Colin Turnbull (R685, R686), the major ethnographer of the Mbuti, suggests that in the fire dance women assert their prior claim to the fire of life and their ability to destroy and extinguish life. However, he asks, was the old woman really destroying the fire? Perhaps when she kicked the fire in all directions among the men she was giving it to them, to gather, rebuild, and revitalize the fire with the dance of life. In discussing these ceremonies, Turnbull suggested to me the possibility that they symbolized the transference of power from women to men. As he put it, “Women have the power which they give to men for them to control” (personal communication). If this is indeed the case, and it is difficult to be sure, then whereas in some societies men take power from women, Mbuti women give power to men (Sanday R588 23).
Explaining to Colin Turnbull the reason for the molimo ceremonies, held when the Mbuti feel that all is not well between themselves and the forest, upon which they depend for everything, an old Mbuti man said: “The forest is a father and mother to us and like a father or mother it gives us everything we need food, clothing, shelter, warmth . . . and affection”. Normally everything goes well because the forest is good to its children, but when things go wrong there must be a reason. Things go wrong, the old man said, at night when the people are asleep, when no one is awake to protect humans from harm. At night army ants may invade the camp or leopards may come in and steal a hunting dog or even a child. The old man said that such things would not happen when people are awake. Thus, he reasoned, “When something big goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children.” Because things go wrong when the forest is ‘asleep,’ the forest must be ‘awakened’ so that it looks after the interests of the people. The old man said: “We wake it up by singing to it, and we do this because we want it to awaken happy. Then everything will be well and good again. So when our world is going well then also we sing to the forest because we want to share our happiness. One way the Mbuti ‘awaken’ the forest is to sound the molimo trumpets. These trumpets are referred to as ‘the animal of the forest’ and are kept from the sight of women, who are supposed to believe that the sound of the trumpet is made by an animal and that to see the trumpet would bring death. It is also believed that the women used to possess the molimo trumpets and that they were stolen from them by the men. This is the main reason why the women must be barred from viewing the trumpets. Were they to have access to the trumpets, it is thought, the women might try to seize them from the men (Sanday R588 187).
A ceremony called the ‘lesser’ molimo is held when hunting is bad. This ceremony involves men alone. After supper the women and children are bundled away safely in the huts and the men prepare for a night of eating and singing to the forest. When the men sing in the camp, the sound of the trumpets echoes the men's song from the depths of the forest. Sometimes the sound of the trumpet is that of an angry animal who will endanger the lives of women and children. Other times the trumpet's sound is mournful and pleads with the forest and men for food. The trumpets are fed food and water and passed through the flames of the molimo fire in an act that signifies the male role in copulation . These acts suggest that men are responsible for the well-being and fertility of animals. The ‘lesser’ molimo ceremony is one of the few times when men and women are separated and men imitate a dominant role. This ceremony signifies the responsibility of men in connection with animals and the hunt. Women and children are bundled off into the huts in order to protect them from the dangerous forces emanating from the forest world during the night. The animal nature of men is expressed in the association of the trumpets with masculinity and animality. The manipulation of the trumpets during the ceremony, however, indicates also that with the aid of their forest, men are meant to control animal nature for the good of the community.
The idea that the trumpets were stolen from women suggests that it was from women men believe they found the means to control the destructive forces that stalk the forest at night and that it was from women they received their animal nature. Stealing the trumpets implies also that masculinity must be aggressively separated from femininity, that men in order to be powerful and to have control must take these rights from women by force.
The whole community participates in the ‘greater’ molimo, a ceremony held when hunting is bad, someone has died, there is widespread sickness, and death seems to rule life. In this ceremony the Mbuti conception of male and female is thrown into sharp relief. While the ‘lesser’ molimo is spoken of as ‘waking’ the forest, the ‘greater’ molimo ideally is a festival of joy. The purpose of this ceremony, Turnbull says, is to symbolically establish the triumph of life over death. The focal role in this ceremony is played by an old woman This woman, together with the nubile girl with whom she dances, symbolizes the forces of life and of death. The old woman is referred to as ‘mother,’ the same term used to address the forest in its capacity as giver of life and death. In her ceremonial acts the old woman symbolizes these two forces. When she stamps out the fire, the symbol of life, she enacts the meaning of death. When she scatters the embers and allows the fire to be revitalized and rebuilt by the men, she enacts the transference to men of the role they are to play in connection with life. The men revitalize and rebuild the fire with a dance that simulates copulation. Turnbull says that fire is primarily connected with women; the hearth is often referred to as the vagina. When the men rebuild the fire and sing to the forest, they are serving as agents for restoring order. Women, on the other hand, appear to be placed in the role of either giving or taking life. They do not, at least within the framework of the molimo ceremonies, act as mediators between positive and negative forces. The symbolism of the old woman tying the men with a roll of twine suggests that in their role as life takers women have ultimate control but that this control is inimical to the survival of the group. When the old woman ties the men, they stop singing, which means that the male capacity to rejuvenate the forest has been bound. The men say: “This woman has tied us up. She has bound the men, bound the hunt, and bound the molimo. We can do nothing.” By untying the men the old woman gives them control once again. But in order to be freed the men must admit that they have been bound and they must give the woman something as a token of their defeat. Once she has been given an agreed-upon quantity of food and cigarettes, the old woman unties each man. As each is untied, each begins to sing again. Once more the molimo is free.
Turnbull says that the molimo festival serves as an integrating factor in Mbuti life. It also expresses the latent antagonisms that exist between the sexes while uniting the band in a common expression of their dependence upon the forest. The molimo forces “an acknowledgment of the most basic dependency of all, that of life and death”. The molimo is also an enactment of the interdependence between male and female. The latent antagonism between the sexes to which Turnbull refers could be viewed as an expression of the basic antithesis between forces meant to give as well as take life (associated with females) and forces meant to regenerate the forces of life from those of death (associated with males). The molimo expresses the double nature of women as well as of men. Men and women stand for life and death in different ways, women more directly than men. Men regenerate life in the ‘greater’ molimo and enact the role of destructive animality in the ‘lesser’ molimo. Though the old woman's superior position is assured by the deferential behavior of the men, it is the ceremonial give-and-take between male and female and between men and the forest that controls and harmonizes opposing forces in the Mbuti forest world.
Blood symbolizes both life and death. As noted previously, menstrual blood in particular symbolizes life. The blood that comes for the first time to the young girl comes as a gift, received with gratitude and rejoicing, because she is now a potential mother and can proudly take a husband. The girl enters seclusion, taking with her all of her friends. Here they celebrate the happy event and are taught the arts and crafts of motherhood by an old and respected relative. They learn to live like adults and to sing the songs of adult women. Pygmies from all around come to pay their respects, because for them this occasion is one of the happiest, most joyful occasions in their lives.