Sin and Atonement among the Gikuyu – Thahu


The Gikuyu believed in a supreme God who ­they called Ngai. Ngai lived in the mountains and his favorite abode was Mt. Kenya. Because the mountain peak has a brilliant patch of white snow, nyaga, he was often referred to as Mwene Nyaga, or possessor of brilliance. Ngai sometimes came down to view his creation, and he would make stops at his other three principle mountains, the Aberdares Range, the Ngong Hills, and the El Donyo Sabuk. He could also rest in big sacred trees, like the fig tree, Mugumo and the Mukuyu. Reasons for praying to Ngai were for instance a famine, drought, a disease that affected the tribe or such calamity. God never deals with individuals as he did with the first man and to get his favor, prayers were made to him in a communal fashion led by the elders who made sacrifices to him. The preferred sacrifice was a goat killed and roasted under one of the sacred fig trees. These trees were big and old and usually at hilltops so they stood out prominently in the Kikuyu landscape as the mobile telecommunication towers do today.

The spirits of the ancestors could also be prayed to and sacrifices were usually done in two ways. The first was to get blessings from benevolent spirits of the ancestors and the second was to ward off the action of malevolent spirits. The conflict between good and evil was a continuous state of existence and every Kikuyu wore charms in the form of beads or such to ward off evil spirits or to bring good luck. These charms were blessed by a medicine man, Mundu Mugo or the smith who fashioned them. The medicine man was consulted on all manner of things especially illnesses and he would prescribe herbal medicines or perform certain magical rituals. The medicine-man, Mundu Mugo, was a different personality and profession from the Seer, Murathi (Muraguri). The medicine-man was a doctor who used magical secrets and paraphernalia and could be compared to a modern medical doctor. A seer, Muraguri on the other hand was a prophet or shaman, who foretold the fortunes in the future by his ability to communicate with ancestors and God. A seer was consulted on the propitious times for certain actions like going to war or performing certain rituals. These seers were few in the tribe and were held at a much higher level in society than regular medicine-men who were everywhere in every ridge. Kenyatta gives an example of a famous seer as Cege wa Kibiru who prophesied the coming of the white man. The choice of a site for a homestead was made by the prospective builder of the homestead and he would usually consult a medicine-man on the appropriateness of the site and in the lack of prosperity later at a site, it was assumed that the place was not properly diagnosed or purified.

The moral ethic and code of behavior of the Gikuyu was however not governed by fear of a God or the action of spirits but largely by a system of taboo. There was a long list of dos’ and don’ts called thahu or abominables and lesser mugiro or prohibitions. There was a prescribed cause of action for undoing the expected ill-effects of breaking any one of the taboos. Many of them required a certain purification procedure sometimes by a medicine-man depending on the severity of the taboo broken and usually involved the sacrifice of a goat. Because of the heavy cost both emotional and economic of breaking taboos, behavior was thus controlled. When the cost of sinning was later devalued by the white Mundu Mugo, Mubia, to payment after death in a mystical so-called hell, the Gikuyu Pandora’s Box was opened.

These taboos for all manner of things may seem to us today as dealing with trivial matters but each prohibition was grounded in sound reasoning with the people’s protection in mind. For instance it was thahu for a child to fall off its mothers back and the punishment required purification ceremonies to the mother and child. It is obvious that such an ‘abominable thing’, or thahu was similar to the stringent specifications that are set out for the manufacture and sale of baby carriages today. Another thahu was, ‘it is thahu, for a lizard to fall into the fireplace in a hut’. The remedy for this thahu was for the entire hut to be demolished and a new one built. It looks like it was a drastic step to take to remedy a small matter but when considered more closely it turns out to have been anchored in sound reasoning. The fact that a lizard had found its way into the grass thatch was evidence that there were so many insects in the grass as to attract the lizards, so the argument went; and if there were insects, it meant that the smoke was not curing the grass enough to keep away insects and thus the grass must be rotting. Such a roof could not be trusted and had to be demolished at once before it fell on the occupants resulting in a greater tragedy. There were many taboos like these associated with the house and the homestead but many of them are not documented and are still in oral tradition form.

System of sin and atonement among the Kikuyu

System of sin and atonement among the Kikuyu

Breaking a prohibition, mugiro results in an unclean state of abomination, thahu which is removed through chastisement and sometimes involves a vomiting out ritual by the offender, gutahikio. This vomiting out ritual returns the offender back into the pure state of being.

Because a person dying inside the hut rendered it unclean, and the hut had to be burned down, when a person was believed to be close to death he was taken out and built a small shelter in the bush where he could be cared for till he died. Sometimes a person recovered and came back after the healing though he had to go through purification before acceptance back into the village or homestead. If he died inside the hut, his body had to be removed before the hut was burned down and since it was taboo to handle a dead body, a hole was broken in the back wall of the hut so that hyenas can enter and remove the body. Alternatively, a person who was untouchable by the thahu of a dead body was found and paid to remove the body.

