The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Baboons are the animals most especially identified with witchcraft throughout Africa, alongside bats, hyenas, and owls. Historically and currently, baboons are understood to serve as witches’ familiars or mounts, or even to be witches themselves.
Although an accident of alphabetical order, for a variety of reasons, it is fitting that an encyclopedia of witchcraft’s selection of featured animals should begin with the baboon:
According to Egyptian myth, a baboon deity is responsible for the invention of magic
Few other animals, perhaps only cats or wolves, can demonstrate so powerfully how a creature once beheld as sacred, powerful, valuable, and god-like can become diabolized and perceived as worthless, embarrassing pests
Persecution of baboons because of their perceived identification with witchcraft didn’t end thousands or even hundreds of years ago, but continues today
Baboons are descended from Old World monkeys. There are two sub-species, gelada and savanna, with the savanna baboons further divided into five sub-species: Chacma; Guinea; Olive; Yellow; Hamadryas (the sacred or dogfaced baboon).
Gelada baboons are found only in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, and the formerly sacred hamadryas is now endangered. However on the whole, baboons are the most successful of all Africa’s monkeys and are widely distributed throughout the continent. They are also found on the Arabian Peninsula.
Their very proliferation has caused them to be exterminated as vermin, with some communities offering a bounty on their heads. (Ironically, once upon a time baboons were sacred symbols of fecundity.) Biologists who specialize in baboons frequently spend considerable time convincing local farmers not to shoot baboons on sight.
Farmers very often dislike baboons, perceiving them as competition. Baboons are smart, aggressive, organized, and clannish—and they want to feed their families. They’re wary, suspicious, and may take flight easily; however don’t mistake that for being intimidated. As wild territory becomes scarce, rather than retreating baboons, unlike some other animals, will enter human territory looking for food, “stealing” fruit and produce as well as the occasional baby goat. Associations with witchcraft do not increase their popularity.
Male baboons possess something of a reputation as belligerent brawlers, although recent studies indicate that this reputation may not be entirely deserved, or at least not as across-the-board as once perceived. They certainly look fierce, possessing huge, sharp canine teeth, which they display as a sign of aggression and dominance.
When it comes to discussing or observing baboons there’s little avoiding the topic of sex, as their genitalia tend to be particularly prominent. No Viagra needed here: it apparently takes very little stimulus for the male baboon to display and maintain an impressive erection—particularly noticeable with the hamadryas, whose luxuriant mane doesn’t cover his private parts or his vivid red behind. Baboons greet each other via genital presentation (inspection). Hans Kummer, author of In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, suggests that the animal’s lunar associations derive from the females’ round genital swellings, which fluctuate in monthly rhythms similar to those of the moon and, by extension, women’s menstrual periods.
Baboons feature prominently in Egyptian mythology. Whenever Egyptian myth discusses baboons, the reference is always to hamadryas, which look different from other baboons, more canine, whereas the others appear more monkey-like. Hamadryas baboons are impressive, regal creatures possessing a square, very symmetrical head, often literally a “blockhead.” Males have a flowing leonine mane. They resemble some kind of composite creature: part dog, part lion, part human and part monkey, which must have increased their appeal to the Egyptians. (All types of baboons are identified with witches, however, as are mandrills, once believed to be a baboon sub-species but now shown to be genetically distinct.)
Hamadryas baboons no longer exist in Egypt due to hunting and loss of habitat. It is believed that they were never indigenous to Egypt but were imported from the mysterious land of Punt, now understood to be somewhere in the Horn of Africa. However, the Egyptians must have been aware of hamadryas baboons from an extremely early historical stage, as two of Egypt’s most ancient deities share their shape: Thoth and Babi.
Lord Thoth was understood to be the supreme god Ra’s right-hand man. Ra is the sun; Thoth is affiliated with the moon. Thoth rides through the skies as protective escort for Ra’s solar barq. Baboons share Thoth’s solar and lunar associations. Similar to roosters and crows, baboons greet the sun with noisy chatter.
