Shetani – The Spirit of East African Mythology and Popular Belief

Shetani – The Spirit of East African Mythology and Popular Belief

Shetani (both singular and plural in English; plural as Mashetani in Swahili) are the spirits of the dead in East African mythology and popular belief. They are often malevolent and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Tanzania, Mozambique, and Kenya’s Makonde people are particularly fond of crafting Shetani figurines. Shetani come in various forms, some of which appear to be twisted human and animal forms.

Shetani are still revered in East Africa, and reports of their appearances come and go with the seasons. Zanzibar suffered a Popo Bawa panic in 1995, while Dar es Salaam did it in 2007.

Makonde illustration of Shetani in an elephant form
Makonde illustration of Shetani in an elephant form

George Lilanga (1934 to 2005), an artist of Makonde carvings, sculpture, and arts, achieved international fame for his shetani sculptures and paintings. Tanzanian master carver Samaki Likankoa was the primary inventor of the shetani style in the early 1950s. Mohamed Peera, an Indian art curator, influenced many Makonde carvers, including Samaki. From the early 1950s to the 1970s, he was a pivotal figure in the abstract Shetani Makonde movement.

Etymology of Shetani

Shetani (plural Mashetani) is a Swahili term used in numerous East African nations to describe. Mostly hostile indigenous Islamic spirits derive from the Arabic word Shaitan, which means devil or, more precisely, adversary. The term is synonymous with the English word “Satan,” which originates in the same Semitic language.

Nature and the numerous types of Shetani come in various forms and sizes, each with its own distinct set of qualities. These animals come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes: abstract, animal, anthropomorphic, and more. While the Shetani may be one-legged or exhibit cyclopean characteristics, they all have an essentially human shape, an archetypal human figure found throughout the world.

“One eye, toothless, gaping mouth” and a hunched-over figure with its head turned in the opposite direction are all examples of often carved features in ebony or African blackwood.

Shetani is Classified Into Numerous Subtypes

It is not uncommon to encounter the dangerous Ukunduka, which survives solely on sexual activity, the camouflage-loving carnivore Shetani, with its exaggerated lizard characteristics, or the medicinally useful Shuluwele, which collects plants for sorcerers’ use.

Popo Bawa (bat-wing): A spirit associated with “dirt and violent sodomy”. Accompanied with the odour of burned sulphur is one of those truly horrible persons who retain their reputation to this day.

According to the BBC, “many Zanzibaris are now reluctant to sleep in their dwellings, believing that it solely preys on humans in their beds.” The majority of its victims are believed to be male, and some believe it sodomizes them.

Shetani’s Cult

Shetani belief is a pre-Islamic tradition that has been resurrected in modern times. Possession and exorcism by Shetani are not unique to the Makonde people of Tanzania, who have a long history of sculpting. Tanzania’s Segeju people recognize eight or ten unique spirit tribes, each with their name and characteristics.

According to the Bradt Travel Guide to Zanzibar, “there is no genuine defense against being harassed or abused by a shetani.” Remain out of their way and prevent them from entering your home by hanging a sheet of paper decorated with Arabic verses from the ceiling. In Zanzibar, practically every home and shop has one of these brown, speckled shreds fastened to a roof beam with a bit of cotton.”

Arts and Popular Culture

From forgeries of “airport art” to beautiful works in the Hamburg Mawingu Collection, Shetani’s representation in the burgeoning Makonde sculpture trade continues.

George Lilanga
George Lilanga

George Lilanga was a sculptor and Tanzanian artist of the Makonde tribe. He was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. International exhibits of modern African art, including Africa Remix in Düsseldorf, Paris, London, and Tokyo, have featured his work.

Lilanga participated in a 1970s show of African painters in Washington, D.C. 185 of the 280 items on show were created by Lilanga. On this occasion, he was compared to Jean Dubuffet.

Young American graffiti artists looked up to Lilanga, Keith Haring, and confessed that his work had influenced him in an interview.

Lilanga’s exhibitions initiated a long-term trend: As he travelled across continents, including Africa, Europe, the United States, India, and Japan, his paintings gained prominence. Throughout the 1980s, he concentrated almost solely on painting. Two-dimensional replicas of his Shetani were created using Masonite and Faesite. The Hamburg Mawingu Collection assembled a thorough and systematic collection of Lilanga’s work following his death.

The Extinction Zone

In Alan Dean Foster’s 1986 horror/fantasy novel “Into the Out Of,” the Maasai elders knew that a global catastrophe was looming south of them in Tanzania’s Ruaha wilderness. The world is being overrun by Shetani, who originates through a portal known to the Maasai as the “Out Of” (since everything originated “out of” it), and are making their way here. Apart from causing general havoc, the Shetani are aiming to spark a confrontation between the superpowers. Suppose the borders between the two realms are not restored. In that case, untold legions of Shetani will take over the planet, enslaving the few humans they spare.

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