When the Spirit World Invades Human Affairs

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    That's from an essay called "The Power of Possession in Northwest Madagascar" by Barnard anthropologist Lesley A. Sharp, in the anthology Spirit Possession edited by Heike Behrend and Ute Luig (University of Wisconsin Press, 170 pages, $22.95).

    Spirits Note that "living and dead royalty agreed" to let the fishing continue. The fishery, run by French managers and other outsiders who represented the national government, was in waters sacred to the locals, who would have been enraged if the cooperation of local rulers, living and dead, hadn't been secured. Gaining access to these waters "involved complicated negotiations and private conferences with both living and dead royalty. The emissary first approached the ruler Tsiaraso Victor III (r. 1966-93), and his advisors," who vetted him to the sacred island of Nosy Faly. "There, in the village of the royal tombs, the emissary had to confer with the tomb guardians...who, in turn, helped him gain access to the saha mediums," who channeled the royal ancestors' spirits. In negotiations carried on through the mediums, the royal dead agreed to let the state fish the waters, this permission to be granted on an annual basis, and each fishing season to be followed by a big celebration thrown by the state and presided over by both living and dead local leaders. In the developed West, where we tend to be bigots about such activities, we might write this story off as a case of placating the ignorant peasants with their primitive superstitions. Indeed, when the French ran Madagascar as a colony, "they would have considered it ludicrous to consult spirit mediums," and the practice was illegal under colonial law. What Sharp and the other writers in this book want us to see, however, is the ways religious beliefs and practices are used in politics, economics, even warfare. The essays all focus on African societies, but you needn't be too imaginative to apply the lessons elsewhere.

    Often the spirits become allies of living people, to give them leverage in some power situation. In Madagascar, for example, the spirit mediums were critical players in the delicate game of establishing a balance of power and respect between local authorities and the postcolonial national government. By securing the blessing of dead rulers, the government was able to ensure the cooperation of living ones. In return, jobs, schools and other benefits flowed into the area, enhancing local leaders' esteem. Everyone benefited, because the outsiders took the locals' beliefs seriously.

    German anthropologist Heike Behrend reports that spirits chose sides in the protracted, internecine warfare and rebellion on Uganda in the 1980s and 90s. In many African societies, mediums have always been consulted in times of war, and spirit possession is quite common in Uganda. In the Acholi region of northern Uganda in 1985, a young woman named Alice Auma became a kind of African Joan of Arc. Channeling a number of spirits, most importantly an Italian Christian spirit named Lakwena, she led a rebel army, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, into battle against government troops. Her army included both living soldiers and "heavenly spirits," as many as 140,000 of them. "During fighting, they protected the soldiers as 'guardian spirits.' Should a soldier die in battle, after a short stay in purgatory, his spirit would rejoin the movement and continue fighting with the living soldiers."

    In addition to Lakwena, some of the leading spirits Alice channeled included an American trickster named Wrong Element; a Zairean spirit named Franko who "took possession of Alice only rarely and was responsible for the supply of food and other necessities"; a Korean spirit, Ching Poh, who organized the production of "stone grenades"; and various Muslim spirits. Alice's crusade was not only military; she sought to cleanse Acholi of witches and other moral impurities, and was also a healer, whose spirits "were busy giving out recipes for medicines, for various 'Holy Spirit drugs', which would be locally produced to heal all sorts of trouble, including AIDS."

    Behrend describes how Alice would review her troops. "She sat on a stool, like a chief, and wore a white kanzu, male Islamic dress, with a rosary around her neck. The spirits took possession of her during the morning parade and during the seven o'clock evening parade. The chief clerk of Lakwena, the secretary, stood beside her to translate and write down what the spirits said."

    When Alice was defeated in 1987, forcing her to flee to Kenya, the spirits turned to her father, Severino Lukoya, to reorganize the remnants of her army. Of her old spirit advisers, "Only Ching Poh refused to join." Severino added new spirits of his own, "called Oyite Ojok, Ojukwu, Dr. Ambrosoli and Bernhard. These new spirits were the spirits of historical persons who had lived in Acholi and, in one way or another, had influenced the recent history of the north: Oyite Ojok was the spirit of a high UNLA officer from Lango who died in an air crash on 2 December 1983 during the civil war." Ojukwu had served as an officer in Idi Amin's army and had supported Alice's war at first, then broken with her. It's ironic, then, that after death his spirit would be yoked to her cause by her father. Dr. Ambrosoli "came from an Italian family from Milan that had become rich with the production of sweets. In 1955, he was ordained as a priest and joined the Verona Fathers. Since 1956, he had worked in the Kalongo Hospital in Kitgum."

    The interesting point about these new spirits is that, unlike Lakwena and the others, they represented real people, familiar in the north of Uganda; in that sense they were a clever political innovation on Severino's part, who used them "to construct a common local discourse in opposition to the government." Since they'd all died as "victims of the government forces in one way or another, it is also possible that the Catholic concept of saints and martyrs was appropriated and reformulated in the context of spirit possession in Severino's movement."

