Togo. Beyond mere numbers

The Wachi, an ethnic group in southern Togo. They are agriculturalists and live off the products of the land. The cosmological and religious thinking of this group contains an infinity of symbols. Let us take a glance at the numbers that mean much more than a way of counting.

Among the important numbers some are especially so. Number three, for example, indicates stability. They say: “A stool needs at least three legs to stand up”. Three is also the number of virility, of the child born by breech delivery (ago) and of the sky (masculine).
The earth, a feminine entity, is associated with the number four (imperfect), but ‘reaches’ number seven – the synonym of perfection and the symbol of fertility being conjoined to the sky and may, consequently, give humankind all that it needs. Even the voodoo of the lightening (hebiesso) cannot launch its arrows to kill someone unless it ‘reaches’ the number seven; in other words, if the power of the earth (four) does not join that of the sky (three).


Three is the number of years a novice voodoo spends in the sacred compound, before his initiation is complete. The rite agbozuugbe (“the immolation of the rams”) takes place on the “third day”; the rite of ahzuadagbe (“preparation for war”),
which ends the ceremonies required for the erection of the mound of the voodoo, is celebrated on the seventh day. The novices must spend either four or seven months in the sacred compound before making their ‘exit’ and returning to their families.

‘Six’ envies ‘seven’

The number six, on the other hand, seems to be ambiguous. As it is a multiple of three, it possesses positive aspects of power, solidity and stability, as well as great equilibrium (also properties of the voodoo ago). Compared to the number seven, the symbol of absolute perfection, it is ‘abnormal’ and signifies something unusual. The number six ‘envies’ number seven and wants to take its place, so denoting that it despises itself and seeks perfection. The symbol of the incomplete, it is master and king of disorder and the monstrous.


If there is no seven present, the six takes command. Besides, every reality must pass through the six “before reaching seven”: if there were no disorder, even order could not be perceived and venerated as perfect. Tied to the sun at its zenith, six is ‘hidden’ in a pelvic membrane and wants to come out of its ‘shell’. It is therefore connected with the toxosu children, those born with serious deformities. These ‘monster’ children are associated with the waters of pools and rivers and are ‘returned’ by drowning them in those waters and afterwards taking back their bodies to render to them the cult of the nesuxue rite. These children of ‘strange’ appearance, are manifestations of a voodoo that behaves ‘strangely’, also called toxosu.


The times and rhythms of the voodoo rites directed to him are also ‘peculiar’, as is the style of dress of his followers: nudity (unacceptable to other sacred entities) is permitted to the men and women ‘consecrated’ to him who must wear an ‘outlandish’ hat of felt, in the European style, for the final three or seven months of the initiation period, before putting away the ‘sacred insignia’ and dressing like others (‘the laity’).
The number seven has a role in the rite of videto (“emergence of a child” after its birth): in fact, there is much coming and going to be done from the hut to the courtyard, bearing the newly-born child, before it can be officially accepted by the community of the family and the clan. “Counting up to seven” is required in carrying out various rites of initiation and in sacrifices. Four is considered the number of the femininity of the earth. Four is also the number of days the girls spend in catalepsis in the sacred hut called a hudo, before initiation. The males, instead, observe this ‘sacred death’ for seven days.


The geomantics or technique of divination which permits having revelations about the mysteries of life and prognosis concerning fecundity from signs marked on the ground or positions of places with relation to the stars, enjoys as many as sixteen principal representations, each of which develops into 15 sub-representations (called vikle). The total number is 256, a ‘magic’ number, the symbol of fecundity, of that which is ‘manifest’ and ‘must come to pass’.
Another meaningful number is sixteen: there are many months in the traditional calendar (some, however, are believed to be ‘non-fertile’ so counting begins with the fifth month (when the Pleiades appear).


Thirty-three appears frequently in the rites of the Ajà divinity: considered a repetition of three, it affirms the stability of life which, without sufficient knowledge of ajà, would always be at the mercy of chance, obscurity and misfortune.
Forty is the symbol of suffering, confinement and change. Forty (or, more appropriately, ‘forty-one’, where the one is required by the legba, a chaotic entity and ‘secular arm’ of the law which strikes and kills in the name of the voodoo) is the number of shells that form the necklace consigned to the initiates as they leave the sacred compound; there is a similar number of illnesses that the voodoo may send on a recalcitrant or a person who, whether aware of it or not, infringes its laws or refuses to be initiated; there are also forty-one ‘abnormal’ ways of being born. (B.G.)


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