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Nkima Speaks

The Real Leopard Men of the Congo

David A. Adams

(First published in The Burroughs Bulletin #50, Spring 2002)

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan and the Leopard Men, an 80,000 word novel, in a two-month period -- July 9 to September 25, 1931.[1] It is perhaps the closest to reality of Burroughs' novels, pitting the ape-man against the "Anyoto" (Leopard) society in the area around the eastern edge of the great Ituri Forest in the Belgian Congo. In this story, Tarzan quelled their activities for awhile, though one of the worst outbreaks of the Leopard Men occurred three years later in this area.[2]

The Anioto, or Leopard Men actually existed for a long time in the Congo. It was a secret society within various native tribes, flourishing from the eighteenth century to 1936. The Anioto consisted of young men who sought to address local problems through a reign of terror in which people were killed and mutilated by iron claws, causing severe lacerations to the neck and chest. Victims were often found missing limbs or even their heads. Anioto comes from the verb, nyoto, which means to scratch, probably owes its origin to Bafwasea vernacular.[3]

The Anyoto Society apparently originated among the Mabudu tribe in the Wamba area of the Ituri Forest, and after infiltrating the Mambela Society of the Babali tribe, the sect gradually spread south to Avakubi, Irumu, Bafwasende, and even Beni on the southeast edge of the forest, leaving a trail of mutilated bodies in its wake.[4] Cyrier identifies the Anioto initiation ceremony as the "Mambela ceremony," which may indicate its historical filtering through this tribe. However, he indicates that the Aniyoto among the Bali has a long history into the nineteenth, perhaps even the eighteenth century. "Although Anioto may not have been ubiquitous throughout the area, it appears that some villages were familiar with the association and had direct contact with it."

Burroughs no doubt had done his homework before writing Tarzan and the Leopard Men. This most historically authentic of his Tarzan stories is filled with accurate details of the Aniyoto and demonstrates the great lengths Burroughs would go to research his novels, even though this one is often disparaged as hack work not deserving a second notice.

According to Hallet: "The Anyoto masqueraded grotesquely in bark-cloth tunics and hoods marked with black spots and rings to resemble a leopard's skin. The tail of a real leopard dangled from the human leopard's rear, attached to a belt which held other important accessories: a small earthenware pot, a stick carved in the shape of a leopard's paw, and a very sharp knife. He blew into the pot to mimic the leopard's muffled snarl, he pressed the stick into the soft earth surrounding his victim's body to copy the animal's spoor and he used the knife to sever his prey's carotid arteries. The final and the most characteristic tool was an iron bracelet equipped with four dangling knifes: when his hand was extended, the blades were concealed under his palm, but when he made a fist they jutted out between his clenched fingers -- like a leopard's claws" (Hallet, 78-79).

Burroughs was quite accurate in dressing his leopard men in the skins of leopards and in the employment of steel claws (although according to Cyrier these were made of iron). However, ERB envisioned the Anioto in the manner of a writer of romantic fiction as a cannibalistic cult with a Leopard God, a developed priesthood where the heroine, Kali Bwana, a white girl, is forced into the role of high priestess of their savage rites. It made for an exciting story and provided a lovely heroine in need of rescue, but the actual purpose of the leopard men was much more mundane.

The truth is, the Anioto functioned as a paid body of assassins to attack villages that refused to recognize the authority of local chiefs to rule and gather taxes in his prescribed area of the jungle. Or, the chief of a smaller tribe sometimes employed them to attack the people of a larger chief, who thus lost prestige and power by showing his inability to protect his people from their terror. The Anioto were thus a band of killers for hire, upsetting little chiefdoms and creating others according to who was willing to pay for the service. When the women of a tribe were afraid to work in the fields, conditions were ripe for the overthrow of the chief, and this was the unstable method of politics in the Congo until 1936. Cyrier says that after that date the association disappeared from the colonial record and only reappeared in comic books and fictional literature.

Indeed, the cult of the Leopard Men provided sensational material for a writer like Burroughs who was not always reluctant at providing his readers with gory details. Actually, ERB was quite restrained in his descriptions of the deaths in this novel. Cyrier tells us that:

To facilitate the assault, the attacker used specific tools not only to amputate various limbs, but also to disguise the kill. Before commencing a foray, the attacker donned a leopard skin and mask to internalize the power of the leopard and to disguise the attacker's identity. Once the leopard man had selected the victim, a club rendered the victim unconscious so no one could hear cries of agony. The team would then carry the body to a remote location for mutilation of the victim, using their iron claws to kill the person if the team saw no one in the immediate vicinity. After the kill, the leopard men would leave traces of a leopard with a wooded baton or a piece of fruit sliced open and carved with the shape of a leopard print; they also left leopard hair by a victim to corroborate the prints. To hide his human feet, the attacker could wear rubber soles. All of these articles coalesced to personify Anioto, assume the potency of the leopard, and to leave minimal human traces next to the corpse lying on the ground.

