New Work on Zar and Possession Rituals

The Society for the Anthropology of Religion (SAR) seeks to facilitate the research and teaching of the anthropology of religion. We support anthropological approaches to the study of religion from several scientific disciplines, to stimulate cross-fertilization and communication among scholars sharing the interests of anthropology and religion. For this Sections Edition of AN, we summarize the experiences and stimulating outcomes from a recent international workshop.—Roberta Ricucci

In Morocco, adepts and practitioners of trance activities are now filming and recording their activities, remediating ritual sensualities and enabling ritual co-operation through time and space.

On February 2–3, 2017, the Kate Hamburger Kolleg in the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at the Ruhr-University of Bochum (RUB) hosted an international workshop on “Zar and Possession Rituals: A Comparative View. Historical, Ethnographic and Social Aspects.” Organizers were Alexander Cuffel (Ruhr-University of Bochum), Shahrokh Raei (Freiburg), and Kianoosh Rezania (Ruhr-University of Bochum).

An earlier international workshop on zar was held in Khartoum in 1988. This second workshop was a smaller affair, but expanded the parameters of that seminal meeting in several important respects. Most importantly, it reinforced the view that spirit possession practices like zar are thriving, often in unexpected places, and positioned possession studies squarely in the center of contemporary interdisciplinary research. Some of the highlights included the following:

  • Expanding the geographical boundaries of scholarship on zar. Sara Zavaree (Cologne) and Shahrokh Raei (Freiburg) presented new field data on zar activities in Iran. Raei also discussed trance activities in Baluchistan, and Zavaree described ceremonies in Zanzibar.
  • Pushing researchers to think about historical possession activities in the region. Alexandra Cuffel discussed the contributions of Leo Africanus from the later medieval period (16th century) and suggested that if we look through the misogyny and inaccuracies, there is evidence to suggest that states of possession and trance were commonplace in both Jewish and Muslim communities of North Africa at that time.
  • Including material culture (“vehicles of ideas”) in analyzing the dynamics of phenomena such as zar. Tobias Morike (Erfurt) presented research from his work at the Museum of Dresden, where collections of artifacts from the 1930s, often catalogued inaccurately, are offering new insight into religious ritual from that period.
  • Recognizing the significance of technological advances in shaping the development and spread of religious activities like zar. Martin Zillinger (Cologne) discussed how in Morocco, adepts and practitioners of trance activities are now filming and recording their activities, remediating ritual sensualities and enabling ritual co-operation through time and space, but also reaching out to new audiences, making the publicness of trance a major concern.
  • Revisiting questions of origin and dispersion relating to the spread of zar and possession rituals generally. Richard Natvig (Bergen) took a fresh look at a historical question which has puzzled researchers for over a century: How zar burei (bori) was disseminated in northern Africa and, by implication, elsewhere in the Middle East. Until now, Seligman’s (1914) suggestion that it came to Sudan from the North with the Black troops of the Ottoman (and later Anglo-Egyptian) forces was generally accepted, but this ignored the question of how it spread from western Africa, its putative source of origin. Natvig suggested zar spread north from Hausaland across the Sahara to Tunisia, and thence across to Egypt and north to Istanbul, which remains an iconic homeland for spirits and adepts alike.

Film footage shown after dinner brought many of these points to life. Particularly interesting was a commercially made film of zar in southern Iran which suggests that the religious climate in Iran today is increasingly relaxed.

The formal presentations will be published as a special edition of the online journal Entangled Religions, published by CERES.

Susan M. Kenyon is professor emerita of the Department of Anthropology at Butler University. Martin Zillinger is assistant professor at the research lab Transformations of Life, University of Cologne.

Roberta Ricucci (University of Turin, [email protected]) is the contributing editor for the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.

Cite as: Kenyon, M. Susan, and Martin Zillinger. 2017. “New Work on Zar and Possession Rituals.” Anthropology News website, August 4, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.564

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