The myths and rituals of Fipa society associated with smelting iron can enrich our understanding of ancient Greek cultural patterns related to metallurgy, according to a recent book. Sandra Blakely, an associate professor of classics at Emory University, focuses her book primarily on the daimones, the metallurgy gods of ancient Greece. A significant portion of her work, though, is also devoted to the Fipa and several other contemporary African societies that have developed highly effective forging technologies.
Literature about each of these societies, she argues, provides instructive information about the religious, mythical, sexual, cultural, and social contexts of forging and metallurgy. The ethnographic material, travel reports, church archives, and other information about smelting in Africa suggest ways to study the metallurgy of ancient Greece as well as the associated rituals, songs, and magic of the Greeks. Within that context, the fifth chapter in the book is an interesting exploration of iron ore production in Ufipa, the land of the Fipa people in southwestern Tanzania.
The economic basis of Fipa society was their practice of advanced mound agriculture, which encouraged them to develop a complex social system based on stable, permanent communities. They constructed their large, raised beds with broad hoes that they themselves forged. Their iron tools, produced for over 2,000 years, were also important items in their trading networks.
However, the British colonial government suppressed the indigenous production of iron in the 1930s. The British tried to revive it briefly after World War II, in response to post-war iron shortages, but the revival failed. Iron production has since been continued only as reenactments in museum-like settings.
The Fipa furnace, constructed near a village when there was a need to smelt iron, was treated as a bride, with symbols, bawdy songs, and rituals appropriate to the bridal status. The chief smelter, who had a part-time position in the village, maintained a ritual chest of medicines, the Ntangala, which he used in healing rites as well as in the construction of the furnace.
The Ntangala chest contained an amazing array of materials: a bit of gazelle bone, powder from the mkurungu tree, sand from Lake Tanganyika, python droppings, pieces of a vulture, and so on. The chief smelter led complex rituals and enforced numerous taboos associated with the veneration of the Ntangala chest. People who had eaten pork were not to approach it; it could not be kept in a house where intercourse took place. If the chest was angered, it had to be appeased with gifts.
The selection of the furnace site, construction of the 2.75 to 3.75 meter high furnace, and the process of loading it with fuel and ore were all accompanied by complex rituals that purified the workers and insured the success of the smelt. When the foundation for the furnace was being prepared, for instance, small children, who were considered to be ritually pure, circled the spot in a clockwise direction to lay medicinal preparations made from the bark of all the different species of trees growing in the area. The small strips of bark were removed only from the east and west sides of the trees, so as to not harm them, and they were laid cut-side up, so that the spirits of the trees would move up through the furnace and assist in the smelt.
After nine days, when the furnace had dried, the small children carried the Ntangala from the chief smelter’s house, where it normally rested in a place of honor, to the new furnace. The children placed medicines in the furnace, brought chickens for sacrifice, and the chief smelter supervised loading in and layering the iron ore and charcoal. The furnace was lit.
It roared for 24 hours as it smelted slag that trickled out the exit holes at the bottom into big fans several centimeters thick. These slabs of soft iron slag were then broken up and put into a refining crucible. About 10 or 12 baskets of the slag would be produced by a good smelt, each of which would be sufficient for the production of one good hoe.
The refining crucible separated the purified iron from the ore. The Fipa viewed the refining crucible as a mother and treated it with rituals appropriate to that function. It even had some physical manifestations of a woman’s body—lumps of clay showed her legs, for instance. The heat in the crucible that produced the refined metal and the heat of a woman in labor seemed analogous to the Fipa.
The various taboos related to the refining crucible were not always effective, of course. In cases of failure, the Fipa sought explanations in possible violations of proper behaviors. The refining crucible could fail because someone in the area had eaten the honey from wild bees, or someone had committed adultery. The chief smelter would examine all the workers carefully and fine them if they had violated any of the strict prohibitions.
Blakely provides effective analyses of the symbolism associated with every aspect of the process. Color symbolism, for instance, “informs the smelts, and is part of a polarity in Fipa cosmology between intellect, spirit, upper regions, and the male, represented by the color white, and sexual energy, labor, violence, lower regions, and the female, represented by red” (p.118-19). She points out that obscene songs inverted the ordinary rules of Fipa behavior; their metaphors for sex helped the people navigate the boundaries within their culture.
While the primary focus of the book is on the Greek metal forging gods and the culture associated with them, chapter five examines one of the major economic, social, and cultural activities of Fipa society that persisted until about 70 years ago. Since there is a dearth of published information about recent Ufipa, however, it is not clear how much, if any, of the symbolism and beliefs that Blakely discusses are still accepted by the Fipa today. Up to date scholarship on current Fipa society is desperately needed.
Blakely, Sandra. 2006. Myth, Ritual, and Metallurgy in Ancient Greece and Recent Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press