A list of all the taboos and prohibitions is a tall order to compile but a sampling of the rules and regulations governing just the homestead and the house from Leakey and others is hereby given to illustrate the importance of the taboo system in the day-to-day maintenance of a Gikuyu homestead. There were several levels of severity of the prohibitions and while some were merely bad form, others required purifications by a Mundu Mugo. These were equivalent to modern building By-laws.

  1. It was forbidden for a hut to have two doors.
  2. It was taboo to lean a spear up against the roof of a hut. All spears had to be either stuck in the ground, or leaned against the fence or under the eaves. There was no penalty for breaking this taboo, but it was never done. Under no circumstance is a spear allowed inside the hut of a woman.
  3. The door is a sliding one and is not hinged and it must always be opened on the side that a man’s father and grandfather opened it. If a person opens it on the wrong side he must go out again, shut the door, and re-enter correctly: otherwise he may not eat any food in the hut.
  4. No one may close the door other than the owner of the hut. A visitor may open the door to enter, but closing the door must be left to the woman or her sons.
  5. A husband may not shut the door of his hut save on his wedding night.
  6. When entering a hut, a person had to pass and enter the kitchen space on the side of the fattening ram’s pen, gicegu.
  7. You may not keep standing inside a hut. If you do not want to sit then you must go and stand outside.
  8. It is taboo for young boys and girls to swing with the door lintel. They are wishing the death of their parents.
  9. It was taboo for a man to sleep on the side by the outer wall of his wife’s bed.
  10. It was taboo to start moving a woman’s hut to a new site while she was menstruating.
  11. It was taboo for a fire in a hut to go out at any time when beer was being brewed in that hut, or when any special ceremony or sacrifice was taking place in that hut or in connection with it.
  12. In no circumstances might all the fires in a homestead be allowed to go out together. For the purposes of this rule the sub­sidiary homestead of a married son attached to his father’s homestead counted as part of the main homestead.
  13. If a cooking pot cracked while food was being cooked in it, that food might not be eaten except by women past childbearing.
  14. If a woman was preparing castor oil from castor oil berries, and during the process of heating them over the fire, she either let them boil over or dry up in the pot, a purification ceremony and sacrifice was essential.
  15. Should anyone in anger or drunkenness pluck thatch from any hut in a homestead, a sacrifice and purification would be essential to avoid disaster.
  16. In a woman’s Nyumba, the head end of her bed was towards the thegi and the foot end towards the The head end of the girls’ bed was towards the gicegu and the fool; end towards the thegi (see Fig. 3.13). It was taboo for anyone to sleep in these beds except with their head at the head end of the bed.
  17. A circumcised man may not under any circumstance approach the side of his mother’s side of the kitchen or touch her bed.
  18. Young unmarried girls who are circumcised may not sit on the Kweru side of the kitchen but must sit on their bed side. All grown men had to sit on the Ruri side of the hut.
  19. There is only one fireplace in a hut consisting of three stones. In the event of a temporary secondary fireplace being created by the addition of a two more stones, the head of the family may not eat food from that secondary fireplace.
  20. If the fire drying rack above the fireplace, (itara) breaks and falls, a sacrifice must be done to replace it.
  21. It was prohibited to pass food through a crack in the wall of a hut. Such food had to be taken out and brought in through the door before it could be eaten.
  22. It is not permitted to pass food over the fireplace to a person on the other side, nor can food be taken around a pole. Food passed over the door may not be eaten by the head of the family.
  23. If anyone deliberately broke a cooking pot or a gourd in a homestead, the purification ceremonies and sacrifices involved the slaughter of seven goats and sheep,
  24. If a man or woman fell down within their own homestead, purification and sacrifice were necessary.
  25. If a bedstead broke when someone was sleeping in it, purification was required of the person.
  26. No one might touch or approach the garbage dump (kiara) of a homestead other than the members of that homestead. If they did so, purification would be necessary.
  27. If anyone, other than a child that had not been “born a second time,” or a very sick person, defecated within a hut or in the courtyard, a purification ceremony was essential.
  28. It was taboo to come into contact with the menstrual blood of any other person (something which could happen easily in a hut), and purification was necessary if this happened. (There were certain minor exceptions).
  29. In certain circumstances huts were pulled down and either left to rot or the materials stacked for future use; these circumstances were linked with death and divorce respectively.
  30. It was taboo for any person including a child to die inside a hut. In the event of such an occurrence purification of all the inhabitants of the hut was necessary and the hut demolished.
  31. If the child’s harness, ngoi was accidentally left outside overnight it must be beaten with a leather strap in the morning being asked, “where did you sleep?”
  32. If the owner of a homestead cut himself and drew blood either while in the homestead or when he was out in the fields, he had to sacrifice a goat or sheep for purification.
  33. If a hyena should enter a village or homestead and dung either in the open clearing of the entrance; area (thome) or in any courtyard (Nja), ceremonial purification was essential.
  34. If a hyena should enter a hut, a purification ceremony must be performed.
  35. If a jackal barked in the entrance area or in the courtyard of a homestead, a ceremonial purification was necessary.
  36. Should any beast—calf, goat, or sheep—suck or lick any part of a human in a homestead, that animal had to be sacrificed for a purification ceremony at the village of a relation-in-law.
  37. Should a toad, frog, or lizard fall or jump into the fire in the hearth of a hut, a purification ceremony was essential.
  38. If an owl hooted near a homestead, or worse still, perched on any hut or granary, purification was necessary.
  39. If a snake was killed within the confines of a homestead, a purification ceremony had to take place,
  40. It was taboo to kill a bird called (Cossypha or Robin chat), Kanyoni Kanja, within the confines of the homestead.
  41. If a kite, when flying over a homestead, let its droppings fall on any person, that person had to be purified, the manner of purification depending upon the sex of the person involved.
A medicineman performing the sin vomiting procedure. From Huxley, red Strangers, 1939

