World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article


Zār or Zaar (Arabic: زار) is a religious custom apparently originating in central Ethiopia during the 18th century and later spreading throughout East and North Africa.[1] Zār custom involves the possession of an individual (usually female) by a spirit.[2] It is also observed in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, southern Iran[3] and elsewhere in the Middle East.

A featured musical instrument in the Zār ritual is the tanbura, a six-string lyre (6-stringed "bowl-lyre"[4]), which, like the Zār practice itself, exists in various forms in an area stretching from East Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.[5] Other instruments include the mangour, a leather belt sewn with many goat hooves, and various percussion instruments.[5]

The Zār cult served as a refuge for women and effeminate men in conservative, Muslim-dominated Sudan.[1]

In Ethiopia, zār also refers to malevolent demons.[6] Many Ethiopian Christians[6] and Muslims[7]:199 believe in these spirits. Among both groups, mental illness is often attributed to zār possession.[8] In Ethiopia, zār possession is more common among women, while among immigrants in the West, men are more commonly afflicted.[8] At the same time, many Ethiopians believe in benevolent, protective spirits, or abdar.[6] While this belief in abdar and zār fits the traditional dualism of good and evil, it is also deeply rooted in superstition.[9]


  • Varieties of Zār cults in Sudan 1
  • Ĥēṭ (spirit-modalities) in Ṭumbura 2
  • Modern Zār Practices 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Varieties of Zār cults in Sudan

Among extant varieties of Zār cults are "zār Sawāknī (the zār from the area of Sawākin ["Dalūka, that is, zār Sawāknī"[10]]) and zār Nyamānyam {cf. /NYAMe/ ('Friend'), god of the Akan} (the zār of the Azande)":[11] "the Nyam-Nyam have zār nugāra, with Babīnga and Nakūrma." "Babīnga and Nakūrma are recognized as Azande ancestral spirits." Nugāra (big drum) = "nuqara ... of the Dega tribe ... was originally from Wau."[12] (Wau is in Equatoria province of Sudan.) "Besides the nugāra of the Azande, other zār cults mentioned were those of the Fartīt [Fartīt peoples include "the Karra, Gula, Feroge, and Surro"[13]], the Shilluk, and the Dinka peoples and the dinia Nuba cult”.[14]

Ĥēṭ (spirit-modalities) in Ṭumbura

Ĥēṭ is the term of for "possessing-spirit" (also known as "spirit-modality"). "The ṭumbura spirit modalities that most present-day groups celebrate are the following ones : Nuba, Banda, Gumuz, Sawākiniyya, Lambūnāt, Bābūrāt, Bāshawāt, Khawājāt".[15] Upon becoming possessed by a ĥēṭ (literally 'thread'[16]), a devotee will don the appropriate costume. Some of these ĥēṭ costumes are :-

  • Nuba -- "a 'traditional' loincloth"[17]
  • Banda -- "a straw loincloth"[18]
  • Bāśawāt -- "a red fez"[19]
  • Ĥawājāt -- "pith-helmet, khaki shorts"[20]

Modern Zār Practices

One late 19th-century traveler describes the "Sár" cultists sacrificing a hen or goat and mixing the blood with grease and butter, in the hopes of eliminating someone's sickness. The concoction was then hidden in an alley, in the belief that all who pass through the alley would take away the patient's ailment.[21] According to legend, there are eighty-eight "Sároch," emissaries of evil all under the service of a spirit named "Warobal Mama,"[22] who dwells in lake Alobar in the Mans region.[23]

Zār beliefs are common today even among Ethiopian immigrants to North America, Europe, or Israel. For example, Beta Israel are often raised with both Jewish and Zār beliefs, and individuals who believe they house a spirit are bound to attend to it despite other demands. However, ceremonies can be preformed by shamans to persuade a spirit to leave, thus releasing the person from their duties to that spirit.[24]

See also


  • Makris, G.P. (2000). Changing Masters: Spirit Possession and Identity Construction among Slave Descendants and Other Subordinates in the Sudan. Evanston, IL: Northwestern U. ISBN 0-8101-1698-7
  1. ^ a b Natvig, Richard (July 1988), "Liminal Rites and Female Symbolism in the Egyptian Zar Possession Cult", Numen (BRILL) 35 (1): 57–68,  
  2. ^ "Psychology Dictionary". 
  3. ^ Modarressi, Taghi. 1968. The zar cult in south Iran. In Trance and possession states. ed. Raymond Prince. Montreal: R. M. Bucke Memorial Society
  4. ^ Makris 2000, p. 52
  5. ^ a b Poché, Christian (2001). "Tanbūra". In  
  6. ^ a b c Turner, John W. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity: Faith and Practices. A Country Study: Ethiopia. Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, eds. Washington: Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 1991.
  7. ^ Beckwith, Carol, Angela Fisher, and Graham Hancock. African Ark. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.
  8. ^ a b Kemp, Charles. "Ethiopians & Eritreans." Refugee Health – Immigrant Health. Waco, TX: Baylor University.
  9. ^ Finneran, Niall. "Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and the Magical Symbolism of Iron Working." Folklore, Vol. 114, 2003.
  10. ^ Makris 2000, p. 141
  11. ^ Makris 2000, p. 12
  12. ^ Makris 2000, p. 64
  13. ^ Makris p. 222, n. 5:15
  14. ^ Makris 2000, pp. 64-65
  15. ^ Makris 2000, p. 197
  16. ^ Makris 2000, p. 195
  17. ^ Makris 2000, p. 198
  18. ^ Makris 2000, p. 199
  19. ^ Makris 2000, p. 202
  20. ^ Makris 2000, p. 203
  21. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia," volume 2, p. 291
  22. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia," volume 2, p. 269
  23. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia," volume 2, p. 343
  24. ^ Edelstein, Monika (2002). "Lost Tribes and Coffee Ceremonies: Zar Spirit Possession and the Ethno-Religious Identity of Ethiopian Jews in Israel" (PDF). Journal of Refugee Studies 15 (2). Retrieved 5 August 2015. 

