Possession cults



The zar and the tumbura cults

Tigani Al-Mahi (1911-1970) studied the zar cult in the Sudan, and produced deep and illuminating pioneer works. Unfortunately, he did not publish all the details of his studies. Nonetheless, he left behind an important manuscript on the zar, called The Zar Archetypes (Mashaiykh Al-Zar) in the Sudan.[1] Much of Tigani’s views on the zar are contained in this document and in scattered observations in various other articles he wrote on ethno-psychiatry.

Tigani believed that the zar could furnish psychiatrists in the Sudan with invaluable tools to diagnose and treat psychiatric illnesses through the analysis of the zar archetypes. This, he contended, would be a more reliable alternative than dream interpretation in the psychiatric management of some cases. He concluded that the zar archetypes stand for specific types of personality traits whose moods, temperaments and predispositions are manifest.

The zar and the tumbura are well-known therapeutic practices throughout the northern Sudan; both are still of debatable origin, while their precise function and role are matters of controversy. Researchers have described the zar as propitiatory ceremonies held in essence to appease the possessing evil spirits by means of lavish feasting, hot rhythmic music, gifts, and sacrifices.[2]

Researchers have so far categorized the zar bori and the zar tumbura as two variants of the same cult, the cruder tumbura variant being the more ancient.[3] The two practices may be different in origin and function, but both remain related in the lay mind. When analyzing the two systems clear differences appear; indeed, we are lead to believe that the two systems are only related in the minds of researchers. Unlike the bori, the tumbura zar is a well-organized and differentiated institution. Its offices and ranks are well-defined, and bylaws are set and adhered to rigidly. The day and time the ceremonies are held, always between Thursday evening and Friday noon, cannot be changed to suit a patient. In the bori, a patient freely chooses the time, the place, and the duration of the ceremony.

In both types of zar, there are some vestiges of past animist origins. For example, in the Islamic tradition, a slaughterer faces the Muslim Holy Mosque and utters bismillah, Allahu akbar thrice before cutting the animal’s throat, whilst in the tumbura, the slayer intentionally omits the naming of God in this ritual sacrifice. Alcohol was a common drink in both types of the zar, and in both, the sacrificial animal’s blood was collected to be later drunk or used in the rituals. The shaikha draws the sign of the cross on the forehead of the zar bride.

In the bori, the shaikha diagnoses the type and identity of the possessing spirits through fath-al-‘ilba (tin divination). In the tumbura, the shaikh diagnoses through sleep divination using the client’s clothing. While in the tumbura ceremonies are held to celebrate the patient’s cure, in the bori the festivities are themselves healing in nature; the patient is never considered cured but remains possessed throughout life.

Both types of practices show features borrowed from the Islamic faith, although available records are too few to trace these features back in history. Today only a few Sufi shaikhs feature as the main zar archetypes with unique costumes, chants and tunes. These few are, however, very influential. Their banners are the same as those of the Sufi sects, and the possessed may dress herself in dervish costumes if possessed by one of the holy men.

The zar fellowship

The zar and the tumbura devotees are predominantly females. In the tumbura, men are the exclusive players of the percussion instruments—the drums, the rattle belts, and the tumbura (lyre). Effeminate men or overt homosexuals who appear frequently in the bori, are almost unknown in the tumbura ensemble. Fewer men join the bori parties for the sake of treatment; in the tumbura they appear more often.

The zar is a closed female community, though a few men appear occasionally. The women who attend the zar parties fall into one of the following groups: zar patrons and their entourage, zar devotees and adherents, and others who are firm believers in the therapeutic efficacy of the zar ceremonies. The zar patrons are women who have been afflicted by the zar spirits early in life, have subsequently been treated through the healing ceremonies, and have remained closely associated with the cult ever since. Another group is composed of those possessed by one or more of the zar spirits and for whom the zar parties are held regularly. However, there remains one group that makes up the bulk of the audience. These are the passers-by, all looking for fun and a good time away from household chores—relatives, acquaintances and neighbours.

The zar ceremonies

The zar bori parties, also known as midans or dastur (plural dasatir), are exclusively adult women’s congregations. Few men appear in these midans, ceremonies. Those who do are invariably effeminate. One also finds children around as curious bystanders, but never as patients.

Zar parties involve lengthy preparations setting the scene for the musical extravaganza and dancing séances.[4] The zar house is characteristically crowded, and filled with strongly-scented fumes and perfumes. The novice, the participants and the audience are all dressed in their best clothes. The zar novice and devotees join in the dancing. Women have frequently reported later that they have been completely oblivious of their surroundings, and have felt no pain whatsoever from any bruises they might have suffered during the dancing.

A forthcoming work with which the present author is associated appends a specially-commissioned study of zar music.[5] Musicologist Abd Allah Muhammad Abd Allah carried out the study and analyzed the music of the zar bori songs of the greater Khartoum Area. Zar music has been found to be highly rhythmic, loud, and repetitive to the point of monotony.

