Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dancing The Questions

The following citation, from E.E. Evans-Pritchard's classic 1937 ethnography "Witchcraft, Oracles And Magic Among The Azande" would do nicely on Transpontine's excellent "History Is Made At Night" blog:

"A witch-doctor does not only divine with his lips, but with his whole body. He dances the questions which are put to him. A witch-doctor's dance contrasts strikingly with the usual ceremonial dance of the Azande. The one is spirited, violent, ecstatic, the other slow, calm, restrained. The one is an individual performance organized only by traditional movements and rhythm, the other a collective performance.


It is important to notice that witch-doctors not only dance but make their own music with hand-bells and rattles, so that the effect in conjunction with gong and drums is intoxicating, not only to the performers themselves, but also to their audience; and that this intoxication is an appropriate condition for divination. Music, rhythmic movements, facial grimaces, grotesque dress, all lend their aid in creating a proper atmosphere for the manifestation of esoteric powers. The audience follow the display eagerly and move their heads to the music and even repeat the songs in a low voice when they are pleasing themselves rather than adding to the volume of the chorus. It would be a great mistake to suppose there is an atmosphere of awe during the ceremony. On the contrary, everyone is jovial and amused, talking to each other and making jokes. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the success of the witch-doctor's profession is largely due to the fact that he does not rely entirely upon the settled faith of his audience, but makes belief easier by compelling their surrender to sensory stimuli.

We have to remember, moreover, that the audience is not observing simply a rhythmic performance, but also a ritual enactment of magic. It is something more than a dance, it is a fight, partly direct and partly symbolic, against the powers of evil. The full meaning of a seance as a parade against witchcraft can only be fully grasped when this dancing is understood. An observer who recorded only questions put to the witch-doctors and the replies which they gave would leave out the whole mechanism by which the answers are obtained, and even the answers themselves. A witch-doctor 'dances the questions'.


Every movement in the dance is as full of meaning as speech. All this jumping and leaping embodies a world of innuendo. A witch-doctor dances in front of one spectator or gazes intently at another, and when people see this they think that he has spotted a witch, and the object of their attention feels uncomfortable. Spectators can never be quite certain about the meaning of the witch-doctors behavior, but they can interpret in a general way from his actions what he is feeling and seeing. Every movement, every gesture, every grimace, expresses the fight they are waging against witchcraft, and it is necessary for the meaning of a dance to be explained by witch-doctors as well as by laymen to appreciate its full symbolism."

These are immensely important paragraphs: as early as 1937 they bind together issues of embodiment, rationality, movement and meaning. Not only does Evans-Pritchard conceive the witch-doctor's dance as a semiological system, he also allows the witch-doctor's dance to enrich our understanding of rationality and meaning. The dance may mimic the questions: but the questions anticipate and the answers mimic the dance. Discourse jumps, leaps and grimaces, becomes sweat-soaked, smelly, intoxicated.

1 comment:

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