Hausa animism, Maguzanci or Bori is a pre-Islamic traditional religion of the Hausa people of West Africa that involves magic and spirit possession. While only a part of the Hausa people (mostly within urban elites) converted to Islam before the end of the 18th century, most of the adherents of the religion did the same between the jihad started by the Islamic reformer Usman dan Fodio around 1800 and the middle of the 20th century, while a small minority converted to Christianity.[citation needed] Religious affiliation to this traditional religion is virtually nonexistent at the beginning of the 21st century; however, Hausa animism and Islam among Hausa people have coexisted for centuries, and some practices related to animism carry on locally.


Bòòríí is a Hausa noun, meaning the spiritual force that resides in physical things, and is related to the word for local distilled alcohol (borassa) as well the practice of medicine (boka).[1] The Bori religion is both an institution to control these forces, and the performance of an "adorcism" (as opposed to exorcism) ritual, dance and music by which these spirits are controlled and by which illness is healed.[2]

Pre-Islamic Hausaland

An aspect of the traditional Maguzawa Hausa people's religious traditions, Bori became a state religion led by ruling-class priestesses among some of the late precolonial Hausa Kingdoms. When Islam started making inroads into Hausaland in the 11th century, certain aspects of the religion such as idol worship were driven underground. The cult of Tsumbubura in the then-Sultanate of Kano and many other similar Bori cults were suppressed, but Bori survived in "spirit-possession" cults by integrating some aspects of Islam. The Bori spirit possession priestesses maintained nominal influence over the Sultanates that replaced the earlier Animist kingdoms. Priestesses communed with spirits through ecstatic dance ritual, hoping to guide and maintain the state's ruling houses. A corps of Bori priestesses and their helpers was led by royal priestess, titled the Inna, or "Mother of us all".[3] The Inna oversaw this network, which was not only responsible for protecting society from malevolent forces through possession dances, but which provided healing and divination throughout the kingdom.

Post-Islamic and contemporary practice


Muslim scholars of the early 19th century disapproved of the hybrid religion practised in royal courts, overzealous Muslims were to use this hybridization as an excuse to overthrow the Sultanates and form the Sokoto Caliphate.[4] With the birth of the Caliphate, Bori practices were partially suppressed in Fula courts. Bori possession rituals survived in the Hausa refugee states such as Konni and Dogondutchi (in what is today southern Niger) and in some rural areas of Nigerian Hausaland. The powerful advisory roles of women, exemplified in the Bori priestesses, either disappeared or were transferred to Muslim women in scholarly, educational, and community leadership roles. British and French colonialism, though, offered little space for women in the official hierarchies of indirect rule, and the formal roles, like the Bori, for women in governance largely disappeared by the mid 20th century.[5]

In modern Muslim Hausaland, Bori ritual survives in some places assimilated into syncretic practices. The ranks of the pre-Muslim "babbaku" spirits of the Maguzaci have been augmented over time with "Muslim" spirits ("farfaru"), and spirits of (or representing) other ethnic groups, even those of the European colonialists. The healing and "luck" aspects of the performances of Bori members (almost exclusively women) provide new social roles for their rituals and practitioners.[6] Bori ritual societies, separated from governing structures, provide a powerful corporate identity for the women who belong to them through the practice of traditional healing, as well as through the performance of Bori festival like the girka initiation ritual.[7]


The beliefs espoused by Bori-Islam about a person are similar to the multipart soul concept found in other cultures. In the body of each person, there is the soul, residing in the heart, and the life, which wanders about inside the body. They have a bori of the same sex, which is an intermediary between the human and the jinn. Between puberty and marriage, most have a second bori, of the opposite sex, which most be consulted before marriage to prevent the fallout of its jealousy, as it has intercourse with the human as they sleep. In addition to all this, there are two angels over a person's left and right shoulders, recording their evil and good thoughts.[8]


There are many spirits connected to people, animals, plants, and big rocks. The two personal ("friendly"[9]) bori are like the qarin, which does not come into being until after the person it's attached to is born, as that is when a person's sex is known ( one of these qarin-like spirit is of the opposite sex). All these- people, animals, plants, and big rocks- have a permanent soul (quruwa), two attendant angels, and a bori of the same sex.[10]

