Spirit-Mediumship in Africa – East Africa, 3-4


III.3. (pp. 188-219) I. M. Lewis : "Spirit-Possession in Northern Somaliland".

pp. 188-9 mystical influence in >islam




"holy men (sg. wadaad) and saints (sg. weli) ... perform ... through the blessing (baraka) ...


their mystical influence which includes the power of applying the curse (babaar) or sorcery (sibir) to uphold their authority ... . ...


This mystical coverage is extended to include destitute old women whom it is dangerous to treat with contempt and rewarding to treat with kindness; and


the position is much the same with ... the Yibir soothsayers who wander from camp to camp, blessing newly married couples and newly-born children. ... . ... there are such as the Yibirs whose mystical force derives from sources which are closely connected with the devil (shaydaan) {s`ayt.an}."

p. 191-2 behaviour of jnun

p. 191

"mischievous powers which as Muslims the Somali know under the name of jinns" : "These spites, which are anthropomorphic in character, ... are thought to frequent deserted houses, and old camp sites, caves, forests, particular trees ... . During the day, particularly, they live in the shade, often underground, but appear at night ..., and a shooting star is picturesquely said to be one struck down by an angel. ... The hyena, ... sometimes attacking the unwary shepherd as he sleeps at night, is considered to be particularly closely connected with jinns. ... More

p. 192

specifically, a species of large lizard (maso <agalay), and a smaller fat-tailed lizard, ... should not be killed since they are believed to be the wives of jinns." "No living thing except the date palm is immune from their ... attentions."

p. 198 exclusion of women from religious devotions in >islam

Women "are not admitted to the mosques where men regularly pray ... . ... They are not expected to be ostensibly devout, as men are, and the fact that they very rarely observe the obligatory daily prayers excites little adverse attention."

pp. 200, 203-4 sexual attitudes in >islam


public attitudes


"passionate feelings between the sexes cannot traditionally be directly vented in public. ... for a man to express openly any attachment to a woman is shameful in the extreme."


However, where "liberal attitudes ... have ... been adopted towards relations between the sexes, the dance ... has ... been adopted under the name of baabilaawe {cf. /BABaLAWo/ (Yoruba priest)} or baar<adde in certain rituals associated with ... the cult of Shaikh Husseyn Babiale, whose tomb in southern Ethiopia is one of the most widely frequented shrines in North East Africa (cf. Lewis 1959)."

Lewis 1959 = I. M. Lewis : "The Names of God in Northern Somaliland". BULLETIN OF THE SCHOOL OF ORIENTAL AND AFRICAN STUDIES, 22:134-40.

pp. 198-203 spirit-possession of men by saar




"The most general term in Somali for possession by a spirit is gelid, meaning literally ‘entering’ (from the verb gal, to enter), and the victim is said ... to be ... held in its thrall to the extent that he speaks with its voice and voices its demands."


"The most personalized ... notions of spirit-possession come into play when a young many exhibits ... symptoms".


"The spirit, in successful treatments, responds ... by a series of stereotyped formulae indicating the line of its retreat. It promises to withdraw from the body of the victim through his chin, through his nose, his ears, and other points on his frame. But not until the spirit says that it is coming out by ‘the little finger of the left hand’ is the exorcism considered complete and the patient discharged as cured."


"The word ... saar has a particular semantic appropriateness since in other contexts it signifies something that is placed on top of something else (for example, a parasitic creeper), and is also used to describe the position of an adopted stranger client ... .

When a youth in these circumstances becomes hysterical, his companions mount a dance, known as ‘beating the sprite’ {so-called on account a similarity to "beating around the bush" in order to scare up game-animals while hunting?}, for his relief ..., and it is essential that girls should participate in the dance if it is to be effective. {Is the girls’ participation an enactment of the myth of the participation by Prokris (GM 89.g) in the hunting by Kephalos?} The dancers form a loose circle round the possessed boy and begin dancing slowly to the accompaniment of hand-clapping and the singing of a standardized chorus ... . The tempo mounts and the afflicted youth begins gyrating in the centre of the circle, his movements becoming wilder and wilder as he sings his solo song, again of a


standardized form ... . This of course is said to be the sprite singing in him; and, as the tension mounts, ... the sprite possessing him shouts ‘Catch me; do not catch me’ as he darts towards and then away from his companions."


