldest mention I can find of them is Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology in 1828. All other descriptions of yumboes seem to be taken directly from Keightley's.
It bears mentioning that Keightley, a pioneer in the folklore field, was Irish. At least to my knowledge, he never studied African cultures in-depth. Most of the fairies in The Fairy Mythology are European, with Africa, Asia and the Middle East stuffed in at the end. His source for yumboes is "a young lady, who spent several years of her childhood at Goree" and who herself heard the story from her Wolof maid. This means that yumboes as we know them are from a third-hand account.
So I went looking for supporting evidence or any stories that might conceivably be about yumboe-like creatures. Unfortunately, much like my venture with pillywiggins (here and here), when I tried to find mentions of yumboes in Wolof folklore, I came up empty-handed. I couldn't even find mentions of the word in dictionaries. Quite a few sites claim that yumboe is a word from Lebou, a language closely related to Wolof, but provide no sources.
A Tumblr post said that the Wolof word "Yomba" means pumpkin, which checks out. The writer draws a connection between "yomba" and the yumboes' love for stealing humans' food. But that still leaves us with no dictionary mention of yumboes. I also found the word yomba defined as "cheap."
Incidentally, this post also pointed me towards a book of African-American tales, specifically "Mom Bett and the Little Ones A-Glowing" in Her Stories by Virginia Hamilton. The tale deals with tiny, glowing fairies who dance around a woman's garden. However, Hamilton comments, "Tales of fairies are few and mostly fragmentary in black folklore. This tale by the author is based on sparse evidence. The African American spirit world is one usually to be feared, and it deals mainly with witches, devils, boo hags, and ghosts."
That's not particularly encouraging.
What about the yumboes' other name, "bakhna rakhna" or the good people? Keightley seizes on this as a parallel to the Good Folk of European lore. I did find "baax" or "baah na" as Wolof words meaning good, which is close enough to "bakhna." However, I have not yet had luck with rakhna.
Taking another tactic, there are plenty of stories of spirit lore in Senegal. There are the jinné, derived from the Arabic jinn. People of Wolof and Lebou ancestry have a tradition of protective ancestor spirits, the "rab," or evil beings, "doma." Closer to the "little people" archetype is the konderong or kondorong. Like most elves and dwarves of Africa, the konderong are no more than two feet tall, with feet turned backwards. Their beards are incredibly long, and they often wrap them around their bodies to serve as clothes. According to David Ames, they can be rascally or dangerous, and serve as guardians of the wild animals. According to other authors, the kondorong might be known to cut off cows' tails or to be great wrestlers. One oral tale is called "Hyena Wrestles a Konderong."
According to Emil Anthony Magel, the konderongs' beards are white. A two-foot-tall creature wrapped in white hair sounds somewhat like the little white yumboes.
But as I kept researching, I thought that maybe yumboes could be related to the jumbee or jumbie. The jumbie is a terrifying figure, a kind of demon in Caribbean countries among people of African descent. It may be linguistically related to Bantu "zombie," Kongo "zumbi" (fetish), or Kimbundu "nzambi" (god).
That put me on a trail I could follow.
The Kongo word "vumbi", according to King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1998), refers to "ancestral ghosts" who were white in color, for their "skin changed to the color of chalk when [they] passed into the land of the dead."
And in Jamaica, "duppies" appear as ghosts, malevolent monsters, or - sometimes - fairylike little people, "white, with big heads and big eyes." They live in the branches of silk cotton trees, love singing, and have their own society with a king and queen. People leave out water or small pumpkins as offerings for them (Leach 1961).
Yumboes come from West Africa. Zombi/zumbi-type terms are spread over West and Central Africa and the Caribbean. Which raises the question... could yumboes be related to zombies?
PART 2: Yumboes and African Ghost Lore
There's a story about a tiny man who comes to the king's court. The man is so tiny that when he looks into a pot of porridge, he slips, falls in, and almost drowns.
Sounds like Tom Thumb, right?
Let's go back a little ways to an Irish tale - the Saga of Fergus mac Léti. This appears in the Senchas Már and its Old Irish glossings. The Senchas Már is a compilation of early Irish law texts from the 7th and 8th centuries. The brief poem about Fergus has to do with the restitution made after the murder of a slave, and mentions Fergus' own death by drowning.
The Irish glossings of the 8th century (MSS TCD H.3.18 and Harlean 432) go into more depth. Some water-sprites (known as the "lúchorpáin," or "little bodies") try to drag the sleeping King Fergus into the sea. He wakes up and catches them. In exchange for their freedom, they give him three wishes, including the ability to breathe underwater. However, they tell him never to swim in Loch Rudraige (or Lockrury). One day he disobeys them and finds a sea monster there called Muirdris, which leaves him with a disfigured face. His court attempts to hide this, but the truth eventually comes out when a slave woman named Dorn tells him the truth. In his fury, Fergus kills her, then returns to the loch, where he and the monster both die in a battle that leaves the loch red with blood.
Many scholars believe that this story of the lúchorpáin is the first mention of leprechauns.
