Sacred Metal

The status of the blacksmith in tribal societies poses one of the most puzzling problems of anthropology. By a strange paradox, this noted craftsman, whose bold and meritorious services are indispensable to his community, has been relegated to a position outside the pale of society, almost as an “untouchable.” Regarded as the possessor of great magical powers, held at the same time in veneration and contempt, entrusted with duties unrelated to his craft or to his inferior social status, that make of him performer of circumcision rites, healer, exorcist, peace-maker, arbiter, counsellor, or head of a cult, his figure in what may be called the “blacksmith complex” presents a mass of contradictions – Laura Makarius, ‘The Blacksmith’s Taboos: From the Man of Iron to the Man of Blood’, 1968.

As it happens, in Mande culture it is the smiths who make all the sculpture, and they own and operate, as administrators, chief priests, and horizontal mask dancers, the powerful Komo secret initiation association – Patrick R. McNaughton, ‘From Mande Komo to Jukun Akuma’, 1992.

Mastering the sacred is a social practice—a performance art of persuasion, imbuing the mundane with a sense of awe and otherness, in ways that are not uncommonly deceptive and self-interested. Men sanctify their labors and their property and monopolize their consecrations with force, as their domination of supernatural forces invites competition and resentment.

The occupation of the blacksmith in small-scale societies can tell us much about men and their pretentions to the control of esoteric knowledge, and from the Mande blacksmiths of West Africa in particular there is much we can learn.

Ubiquitously across societies, metalworking is a male dominated behavior. Yet this is not merely an inevitable, nature-endowed monopoly men enjoy but one they may consciously act to protect, through secrecy or coercion if necessary. Anthropologist Patrick McNaughton writes that among the Mande, “Women in the [heredity] blacksmith clans own the rights to make pottery. Men nearly monopolize wood carving and absolutely monopolize iron working.”

Before we get to how iron working is monopolized, let us consider what Mande blacksmiths actually do. McNaughton provides an extended description of the central role blacksmiths play in Mande society,

We can begin with craft and art, the most material manifestations of blacksmiths’ expertise. We have seen that smiths make nearly every wood and iron product used in Mande society. Many of their products, such as furniture and farming tools, are utilitarian. Many of them, such as komo masks and iron alter staffs, are also sacred and supercharged with potent occult forces. Even in instances, such as boat making or leather working, where smiths are not the manufacturers, they make the tools the manufacturers use.

In a realm that uses material elements to achieve nonmaterial ends, smiths are masters at other types of manufacture. As herbalists they make medicines to improve the physical state of their clients. As soothsayers they use a variety of natural materials to make prophecies and proffer explanations regarding the present and future state of things. As circumcisers they use the human body to make fundamental changes in the human condition that affect forever the social and spiritual domains in which men operate.

Finally, in a realm that ignores material and balances spiritual and social elements, blacksmiths are masters at making, verifying, and helping to enforce arrangements among people. Their counsel is sought in important family and community matters. Their wisdom is sought when people compose new social or political alliances or break society’s rules, and it is sought again when parents consign their sons to the smiths who govern komo associations, where the youths’ education and socialization proceeds in earnest. With komo as our example we see how any of the works of smiths can blend into a single arena, because here sculpture is used, amulets are made, and soothsaying transpires, all with the goal of transforming boys into men (McNaughton, 149).

Amidst this description illustrating the central, prosocial role of the blacksmith in Mande society, the allusions to the komo association hints at a much more complex character. McNaughton writes that,

Many Mande believe a legendary smith named Ndomajiri created the ntomo association, which provides an arduous, trying, and sometimes painful program of socialization. Indeed, this boys' association is the first organized effort on the part of society to make irresponsible male children into responsible male adults. As part of that process the neophytes are at a certain point led to the bush and forced to confront what is for them at their age and stage of cultural development a most horrifying instrument. They are visited by a monstrous horizontal mask, which belongs to one of the most powerful secret Mande initiation associations, komo. It consists of enormous jaws, huge horns, and all kinds of organic matter, apparently held together by what looks like a surface of filth. This unsavory creature seems clearly to be in its own domain, wild space, and it suggests with graphic force the kinds of problems antisocial citizens are likely to encounter. In spite of its obvious social dislocation, it appears on behalf of society to encourage youth in their proper development, thereby adding confusion to fear. Since their earliest days these boys have heard about komo. They have been told that it kills sorcerers and any intemperate soul who sees it without being initiated into its cult. Gradually, as they grow older, they learn that the mask and its association articulate concepts about nature, the spirit world, sorcery, and the nature of people and society, and they come to see the mask in a wholly different light. At this first sighting however, they understand very little about the beast. They do know, however, that the mask and the association are things of blacksmiths, the same group of people who will circumcise them and the protect them from the operation's hazards, who will provide them the tools of their trade and possibility visit sorcery upon them. It is easy to see why people view smiths with ambivalence (McNaughton, 19).

Elephant Mask ,  Komo  society

Elephant Mask, Komo society

McNaughton also describes the insular secrecy of the endogamous blacksmith clans, writing that,

In the minds of most Mande, and certainly in the minds of the blacksmiths, endogamy (with its corollary, inherited membership) is a primary characteristic of the nyamakala [specialized professionals] group. While anyone can leave one of these special professions to become a carpenter, a modern mechanic, a government employee or anything else one likes, only children born to families that belong to these professional clans can take up the trades their parents practice. It is first of all a matter of corporate identity and of monopoly. A tremendous body of technical expertise is associated with each trade, and it must be learned over many years of apprenticeship that traditionally begin before the novice turns ten. That makes it inconvenient for outsiders who might want to enter these professions. Then there is the matter of special attributes. Nearly everyone believes that members of these special clans possess a mysterious spiritual power that underpins occult practices and makes the people possessing it potentially dangerous. These powers go well beyond the practice of the clan's special trade, but they are also considered essential to anyone who takes it up. Often members of these clans go to great lengths to nourish a belief in their power among the rest of the population. Indeed, they generally believe in it themselves. Furthermore, they say they are born with much of this power. It is part of their heritage and one of the things that makes them so different from everyone else. That too creates a profound handicap for any outsider who might want to earn a clan's special trade (McNaughton, 3).

Underneath the secrecy we find once again coalitions of men monopolizing esoteric knowledge for themselves and their lineage, with the concomitant benefits and dangers this may incur.