Leo Frobenius  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Leo Viktor Frobenius (29 June 1873 - 9 August 1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist and a major figure in German ethnography.


Due to his studies in African history, Frobenius is a figure of renown in many African countries even today. In particular, he influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude, who once claimed that Frobenius had "given Africa back its dignity and identity." Aimé Césaire also quoted Frobenius as praising African people as being "civilized to the marrow of their bones", as opposed to the degrading vision encouraged by colonial propaganda.

On the other hand, Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 Nobel Lecture, criticized Frobenius for his "schizophrenic" view of Yoruba art versus the people who made it. Quoting Frobenius's statement that "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness," Soyinka calls such sentiments "a direct invitation to a free-for-all race for dispossession, justified on the grounds of the keeper's unworthiness."

Otto Rank relied on Frobenius' reports of the Fanany burial in South Africa to develop his idea of macrocosm and microcosm in his book Art and Artist (Kunst und Künstler [1932])

“Certainly the idea of the womb as an animal has been widespread among different races of all ages, and it 'furnishes an explanation of (for instance) the second burial custom discovered by Frobenius along with the Fanany burial in South Africa. This consisted in placing the dead king's body in an artificially emptied bull's skin in such a manner that the appearance of life was achieved. This bull-rite was undoubtedly connected with the moon-cult (compare our "mooncalf," even today) and belongs therefore to the above-mentioned maternal culture-stage, at which the rebirth idea also made use of maternal animal symbols, the larger mammals being chosen. Yet we must not overlook the fact that this "mother's womb symbolism" denotes more than the mere repetition of a person's own birth: it stands for the overcoming of human mortality by assimilation to the moon's immortality. This sewing-up of the dead in the animal skin has its mythical counterpart in the swallowing of the living by a dangerous animal, out of which he escapes by a miracle. Following an ancient microcosmic symbolism, Anaximander compared the mother's womb with the shark. This conception we meet later in its religious form as the Jonah myth, and it also appears in a cosmological adaptation in the whale myths collected in Oceania by Frobenius. Hence, also, the frequent suggestion that the seat of the soul after death (macrocosmic underworld) is in the belly of an animal (fish, dragon). The fact that in these traditions the animals are always those dangerous to man indicates that the animal womb is regarded not only as the scene of a potential rebirth but also as that of a dreaded mortality, and it is this which led to all the cosmic assimilations to the immortal stars."

Frobenius also confirmed the role of the moon cult in african cultures, according to Rank:

"Bachofen [Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887)] was the first to point out this connexion in the ancient primitive cultures in his Mutterrecht, but it has since received widespread corroboration from later researchers, in particular Frobenius, who discovered traces of a matriarchal culture in prehistoric Africa (Das unbekannte Afrika, Munich, 1923)."

Frobenius' work gave Rank insight into the double meaning of the king's ritual murder, and the cultural development of soul belief:

"Certain African traditions (Frobenius: Erythraa) lead to the assumption that the emphasizing of one or another of the inherent tendencies of the ritual was influenced by the character of the slain king, who in one case may have been feared and in another wanted back again."

"The Fanany myth, mentioned below, of the Betsileo in Madagascar shows already a certain progress from the primitive worm to the soul-animal.2 The Betsileo squeeze the putrefying liquid out of the bodies of the dead at the feet and catch it in a small jar. After two or three months a worm appears in it and is regarded as the spirit of the dead. This jar is then placed in the grave, where the corpse is laid only after the appearance of the Fanany. A bamboo rod connects the jar with the fresh air (corresponding to the " soulholes" of Northern stone graves). After six to eight months (corresponding possibly to the embryonic period) the Fanany (so the Betsileo believe) then appears in daylight in the form of a lizard. The relatives of the dead receive it with great celebrations and then push it back down the rod in the hope that this ancestral ghost will prosper exceedingly down below and become the powerful protector of the family and, for that matter, the whole village.

2 From Sibree's Madagascar, pp. 309 et seq., quoted by Frobenius in Der Seelenwurm (1895) and reprinted in Erlebte Erdteile, I (Frankfurt, 192.5), a treatise which deals principally with the "vase-cult" arising out of the storing of decayed remains in jars (see our later remarks on the vase in general).

"Later totemism- the idea of descent from a definite animal species - seems to emerge only from a secondary interpretation of the soul-worm idea or the soul-animal idea in accordance with a 'law of inversion' (Frobenius) peculiar to mythical thought; just as the myth of the Creation as the projection backward in time of the myth of the end of the world is in itself only a formal expression of the principle of rebirth."

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