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Janice Boddy is a Canadian anthropologist who specializes in medical anthropology, religion, gender issues and colonialism in Sudan and the Middle East. In Spirit Possession and Gender Complementarity, an excerpt from her book Women, Men and the zār Cult in Northern Sudan, she describes her experience at a zār ritual ceremony among the Hofriyat people of Sudan. The zār ritual is performed to bring about certain spirits who then possess a human host and manipulate their behavior in a way that allows for identification of different zār species.
The cult exists today throughout northern Sudan and similar versions of the name can be found in Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Arabia, and southern Iran. Background information aside, what is this whole zār conspiracy anyways? Boddy describes it as a spontaneous ritual with an imaginative basis that draws inspiration from a comprehensive collection of symbols and spirit roles. She compares the ceremony in a way that reminds me of a theater where choreography, improv, themes and costumes are all part of the performance. The zār rituals are also full of apprehension because at any moment a woman may be seized by an unknown spirit.

What is Zār?
Zār refers to the spirit, the illness brought on by spirit possession and the rituals necessary to their pacification. In her book, Boddy describes several of the many different spirits that can be encountered at a zār ritual. The ceremony begins in an open area called the mídān which is bounded on three sides by palm fiber ground mats. The priestess, or shaykah, incessantly drums a dallūka, which is then followed by the beating of another dallūka in shifted accents. The drumming is accompanied by the ringing of a nugarishana which is a brass mortar (similar in sound to a cowbell), as well as the beating of an inverted aluminum washtub called a tisht. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a party without the ceaseless and mesmerizing drone of chanting women, adding a hypnotic touch to the whole orchestra. These chants are called “threads” or “khuyūt” and they are said to be “pulled” as opposed to be sung. Once the procession has begun, the shaykah will pull various threads that each call upon different spirits.


The first spirit Boddy describes is a more intensified version of the somniferous beat and leads the ayāna to rise and dance in the mídān. The ayāna is a sick woman for whom the zār ceremony is held. The Hofriyati people believe that women often fall ill due to a spirit that possesses them and so rituals are held in order to ask, and sometimes bribe, the spirit to refrain from damaging the woman’s health any further. This particular ayāna was possessed by Khawaja (westerner) spirits of a doctor, a lawyer and a military officer. Three spirits at once….no wonder she’s sick, right? Her dance is described as a slow, rhythmic walk crisscrossing a chimeric square, which sounds like she is displaying attributes of the latter most spirit mentioned.As the ceremony progresses, several more women rise to dance in the mídān under the enchantment of a spirit. In this trance, the women are pretty much at the will of whatever zayran (spirit) has taken over their body which means these ceremonies witness some pretty bazar behavior. The degree of bazarness can range anywhere from smoking, drinking and wild dancing to sword fighting and threatening men publicly. You know that a spirit is leaving the woman’s body when she begins burping, hiccupping and scratching herself uncontrollably.

Maybe there’s something to the whole scaring-the-hiccups-out-of -someone thing.


On the last day of the ritual, a sacrificial ram (or chicken) is slaughtered by the ayāna’s son and is served later in the night. But that’s not all. The blood of the animal is collected in a bowl and placed before the drums. After daubing it on herself, the shaykha and then anoints the ayāna’s feet and arms. The other possessed women perform this act as well and some even sip the blood. Pretty eerie, right?
Hofriyat women stand upon a moral ground fermented in dignity and propriety, so why are they so often found smoking, drinking alcohol and blood, sword fighting, wanton dancing and flailing about to incessant drumming?

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Cultural understanding of Zār
When trying to make sense of these rituals, Boddy notes that it is important to consider the cultural context in which they are taking place. Possession appears to be viewed not so much as a blessing but rather a condition or an illness. Once a spirit chooses a host to possess, the person will experience suffering at first, however, the relationship can progress into a positive symbiotic existence. Another frightening concept about this relationship is that once you are possessed, you are always possessed. Zayran never abandons its host and has the ability to infiltrate their body at will at any time. When the spirit takes over the host’s body, that person becomes entranced. Hofriyati say that the possession trance is a state induced by the spirit’s forceful entry into the body, which displaces the human self-awareness to another perceptual plane. Basically, they are kicked out of their body momentarily. Bourguignon describes trance as “A radical discontinuity of personal identity” (1973: 12-13). The only issue with this model is that, in this case, the disrupted perception is not limited to just personal identity but affects other entities as well. In the Hofriyat society, trance is only one version of spirit possession and it can manifest in various ways. These spirits are constantly hanging around their human host through the course of daily life, influencing what they do and how they perceive things whenever they want.

