Tigray - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity is said to have come to Tigray with the shipwrecked Syrian Fromentius, in the third century. Each parish is associated with a church, which in most regions is built of masonry and, in some others, carved into cliffs. It is through Bible study that most young men gain literacy. The Ethiopian Orthodox church was formally affiliated with the Coptic church in Alexandria, to which, until 1954, it was obliged to turn for archbishops. The Tigray recognized three categories of belief as "religion" ( haymanot ): Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. A number of the saints are indigenous and not shared by the Roman or Greek churches. Spirit possession, in the form of the zar cult, is prominent, but many Tigray regard it as illegitimate. Zar has special significance in empowering women.

Religious Practitioners. Priests and deacons, many monastery trained, celebrate the Mass. Diviners are defrocked deacons or priests. Spirit mediums are typically women, as are the vast majority of those afflicted with possession. Priests and deacons receive a special allotment of land for their services, plus honoraria from their penitents. Diviners charge for their services, as do spirit mediums.

Ceremonies. The most frequent ceremony is the celebration of Mass, which occurs a number of times per week, depending on the local church calendar and parish patron saints. Other important rituals are baptism and funerals. Ordinary weddings are more ceremonial than ritual. Divination and curing have a ritual character, as do ward or neighborhood dances intended to affect the weather.

Arts. Arts, crafts, and secular music are primarily the domain of the pariah castes of artisans. The exceptions are sacred music, which is led by monastically trained (but not necessarily ordained) men, and icon painting, biblical illumination, and scroll making, which are undertaken by a few deacons.

Medicine. Most affliction (including illness) is treated by diviners rather than by priests or spirit mediums. Affliction is attributed to transgressions against God, sorcery motivated by envy, or witchcraft unconsciously executed by artisans or others possessed by Satan. Diviners both diagnose and treat. Spirit possession by entities other than Satan and his minions primarily affects women and is regarded as outside the realm of Christian belief. Such possession may be brought under control but not cured.

Death and Afterlife. After death, people are judged, in what is popularly thought of as a setting much like a secular court, and proceed to heaven or hell.

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