Iteso - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Iteso believe in a divinity with different aspects, variously called akuj, "high," or edeke, "illness." Other entities in their pantheon included the Ajokin, little spirits of the bush, who invited people who met them to feast, providing they kept the invitation a secret. Under missionary influence, the Ajokin have come to be identified with the devil. Ipara, spirits of the dead, figure prominently in their lives, but there are no special shrines for propitiation. The Ipara are selfish and do not enforce good behavior so much as demand propitiation. When they possess people, the Ipara bring with them exotic spirits from other cultures who harm or make ill the people possessed. Catholic missionaries have had considerable influence among the Iteso, and almost all of them had been baptized by 1990. Women are especially involved in the church. The African priests at the missions have successfully advocated the organization of local cooperative groups called "Christian communities."
Religious Practitioners. Most Iteso religious practices are either associated with transitions in the life cycle or are ways of managing misfortune and illness. Women are the primary religious practitioners. The performance of domestic rituals is defined as part of their "work." In addition to domestic ritual, women predominate in cults of spirit possession. Men serve as diviners and healers, and some specialize in "blocking" the effects of the spirits of the dead. In the precolonial period, men who had been retired through the age system acted as intermediaries between the divinity and the people.
Ceremonies. Domestic ceremonies take place in the household and include naming rituals, the complex rites associated with marriage and birth, and rituals held to heal ill children. Mortuary rituals also take place within the household and involve a series of ceremonies that invoke the entire complex of social relations of the dead person. The rituals of the age system took place outside the home in the "bush" and were organized in terms of the symbolic attributes of various animals. Domestic rituals and healing rituals such as those associated with spirit possession draw on much the same symbolic repertoire, a good deal of which involves the ritual dramatization of female agricultural and child-rearing tasks.
Arts. The plastic arts include pottery making by women and musical-instrument making by men, some house decoration, and, traditionally, cicatrization for women. These are all purely aesthetic and have no religious significance. The verbal arts—which include a cycle of trickster tales, proverbs, female storytelling, and male rhetoric—are far more developed.
Medicine. Iteso medical practices are derived from multiple sources and include a range of Western medicines purchased at stores or obtained at government clinics; locally known herbal cures; and resort to religious practitioners, such as curers of illnesses caused by spirits of the dead.
Death and Afterlife. At death, the body is separated from its eparait (spirit), which goes to live in the bush. The spirit ideally moves deeper and deeper into the bush, but in practice many spirits return to bother the living. Spirits of the dead are greedy: they require offerings of food and drink. As a result of mission influence, spirits of the dead have come to be associated by some Iteso with the Ajokin, little creatures of the bush, and both of these have come to be associated with the devil. The skeletons of dead people are exhumed after a number of years so rituals can be performed to "cool" them and make them more kindly disposed to the living. Older Iteso are very concerned that their children will bury them in coffins and prevent this practice, thus suffocating the dead in the earth. Funeral rituals are a major focus of Iteso ritual life, and many Iteso point out that they are a primary reason for having children: "Without children, who will sacrifice at the head of your grave?"