Power Figure (Nkishi) held at the Birmingham Museum of Art

An Nkisi (plural Minkisi, alternate spellings: Nkishi/Minkishi), literally translates as "sacred medicine". The term Nkisi is the general name for a variety of objects used throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa thought to contain spiritual powers or spirits (called "mpungo")[1]. In the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of Kongo was converted to Christianity, ukisi (an adverbial form of the noun) was used to translate "holy".



Close communication with the dead and belief in the efficacy of their powers are closely associated with minkisi in Kongo ritual. Among the peoples of the Congo Basin, especially the Bakongo and the Songye people of Kasai, all exceptional human powers are believed to result from some sort of communication with the dead. People known as banganga (singular: nganga) work as healers, diviners, and mediators who defend the living against witchcraft and provide them with remedies against diseases resulting either from witchcraft or the demands of bakisi (spirits), emissaries from the land of the dead.

Banganga harness the powers of bakisi and the dead by making minkisi. Minkisi are primarily containers - ceramic vessels, gourds, animal horns, shells, bundles, or any other object that can contain spiritually-charged substances. Even graves themselves, as the home of the dead and hence the home of bakisi, can be considered as minkisi. In fact, minkisi have even been described as portable graves, and many include earth or relics from the grave of a powerful individual as a prime ingredient. The powers of the dead thus infuse the object and allow the nganga to control it.[2]

Minerals were collected from various places associated with the dead, such as earth collected from graves and riverbeds. White clay was also very important in the composition of minkisi due to the symbolic relationship of the color white and the physical aspects of dead skin as well as their moral rightness. White contrasted with black, the color of negative ideas and concepts. Some minkisi use red ochre as a coloring agent. The use of red is symbolic of the mediation of the powers of the dead.

Often the contents of minkisi were not chosen for any sort of practical pharmaceutical use, but instead because their names sounded similar to the specific goals of the nkisi and illustrated a play on words. Among the many common materials used in the minkisi were fruit ("luyala" in Kikongo - which is similar to "yaala," which means "that it may rule"), charcoal ("kalazima" in Kikongo - which is similar to "zima," which means "that it may strike or extinguish"), and mushrooms ("tondo" in Kikongo - which is similar to "tondwa," which means "that it may be desired").

Minkisi serve many purposes. Some are used in divination practices. Many are used for healing, while others provide success in hunting, trade, or sex. Important minkisi are often credited with powers in multiple domains. Most famously, minkisi may also take the form of anthropomorphic or zoomorphic wooden carvings, and it is these that have principally interested art historians.


Minkisi and the afflictions associated with them are generally classified into two types. Some are "of the above," and some are "of the below." The "above" minkisi are associated with the sky, rain and thunderstorms. Those "of the below" are associated with earth and waters on land. The minkisi "of above" were considered masculine and were closely tied to violence and violent forces. They seemed to hold a higher importance; at least according to the masculine members of the culture who wrote on the subject.

Birds of prey, lightning, weapons, and fire are all common themes among the minkisi of the above. They also affected the upper body. Head, neck, and chest pains were said to be caused by these nkisi figures. Some figures were in the form of animals. Most often these were dogs, referred to as Kozo. Dogs are closely tied to the spiritual world in Kongo theology. They live in two separate worlds, the village of the living, and the forest of the dead. Kozo figures were often portrayed as having two heads. This was symbolic of their ability to see both worlds.

The purpose of the minkisi of the above was largely civil in nature. They were used to maintain order and seal treaties. Perhaps the most common use was the locating and punishing of criminals. These figures, known as nkondi (plural Minkondi) figures, were used primarily to hunt out wrongdoers and to avenge their crimes.


Female Power Figure (Nkisi Nkonde) held at the Birmingham Museum of Art

Nkondi are minkisi power figures with nails or blades driven into them. Healers drive nails into the figures as part of a petition for help, healing, or witness-particulary of contracts and pledges. The Portuguese missionaries brought images of Christ nailed to the cross and the martyr Saint Sebastian to the peoples of Central Africa, and experts believe that this iconography maybe have influenced nkisi tradition.[3]

Nkondi figures ranged in size from small to life-size, and contained medicines, usually hidden by resin fixed mirrors. Nkondi were usually in the form of wooden figures with open cavities in their bodies for medicines. The most common place for storage was the belly. The KiKongo word for belly is "mooyo," which also means "life," and is most likely the reasoning behind the placement of the medicines. Other common places for medicines included the head and in pouches surrounding the neck. A nkisi/nkonde figure without medicine is useless and serves no purpose. It is simply a container that gains its power from the medicine.

In most nkondi figures the eyes and medicine pack covers were reflective glass or mirrors, used for divination. The nganga could use the mirrors to look into the world of the ancestors. Some nkondi figures were adorned with feathers. This goes along with the concept of the figures as being "of the above," and associates them with birds of prey. Minkondi often have their right arm extended with a sharp blade grasped tightly. Nails and other bits of metals are often driven into the nkondi figures. Many of the explorers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries referred to minkondi as "nail-fetishes." Their lack of understanding caused them to completely ignore the real intentions and uses of the minkondi. The patrons of the nganga drove these nails into the figure to "awaken" the nkondi.

The creation and use of nkondi figures was also a very important aspect to their success. Banganga often composed the nkondi figures at the edge of the village. The village was thought of as being similar to the human body. The idea that the edge and entrances needed to be protected from evil spirits occurred in both the human body and the village. When composing the minkisi the nganga is often isolated in a hidden camp, away from the rest of the village. After the nkisi was built and the nganga had learned its proper use and the corresponding songs, he returned to the village covered in paint and behaving in a strange manner.

The unusual behavior was to illustrate the ngangas return to the land of the living. Prior to using the nkondi, the nganga recited specific invocations to awaken the nkondi and activate its powers. During their performances, banganga often painted themselves. White circles around the eyes allowed them to see beyond the physical world and see the hidden sources of evil and illness. White stripes were painted on the participants. Often the nganga was dressed similar to his nkondi. Banganga generally dressed in outfits that were vastly different than normal people. They wore ornate jewelry and often incorporated knots in their clothing. The knots were associated with a way of closing up or sealing of spiritual forces.


  1. ^ Nkisi in Palo Mayombe
  2. ^ Visona, Poynor, Cole, and Harris. "A History of Art in Africa," 2001.
  3. ^ Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Birmingham Museum of Art:Guide to the Collection. London, UK: GILES. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5. http://www.birminghammuseumstore.org/gutoco.html. Retrieved 2011-07-18. 

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