Demon possession and disembowelment
19th – 25th March 2012
Two stories made headlines this week in isiZulu newspapers – those to do with ‘izinyangambumbulu’ and those dealing with ‘amadimoni’.
The idea of possession in Zulu culture predates the arrival of Christianity, although the addition of foreign elements has complicated the issue somewhat. Initially, what seems to be the case is that ‘possession’ (as distinct from the ‘channelling’ of or communion with ancestral spirits or amadlozi) involves spirits from outside of the clan or family group – sometimes called amandiki.
There is a notable case of this ‘amandiki possession’ from the area near Durban, which was tried under British laws prohibiting witchcraft, in 1906 in the Durban High Court, and which is recorded in papers in the Killie Campbell archives. What links this case with the current one? The fact that all the accused were women, much like the Bacchae or Maenads of ancient Greece, or the infamous witches of Medieval Europe and Salem.
So, why women? Many theories have been suggested, veering from the misogynistic assessments of the Greeks to the more nuanced understandings of twentieth-century (but still mostly male) social anthropologists. There are a couple of details which make for interesting analysis:
1. there is usually an older, sexually initiated woman who acts as the ‘mustagoges’ or initator of the
younger, sexually naïve women
2. the initates (mustai) are usually going through menarche, and are coming to terms with the soup of
hormones flooding their bodies – hormones which have been shown to induce (among other things) strange
dreams, psychological disturbances, and changes in physical appearance
3. occurrences of this kind of possession usually occur in areas where there is an existing patriarchy, as
well as heightened religious, ethnic or social tension
4. this kind of possession tends to involve behaviour which not only goes against the dominant social
system, but which actively inverts those systems: eating raw flesh, cannibalism, nakedness, and
nocturnal activity are just a few of the activities common to these occurrences
So, where the male response to similar circumstances tends to take on a physical (usually violent) aspect, the female response is to try to find a spiritual way of negotiating the shifts in their situation. The older women try to manage the process, as they have done for centuries through socially sanctioned initiation schools. However, in areas where the societal, ethnic or religious tension is severe (such as Salem in the 17th century, medieval Europe caught in the process of Christianisation, 5th century BC Athens dealing with the Peloponnesian war, or 21st century South Africa dealing with various societal issues), their usual responses can become distorted – leading to instances like the brutal disembowelling of 14-year-old Nhlanhla in uMlazi.