Signs and Symbols in African Art: Graphic Patterns in Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Lobi life is dominated by thila, (sing. thil) or spirits. These are invisible beings with supernatural powers or abilities. The individual thil may give a group of people rules for behavior through a diviner, creating what in Lobi country constitutes a community. The group of followers of a particular spirit form a congregation or a community in which all inhabitants are followers of the spirit. A thil can punish a single person or an entire village that fails to obey the rules it has established. These rules are called soser, or prohibitions, and may include rules for proper and smooth functioning of life in a community, effectively providing the social glue that is otherwise provided by a chief in centralized political societies. Rules may include the type of clothing worn, the type of food eaten, the species of animals that may be or may not be hunted and eaten, abstinence from sex during certain times, and especially certain types of sacrifices. While such seemingly trivial rules for social behavior may have little impact on the life of the community, they do provide visual evidence of cohesion. In contrast many other rules about relationships between people, between the sexes, between the natural and supernatural world, about working together for the common good, and between the community and the outside world, provide in a real way the social glue of the community.

The village thil creates through these rules the social and political order as well as the feeling of togetherness and trust, which is so necessary in order for the people to live, and in light of the production techniques used in the fields and houses (and earlier in war) to work together efficiently (Meyer 1981: 2).

Wathila (sing. wathil) are encountered in the bush by men, women, or children who may find a strange object, usually made of iron, which he takes to a diviner who says that it belongs to a wathil that has appeared to the person and that the spirit wants to enter his home and receive sacrifices from him. The person then builds a shrine in the courtyard of his house or on the roof, which includes a pot for sacrifices to which is added the iron object or the stone the person found. 

These spirits are normally invisible. We may feel their power in the heavy downpour of a summer thunderstorm, or in the frightening isolation of a forest, but we cannot see the spirits or communicate with them. The solution is to make the spirits visible through wooden figures called boteba.

Burkina Faso; Lobi peoples

Bateba (figure)


H. 64 cm. (25")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.342

The wooden figures become living beings, with the ability to move, strike out against evil, especially witches, as soon as they are dedicated to the thil by being placed on a shrine. Unlike thila (spirits) the boteba (wooden figures) have a physical being or bodies which they can use as humans do, to fight evil. They can strike witches with their fists.