Living hamadryas baboons were perceived to be either potentially a manifestation of Lord Thoth or a member of his retinue, hence deserving of respect. Many baboons spent their lives housed in temple complexes. Allegedly, Egyptian priests tested male baboons by placing writing implements before them. If the baboon ignored them he was revealed to be nothing more than a baboon; if however he picked one up and began scribbling, perfectly feasible for this highly intelligent, manually dexterous creature, he was then consecrated to Thoth or Ra.
Thoth’s nature is calm, rational, and sharply intellectual. He is what is known as a “cool” deity: he doesn’t anger easily, thinks before reacting, argues rather than attacks, and can be depended upon to defuse volatile situations. For instance, during a mythological episode when Ra’s daughter Sekhmet descended to Earth in an uncontrollable murderous rampage that none of the other gods could stop, it was Thoth who was ultimately successful in disarming her and leading her back home.
Whether Thoth is capable of cooling down his fellow baboon spirit (or perhaps alter ego) Babi is unknown. Babi (a.k.a. Baba) is a similarly primordial god, from whose name the word “baboon” derives. Lord of the Night Sky, Babi is called the Bull of the Baboons, meaning he’s the pre-eminent alpha male. Essentially he is the god of testosterone.
Babi is fierce, aggressive, and belligerent; no peacemaker, he steals offerings from other spirits. He’s blood-thirsty, devouring human entrails as snacks. A terrible, fearsome deity, Babi was also a role model to which one might aspire. He was very specifically a role model for the pharaoh, who prayed to possess Babi’s power, ferocity, instant reactions and, not least, his virility.
Babi controls the darkness. His phallus serves as the bolt on the gates of heaven. The boat that ferries souls to the next life uses Babi’s phallus as its mast. Although Babi was recognized as a destructive force, allied with the equally volatile spirit Seth, his powers were also perceived as potentially beneficial. Various magic spells exist to protect oneself from Babi; others seek his aid. (Babi had no formal cult; his relationships with people derive entirely through magical action, including spells and amulets.) Babi wards off snakes, controls darkness and turbulent waters. An alliance with him offers safety and protection—provided you can stay safe from him.
Different Egyptian deities were affiliated with various parts of the human anatomy for purposes of healing; Babi, no surprise, heals afflictions of the penis. He is also Master of Sex in the after-Life. (Egyptians expected to enjoy all the pleasures of Earth in the next life, too, not least a healthy sex life.) Men were buried with magic spells identifying their sexuality with Babi’s, so that they’d retain their virility after death.
Perceptions change. In medieval Europe, the hamadryas baboon became a symbol of lust as deadly sin. Baboons in general came to represent evil spirits. Perhaps most insulting, baboons, whose form once graced the Lord of Wisdom, became identified with his opposite: today if you’re called a big baboon, it’s an insult, no ambiguity about it.
Associations of baboons with witchcraft are not only ancient or medieval but also current. South Africa has been plagued with witch-burnings in recent years. Various incidents featuring baboons are indicative not only of cruelty but of the negative passions still inspired by witchcraft. As an example, in March 1996 a baboon was spotted in a village in Mpumalanga Province. A woman announced loudly that this baboon was a witch. A crowd then chased the baboon into a tree, from whence a man grabbed it, swinging it around violently until the baboon became dizzy and disoriented. The baboon was flung to the ground and beaten with iron bars. Gasoline was poured over it and a rubber tire was placed around the baboon, which was set aflame. The woman who first identified the baboon as a witch claimed that it was a particularly huge baboon. When the flames burned out, the corpse was discovered to be small; this perceived transformation, combined with the lengthy time the baboon took to die, was recognized by some as sufficient proof of witchcraft.
See also: DIVINE WITCH: Seth; Thoth; HALL OF FAME: Hermes Trismegistus.