"The introductory chorus sung as the party begins to ‘beat the saar’ takes the following form :

The spirit and the seas have grown small" {like the Aral Sea, whose supply-rivers have been drained into irrigation-projects}.


Then "the youth sings some ... saar sprite song ... . ... typical ... are the following :

Like the winged hornbill in flight,

I am herded with the stars ... . ...


Birds flock in trees, Each has its own call,

No one understands the others, ...

Whatever I suffer, I will never give up the saar."


"the phrase ‘to beat the saar’ is a colloquialism for sexual intercourse."

pp. 204, 206-7 spirit-possession of women by saar




"By far the most common form of possession in Somaliland is that affecting women and generally attributed to ... the same category of sprites ... (i.e. saar) ... . ... A number of distinct, named saar sprites are recognized as the agents responsible ..., and treatment ... is always by a woman specialist or shaman[ess] (alaaqad) who is described as having ‘authority’ over the spirits. Such experts are almost invariably widows, childless women, or divorcees, and not infrequently managers of brothels ... . All are women who have in the past been, or are recurrently subject to spirit possession".


"In the most elaborate cathartic seances (which I have not myself seen, men being rigorously excluded) the spirit medium {more accurately, the invokeress of the spirit into the spirit-medium patient} is said to wear black clothes while her female attendants are dressed in red and the patient herself is clad in her oldest clothes. When cured at the end of the rite, she too is expected to put on red clothing. These sprites ... are sometimes identified with a ‘red wind’; they are also said to take a person’s blood ... . In the seance, the afflicted woman is placed on top of an ox {cf. the carrying-off of Europe by Zeus in his bull-guise (GM 58.b)} while the other women sing saar songs conjuring up the sprite, or ‘beating the saar’ as it is again described ... . Drums ... are beaten in an increasingly fast tempo and the women attendants uncover and dishevel their hair ... . ... The presiding medium stands in the centre, often wielding a sword, while the victim is led round on the


ox’s back wriggling her body and shoulders in time with the rhythm."


III.4. (pp. 220-31) John Middleton : "Spirit-Possession among the Lugbara". [Kivu-&-Equatoria border]

p. 220 Lu-gbara

"The Lugbara are Sudanic-speaking ... living on the high plateau of the Nile-Congo divide."

p. 222 Andro / andro

"the surface of the earth ... occupied by wild beasts and the aspect of Spirit known as Andro, an anthropomorphic figure, white and cut in half lengthwise".

"the individual organism, in which are two distinct elements, the soul (orindi {cf. Iroquois /OReNDa/ ‘magical power’ (ZFT, p. x)}), and the individual spirit (adro); at death they separate, the soul becoming a ghost living in its shrine in its descendants’ compound, and the spirit going to the bushland when its becomes part of the collectivity of androanzi (‘Spirit-children’)."

ZFT = Zuñi Folk Tales http://drarchaeology.com/texts/zunifolktales/zft02.htm

p. 223 understanding the spirit

Men can try to understand Spirit by various means :

by divination,

by omens, ...

by temporarily sending certain persons as it were into the other sphere, and

by listening to persons who come from it. These various persons are ... mediums".

pp. 223-4 categories of specialists controlling situations





sacrifice to the dead



"control of famines and epidemics"



impact of Europeans





pp. 224-7 activities of diviners




"The spirit-mediums in Lugbara who act while in a state of possession are diviners ... . ... Diviners are known as ojou, which is etymologically related to the word ojo, the bulb of a gladiolus or gladiolus-like flower ... .

Divination is a power given to a person, usually a woman, by possession by Adro, the aspect of Spirit that is thought to dwell in the bushland and near riverbeds; it has the form of a tall white-skinned man, cut in half down its body and hopping about on one leg. {"In Nyasaland a being called Chiruwi is, or was, believed to haunt lonely places in the forest, carrying an axe. He has one eye, one arm, one leg, the other half of his body being made of wax. ... Similarly, the Zulu amadhlungundhlebe, who had only one leg, were said to be man-eaters." (M&LB, cap. XIII)} {Such vertically bisected deities are also known in Eskimo & <arabi^ lores.} ...

