Maasai - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Maasai believe in an omnipresent God (Nkai), but they have no means of knowing their God's form or intentions. Inasmuch as God has human attributes, they might be described as those of extreme age. Respect for the knowledge of the oldest living men and for their ritual power to bless and to curse is magnified in the profound respect for their all-powerful and all-knowing God.

Pronounced beliefs in sorcery are also evident, particularly at times of misfortune and at major sacrifices. The characteristics of the supposed sorcerers may be viewed as a grotesque caricature of the competitive instincts that are popularly attributed to individual elders, emphasizing their greed and envy of the good fortune of others.

Religious Practitioners. The widespread concern with sorcery is associated with the Loonkidongi dynasty of prophets. Each tribal section has its own prophet, who is seen as helping its members to cope with the endemic sorcery, by providing them with protective medicines and advice for their ceremonies. The prophet is regarded with awe as a type of all-seeing godfather, but his power to curb sorcery is also thought to derive from his knowledge of sorcery as a Loonkidongi, and popular attitudes toward other members of this dynasty are highly ambivalent. The Loonkidongi tend to live in small colonies on the borders between Maasai tribal sections, where they are suspected of providing a breeding ground for discontent, practicing sorcery among themselves, and even secretly selling evil charms to would-be Maasai sorcerers.

Ceremonies. The promotion of warriors to elderhood entails a series of extended ceremonies. The first of two high points of this process is the eunoto ceremony, when warriors are "raised" to senior-warrior status. For this occasion, they come from their separate villages and form a single village. They are led by a ritual leader ( olotuno ), who is sometimes thought to shoulder the misfortunes of his peers and is therefore destined to an early death or an impoverished life. Shortly after the eunoto, the warriors abandon their warrior village and return with their mothers to their fathers' villages. The second high point of their career as an age set is the olghesher ceremony, which finally unites the "right-hand" and "left-hand" subsets, promoting them jointly to senior elderhood. They are now endowed with the power to bless and to curse and to become firestick patrons of the next new age set.

Their age-set rituals also serve to unite the Maasai federation as a people. The Keekonyukie section in the north and the Kisonko section in the south each have a central role in unifying the Maasai through synchronizing their shared age system. At the inception of each age set, all Maasai are oriented toward the north, waiting for the ritual cue from the Keekonyukie, when boys from the northern tribal sections compete to seize an ox's horn. Only after this ritual has occurred can the new age set be inaugurated in other tribal sections. About twenty-five years later, it is the Kisonko who must first perform olghesher, finally promoting the whole age set and giving it a name that is adopted by all Maasai. Meanwhile, other tribal sections must wait in turn for this lead before they too can follow suit. These two ritual cues, alternating between north and south and between firestick linkages in a fifteen-year cycle, provide a common orientation in space and in time for the Maasai, punctuating their life courses as individuals and reiterating the unity of all Maasai.

Women's ceremonies invariably stem from a widespread concern for their fertility, and, at such times, their dancing is a central feature. These dances sometimes amount to a display of anger and even violence against the elders, and they provide an arena within which women's subservience is temporarily reversed. Even elders share in the belief that these dances will restore fertility and bring the community back to harmony.

Arts. Visual arts among the Maasai focus predominantly on body decoration and on the beaded ornaments that are displayed by warriors and complemented by the beaded ornaments of girls and young women—notably in the trousseau of a bride. These decorations are prominently displayed in their dances, which are themselves a popular art form, frequently with a competitive idiom. Elders do not perform in display dances, but their oratory has many parallels with dance, with gestures used to delineate the space around them and to structure their rhetoric, holding the attention of the audience with a display of the panache that they learned as warriors in their youthful dancing.

Medicine. In addition to the prophets, lesser members of the Loonkidongi dynasty serve as diviners who claim the power to diagnose illnesses and the causes of misfortune and to prescribe a range of herbal medicines and ritual cures. Their secrets are carefully withheld from other Maasai and are linked to a range of "poisons" that are associated with their powers of sorcery, if they are provoked.

Death and Afterlife. There are no elaborate mortuary practices among the Maasai and no beliefs in afterlife. For a parent, however, there is a sense akin to immortality in leaving behind a family whose very existence stems from a life that has been dedicated to care and attention. To leave no successors is to face oblivion in the fullest sense, and it may be taken as a sign of having been cursed.

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