There are other bori not directly connected to living people, such as those which are or are inspired by Muslim saints, well known jinn, embodiments of other tribes, ancestors, the spirits of infants, totems (such as animals), and gods.[9] The bori are like humans, but they are not human, and they are not visible in human cities. They are considered both above humans, in heaven (because they are sometimes conflated with angels), and below humans in the earth.[11] The bori, like people, keep cattle, though this does not prevent them from bothering human herds.[12]

These spirits can cause illness are placated with offerings, sacrifices, dances, and possession rites where dancers specially prepare to ensure being "ridden" has no ill effects. Their permission must be asked before constructing buildings, and neglect and unintentional slights may anger them. They can be entreated to help in tasks, such as finding treasure,[9] and with solving fertility issues. In the latter case, the bori ask God's permission to intervene.[13] The bori are everywhere, but are more concentrated near temples, where they can be imprisoned within. Certain bori may prefer to stay in specific areas, such as drains.[9]

Incense attracts the bori,[14] and they do not like iron.[15] Fire is not a bori, and bori do not like fires or live in them, as it would burn them. However, the bori can simply go over fires, so fire is not a ward against them.[16] It is considered good to give as much of an offering as one can afford, because the bori love the generous and take care of them.[17]

Precautions are taken so unfriendly bori don't possess fetuses.[9] One method to protect newborns is to buy a black hen at around 7 months in, and to keep in the house till the baby is born. It is thought any bori lingering will possess it and lie in wait for the birth. It is then set free in the Jewish quarter to get rid of the unfriendly bori. This method is borrowed from Arabs.[18] A young child may be protected by their mother calling them Angulu (vulture, which bori are thought to find disgusting, though this is also the name of a bori), and acting as though she'd be glad of her child was gone, as bori take children to punish their mothers.[19]

If a person yawns without covering their mouth, they must spit afterwards, as doing so may accidentally cause one to let in a bori. Sneezing is thought to expel a bori that has entered someone without their knowledge, and this is part of why a person gives thanks to God after they sneeze. For this reason, the bori do not like pepper.[20] The sound of laughter attracts the bori, the merriment of laughing excites them, and the open mouth, just as with yawning, allows them entry.[12]

One story of the creation of the bori spirits says that God created everything, and at first the bori did not exist. However, some people did wicked things, and God turned some of these people into half men-half fish, and the rest were turned into bori. They were further cursed to stay in the same state; old bori never die, and young bori never age to become old.[11]

Known bori include:


As of the 1910s, totemism had limited importance and recognition. When it was recognized, each clan had a totem, regarded as sacred, which was connected to a patron bori.[22] Both would be referred to as "kan gida" (head of the house).[23] Children inherited the bori of their fathers, though they may also honor their mother's. Women kept their totems even after marriage, and husbands had the choice of if they would allow her to sacrifice near their home (which was more common) or if she needed to return to her father's home. One was free to marry someone with the same or different totem.[22]

The totem tree (connected to either the bori or the totem animal) was never cut, and the totem animal was never eaten. The totem animal was only allowed to killed around harvest time by the chief men of the clan. They would smear the blood on their faces, particularly the forehead (associated with the bori). The head of the animal was sundried and put in the chief's home until it was replaced next year. The rest was buried. Everyone would bathe at least three days before, and was absintent until a day or two after the ritual. Accidentally killing the totem at other times was not punished. Intentionally killing the totem would result in death, potentially caused by the totem's bori. Eating it, even accidentally, would cause illness.[22] A bori ceremony may be held a few days after the ritual totem kill.[23]

Incense may be used to summon totems, and different incenses are used for different animals.[14] Most totem animals appear in bori dances.[15]


As of the 1910s in Tunis and Tripoli, there were bori houses (temples) with appointed priestesses, and a chief priest and priestess of West African origin. The priestess must be able to speak Hausa so she can direct performances, and she must be abstinent. She was usually a widow or divorced. The chief priest does not need to speak Hausa, and must be honest and of good judgement. Neither position is hereditary.[24]