The possession typically occurs about the onset of puberty. The girl wanders naked into the bushland and is ‘seized’ by Adro. She is initiated on her return into the status of diviner, and sets up a shrine for Adro in her compound. She may practice during her marriage, but if so she should not be at that time


be having sexual intercourse with her husband. And she may practice after menopause. Many diviners are also doctors (known by the same term, ojou), who remove objects from the bodies of people who are sick ... . They withdraw the objects ... either by sucking by mouth or ... in a twist of grass held in the hand.

Some diviner-doctors are men, and these are usually also the operators of oracles (women oracle-operators are very rare).

Diviners act as midwives; at the mortuary rites for a dead person a diviner is called to contact the soul (orindi) which leaves the body at death and flies through the sky to be with Spirit (Adroa), until a diviner contacts it to bring it back to its new shrine, so that it becomes a ghost (ori {/ORI/ is ‘soul’ in Yoruba}); diviners purify returning hunters ... . But their main everyday role is to identify manifestations of Spiritual power. They do this, in the darkness of a hut, with the use of a diving-gourd (weke or koyo), which is used as a rattle. And they divine while in a state of possession. Possession while divining is induced ... by the chewing or consumption in water of pieces of the bulbs called ojo ... . ... Lugbara diviners are putting on a dramatic performance of some skill, ... so that it is irrelevant


whether they are fully ... possessed or not. This is the reason that ... in Lugbara perhaps no possession is ‘real’ in any medical sense, yet it is perfectly ‘real’ in the context of divination. {This is similar to the "real praesence" of Christ in the sacramental wine during the mass : just as that wine may inspire the Christian priest, so the ojo-bulb (when intaken as eucharist) may inspire the Lugbara diviner.}


... diviners told ... that of course they only pretended to draw objects from a patient’s body : they first secreted the objects in their mouth or hand. But this did not mean that by ‘withdrawing’ these objects they were ... failing to withdraw the sickness. They could ‘hold’ or ‘seize’ the sickness in the object, and that was the most important aspect of the whole process. The object chosen would seem to symbolize the ... aspect or manifestation of Spirit responsible :

small pieces of granite represent fireflies {in Chattisgarh "the traditional healers use fireflies as first aid case of injury. Freshly collected crushed Fireflies are used as styptic to stop the bleeding." ("TKMI")} which are the corporeal vehicles for the adroanzi (‘the children of Spirit’)". {As these androanzi are the revenant dead, cf. the Japanese fireflies as Valhalla-like dead : "The Mayans believed that fireflies carried light from the stars; the Japanese say fireflies are the souls of dead soldiers; in the Phillippines they are the graceful guardians of the star apple tree" ("LDP", referring to "IWM:F").}


"Many diviners dress in rags, often with long uncut hair, and usually present an extremely bizarre appearance."

M&LB = Alice Werner : Myths and Legends of the Bantu. 1933. http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/mlb/mlb15.htm

"TKMI" = "Traditional Knowledge about medicinal insects ... in Chhattisgarh" http://ecoport.org/ep?SearchType=earticleView&earticleId=649&page=-2

"LDP" = http://bettycauler.com/post/2010/06/15/A-light-in-dark-places.aspx

"IWM:F" = "Insects in World Mythology : Fireflies" http://mythinglinks.org/ct~insects_fireflies.html

pp. 227-9 deities of the Yakan-cult




In the late 19th to early 20th centuries (Chr.E>), "Rembe was ... a Kakwa ... who came and himself established the cult of Yakan or Dede, based on the drinking of the magic water. ... He is said to have


kept an oracle in a pool, with the body of a giant rainbow-coloured lizard and with a man’s head".


"Yakan is today the name of a distinct spirit entity ... who ...


possesses people, both men and women, who ... have wandered ... into the bushland near the river beds. They are overcome with shaking and trembling, and maintain shrines, known as Yakanijo (‘Yakan-houses’) in which they place small offerings".

p. 230 other possessing-spirits in Lu-gbara

"Finally, there are many other spirits in Lugbara that can possess people, usually by ‘seizing’ them and making them shake and tremble. Some of them are fairly common, such as ... oyakiya or ajukuja, a spirit manifest in earth-tremors".


John Beattie & John Middleton (edd.) : Spirit-Mediumship and Society in Africa. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.