Konso - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Waga, the Sky God, is believed by many to have created humans in the beginning, and each person at conception. He once lived on earth among the Konso, but he was offended by a woman and so went to live far away. He is still concerned with human affairs, however, and he punishes sinners with sickness, sterility, and death and may even withhold rain from towns in which there is too much quarreling. The elders are God's deputies on earth. There is no idea of private prayer to God; his benefits are requested by the performance of ritual. Opposed to God are many evil spirits, who live in the lowlands and under certain trees and also in the vicinity of the towns, where they are especially active at night. They can cause insanity and sickness, and some people are said to be possessed by them, and, in consequence, they, too, are feared. Another kind of spirit, not considered evil but potentially dangerous if annoyed, lives in wells. The Konso also believe that the soul survives death as a ghost and retains some contact with the living, mainly through the dreams of the lineage head. Ghosts may be heard talking or flapping about at night, and in a few cases they may cause sickness, but there is no cult of the ancestors. To dream of the dead is dangerous for ordinary people and may be an omen of their own death. Beliefs about the evil eye are very important: someone with the evil eye can cause food to stick in the throat, beer to spoil, crops to dry up, and children and calves to refuse to suckle. The motive for use of the evil eye is said to be spite and envy, which can be detected by a habit of praising the fields, stock, or children of others. Many magical substances are used both for hostile and protective purposes. Women are closely associated with the earth, which is a cosmological element, distinct from but complementary to God, who is associated with men. God is not regarded as the creator of the earth, but he nourishes it with rain. Earth is the source of food, whose preparation is exclusively reserved for women, whose symbol on graves and elsewhere is a clay pot. It will be recalled that nine clans are divided into three groups, associated with God, the Earth, and the Wild. God is the source of the social and moral order, whereas the Earth and women supply the physical necessities of life. The Wild is associated with the dangerous forces of spirituality, not only with those of a hostile nature—such as evil spirits and madmen—but also with priests. It is considered dangerous for priests to live in the towns, although most of them now do so, and the most sacred places are always outside the towns and overgrown with wild vegetation that must not be cut.

Religious Practitioners. The main division of Konso religious practitioners is between priests and diviners. The function of priests, always men, is to bless their lineage, ward, town, or region, and this function is performed in public rituals by holders of inherited office. On the other hand, the diviner, who may be female or male, is a private consultant who has acquired occult powers, and his or her advice is sought in secret, not only to discover the mystical source of illness or other misfortunes but also to cast spells on one's enemies. Dream diviners may be priests, but most diviners are feared because it is believed that they are possessed by evil spirits.

Ceremonies. Symbolism and ritual are more important than myths as expressions of the Konso worldview. Almost all rituals involve sacrifice and blessing; they are conducted in sacred places from which women and children are excluded, although they may be spectators. The most elaborate ceremonies occur in the gada system of each region, at the time when everyone is promoted to the next grade. In Takadi, the land is ritually purified of sin in the year after this ceremony. The warrior grade is represented by a dead juniper tree, placed in one or more sacred places in a town, and the erection of these trees is accompanied by a complex ritual. Each year, the pogalla blesses his lineage, their crops, and livestock, and, in Garati, the mothers of those in the warrior grade perform a ceremony to bless their sons, the only occasion on which women assume such a role. In some towns, the men leave the town each year, to hear speeches on good conduct, and then return through a ceremonial gate formed by the most important pogallada holding their staves over the path. This ceremony is regarded as a ritual purification. When a child is born, it is secluded with the mother for three months and then, in a complex ritual, named. Death involves mourning at the house of the family and the digging of the grave by men of the ward; after a few months, a bullock should be sacrificed. Marriage involves very little ceremony.

Arts. Apart from the carving of wooden statues to honor successful men, the Konso have little in the way of art.

Medicine. The Konso have made scant use of plants for medicinal purposes, but they are aware of the technique of variolation as a primitive form of vaccination to prevent smallpox.

Death and Afterlife. The person is comprised of flesh, "vitality" (seen as the pulse), which disappears, and of the soul, which becomes a ghost. There are no rewards or punishments in the afterlife.


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