Another interesting aspect of this culture is that trances seldom occur outside of a premeditated ritual setting. This means it is not a spontaneous phenomenon and instead a learned, practiced behavior requiring skill and control.
Many observers seek biological understandings for spirit possession. Among them, Kehoe and Giletti attempted to explain the phenomenon on the basis that it is caused by “a spontaneous neurological manifestation of nutritional deficiency” (1981). This model is potentially blurred by western rationalism which inevitably discredits any mode of consciousness other than critical self-awareness. In the search for biological explanations of trance occurrences, a crucial point is missed: possession is logically and contextually prior to the trance. In Hofriyat, one is not said to be possessed because she becomes entranced, moreover, she becomes entranced because she is possessed.


Where are the men in this picture?
Possession is mainly only experienced by women. More than 40% of Hofriyat women over the age of fifteen and married claim zār affliction as opposed to 5% of the population of adult males. During Boddy’s six year absence from the village, only one man became possessed in contrast to sixteen women who became possessed. She did note, however, that a few of her male acquaintances privately confessed they were inflicted with a spirit but refused to make a public declaration in fear of “losing face”. What creates this disproportion of gender? I.M Lewis proposed a sociological explanation for this occurrence stating that zār possession is a strategy by women to overcome their subordinate social status. This model underestimates the unchallenged factuality of spirits within Sudanese society. Possession is a widespread matter of fact to the Hofriyati and therefore it cannot be limited to the strategic social strife of a minority group. It also assumes that women wish to acquire the social status of men in a society where the roles of men and women are distinctly different and separate. This is not due to men’s triumph rather it is the product of cultural design.
But this still doesn’t explain the discrepancy.
In Hofriyati, both sexes agree that women are more vulnerable to spirit custody because of their femininity. Spirits are attracted to women and covet the precious perfumes and gold jewelry that they wear. They are even more enthralled by those who are married because they have “activated” their fertility. Religious authorities attribute the vulnerability of women to their moral frailty. Because of this, women find it more difficult to resist the infliction of a spirit. Finally, men feel that women are more likely to become possessed because they see no difference between the zār and Islam. To women, they are just performing a part of the general Islamic religion and therefore they put themselves in the position to be overtaken by zayran.

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One possessed, always possessed.
Unfortunately, there is no cure. The spirit is forever bound to its host. Through a propitiatory ceremony, however, symptom relief is possible. The spirit may agree to refrain from further destruction of the human’s health so long as she attends regular ceremonies, avoids mourning behavior, associates herself with clean and sweet smelling things and avoids being consumed by strong emotion. This contract is infinitely renegotiable, though.




Pia Nystrom
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate
Pamela Ashmore with nonhuman primate

Pia Nystrom and Pamela Ashmore are university professors, researchers, and best friends. They are also passionate animal lovers. Nystrom and Ashmore both received PhDs in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis where they met as graduate students. Nystrom now lectures across the Atlantic at the University of Sheffield in the UK, while Ashmore is an Anthropology department head at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Though they have lived in different continents since 1994, these two friends managed to write a book for undergraduates on their favorite subject, primates.

The Life of Primates

The Life of Primates (2008) gives the reader an in-depth yet straightforward review of nonhuman primate biology. This includes the social behaviors, environments, and cognitive processes of primates as well as basic physiology. The chapter we’ll be discussing is “The Primate Brain and Complex Behavior.” In this section, Nystrom and Ashmore cover a broad range of topics from they “why”s to the “how”s of primate brains and cognition.

Why study nonhuman primate cognition?

Kiri & Mobali of the Memphis Zoo

Because we ourselves are primates, the brains and behaviors of other apes and monkeys interest us and allow for interesting views of our own neurological evolution and psychology. Nonhuman primate cognition research is highly controversial-- especially in its interpretation. Many don’t believe that humans can ever truly understand the minds of other animals because we cannot experience their perspectives for ourselves. However, we continue with this research in order to answer both philosophical and evolutionary questions.