    Still another rebel leader named Kony adapted some of Alice's tactics as well. "[H]e issued rules of behaviour, the so-called Holy Spirit Safety Precautions and, like Alice, he fought witchcraft and killed pagan spirit mediums, the ajwakas. He also took over the so-called Holy Spirit Tactics, a way of fighting combining modern Western military techniques with ritual practices... Before a battle took place, the soldiers were ritually loaded with malaika, the Swahili word for angel, to protect them against the enemy's bullets."

    This book has many stories like that. We learn that in many places in the colonized Third World, spiritual leaders resisted the spread of capitalism and consumerism, which they saw (quite rightly, one has to admit, in many cases) as an invading moral pollution. In the Ivory Coast, the Beng claimed to be repulsed by the fumes of cigarettes and gasoline?both imported luxuries that literally stank of Western corrupting influence. The Tshidi Zionists in South Africa ritually washed all consumer products, from Coke bottles on up, "seeking to remain free from the polluting influence of the global market culture."

    Spirit possession takes a unique form among the Bijagos, who live on an archipelago of tiny islands off the Atlantic coast of Africa. Among the Bijagos, possession doesn't happen only to special people like Alice Auma at times of special crisis. All Bijagos women are possessed. "To reach adulthood, women must be invested by the spirit of a dead man." And it's not just any dead man. Throughout the archipelago, one encounters "noisy groups of women-warriors that are frequently dancing and wandering in between the villages and the forest... These women, each possessed by the spirit of a young man who died before accomplishing initiation, periodically lose their identity to be invested by that of defunct males." When they complete the spirit's initiation for him, they come under his grateful influence and he acts as a "virtual ancestor" to them. So here again, spirit possession is a strategy for temporal power.

    Encouraged by both capitalists and Marxists to analyze all human events as economics, further misled by the widely misunderstood principle of separation of church and state, we can forget the crucial impact the spirit world can have in the affairs of the living. So we're caught completely off guard when, for instance, a handful of mullahs in Iran organizes the populace to overthrow our puppet shah. And at home, we're upset when religious beliefs impinge on political and social issues like teaching evolution in schools, gay rights, reproductive rights. Let's not forget the profound respect some of us have for the Founding Fathers, a peculiarly American expression of ancestor worship, or the way some of us are fundamentalists about those ancestors' primary texts. Even though it only treats Africa, a book like Spirit Possession is a handy reminder that the spirits are all around us, if only in the beliefs of most human beings, in whose lives they take an active and constant interest.

    Afterwords Our man Kenneth Goldsmith, music reviewer and WFMU DJ, has kept busy cranking out two books and a pamphlet since I last looked. They all continue his obsessive's experimentation with concrete language, list-making and an intensity of close observation that makes the everyday glow with transcendence. In Fidget (Coach House, 107 pages, $16.95) he sets out to record his every twitch, scratch, step, burp and gulp from waking up to falling back asleep 13 hours later on June 16, 1997. He clipped on a microphone and literally taped himself reciting every move, all day. A typically mad Goldsmith experiment. At first he's recording observations as precise and minute, as Marjorie Perloff says in an afterword, as an Edward Muybridge strip:

    "Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow. Jaws clench. Grind. Stretch. Swallow. Head lifts. Bent right arm brushes pillow into back of head. Arm straightens."

    After a few hours of this he begins to drive himself nuts. His reports first get clipped ("Scratch. Stretch. Rub. Click. Peck. Hit. Shift. Roll"). Then he panics and gets drunk, and his recitation turns into crazy poetry: "At eight twenty-five eye damage custard. And silence is guide. Lips fall down, except on pavement. Body only river. Second body is gone to river. Over probablestone. A plash." By the final hour he's babbling. (Fidget is at Printed Matter and available through Small Press Distribution at spdbooks.org.)

    6799 is Goldsmith indulging in his list-making OCD. He was asked by zingmagazine, the art journal, to list some of the records in his vast collection. Characteristically, once he got started he couldn't stop, and delivered a 92-page book's worth of a list?every record he acquired 1967-1999, in alphabetical order by artist, from A Kombi's Music to Drive By through pages of Various Artists to Peter Zummo's Zummo With an X. There was nothing for zing to do but print it as a book and distribute it shrinkwrapped with the current Winter 2000 issue (which you can find at Hudson newsstands). Obviously you'd have to be as nuts as he is to read the thing; I think of it more in the Jewish mystical traditional of text as a marvelous or totemic object.

    Gertrude Stein on Punctuation is the most playful of the three. In the first section he reproduces Stein's wonderful discourse on punctuation from Lectures in America ("...Therefore I ask you therefore wherefore should one use it the question mark. Beside it does not in its form go with ordinary printing and so it pleases neither the eye nor the ear and it is therefore like a noun, just an unnecessary name of something..."). In the second section, "Gertrude Stein's Punctuation From Gertrude Stein on Punctuation," he strips out all the punctuation in her essay?every comma, period, apostrophe, hyphen?all of which, being Gertrude Stein, she uses sparingly anyway. He scatters these squirts and dots and dashes randomly across three pages, as though, he says to me, he'd gathered them in his palm and then blown them across the pages like dust.

    A nice little homage to Gertrude, it is packaged in 5 & 10¢, a limited-edition, $200 box set of 25 artists' pamphlets produced by New Jersey's Abaton Books, home of Laurie Bortz's strange plays and the wobbly genius of high school singer-songwriter Marianne Nowottny.