ZAR CULT (Religious Movement)

The Zar cult flourishes in Ethiopia (whence it may derive its name), Somalia and Djibouti, the Sudan (where the generic spirit is also known as ‘red wind’), and to a lesser extent in Egypt, North Africa and the Gulf states (see Lewis et al. 1991). Other expressive common names for the spirits and the conditions they cause are ‘constitution’ or ‘power’ and in Ethiopia, ‘shackles’. It is closely linked historically to the Bori cult in northern Nigeria, Niger, and other parts of Islamic West Africa. In Ethiopia it involves Christian and Muslim populations, elsewhere its setting is entirely Muslim. The cult appeals particularly to urban women, and men of historically low or subordinate status (as in the case of the related Sudanese Tumbura cult), or to powerless individuals who are confronted with seemingly insurmountable identity conflicts. The basic assumption here is that the spirits concerned have the power to invade the bodies of humans who are then ‘possessed’. The human vessel incarnates the possessing spirit.

In the Sudan, particularly, the spirit galaxy, whose numbers, like the names of God in Islam, total ninety-nine, are grouped in seven loose categories:

1. the Darawish or ‘holy men’: Muslim saints (local and international), founders of the Sufi tariqas and teachers of the faith.

2. Al-Habash, Ethiopian spirits, including ‘Mimeluk’ (Emperor Menelik/Haile Selassie)

3. Al-Bashat, the Pashas: famous colonial administrators and doctors: mainly stereotypes, but includes ‘Gordel’ (General Gordon) and (Lord) Cromer.

4. Al-Arab, spirits of nomadic desert tribes, some of which are specified, e.g. Beshir Hadendowa.

5. Al-Khawajat, or al-Nasara: Europeans, Christians, Copts, Jews, French and British and includes the abstract spirit of electricity, kaharla.

6. Al-Sittat or al-Bunat, ‘ladies’ or ‘daughters’, ethnically mixed, includes mermaid spirits of the river Nile.

7. Al-Zurug, the ‘blacks’, peoples of all the regions from which the Sudanese used to obtain slaves including Zande cannibal spirits and the Tumburani, closely related human and animal spirits such as the crocodile and al-turabi, the spirit of death and graveyards. A more recent addition is ‘Bokasu’ (the notorious Emperor Bokasu of the Congo).

If a person’s condition, often initially a minor ailment, is interpreted as evidence of spirit attention, the standard treatment involves placating the spirit concerned, and bargaining with it to reach a mutual accommodation. Thereby the afflicted person accedes to the spirit’s demands for delicate foods, perfume, etc. and undertakes to dance in its honour with the appropriate costumes and accoutrements. This requires regular attendance at cult group rituals in the form of seances dedicated to the zar spirits and directed by a shamanic leader (called alaqa in Christian Ethiopia, and sheikha [female sheihk] amongst Muslims).

These groups and their ritual activities (called ‘beating the zar’ in Somalia) become an important element in the lives of urban women who may devote as much time to them as their men-folk give to Church or Mosque. In Muslim settings, their organization and ritual vocabulary replicate those of the Sufi religious orders with which, in some cases they merge in common veneration of a spirit-saint.

An alternative treatment, favoured by husbands and other male relatives, is to seek the aid of a cleric exorcist (Christian or Muslim as appropriate) who uses the power of the holy scriptures to expel the spirit which is defined as evil in this context and, amongst Muslims, assimilated to jinns. The spirit is exhorted to leave its human host, usually via the little finger of the left hand. Although initially expensive, exorcism is ideally less costly than the process of initiation into the zar cult which, in the long term, entails repetitive ritual expenditure. (But ‘exorcism’ may itself become a repetitive ritual addressed to Islamic or Christian saints (See Lewis, 1996:136-7).)

‘Possession’ here is not necessarily synonymous with ‘trance’ since it may be diagnosed in a patient and prospective cult member whose psychic condition is perfectly normal. (See Lewis, 2003:33-40). In the cult rituals, however, the adept will repeatedly experience trance and, paradoxically, this state is also typically achieved at the height of exorcism, at the point where the possessing spirit is believed to be about to quit its human victim.

In the case of female adherents, the relationship between adept and spirit is conceived as a spiritual marriage which may compete with the woman’s human marriage. Such possessed women can, in effect, make a career of their worship, graduating in time to become cult leaders, a position of considerable importance in the world of women. The potential antagonism towards the dominant male world is obvious and finds expression in men stigmatizing zar spirits as irreligious and belief in them superstitious. Men’s behaviour, however, is frequently ambivalent. They may be forced by circumstances to compromise with a wife’s beliefs in order to ameliorate her pressing problems which, if untreated, risk having major domestic implications.

The male view of zar spirits as primitive superstition, threatening their religious orthodoxy, immediately raises the question of the historicity of the spirits—their temporal as well as geographical provenance. The shared Zar-Bori myth of origin is that the spirits derive from the time of creation when, fearing his jealousy, Eve concealed her most beautiful children from God, and these later became revealed to humans in this spiritual form. In historical time, it seems that, originating in Ethiopia, zar may have spread to north Africa with trade and pilgrimage as early as the fifteenth century where to some extent it was absorbed by the Sufi mystical movement. But the first secure references are in the early nineteenth century when zar appears as well-established and spreading rapidly in the Sudan in the wake of Turco-Egyptian colonization. The personalities of the spirits themselves reflect these derivations.

The origins of the parallel and related bori cult (in the Sudan zar is known as ‘zar-bori’) are more clearly established. The spirit galaxy, totalling some 130 spirit entities, is even more elaborate and directly associated with he pre-Islamic religion of the Hausa-speaking peoples (See Last, 1991 and Echard, 1991). Here the gender factor is brought to the fore as the wives of Hausa men, who convert to Islam, almost automatically become bori enthusiasts in revenge.

If the spirit cast of these cults is to a certain extent a kind of memory lane of local and regional historical experience, account has also to be taken of the way in which the spirit repertoire expands to absorb ‘new’ spirits. These include such modern characters as famous sports figures, and even Marxist soldiers. Thus, although the local religious orthodoxies attempt to denigrate zar and bori as ‘ancient superstition’, both cults are in a sense ‘old’ and ‘new’ women’s religions whose origins and development appear, as elsewhere, closely linked to social change in the broadest sense.

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