Even the shortest song in the zar ceremony is self-sufficient and musically complete. It has a definite start, a clear progression, and a finale. The music sentence is brief in form, and is repeated over and over again. The majority of songs are composed of eight bars, each about ten seconds long, and the longest song lasts for approximately one minute.

The melodies of the zar songs are strikingly similar and are all based on the pentatonic scale. Many are variations on a theme, differing only in their words. Short intervals, for example, the first, the second, the third, and (very rarely) the fourth, are characteristic.

Loud and rich rhythm is a hallmark of zar music. The drummers produce and manipulate the rhythm with great mastery, using various percussion instruments including large drums, small hand drums, tambourines, jingles and copper utensils. They are beaten with bare hands or with various wooden rods. Though the tom-tom rhythm is the one the ear catches first, other types of rhythm may be identified. The tempo is usually rapid, and the drumming escalates in intensity through masterly repetition of beats and accents, by increasing the volume, and by the free improvisations the drummers produce as they work themselves up to a pitch of excitement. The emotional tension of the dancers builds up, until one or more falls down in a trance; the music is then stopped abruptly. Alternatively, the singing stops and the tempo is slowed down.

No doubt the high-volume rhythm causes an appreciable degree of auditory stimulation, and this, together with the visual and olfactory stimulation, and psychic and physical exhaustion, are contributory factors in these collapses and possibly in the trances too.

The zar bori patients

The zar bori clientele—actors and audience—are exclusively women. They usually resort to the zar for several social and psychological and psychosomatic diseases. These women have been found to be mostly illiterate, underprivileged, dispirited urban dwellers. Recently, however, women from the higher social classes, have indulged excessively in the zar, and organized their own parties with a proportionate increase in cost and luxury.

Psychiatrists were investigating zar bori patients as early as the mid-thirties. Tigani Al-Mahi in 1943 or earlier labelled them as hysterics.[6] It is generally true that such patients suffer from many psycho-social and psycho-physical ailments including social stresses and strains, and a host of bodily and psychic dis-eases.[7] The complaints themselves may camouflage inner troubles. The zar practitioner deciphers these complaints to reach a diagnosis. During her fieldwork in the Sudan, Pamela Constantinidis interviewed some sixty zar cult followers. She found that almost half of the interviewed women related their spirit possession to crises of marriage, fertility and childbirth, and the death of kinfolk.[8]

Indeed, we may borrow at this juncture Professor Lewis’s deprivation cult hypothesis,[9] wherein the zar provides a forum that accommodates women and other deprived groups. In such a forum these groups have an opportunity to fantasize their afflictions, act out their difficulties, and exploit possession to gain desired ends or make a protest which cannot be expressed overtly otherwise.

In the International Symposium on the Spiritual Dimension of Traditional African Medicine, held in Khartoum early 1988, Professor Sheikh Idris Abd Al-Rahim expounded on his experience and reported his results.[10]

He studied the clinical data sheets of 819 valid cases of middle-aged women, 40-55 years-old, who reported to the Clinic for Nervous Disorders at Khartoum North during the ten-year period 1973-83. His results corroborated the assumption that the studied group was a high-risk one.

The research established that there was a high rate of practice of the zar reaching 35% among the studied group. This was significant and important to planners. Resort to the zar was statistically significant, and was much more common in rural than urban settings, in the less educated, among economically-inactive women, and families with less-educated heads of households. This draws a depressing picture, especially in a country like the Sudan, where 80% of the population live in rural areas, where illiteracy is around 70-80% among the adult population, where the majority of females are outside the labour force, and where the cultural and educational levels of the heads of the households are far from satisfactory.

The results also revealed that on the whole patients with psychogenic reactions resorted more frequently to the zar than those with functional psychoses and other conditions. The highest rate of recourse to the zar was recorded in those with hysterical reactions; the second highest rate was among patients with phobic and organic neuroses.

A good response was found most characteristic of patients with hysterical reactions, and much less so in patients with anxiety states. All other diagnostic categories had a lower rate of good response than the total average of all patients.

On the other hand, the highest rates of no response to the zar were established in patients with organic brain syndromes, epilepsy, schizophrenia, affective disorders, puerperal psychosis and obsessive compulsive neurosis. In toxic and traumatic psychosis, the zar therapy was not at all tried.[11]

Social functions of the zar parties

The zar parties, in addition to being therapeutic in nature, are believed to serve social functions as well. The zar parties provide women with music, dancing, food and a relaxed atmosphere in which they can let off steam. Indeed, the relaxation women attain in these ceremonies sometimes amounts to moral slackness. Access to this type of life is a real privilege in the conservative male-dominated society of the Sudan.