A medicine-man performing the sin vomiting procedure. From Huxley, Red Strangers, 1939

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4 thoughts on “Sin and Atonement among the Gikuyu – Thahu

  1. Wow!!!! Migiro na thahu nicio ciaturagia mitugo iitu gikuyu.The ministry of education directed all schools to teach vernacular languages.The school community should teach our young people on Migiro and reasons for this. Actually, we should contract(at a fee) our few remaining elderly citizens to teach our children on gikuyu culture and also teach youth on sex matters and the married youth on relationships.This would act as a double edge sword; pass on culture as the elderly earn a living from the fee.Otherwise western culture will finish us completely.

  2. I am amazed by so much I did not know!! I wish we could get someone to tell us more on these issues because I believe that things happen to us and we think ni kurugwo. Can the wise men I see in Njata TV help here? Have their talks recorded in such enlightenment articles. It could save people resources and time looking for cures that are within. We were a very wise community and we should retrace our steps to that wisdom. Is there a way we can create a resources pool to help us gather more info. Technology can help here. And… kudos to the founders! Continue with the mission!

  3. Gũtirĩ nganja nĩkũĩkaine wega atĩ Gĩkũyũ na Mũmbi nĩo aciari a rũrĩrĩ rwa Agĩkũyũ. No ningĩ ta ũrĩa tũĩ gutirĩ ũndũ ũkoniĩ kĩhumo kĩa Gĩkũyũ na mũtumia wake ti Mũmbi wanandĩkwo mabukuinĩ kuma tene ũcio wa agu tiga cia ndiganĩro kuma rũciaro rũmwe nginyagia rũrĩa rũngĩ.

    Kumanagia na ng’ano icio cia ndiganĩro,Gĩkũyũ ombirwo nĩ Ngai kĩrĩma-inĩ gĩa Kĩrĩnyaga mĩaka-inĩ ĩyo ĩtoĩkaine. No gũtiũikaine Gĩkũyũ aikarire na Ngai Kĩrĩnyaga mĩaka ĩigana. No gũtirĩ nganja nĩ maikaranĩtie nake kahinda karaya akĩmũthomithia ũrĩa agĩrĩirwo ni gũikara na gũtũũra namũno migiro ya muikarĩre. Ũguo nĩ takuga maũndũ marĩa Ngai agirĩtieeke kana ekage nĩguo amũgocithie.

    Nĩ gwakinyire kahinda Ngai agĩta GĩkũyũKĩrĩma-inĩ gĩa Kĩrĩnyaga akĩmũonereria na kaara gake harĩa egũthie gutũũra na gwaka mũciĩ wake. Gĩkũyũ agĩcũthĩrĩria na onagũtuĩka harĩ handũ haraya ma, nĩ onire atĩ harĩ handũ hathaka ma hena mĩtĩ mĩingĩ mĩnene. Na Ngai akĩmwĩra atĩ akinya, harĩa ekuona mũtĩ mũnene mwake nĩ tũnyoni tũingĩ twa nyagathanga nĩho egwĩka mũciĩ wake.

    • Thank you Nathan, The readers of this site are from all over the world and many appreciate when the information is in the English language. Your comment is however appreciated greatly by those who can read it.

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