Next in our series of extracts from The Accidental Dictionary is the story of the earliest fetishes—which weren’t quite what you might expect them to be...
In 1689, a young British chaplain named John Ovington was hired by the East India Company to travel to Asia to minister to the company’s Indian workers. After two years’ work he returned to Europe and published an account of his journey, A Voyage To Surat, in 1696. In it he recalled coming across an African tribe near the delta of the River Congo on Africa’s west coast—and finding out all about their “fetishes”:
They travel nowhere without their fetish about them, one of which looks like the small end of a stag’s horn, with a bell tied to it, about the bigness of a man’s thumb. But each of them had his own made of such materials as the priests ... think fit to bestow upon them.
John Ovington, A Voyage To Surat in the Year 1689 (1696)
As fetishes go, carrying around a piece of horn with a bell on it everywhere you go might seem fairly tame, but needless to say these West African fetishes were not the ones we talk about today.
When it first appeared in the language in the early seventeenth century, the word fetish originally referred to African amulets or charms that, as Ovington goes on to explain, “are supposed to act upon natural things, so as to drive away from any place, rain, hail, or wild and venomous beasts”.
In this sense, fetish found its way into English via the Portuguese explorers and merchant sailors who travelled and traded their way down the African coast in the sixteenth century, and who used their word for a talisman or a magic spell, feitiço, to refer to the local tribes’ talismans. In turn, this Portuguese word is descended from the Latin facticius, literally meaning “artificial” or “man-made”, implying that these charms and amulets were little more than material objects bestowed with magical or supernatural powers.
Popularized by anthropologists and religious scholars in the eighteenth century, this talismanic meaning of fetish remained in place in English right through to the late 1800s. It was then that it was picked up and applied to the newly emerging science of psychoanalysis, which finally established the modern fetish as it is today:
as these talismans and amulets were merely inanimate objects revered by their holders, in the late nineteenth century fetishism came to be used to refer to an erotic desire or obsession for a non-sexual object.
Later discussed in detail by the likes of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the earliest description of this kind of behaviour emerged in 1897, when the English physician Havelock Ellis wrote of a kind of “sexual inversion” he had observed in which “a woman’s hair, or foot, or even clothing, becomes the focus of a man’s sexual aspirations”. Helpfully, he provided evidence of a fine example:
Casanova, an acute student and lover of women, who was in no degree a foot fetichist [sic.], remarks that all men who share his interest in women are attracted by their feet; they offer the same interest, he considers, as the question of the particular edition offers to the book-lover . . . It would seem that even animals have a certain amount of sexual consciousness in the feet; I have noticed a male donkey, just before coitus, bite the feet of his partner.
Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 5 (1906)