This is a rather calm description, much like ERB's own. One must go to Hallet to get the more gruesome details -- that the Leopard Men cut off the breasts of their female victims and sometimes tore out their eyes, which were simmered in a pot containing the claw-knives. The Anyoto drank the resulting mess, convinced that the grisly procedure gave them the power to see in the dark. When daylight came, like the werewolves of European legend, the Leopard Men went calmly about their business -- smiling, polite, even friendly. There are worse things than this in Hallet's book, but you'll have to dig up a copy to read about it.

The second half of Tarzan and the Leopard Men includes encounters with a pygmy tribe. Burroughs seems to have researched the religion of the Ba Mbuti Pygmies, or at least native religions of the Congo in general. To Orando, a warrior of the Utengi region, "There were demons so numerous that one might not count them all, and the spirits of the dead who more often than not were directed by demons whose purposes, always malign, they carried out. These demons and sometimes the spirits of the dead occasionally took possession of the body of a living creature, controlling its thoughts, its actions and its speech."[5] Thus, the belief in the reality of leopard men was a fundamental part of their religious superstitions.

Orando identified Tarzan as his personal "muzimo" or protecting spirit of a departed ancestor. Nkima, the monkey, was thought to be "Nyamwegi's ghost," the spirit of his friend who had been killed by the Leopard Men. Most of the time ERB made slight (sometimes humorous) changes to the names of actual native African tribes, and in the case of "muzimo", one might assume that he is referring to the "molimo" of the Pygmies.

The concept of the molimo is extremely complex and is still largely shrouded in mystery despite the researches of Turnbull and Sarno. [6-7] To the Pygmy way of thinking, there is the forest itself, which might be considered to be the "god" of the Pygmies, and then there is the molimo spirit, which is actually much more than an animistic belief. Rather, the molimo might be thought of as a sort of symbiotic relationship between the people and the forest itself. The molimo "appears" in many ritualistic forms, and there are molimo songs and festivals during which fantastic things happen which are difficult to explain in rational terms even by the anthropologists who have lived among them.

Whatever one might think about the accuracy of the researches of these Westerners, I would recommend reading Tarzan and the Leopard Men while listening to the wonderful compact disc called "Echoes of the Forest: Music of the Central African Pygmies."[8] It is haunting, exciting, altogether the nearest most of us will ever get to the spirit of the Ituri forest. Described by Louis Sarno, Pygmy music is "voices blending into a subtle polyphony, weaving a melody that rises and falls in endless repetition, as hypnotic as waves breaking on a shore." Hearing this music is perhaps the closest we may come to understanding the molimo, for to the Pygmies music is the principal means by which they communicate with the rain forest and its magical spirits.

Burroughs may have been simply using information that he found in books to further a writing project that came to be called Tarzan and the Leopard Men. However, his character of Tarzan is always larger than even he imagined at his daily writing tasks at his desk in California, U.S.A. Somehow things always seemed to touch another dimension for him even when writing yet another Tarzan story. In this case he may have again said more than he knew.

Tarzan may well be the molimo of the jungle.


1. Porges, Irwin, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, Brigham Young University Press, 1975, p. 528.

2. Farmer, Philip Jose, Tarzan Alive, Popular Library, 1972.

3 Cyrier, Jeremy, "Anioto: Putting a Paw on Power. Leopard Men of the Belgian Congo", 1911-1936," a paper delivered to the 4th Annual Midwestern Graduate Student Conference for African Studies, September 12, 1999 at East Lansing, Michigan by Jeremy Cyrier from the University of Virginia.

4 Hallet, Jean-Pierre, Congo Kitabu, Fawcett Crest, 1967. (First published by Random House, February 17, 1966). (Hallet employs the Anyoto spelling while Cyrier prefers Anioto.)

5. Burroughs, Edgar Rice, Tarzan and the Leopard Men, ERB Inc., 1935.

6 Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Touchstone, 1969

7 Sarno, Louis, Song from the Forest: My Life among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

8 "Echoes of the Forest: Music of the Central African Pygmies" CD #4029 - Ellipsis Arts, 1995

Dictionary of the Leopard Men:

Anioto - the Leopard Men. A cultural organization of the native tribes of the Belgian Congo in operation from the eighteenth century to 1936. It was a secret society of young men who sought to address problems through a reign of terror in which people were killed and mutilated by iron claws which caused severe lacerations to the neck and chest. Victims were often found missing limbs or even their heads. Anioto comes from the verb, nyoto, which means to scratch, probably owes its origin to Bafwasea vernacular.

Bali - the native tribe of the Congo in which the Leopard Men were most active. They lived along the Arumwiri River. According to tradition, the Leopard Men were introduced by the Bafwaboma under chief Mondiko and became a part of the Bali culture through chief Awende. Another legend ascribes the Leopard Men to Aniota, the wife of Nyongo.

Ishumu - tribal notables - men who have become Leopard Men

Mabodo - native tribe often attacked by the Leopard Men

Mambela - the initiation ceremony which created Leopard Men Monganga - adult tribe members

Tataka Mambela - teachers of the Leopard Men

Udelima - initiates to the society of Leopard Men