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!
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.