Yumboes and African Ghost Lore
Continued from "Yumboes: Senegalese Fairies?"
I first learned of yumboes from a folklore encyclopedia which described them as little fairy creatures with silver hair. When I searched for fairies and little people in Wolof and Senegalese folklore, I couldn't find any matches for the yumboes. It turns out that I was looking the wrong place. I found parallels when I looked for ghosts, gods, and ancestral spirits.
The Kongo people originally took European newcomers for vumbi, white-skinned ghosts. Not only were Europeans white, but when their ships appeared mast-first over the horizon, it could have looked as if they were rising up out of the underworld. And in Jamaica, the duppy folk, like the yumboes, are little white people who live in a society mimicking humans. They love singing and appreciate offerings of food.
Vumbis and duppies are both ghosts. Vumbi in particular seems like it could share a root word with yumboes. In many cultures, there's an overlap between fairies and ghosts. Yumboes are just on the ghost end of the scale.
What do we learn about them from Thomas Keightley's description?
The Mythology of All Races lists examples of African ancestral spirits where, in many cases, ghosts continue their existence exactly as they did in life. They have families and even young children. They keep dogs and cattle. Often, they do all of this in a realm deep beneath the earth. In one widespread tale, a hunter follows a porcupine down its burrow and finds an underground village. There, he recognizes deceased friends and relatives. Sometimes, by the time he returns to the living world, so much time has passed that his family has given him up for dead.
In one tale, while the Underworld is plentiful in food, it has no grain. The ghosts must visit the living world in animal form to steal from gardens. Elsewhere, the Chaga people believe that warimu will steal sheep or beer-making troughs. The living should leave offerings of porridge, beer or other food items for the dead. In some mythologies, the ghosts need and demand these offerings. In others, they just appreciate gifts.
These ghosts sometimes come out to dance and celebrate. Among the Wadoe, it was said that that when the ghosts gathered, you could hear their voices and drums. In Nyasaland and around Delagoa Bay, people might hear the spirits’ drums, horns and flutes, but it was impossible to find the source of the music.
Some Nyasaland ghosts haunted hills. Women who passed those hills might have their pots stolen by baboons, presumably the spirits in animal form. Any fruit taken from those hills will vanish into nothing. (Werner)
The Thonga people believed in ancestral spirits called shikwembu. Accounts varied: upon death, these spirits might go to an underground village where everything is white, or they might dwell in the sacred woods. They have families and homes just like living people – although they carry their babies upside down! They are short of stature (it's not said how short). (Junod)
Almost always, either the spirits or their homes are white. From the area of Lake Tanganyika, in the underground village of the fisinwa, their clothing and huts shine like the moon. (Mulland)
These are still sources written by colonizers, but they all back each other up and have clear parallels.
As Keightley mentions, in many African countries the color white is associated with the spirit world and death. These superstitions have had tragic results for people with albinism, who have been mistreated or murdered. In Zimbabwe, they were believed "to belong to both the living and the dead," and instead of dying, they would vanish into the bush. The funeral of anyone with the condition always attracted lots of attention. (Kromberg) In Tanzania, one woman with albinism described being bullied in school. Other children mocked her by calling her "zeru," a derogatory Swahili word originating from a term for ghosts. (BBC)
So here's what these spirits have in common:
Yumboes fit right in! Fascinatingly, they do have a lot in common with European fairies. The 17th-century story of the Fairy Boy of Leith, for instance, features people meeting beneath a hill for feasts and music, entering the secret dwelling through invisible gates.
I'm not sure whether it's an oversimplification to call these ancestral spirits 'fairies.' Yumboes are only categorized as such because Thomas Keightley included them in The Fairy Mythology. Note that he included "Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen" as Jewish spirits, and these are probably closer to demons or djinn than fairies.
I still haven't found "yumboes" under that specific name. One problem is that older Wolof folklore has been overwritten by Islamic beliefs. If you look for ghosts or spirits in modern sources, you'll find "jinne" instead. A secondary issue is that we don't know if "yumbo" is an accurate spelling, or even whether it might originate from elsewhere on the continent. Remember that this word was transmitted through multiple European sources before being set to print.
Still, I think we can consider the yumboes "rebunked."
Next step: find the source of their name. There are Wolof words like yomba (cheap) or yombe (either “wise,” or some kind of squash or gourd) - via the Dictionnaire Francais-Wolof. These look the closest to yumbo, but I don’t believe they’re related. I'm inclined to think yumbo comes from the family of jumbie, zumbi, or Nzambi - ghosts and gods - or maybe njuuma, a Wolof word for a mischievous little devil.
Do you have any guesses or evidence? Write in and let me know!
The Salvation of Mermaids
There's an interesting motif in folktales surrounding fairies' reaction to Christianity, and their hope for an afterlife. Norwegian folklorist Reidar Thoralf Christiansen categorized these as Type 5050, Fairies' Hope for Christian Salvation. You can find some of these tales at D. L. Ashliman's site. The story can vary widely, but generally - in tales collected from Sweden, Norway, and Ireland - a preacher tells the fairy that they will not receive God's salvation. The inconsolable fairy begins to weep and wail. However, in some versions, the preacher has a change of heart and gives them some hope.