Once one has human permission to build a house, they go to the building site and offer a sacrifice. This will always involve a white hen and a red rooster (only the bori Kuri and Mai-Inna accept these). If one can afford it, they also sacrifice a male goat, and if one is wealthy, they sacrifice a bull (all bori accept either). The blood is spilled on the ground for the bori. The future homeowner and friends eat the flesh. Another hen and rooster sacrifice is done when one moves in. The same is done when building a farm, though the goat is more optional. When moving into an already built house, one sacrifices a hen on the threshold.[17] Similarly, when digging a well, a person would have a diviner go to the desired area, and they would use charms to point out a good dig site. The digger would sacrifice two foul and start digging.[25]

In Nigeria, as part of the home building, one may set apart a building where incense offerings were done each Thursday, which summons the bori from anywhere in the world. Two foul were sacrificed on anniversaries of the home building. By the 1910s, this practice had ceased among Nigerian Hausa Muslims, and was not relevant to Hausa Muslims in Tunis and Tripoli, as they were not allowed to build their own homes.[17]

Grace is said before and after meals, but thanks is not given to the bori during this.[20]

Different issues regarding bori may be resolved in different ways. For example, a bori may cause a false pregnancy where a woman gains weight for 9 or more months. This usually happens because a jealous woman or disappointed lover entreated a bori to do so, and can be hard to solve as bori lie about their identity to diviners, making it hard to know which is responsible. Another instance is if a woman struggles to conceive, she serks help from a boka or mallam. She burns incense for three days in a row, and breathes it in as she prays to God, Mohammed, Kuri, and other bori. This process may be intended to clear her of evil influence.[18] An unwed girl's male bori may cause her period to stop suddenly to keep her from marrying and leaving him. When this happens, attempts are made to placate the bori in other ways.[26]

A child who cries all the time is afflicted by a bori (usually Sa'idi) and the curative method is to hold the child over incense until it quiets.[21] To protect a child from the Yayan Jiddari, ground nuts and sweets are placed by their head for three nights. After this, the treats are taken to a Mai-Bori, who places them in a pot for a few days. They will be eaten by the bori and vanish. If a childdoesnt develop properly, a Mai-Bori or Boka is consulted to find out the bori responsible, and the bori is sacrificed to. If a saint (marabout) is involved, the mother and other womem of the house may take the child to their tomb. There, they light a candle, burn incense, and rub the child with either the blood of a sacrificed white cock or with dirt from near the tomb. After this, another candle is lit and more incense is burnt. A gift is given to the tomb's caretaker as well.[19]

Attendants to bori dances dress in their best things.[27]

The dancer who is possessed ("ridden") is called a horse. During possession, only the spirit speaks, and the human is not held responsible for what occurs during possession.[15] When one wants a bori to enter, such as at this time, one does not say "thanks be to God".[20]

Black male goats are preferred sacrifices.[12] However, chickens, guinea fowl, and pigeons are also used, though turkey and ducks aren't.[28]


  1. ^ H. R. Palmer. "'Bori' Among the Hausas". Man, Vol. 14, 1914 (1914), pp. 113–117.
  2. ^ Lewis, Al-Safi, Hurreiz (1991).
  3. ^ Variations included Iya, Magaram, and Magajiya. See Bergstrom (2002).
  4. ^ Robinson, David, Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge, 2004), p. 141.
  5. ^ See Bergstrom (2002)'s discussion of this, particularly under the Zinder caliphate in Niger.
  6. ^ Umar Habila Dadem Danfulani. Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria.
  7. ^ Masquelier, Review (1992).
  8. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 19.
  9. ^ a b c d e Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 20–23.
  10. ^ Zwemer, Samuel Marinus. Influence of Animism on Islam. pp. 114–115.
  11. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 27–28.
  12. ^ a b c Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 88–89.
  13. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Bam of the Bori. p. 95.
  14. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 47–48.
  15. ^ a b c Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 51.
  16. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 86.
  17. ^ a b c d e Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 71–72.
  18. ^ a b c Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 96–99.
  19. ^ a b c d e Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 104–105.
  20. ^ a b c Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 78–79.
  21. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 102.
  22. ^ a b c Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 32–35.
  23. ^ a b Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 44–45.
  24. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 30.
  25. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 84.
  26. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 109.
  27. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. pp. 64, 67.
  28. ^ Tremearne, A.J.N. Ban of the Bori. p. 91.

Further reading