Amhara - Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious belief of most Amhara is Monophysite—that is, Tewahedo (Orthodox) Christianity, to such an extent that the term "Amhara" is used synonymously with "Abyssinian Christian." Christian Amhara wear a blue neck cord ( meteb ), to distinguish themselves from Muslims, In rural regions, the rules of the church have the de facto force of law, and many people are consecrated to church functions: priests, boy deacons and church students, chorister-scribes, monks, and nuns. Besides the ecclesiastical function of the qes (parish priest), the chorister-scribe—who is not ordained—fulfills many services. He translates the liturgy from Ge'ez to Amharic, chants and sometimes composes devotional poetry ( qēnē ), and writes amulets. The latter may be unofficial and discouraged by the priests, but ailing persons believe strongly in them and may use them to prevent disease. Prior to examinations, church students often chew and swallow a Datura weed called astenager (lit., "to stimulate talk") to enhance memory of biblical quotations and other details learned by rote and to aid correct pronunciation of the liturgy.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies often mark the annual cycle for the public, despite the sacredotal emphasis of the religion. The calendar of Abyssinia is Julian, but the year begins on 11 September, following ancient Egyptian usage, and is called amete mehrāt (year of grace). Thus, the Abyssinian year 1948 A . M . corresponds roughly with the Gregorian (Western) A . D . 1956. The new year begins with the month of Meskerem, which follows the rainy season and is named after the first religious holy day of the year, Mesqel-abeba, celebrating the Feast of the Cross. On the seventeenth day, huge poles are stacked up for the bonfire in the evening, with much public parading, dancing, and feasting. By contrast, Christmas (Ledet) has little social significance except for the genna game of the young men. Far more important is Epiphany (Temqet), on the eleventh day of Ter. Ceremonial parades escort the priests who carry the tabot, symbolic of the holy ark, on their heads, to a water pool. There are all-night services, public feasting, and prayers for plentiful rains.

This is the end of the genna season and the beginning of the guks tournaments fought on horseback by the young men. The long Lenten season is approaching, and clergy as well as the public look forward to the feasting at Easter (Fassika), on the seventeenth day of Miyazya. Children receive new clothes and collect gifts, chanting house to house. Even the voluntary fraternal association mehabber is said to have originated from the practice of private communion. Members take turns as hosts at monthly meetings, drinking barley beer together with the confessor-priest, who intones prayers. Members are expected to act as a mutual aid society, raising regular contributions, extending loans, even paying for the tazkar (formal memorial service) forty days after a member's death, if his family cannot afford it.

Arts. Verbal arts—such as bedanya fit (speaking well before a judge)—are highly esteemed in general Amhara culture, but there is a pronounced class distinction between the speech of the rustic peasant, balager (hence belegē, unpolished, sometimes even vulgar), and chowa lij, upper-class speech. A further differentiation within the latter is the speech of those whose traditional education has included sewassow (Ge'ez: grammar; lit., "ladder," "uplifting"), which is fully mastered mainly by church scholars; the speeches of former emperor Haile Selassie, who had also mastered sewas-sow, impressed the average layperson as esoteric and hard to understand, and therefore all the more to be respected. In the arts of politeness, veiled mockery, puns with double meanings, such as semmena-worq (wax and gold), even partial knowledge of grammar is an advantage. The draping of the toga (shamma) is used at court and other occasions to emphasize spoken words, or to communicate even without speech. It is draped differently to express social status in deference to a person of high status, on different occasions, and even to express moods ranging from outgoing and expansive to calm sobriety, to sadness, reserve, pride, social distance, desperate pleading, religious devotion, and so on. Artistic expression in the fine arts had long been linked to the church, as in paintings, and sponsorship by feudal lords who could afford it, especially when giving feasts celebrated with a variety of musical instruments.

Medicine. The basic concepts and practices of Amhara medicine can be traced to ancient Egypt and the ancient Near East and can also be attributed to regional ecological links within Ethiopia. Often no sharp distinctions are made between bodily and spiritual ailments, but there are special occupations: the woggesha (surgeon-herbologist) is a pragmatist in practice; the debtera (scribe) invokes the spirit world. The latter is officially or unofficially linked to the church, but the zar cult is apart and may even be female dominated. Its spirit healing has a complex cosmology; it involves the social status of the patient and includes group therapy. The chief zar doctor is often a matriarch who entered the profession when she herself was possessed by a spirit; she has managed to control some powerful spirits that she can then employ in her battles to overcome the spirits that possess her patients. No cure is expected, only control through negotiation and appeasement of the offended spirit, in the hope of turning it into a weqabi (protective spirit).

Many men consider the zar cult effeminate and consult its doctors by stealth only, at night. Husbands may resent the financial outlays if their wives are patients, but fear the wives' relapse into hysterical or catatonic states. Women, whose participation in the Abyssinian church is severely limited, find expression in the zar cult. The zar doctors at Gonder hold their annual convention on the twenty-third night of the month of Yekatit, just before the beginning of the Monophysite Christian Lent (Kudade; lit., "suffering"). There is much chanting, dancing, drumming, and consumption of various drinks at the love feasts of the zars. Poor patients who are unable to pay with money or commodities can work off their debts in labor service to the cult—waitressing, weaving baskets, fetching water and fuel, brewing barley beer, and so forth. They are generally analyzed by the zar doctor as being possessed by a low-status zar spirit.

By contrast, possession by an evil spirit ( buda ) is considered more serious and less manageable than possession by a zar, and there is no cult. An effort is made to prevent it by wearing amulets and avoiding tebib persons, who are skilled in trades like blacksmithing and pottery making. Since these spirits are believed to strike beautiful or successful persons, such individuals—especially if they are children—must not be praised out loud. If a person sickens and wastes away, an exorcism by the church may be attempted, or a tanqway (divinersorcerer) may be consulted; however, the latter recourse is considered risky and shameful.

Death and Afterlife. When an elder is near death, other elders from his kin group bring the confessor and say to him, "Confess yourself." Then they ask him for his last will—what to leave to his children and what for his soul (the church). The confessor gives last rites and, after death, assigns a burial place in the churchyard. The corpse is washed, wrapped in a shamma, carried to church for the mass, and buried, traditionally without a marker except for a circle of rocks. Women express grief with loud keening and wailing. This is repeated when kinfolk arrive to console. A memorial feast (tazkar) is held forty days after the death of a man or a woman, when the soul has the earliest opportunity to be freed from purgatory. Preparations for this feast begin at the time of the funeral: money is provided for the priest to recite the fetet, the prayer for absolution, and materials, food, and drink are accumulated. It is often the greatest single economic expenditure of an individual's lifetime and, hence, a major social event. For the feasting, a large, rectangular shelter ( dass ) is erected, and even distant kin are expected to participate and consume as much talla and wot as available.

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