The Abiku appear in two varieties:
• Some are vicious perpetrators.
• Some are liminal souls hovering between realms.
The same word is used to denote various beings; what unites them is child mortality. The first type of Abiku is a nocturnal, insatiably hungry, vampiric spirit: it consumes the life-force, killing its victim. Although it preys on animals and adults, what it really craves are children, the younger the better, and most especially newborns. This Abiku may be considered a disease Demon. Descriptions of its appearance are vague; no one wants to get close enough to really take a good look, or alternatively, those who do come close do not survive. This type of Abiku is avoided, never summoned. They cannot be propitiated; they are never satisfied. They can be banished and kept out of specific spaces (a room; a home) via the power of iron, amulets, and more powerful spirits.
(Children are encouraged to stay inside safe zones at night if an Abiku is suspected to be nearby.)
The same word is also used to name souls described as born to die.
They are born, die young as an infant or child, only to be born again and die again in a repetitive cycle. The Abiku is reborn to the same mother; a family will know whether or not they possess an Abiku as repeat miscarriages, stillbirths, or deaths of children constantly recur.
Sometimes if a family suspects the presence of an Abiku, the child’s body is deliberately scarred to see whether any new child bears the identifying mark.
Many Abiku are gifted spirit mediums, as the veil between realms is consistently thin for them. Abiku societies are exceptionally powerful shamanic societies. The constant danger is that, once in the spirit realm, the Abiku will not return.
Abiku children are liminal beings someplace in between spirit and human. They hover on the threshold between realms, constantly summoned back and forth. Many Abiku love the realm of spirits, described as a paradise. They long to stay with spirits yet are constantly reborn as humans. As quickly as they can, they return to the Spirit World.
If the Abiku is caused by a curse, she can remove it. There is an Abiku shrine at Oshun’s sanctuary in Oshogbo, Nigeria, visited by mothers of Abiku children.
Others are more ambivalent. They love spirits but also feel familial bonds and long for their human relatives. The pain they inflict on their mothers may cause the Abiku intense grief. Sometimes certain spirits love the Abiku child, and unseen to all but the Abiku, constantly hover near them, tempting the child to join them. (Similar tales are told of European Fairies.)
An Abiku’s nature cannot be changed—it cannot stop being an Abiku —but the soul can be protected and grounded to Earth. Over the centuries, the Yoruba have devised methods of keeping Abiku alive:
amulets, especially those crafted from metals like iron, copper, and silver, serve to protect and preserve the Abiku.
Seductive spirits may constantly hover around the Abiku, luring it away: the jangling sounds of metal force these spirits to maintain their distance.
Abiku of one sort or another haunt modern Nigerian literature, including Wole Soyinka’s poem, “Abiku,” and novels like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Debo Kotun’s Abiku; and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize winner, The Famished Road.
Various root causes may explain why a child is an Abiku or why an Abiku haunts a particular family. The last three of the following potential causes may be indicated if the Abiku is experienced as repeat miscarriage or stillbirth.
• The Abiku hovers between worlds, simultaneously at home in both and neither.
• The Abiku is torn between ties to human relatives and ties to spirit partners, especially soul mates, from whom they cannot stand to be parted.
• A sorcerer has cursed a woman or family, torturing them with the Abiku’s incessant birth-death-rebirth cycle.
• The Abiku itself is the soul of someone angry at the woman or family.
• Abiku are mischievous child souls lacking the empathy and maturity to understand the suffering they cause. They think it’s fun to go back and forth between realms.
Spirits who beckon Abiku are propitiated by food offerings at remote forest shrines (palm oil, nuts, yams; often burned, not just left to disintegrate). Abiku who are torn between worlds are pampered and coddled. Parents and caregivers are admonished not to scold the Abiku child severely or deny their desires. The Abiku thus leads a very privileged life: the goal is to keep the child so happy that she or he wishes to stay in this life and not leave for other realms.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.