Flash forward to the Irish manuscript known as Egerton 1782. This was written in 1517-1518 by the scribes of the O'Mulconry family and includes over sixty tales, poems, and miscellania. Among the tales is an expanded version of the death of Fergus mac Leti. This is a longer, more comical and sexual version that names the rulers of the Lupra and Lupracan: King Iubdan (pronounced Uf-don) and Queen Bebo (Bay-voe).
One day, Iubdan holds a banquet. Bebo sits at his side. All his strongest warriors are there, including a great strongman who's mighty enough to chop down a thistle at one stroke. The ale flows, people make merry, and finally Iubdan stands up and begins to shout, "Have you ever seen a king greater than myself?" No, no, he's the greatest king, he has the mightiest warriors, the finest army the world has ever known. But suddenly, the king's chief poet Esirt bursts out laughing. An incensed Iubdan is all set to have him arrested, but Esirt tells him of the land of Emania, where the people are like giants to them. Iubdan's mighty army is worth peanuts by comparison. Esirt goes there to prove that he's right, and the people there are astonished by the "dwarf that could stand on full-sized men's hand." They carry him in to Fergus' banquet table. Esirt refuses to accept any food or drink, so Fergus plops him into his goblet, where Esirt floats around and almost drowns.
They make amends, though, and at the end of three days, Esirt goes home along with Fergus' poet Aedh. Although Aedh is the king's dwarf, he still seems a giant to the Lupra people. Now Iubdan and Bebo set off. They want to visit the palace and try the porridge (which Esirt has mentioned) before dawn, so no one will see them. But they can't reach the top of the cauldron. Iubdan has to stand on his horse, finally gets over the edge, only to fall into the porridge and be trapped. Much drama ensues, with husband and wife wailing and singing poetically to each other, until morning comes and people find them.
They're taken to Fergus and remain his prisoners for a full year, until finally the Lupra-folk send an army to find them and offer a ransom. But Fergus will accept none of their offers, until Iubhdan gives him his greatest treasure in return for his freedom. This is a pair of shoes which allow a man to walk freely underwater. However, once again, Fergus swims in Lockrury and seals his own fate.
This story is recorded around 1517 - a century before the first existing copy of Tom Thumb in 1621, where Tom falls into a pudding and later makes his way to the court of King Arthur. In a later, expanded version around 1700, Tom twice goes to Fairyland and twice returns. The first time, he announces his arrival at court by plummeting into a bowl of frumenty - a dish of boiled, cracked wheat. Basically, porridge. (The second time, he has an encounter with a chamber pot, but let's not talk about that.)
In my opinion, there are two unique elements that typically characterize Thumbling tales. The story of Iubhdan and Bebo has both. One is the focus on a character's incredibly small size. The other is the swallow cycle.
In the swallow cycle, the character is swallowed by animals and gets out - often multiple times. Tom Thumb travels through a cow's digestive system; is gulped up a giant and spit out; is eaten by a fish and escapes when the fish is caught and cut open. In the Brothers Grimm, there are two Thumbling tales; the heroes are swallowed by cows, foxes and wolves. In one case, the tiny boy yells and complains from inside the cow's belly while it's being milked. In Japan, an oni tries to eat Issun-Boshi, only for the tiny samurai to come out fighting. As you go through Thumbling stories from different cultures, you'll find heroes again and again who are swallowed by cattle, lions, or other animals, and manage to get out one way or another. It's not unlike the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale.
Why exactly does this appeal to humans across so many countries and so much time? “The Catalan Versions of AaTh 700: a Metaphor of Childbirth," an article by Carme Oriole, suggests that the swallow cycle represents pregnancy and childbirth, particularly the way a young child would see it. (A toddler might hear "The baby is in Mommy's tummy" and think Mommy had eaten the baby.) This is particularly apt because most (but not all) thumbling stories begin with the hero's unusual conception and birth. Sometimes the conception is caused by the mother eating a fruit or seed.
But it's not just swallowing, it's immersion. Tom Thumb is immersed in a pudding and must break his way out. Similarly, the Grimms' Daumerling is cooked into a sausage.
For the Italian Cecino, immersion means falling into a puddle - and death by drowning. For Tommeliten or Tume in Norwegian tales, falling into a bowl of buttered porridge also means death by drowning.
Carme Oriole may be right. For the Japanese Mamesuke and the Norse Doll i' the Grass, immersion means falling into a bathtub or a river - and then rebirth. They become human-sized and begin life with their new spouse. In the expanded Tom Thumb, Tom nearly dies, and symbolically is reborn. He returns to the human world each time while being immersed in liquid (like porridge) and reemerging.
In most cases the immersion scene is meant as comedy. I don't think the storytellers put much thought into ideas of rebirth. Just "The little man is SO tiny, he falls into some soup and thinks he's drowning!"
And the story of Fergus mac Leti manages to fit in two immersions - one in liquor, one in porridge.
Although Iubdan and Bebo are little-known today, some writers have suggested that their story inspired Gulliver's Travels, and the scenes in Lilliput and Brobdingnag. (For instance, in the land of the giants, Gulliver is dropped into a bowl of cream and nearly drowns.) I think it's possible they influenced Tom Thumb as well.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.