Demonization and the Practice of Exorcism in Ethiopian Churches
by Amsalu Tadesse Geleta
Demonization and Exorcism
Demonization is found throughout Ethiopia, among many, if not most, of its peoples. Anthropological studies from the 1960’s and 1970’s indicate its existence among Oromo (in different regions), Amhara (Gondar, Menz), Qemant, Sidamo, Konso, Kafa, Gurage, Somali, and others.
A number of explanations have been suggested to account for these manifestations. Most of them give psychosocial explanations, which hold that socially induced depravity, low status, or feelings of inadequacy or inferiority produces psychological reactions in individuals, which become manifest in the odd, but socially acceptable, behaviors that accompany spirit possession.
Another explanation was that spirit possession point to the situations in which women who are socially disenfranchised, or men of “downtrodden categories,” or men with “frustrated status ambition”.
Group, or individual, deprivation is an explanation of spirit possession given by John Hamer between the Sidamo of Ethiopia. Jan Brøgger (1975:289) disagrees with this explanation for similar possession occurred among well-off men with high prestige. He rather prefers a different explanation. He calls it a social and psychological mechanism of social cohesion and preservation of the group through the release from frustrations and the redirection of hostilities.
Thus the discussion of spirit possession centers on the problem of the cause and of individual participation mainly and the discussion of classification to some extent. Lewis (1984:420) argues that spirit possession rests on an idea and belief that there are incorporeal beings in the universe, which are capable of, and interested in seizing the bodies of human beings and using them for their purposes. He affirms the manifestation and interaction of spirit with humans in various ways.
Exorcism, as means of relief to those suffering under an invading spirit, is practiced in various forms. There are many possible ways of classifying the spirits. I admit also the possibility of organizing them in different ways than that of mine.
1. Zar Spirit
The Zar cult refers to a group of spirits, and to a set of assumptions and practices relating to these spirits and their function. It is one of the spirit possession cults. Zar is the invisible supernatural power, absolutely capable of reading the future, capable of solving even international problems, a courageous hero in war and battle, an efficient doctor in time of illness (except for venereal disease), and most capable of causing destruction, plague and death if people do not pay respect to him. I begin with the presentation of the zar spirit as described by anthropologists and then look at it critically.
Atete is a fertility cult in honor of the spirit of motherhood in Oromo tradition. The cult is known as conversion zar among the Amharas of Ethiopia. There is a similarity of practices between Atete and Conversion Zar. The preparation is the same. The main difference is that the conversion zar is practiced among the Amharas whereas Atete is practiced among the Oromos. Atete is a non-violent female goddess mainly connected with fertility. Women who seek supernatural help to become pregnant and bear healthy children are the main adherents.
The clients of this cult are women. A girl will take over or be possessed by her mother’s ayana (spirit). Her ayana normally possesses or visits her once or twice a year. She spends her day preparing things that are needed for the ceremony. She has to prepare herself wearing special clothes (often of the opposite sex), putting on beads and ornaments, perfumes and carrying a whip, steel bar or an empty gun. Green grass (reed from river side) is spread on the floor as a sign of ceremony or anniversary. Different types of foods like porridge, butter, lemons, dadhi (honey wine, yellow in color), farso (home made beer), and coffee is prepared before the ceremony starts. There might be some more sacrifice prescribed by ayana on its previous possession. So chicken, sheep or goat of certain color is offered as a sacrifice and perfumes or different spices are presented as an offer. If the spirit is pleased by the offerings and the preparation it occupies her. People know that she is possessed when she starts yawning, stretching the whole body here and there, salivating, and becoming drowsy. Her body wavers, and she also cries, speaks as if she is in dream alone. She often falls down and covers her face with her dress.
She may jump and run away and climb trees, not coming down until people beg her. Others stand on glowing wood or eat embers. She may cut herself with a knife, or crush pieces of glass and eat them. She speaks in a strange voice, often using a language understood only by the zar themselves. She may sing a song reserved for the occasion, or dance a peculiar dance associated with a particular ceremony. She acts very differently from normal strength, voice, activity, etc. which signify that the spirit has possessed her.
This possession may last from a few hours to two or three days. The main function of the gathered spectators throughout the ceremony is to appease the ayana, sing songs, clap, dance and beat a drum, and beg the spirit not to hurt her.
1.2 Seer Zar
In contrast to Atete which is dominated by women, seer zar is man’s zar. The ritual expert is dressed in special clothes for the occasion. The seer summons his zar whom he has learned to control. As the zar takes possession of him, people begin to clap and sing the zar’s song. The zar doctor, or Qalicha, usually starts dancing and does extraordinary things. In case of some plea from his clients, he can respond to the thing they have lost or something that has been stolen. He is believed to know the right sacrifice to make things right in case of calamities, disease and death in the family or in the society in which the help is needed.
A common belief connected to seer zar is the ability of the seer to read the future or the expected answer to the given problem from the moora of the stomach of the lamb or sheep. From the pattern of the layer of moora the seer reads something about the person.
The possessed seer is not touching a corpse or entering a house where there is a dead body. He does not eat certain food that his zar is not interested in. He can not cross the fields where certain crops are sown.
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