Further reading

  • Arieli, A., S. Aychek. 1996. Mental disease related to being belief in being possessed by the ‘Zar’ spirit. Harefuah: Journal of the Israel Medical Association. 126:636-642.
  • Aspen, Harald. Amhara Traditions of Knowledge: Spirit Mediums and Their Clients. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2001.
  • Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan University of Wisconsin Press (30 November 1989)
  • Edelstein, Monika. 2002. Lost Tribes and Coffee Ceremonies: Zar Spirit Possession and the Ethno-Religious Identity of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Journal of Refugee Studies 15.2:153-170.
  • Fakhouri, Hani. "The Zar Cult in an Egyptian Village." Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2 (April 1968), pp. 49–56.
  • Giannattasio, F. 1983. Somalia: La Terapia Corentico-musicale del Mingi. Culture Musicale, Quaderni di Ethnomusicologia 2.3:93-119.
  • Grisaru, N., Budowski, D. et al. 1997. Possession by the "Zar" among Ethiopian immigrants to Israel: psychopathology or culture-bound syndrome? Psychopathology 30(4): 223-233.
  • Kahana, Y. 1985. The zar spirits, a category of magic in the system of mental health care in Ethiopia. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 31.2:125-143.
  • Kapteijns, Lidwien and Jay Spaulding. 1994. “Women of the Zar and Middle-Class Sensibilities in Colonial Aden, 1923-1932,” Sudanic Africa 5 (), pp. 7–38. Also in 1996, Voice and Power, (African Languages and Cultures, supplement 3), ed. by R.J. Hayward and I. M. Lewis, 171-189.
  • Kehoe, Alice B. and Do (dy Giletti. 1981. Women’s Preponderance in Possession Cults: The Calcium-Deficiency Hypothesis. American Anthropologist 83:549-561.
  • Leiris, Michel. 1934. Le Culte des Zars à Gondar. Aethiopica 4:96-103, 125-136.
  • Leiris, Michel. 1938. La Possession aux Génies "Zar" en Éthiopia du Nord. Journale de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique 35:107-125.
  • Lewis, I. (Ioan) M. 1991. Zar in context: The past, the present and future of an African healing cult. In I. M. Lewis, A. Al-Safi, & S. Hurreiz (Eds.), Women's medicine: The Zar Bori cult in Africa and Beyond (pp. 1–16). Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Messing, Simon. 1958. Group therapy and social status in the Zar cult of Ethiopia. American Anthropologist 60:1120-1126. (Same title later published in Culture and Mental Health, M. Opler, ed., 319-322. New York: Macmillan, also in 1972, in The Target of Health in Ethiopia, 228-241. New York: MSS Information Corporation.)
  • Natvig, Richard. 1987. Oromos, Slaves, and Zar Spirits: a Contribution to the History of the Zar Cults. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 20(4):647-668.
  • Torrey, E. Fuller. 1967. The Zar cult in Ethiopia. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 13, 216-223.
  • Tubiana, Joseph. 1991. Zar and Buda in Northern Ethiopia. In I. M. Lewis, A. Al-Safi, & S. Hurreiz (Eds.), Women's medicine: The Zar Bori cult in Africa and beyond pp. 19–33. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Seligmann, Brenda Z. "On the Origin of the Egyptian Zar." Folklore, vol. 25, no. 3 (September 30, 1914), pp. 300–323.
  • Witzum, E., N. Grisaru, D. Budowski. 1996. The ‘Zar’ possession syndrome among Ethiopian immigrants to Israel: cultural and clinical aspects. British Journal of Medical Psychiatry 69:207-225.
  • Young, Allan. 1975. Why Amhara get kureynya: sickness and possession in an Ethiopian Zar cult. American Ethnologist 2 (3), 567-584.

External links

  • The zar and the tumbura cults
  • (Ṭumbura in Sudan), part IChanging_Masters
  • (Ṭumbura in Sudan), parts II-IIIChanging_Masters
  • Mental disease related to belief in being possessed by the "Zar" spirit at PubMed
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from Project Gutenberg are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.