The Purrah

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The Purrah

A former secret society of the Tulka-Susus, a tribe whose members dwelled between the Sierra Leone river and Cape Mount in West Africa. The Tulka consisted of five small communities which together formed a kind of republic. Each group had its own chiefs and council, but all were under a controlling power that was called the purrah. Each of the five communities also had its own purrah, from which was formed the great or general purrah, which held supreme sway over the five bodies.

Before an African could join a district purrah, he had to be thirty years of age, and before being received into membership of the great purrah, he had to have reached the age of fifty. Thus the oldest members of each district purrah were members of the head purrah. On desiring admittance to the examination for the district purrah, the relations of the candidate had to swear to kill him if he did not stand the test, or if he revealed the mysteries and the secrets of the society. The explorer Leo Frobenius stated:

"In each district belonging to a purrah there is a sacred grove to which the candidate is conducted, and where he must stay in a place assigned to him, living for several months quite alone in a hut, whither masked persons bring him food. He must neither speak nor leave his appointed place of residence.

"Should he venture into the surrounding forest, he is as good as dead.

"After several months the candidate is admitted to stand his trial, which is said to be terrible. Recourse is had to all the elements in order to gain satisfaction as to his firmness and courage. We are even assured that at these mysteries use is made of fettered lions and leopards, that during the time of the tests and enrolment the sacred groves echo with fearful shrieks, that here great fires are seen at night, that formerly the fire flared up in these mysterious woods in all directions, that every outsider who through curiosity was tempted to stray into the woods was mercilessly sacrificed, that foolish people who would have penetrated into them disappeared and were never heard of again.

"If the candidate stands all the tests, he is admitted to the initiation. But he must first swear to keep all the secrets and without hesitation carry out the decisions of the purrah of his community and all the decrees of the great head purrah. If a member of the society betrays it or revolts against it, he is condemned to death, and the sentence is often carried out in the bosom of his family. When the criminal least expects it, a disguised, masked and armed warrior appears and says to him:

" 'The great purrah sends thee death!' "At these words everybody stands back, no one dares to offer the least resistance, and the victim is murdered.

"The Court of each district purrah consists of twenty-five members, and from each of these separate courts five persons are chosen, who constitute the great purrah, or the High Court of the general association. Hence this also consists of twenty five persons, who elect the head chief from their own body.

"The special purrah of each community investigates the offenses committed in its district, sits in judgment on them, and sees that its sentences are carried out. It makes peace between the powerful families, and stops their wranglings.

"The great purrah meets only on special occasions, and pronounces judgment on those who betray the mysteries and secrets of the order, or on those who show themselves disobedient to its mandates. But usually it puts an end to the feuds that often break out between two communities belonging to the confederacy. When these begin to fight, after a few months of mutual hostilities, one or other of the parties, when they have inflicted sufficient injury on each other, usually wants peace. The commune repairs secretly to the great purrah, and invites it to become the mediator and put an end to the strife.

"Thereupon the great purrah meets in a neutral district, and when all are assembled announces to the communes at war that it cannot allow men who should live together as brothers, friends and good neighbors, to wage war, to waste each others' lands, to plunder and burn; that it is time to put an end to these disorders; that the great purrah will inquire into the cause of the strife; that it requires that this should cease and decrees that all hostilities be forthwith arrested.

"A main feature of this arrangement is that, as soon as the great purrah assembles to put a stop to the feud, and until its decision is given, all the belligerents of the two districts at war are forbidden to shed a drop of blood; this always carries with it the penalty of death. Hence everybody is careful not to infringe this decree, and abstains from all hostilities.

"The session of the High Court lasts one month, during which it collects all necessary information to ascertain which commune caused the provocation and the rupture. At the same time it summons as many of the society's fighting-men as may be required to carry out the decision. When all the necessary particulars are brought in, and everything is duly weighed, it settles the question by condemning the guilty commune to a four days' sack.

"The warriors who have to give effect to this decision are all chosen from the neutral districts; they set out by night from the place where the great purrah is assembled. All are disguised, the face being covered with an ugly mask, and armed with lighted torches and daggers. They divide into bands of forty, fifty, or sixty, and all meet unexpectedly before dawn in the district that they have to pillage, proclaiming with fearful shouts the decision of the High Court. On their approach men, women, children and old people, all take to flight, that is, take refuge in their houses, and should anyone be found in the fields, on the highway, or in any other place, he is either killed or carried off and no more is ever heard of him.

"The booty obtained by such plundering is divided into two parts, one of which is given to the injured commune, the other to the great purrah, which shares it with the warriors that have executed its decree. This is the reward for their zeal, their obedience and loyalty.

"If one of the families in a commune subject to the purrah becomes too powerful and too formidable, the great purrah meets, and nearly always condemns it to unexpected sack, which is carried out by night and, as usual, by masked and disguised men. Should the heads of such a dangerous family offer any resistance, they are killed, or carried off, and conveyed to the depths of a sacred and lonely grove where they are tried by the purrah for their insubordination; they are seldom heard of again.

"Such, in part, is the constitution of this extraordinary institution. Its existence is known; the display of its power is felt; it is dreaded; yet the veil covering its intentions, decisions and decrees is impenetrable, and not till he is about to be executed does the outlaw know that he has been condemned. The power and reputation of the purrah is immense, not only in the home-land, but also in the surrounding districts. It is reported to be in league with the spirits (instead of the devil).

"According to the general belief the number of armed men who are members and at the disposal of the purrah exceeds 6,000. Moreover, the rules, the secrets and the mysteries of this society are strictly obeyed and observed by its numerous associated members, who understand and recognise each other by words and signs."

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The Purrah

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