The philosophical questions relate to our desire to know our position in nature - how unique our minds are compared to other creatures. Those who seek answers to the evolutionary questions examine our closest extant relatives (bonobos, chimps, etc) while trying to understand the evolution of the human brain.

Early Research

Nonhuman primate research began in 1927 with Köhler’s chimp observations in the Canary Islands. He was the first to suggest that chimps were capable of insightful behaviors. Systematic research into primate cognition did not truly begin until the 1960’s, however, and even then most of that was done on captive primates. The biggest discoveries of this time period were from two field studies in Tanzania where the researchers showed the chimps frequently construct and use tools. Later research revealed that chimps have tool kits and that these kits are different regionally. This is more than Homo habilis can say with its identical tools across time and geography.

Brain Size


Though brain size usually correlates with complexity, the discovery of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia means this assumption must be reevaluated. H. floresiensis has a small brain case and stature (around the size of a modern chimp), yet it used tools which were much more advanced than those of chimps. This leads us to believe that the internal organization of the brain may be more important than its size. Still though, primates have larger brains than expected based on body size alone and are known to have more complex behaviors than other orders of animals.

Now the question is why did primates evolve such large brains? The brain is a metabolically expensive organ to run. There must have been a very strong selective pressure for large brains that outweighed the energetic cost.

There are several hypotheses for why primates have large brains. Primates with larger home ranges and which also eat fruit (a high energy food) have larger brains. They also seem to have the most efficient routes between food sources on their home ranges mapped out in their heads - this relates to the expensive tissue hypothesis. Sociality is another characteristic which correlates with brain size. Primates which live in large groups have complex interactions and can use “social tools” to achieve their own goals. For example, many primates use manipulation to gain access to food. This is the social intelligence hypothesis.


Mirror Test
Mirror Test

Researchers are also interested in whether nonhuman primates have theory of mind. However, it is very difficult to ascertain whether or not nonhuman primates understand another individual’s mental perspective. In order to learn more about nonhuman theory of mind, researchers have attempted to study an individuals awareness. If an organism has theory of mind, it is assumed to also have awareness. Though awareness is also a complex subject, it may studied a bit more easily than theory of mind. Awareness can be divided into two levels, self-recognition and self-attribution. Self-recognition is the ability to identify oneself apart from others. Self-attribution is when an individual aware of their own mental state and can use this to predict the actions of others.

The mirror test is the most often used test for self-recognition. Chimps, bonobos, and orangutans appear to recognize themselves in the mirror and use it to examine parts of their body they might not normally see. Gorillas do not react in this way and instead try to threaten the image. However, the famous captive gorilla Koko is said to routinely examine herself with a mirror. This may be because of her increased level of social stimulation. Gordon Gallup, the mirror test deviser, suggested that self-recognition could be an index for self-attribution.

Why do primates need to think?

The ability to understand others’ mental states can create more effective cooperation as well as social manipulation. Both of these lead to gains for the individual. Organisms which can differentiate between friendly and unfriendly interactions and intentions are better suited to realize when they are being manipulated or give them the means to manipulate. These abilities also potentially allow for the exchange of knowledge through observation or teaching.


Tool use has never been so adorable.
Tool use has never been so adorable.

As we learned in the Leary/Buttermore paper, tool use is a very large component of research on primate cognition. Primates are hand-feeders, meaning they use their hands for eating and essentially all grabbing activities. Hands are represented extensively in the sensory and motor areas of primate brains. While not all primates use tools, the grasping ability of the hand makes tools fairly useful in the primate world. Chimps and orangutans frequently use them, other species do not quite as much or at all.

Tools are not always used for food either - they can be used in displays and grooming as well. Chimps have been known to throw rocks at enemies and monkeys often dislodge branches to frighten away predators.

Not only are primates able to use tools, but they are also capable of making them. To do this requires forethought. They must have an idea of what the final product should look like and an understand of what materials to use to make that product. Chimps have also been known to make tools hours ahead of time - up to 14 hours of reaching the goal.

The “how”s of tool use in nonhuman primates are widely disputed. Capuchins seem to via trial and error, whereas with chimps it seems to be a mixture of emulation and perhaps intentional teaching.

While we may not ever truly understand the cognitive processes of nonhuman primates, we can learn a lot about our own evolutionary history from this research. There does not seem to be a distinct dividing line between our mental capacities and their own, especially when in a stimulating environment.