Pamela Constantinidis has studied the zar cult as practised in the Greater Khartoum area. She drew on that experience to describe how she sees the proper province of the zar cult in an article entitled Women heal women: spirit possession and sexual segregation in a Muslim society, she says:

“But while men have formal control over women’s sexuality and fertility—disposing of daughters in marriage, increasing the lineage through the fertility of wives, or repudiating their services through divorce, it is women who maintain ritual control over their kinswomen’s, their own and their daughters’ bodies. Men accept totally the necessity of their wives’ and daughters’ proper ritual passage through the life cycle. Here lie the ‘inarticulate powers’ of women, and here, I would claim, lies the proper province of the zar cult.”[12]

The kujurs trance

As the faki is an instrument for mediation with the Supreme Power and heals through the baraka bestowed upon him, the kujur of the Nuba tribes and the jok of the Mandari tribes are the instruments for their spirits with which they communicate by inducing a possession fit. To perform any of his functions, e.g. to discover the right treatment for a disease, a kujur self-induces a fit or goes into a trance either spontaneously and involuntarily, on request of a client or in prearranged séances.[13] These fits may sometimes be simulated, indeed, many are put on and their perpetrators sometimes betray themselves by involuntary glimpses at the audience. However, Nadel in his Nuba study reported on undoubtedly genuine attacks: when they were over, the shaman was covered with perspiration and completely exhausted; his pulse was shallow and irregular; he was seized by violent hiccups, or broke into uncontrollable sobbing. To communicate with the spirits, a kujur self-induces a fit or a trance which may materialize either spontaneously or in prearranged séances.

The molja

The Mandari uses possession trances for divination and treatment purposes. The possession episodes take the form of convulsions known as molja that are deliberately induced by the jok doctor who completely controls the whole procedure. The Mandari clearly differentiated a diviner’s convulsions from those caused by fever, epilepsy, or the spontaneous ones that young adolescent females go through in the mortuary rites.[14] The Mandari trances are related to the intense auditory stimulation that the jok doctor and his ensemble produce by the vigorous shaking of the divining rattles, and by the clapping and singing of the audience.

The doctor and patient take a special position in divination. They sit face to face, cross-legged, eyes fixed on each other, against the background of rhythmic sound, continuing for perhaps and hour or more, with breaks for questions. This, Jean Buxton says, may lead to a relaxed semi-hypnotic state and helps to promote the free expression of worries and problems by the patient, perhaps even in some cases helping to establish telepathic communication.[15] 


[1] This manuscript is in my possession and is appended to a forthcoming book.

[2] Zar is an ambivalent word that indicates both the name of the possessing spirits and the propitiatory ceremonial dances performed to appease them.

[3] Tigani Al-Mahi. Zar Archetypes in the Sudan: 1937-68. (manuscript in possession of Dr. Ahmad Al Safi).

[4] Dancing is a popular activity in Sudanese life. It is part of almost all festivities, especially those associated with various initiation rites. It is also part of the religious remembrance liturgies or zikr. It is seen as a recreational activity, a means for keeping fit, and an activity that enhances group interaction and body awareness. The kampala dance performed by the Nuba is an excellent example of a dance fulfilling these all-embracing functions.

[5] Ahmad Al-Safi, Samira Amin, Abd Allah Muhammad Abd Allah. Zar in the Sudan. Arabic (in press). 1989.

[6] Tigani Al-Mahi. Al-Rayyid La Yakdhib Alilahu: Tahlil Al-Haya Al-Nafsiyya lil Maraa Al-Sudaniyya [Arabic]. Majallat Al-Sudan Al-Jadid; 23 June 1944: pages 6, 19.

[7] The late Psychiatrist Hasabu Sulaiman circulated and popularized in the daily newspapers and television interviews the term 'hysterionic' as a label for these patients.

[8] Constantinidis, Pamela M. Women Heal Women: Spirit Possession and Sexual Segregation in a Muslim Society. Social Science & Medicine; 1985; 21(6): 685-692.

[9] Lewis, I.M. Spirit Possession and Deprivation Cults [The Malinowski Memorial Lecture]. Delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science, 8 March 1966: Man; 1966; 1(3): 307-399.

[10] Rahim, S.I.A. Clinical Analogues of Zar in Sudan. In: The International Symposium on the Spiritual Dimension of Traditional African Medicine; January 1988: Traditional Medicine Research Institute, Institute of African and Asian Studies, Khartoum and International African Institute, London.

[11] Rahim, S.I.A. Zar among middle-aged female psychiatric patients in the Sudan. I.A. Lewis; Ahmad Al-Safi; Sayyid Hurreiz, editors. Women's Medicine; The Zar-Bori Cult in Africa and Beyond. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; l991: 137-146.

[12] Constantinidis, Pamela M. Women Heal Women: Spirit Possession and Sexual Segregation in a Muslim Society. Social Science & Medicine; 1985; 21(6): 68: 685-692.

[13] Nadel assumes that many shamanistic performances are genuine cases of hysterical dissociation, and raises the question of how far we must assume the existence of a specific psychological predisposition in the groups where this form of mental instability plays so prominent and socially attractive a part. Nadel 1946.

[14] Buxton, Jean C. Religion and Healing in Mandari. Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1973. Pages 114, 298.

[15] Buxton. Op. Cit.


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