Male Nkisi Figure with Strips of Hide, held at the Brooklyn Museum, CC
Nkisi (plural minkisi, zinkisi or nkisi [n- concords with mi-] according to dialect). The term nkisi is the general name for a a spirit, or for any object that spirit inhabits. It is frequently applied to a variety of objects used throughout the Congo Basin in Central Africa thought to contain spiritual powers or spirits. The term and its concept have passed with the enslavement of Africans into the Americas, especially South America (in Palo Mayombe the spirits of nkisi are often called “[…]”).
The current meaning of the term derives from the root, *-kitį- referring to a spiritual entity, or material objects in which it is manifested or inhabits in Proto-Njila, an ancient subdivision of the Bantu language family.
In its earliest attestations in Kikongo dialects in the early seventeenth century it was spelled “mokissie” (in Dutch), as the mu- prefix in this noun class were still pronounced, and was reported by Dutch visitors to Loango as referring both to a material item and the spiritual entity that inhabits it. In the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of Kongo was converted to Christianity, ukisi (a substance having characteristics of nkisi) was used to translate “holy” in the Kikongo Catechism of 1624. Continue reading