The Kongo people believe that fearsome nail figures, known as konde, regulated both important affairs and day-to-day life. Too powerful and dangerous to be owned by ordinary individuals or housed in ordinary dwellings, they belonged to the whole village and were kept by a village priest in a special place. The stance of this figure, which originally held a spear or a knife in its raised right arm, is hostile to outsiders. This probably meant it was an aggressive protector of the people as well as an adjudicator on their behalf.
Nail figures were carved from the wood of a sacred tree. In contrast with the hands and face, the torso of konde figures were treated superficially in anticipation that they would come to bristle with nails. A priest gave the figure supernatural powers by placing special medicines in its hollowed out body cavities. (This figure's cavities are in the belly and the back of the head.) These powers were used to settle disputes, seal contracts, legalize peace treaties, cure illnesses, seek and destroy criminals, avenge wrongdoings, protect the village from evil, and bring an end to such threatening events as drought and famine.
The figure's powers were invoked for individuals by driving nails into the body of the figure, each one representing a specific agreement between the user and the forces within the icon. Nails were usually personalized in some way before they were driven in—for example, by being kissed or licked or having hair or other distinctive materials tied to them. Should the user break the oath, the spirit in the image would know from the saliva or other bodily traces on the nail whom to annihilate or punish. The many nails covering the torso of this figure attest to the large number of individuals who sought its powers.