Some fairies try to enter the church via subterfuge, by switching out a human baby for a changeling. In a Swedish tale, the human mother learns the truth on the way to her son's baptism, when the infant boasts to the other fairies, "I am off to the church to become a Christian." The Asturian xanas were known to try the same trick, according to Mitología y brujería en Asturias by Ramón Baragaño (1983).
This ties in with ideas of fairies' origins. In some stories, they are the spirits of the dead, particularly unbaptized children. The rusalka in Russian lore are the ghosts of drowned women. In another school of thought, fairies are fallen angels.
In the Irish tale "The Blood of Adam," the fairies cannot be redeemed because they are not of the human race for whom Christ died. But in Norway, the story of "The Huldre Minister" goes in the exact opposite direction. A minister seeking to convert the fairies is surprised when one knows the Bible as well as he does. This one claims that the fairies are the descendants of Adam - by his first wife Lilith instead of Eve. Lilith was not involved in humanity's original sin, so they don't need to be redeemed at all.
It seems like there's a particular theme of water spirits seeking redemption. The xanas live in rivers, and the fairy-salvation story is told of the Swedish Nack or Nickar, a water spirit. Even when they're not explicitly water fairies, they may appear by a river, as in one Irish story.
The idea of water spirits' salvation really takes form in stories of mermaids who lack souls. This theme appeared in the work of Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist. In his 16th-century work Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, he described four types of elemental beings: undines (water), sylphs (air), gnomes (earth) and salamanders (fire). Despite their powers, they lack the eternal soul that humans possess. The only way for them to acquire a soul is to marry a human being. Any children of this union would be born with souls. According to Paracelsus, the most common marriages were of humans to undines - as with Melusine or the nymph bride of Peter von Stauffenberg. There are echoes of folklore here, but he's definitely creating his own mythology.
In German, there's a word for marriage between a human and a supernatural being: Mahrtenehe. As pointed out by Claude Lecouteux, Paracelsus turns the Mahrtenehe motif on its head. In traditional lore, the supernatural being often leads the human to a new, eternal existence in another realm. In Roman myth, Cupid makes Psyche a goddess on Olympus, and in medieval legend, Sir Launfal's bride takes him away to Fairyland. Paracelsus, however, has the human guiding the elemental away from its heathen origins, to eternal life in Heaven.
Paracelsus' influence continued in works like The Comte de Gabalis (1670). This widely read French novel revolved around a secret society of mystics. They abstained from marriage, hoping to offer their service as husbands to nymphs. It is currently considered a satire of occult philosophy, but was taken seriously through most of its history and inspired the use of Paracelsian elementals in other literature, like the poem The Rape of the Lock. This led to many works where humans fell in love with elemental beings. One example is the ballet "The Sylphide."
Another is Friedrich de La Motte's famous 1811 novella, Undine, which concerns a water nymph marrying a human in order to gain a soul. If her husband is ever unfaithful, she will lose her soul again and he will die. It's basically an adaptation of "Peter von Stauffenberg" by way of Paracelsus.
These stories about soul-marriage are literary tales. I can't think of any stories from oral folklore that include this theme, except that in the Orkney Islands, the Fin-Folk could retain their youthful beauty only if they married humans. Much like the fairies mentioned earlier, the Fin-Folk had an uneasy relationship with Christianity. They couldn't live where the Gospel was preached, hated the sight of crosses, and a man could escape them by repeating the name of God three times. (Scottish Antiquary, 1891) (Folklore mermaids can vary wildly from cross-fearing murderesses to the churchgoing Mermaid of Zennor.)
There are stories like "The Peasant and the Waterman" from Germany and "Lidushka and the Water Demon's Wife" from Bohemia. In these tales, merfolk trap the souls of drowned victims underwater, but a visiting human opens the cages and frees them. Thomas Keightley suggested that this was inspired by older mythology of sea deities who took drowned souls to themselves.
Undine's successor was Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid (1836). Andersen didn't like Undine's ending, where the nymph depended on a human being for salvation, and had the Mermaid work her way to Heaven on her own merits.
"The Little Mermaid" inspired countless variations of its own, such as Oscar Wilde's "The Fisherman and His Soul" (1891). Robert Buchanan also used the soul theme for the asrai in "The Changeling: A Legend of the Moonlight" (1875).
Those last two toy with the inherent themes of the old folktale. "The Changeling" takes a dark, cynical view of humanity; the soulless nature spirits are far more virtuous than humans. "The Fisherman and his Soul," which deals with a human giving up his soul to be with his mermaid lover, celebrates love while raising questions about religion. In these stories, to be soulless is to be in a state of innocence rather than evil.
So, to recap: there have always been legends of marriage of humans to gods or other powerful supernatural beings. As Christianity became established, authorities demonized the old pagan gods and spirits. They were recreated as evil beings that feared the church even if they wanted to enter it. Paracelsus put his own spin on the story: these creatures had a shot at redemption by marrying humans, in which case they could earn their own soul. This inspired the tale of Undine, which inspired The Little Mermaid. More recent reactions, if they address this, tend to question established Christian ideas about salvation and the soul.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.