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Zār



In the cultures of the Horn of Africa and adjacent regions of the Middle East, Zār ( زار , ዛር ) is the term for a demon or spirit assumed to possess individuals, mostly women, and to cause discomfort or illness. The so-called zār ritual or zār cult is the practice of exorcising such spirits from the possessed individual.

Zār exorcism has become popular in the contemporary urban culture of Cairo and other major cities of the Islamic world as a form of women-only entertainment. Zār gatherings involve food and musical performances, and they culminate in ecstatic dancing, lasting between three and seven nights. The tanbūra, a six-string lyre (6-stringed "bowl-lyre"), is often used in the ritual. Other instruments include the manjur, a leather belt sewn with many goat hooves, and various percussion instruments.

History

Scholarship in the early 20th century attributed Abyssinian (Ethiopian) origin to the custom, although there were also proposals suggesting Persian or other origins. Thus, Frobenius suggested that zār and bori, a comparable cult in Hausa culture, were ultimately derived from a Persian source. Modarressi (1986) suggests a Persian etymology for the term.

The origin of the word is unclear; Walker (1935) suggested the name of the city of Zara in northern Iran, or alternatively the Arabic root z-w-r "to visit" (for the possessing spirit "visiting" the victim). The Encyclopedia of Islam of 1934 favoured an Ethiopian origin of the word.

The spread beyond the Horn of Africa likely dates to the 18th or early 19th century, presumably introduced by Ethiopian slaves brought to the harems of the Ottoman Egypt Eyalet. Messing (1958) states that the cult was particularly well-developed in Northern Ethiopia (Amhara), with its center in the town of Gondar. One late 19th-century traveler describes the Abyssinian "Sár" cultists sacrificing a hen or goat and mixing the blood with grease and butter, in the hopes of eliminating someone's sickness. The concoction was then hidden in an alley, in the belief that all who pass through the alley would take away the patient's ailment.

Mirzai Asl (2002) suggests that the introduction to Iran likewise took place in the 19th century (Qajar period) by Africans brought to Iran via the Arab slave trade. Natvig (1988) reports that the zār cult "served as a refuge for women and effeminate men" in the Sahel (Sudan) region under Islamic rule.

Varieties

Among extant varieties of Zār cults are "zār Sawāknī (the zār from the area of Suakin ["Dalūka, that is, zār Sawāknī"]) and zār Nyamānyam {cf. /NYAMe/ ('Friend'), god of the Akan} (the zār of the Azande)": "the Nyam-Nyam have zār nugāra, with Babīnga and Nakūrma". "Babīnga and Nakūrma are recognized as Azande ancestral spirits". Nugāra (big drum) = "nuqara ... of the Dega tribe ... was originally from Wau". (Wau is in Equatoria province of Sudan.) "Besides the nugāra of the Azande, other zār cults mentioned were those of the Fartīt [Fartīt peoples include "the Karra, Gula, Feroge, and Surro"], the Shilluk people, and the Dinka people and the dinia Nuba cult".

Spirits

In Ethiopia, zār is used as a term for malevolent spirits or demons. At the same time, many Ethiopians believe in benevolent, protective spirits, or abdar.

Belief in such spirits is widespread among both Christians and Muslims. As is usual in African animism, and in pre-modern folk belief in general, what would be termed mental illness in modern psychiatry is attributed to spirit possession. Ĥēṭ ("thread") is a term of for the possessing spirits. Tumbura is another term. Named individual tumbura include: Nuba, Banda, Gumuz, Sawākiniyya, Lambūnāt, Bābūrāt, Bāshawāt, Khawājāt. Depending on which spirit an individual is possessed by, they will don different costumes, such a traditional loincloth for Nuba, a straw loincloth for Bada, a red fez for Bāśawāt, and a pith-helmet and khaki shorts for Ĥawājāt.

According to legend, there are eighty-eight "Sároch", emissaries of evil all under the service of a spirit named "Warobal Mama", who dwells in lake Alobar in the Menz region.

Zār beliefs are common today even among Ethiopian immigrants to North America, Europe, or Israel. For example, Beta Israel are often raised with both Jewish and Zār beliefs, and individuals who believe they house a spirit are bound to attend to it despite other demands. However, ceremonies can be performed by shamans to persuade a spirit to leave, thus releasing the person from their duties to that spirit.

In southern Iran, zār is interpreted as a "harmful wind" assumed to cause discomfort or illness. Types of such winds include Maturi, Šayḵ Šangar, Dingemāru, Omagāre, Bumaryom, Pepe, Bābur, Bibi, Namrud. The film The African-Baluchi Trance Dance is a 2012 film that depicts a variety of zar-related activities in southeastern Iran.