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A debtera (or dabtara; Ge'ez\Tigrinya\Amharic: ደብተራ ; plural, Ge'ez\Tigrinya: debterat, Amharic: debtrawoch ) is an itinerant religious figure among the Beta Israel and in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Churches, who sings hymns and dances for churchgoers, and who performs exorcisms and white magic to aid the congregation. A debtera will claim an ecclesiastical identity and behave as in minor orders. They may in fact be officially ordained as deacons, or may act outside the Church hierarchy. They are usually feared by the local population, who often mistake them for madmen.
Official education and duties
Debteras are usually chosen from families of other debteras, and are trained from childhood as scribes (learning Ge'ez) and as cantors. They are often taught traditional medicine and lay religious rites as well. While studying, they often live by begging, retailing, or practicing traditional medicine. The main purpose for their studies, however, is written and oral lore pertaining to religious functions, and the test for graduation is memorizing the psalter. Before services, they bathe and don white clothing, turbans, and a loose striped over-garment called a shamma. Debteras carry prayer sticks to the service, where they sing, dance, and play drums and sistra outside the church or the synagogue during religious services.
Among the Beta Israel
Among the Beta Israel, the status of debtera is a milestone in the study to become Kahen. Unlike fully-fledged Kahens (who perform none of the functions of debtra), debteras are closer to the laypeople, often serving as intermediaries between them and the clergy. A Kahen who gives up his position or is deposed may serve as a debtera.
During Lent, debteras tap prayer sticks to keep the rhythm. The Ethiopian Church condones the performances of debteras, citing the story in 2 Kings of King David dancing at the temple and Psalm 47:1 ("clap your hands") for Biblical examples. These performances also feature symbols connected to the Passion of Jesus: the sistrum's swaying and the beating of the drums represent Christ's swaying while enduring beatings, and the tapping of the prayer sticks represent the Flagellation of Christ.
Not all duties taken on by debteras are condoned by the Ethiopian Church. Many distribute contraceptive herbs to women and perform magic meant to perform contraceptive functions, in contradiction to the Ethiopian Church's teachings. Some are also reputed to study black magic invoking demons alongside their more benevolent official learning.
Some debteras manufacture apotropaic amulets meant to protect the wearer from evil spirits. These amulets are often made of silver and are noted for their use against the legendary budas, zār spirits, and the evil eye. They may also study a variety of anti-magic invocations, prayers, and exorcisms. These exorcisms may include prayers, blessing of holy water (which the possessed person drinks), burning of roots, and incantations from a Magic Star Book. Some amulets may take the form of small scrolls kept in pouches or similar containers, made from the skin of a sacrificed goat or lamb whose blood is used to ritually purify the intended owner. Some practice (or rather circumvent) astrology, by giving unlucky people new stars by changing their names. This may be considered "cheating" by the locals, however. Some debteras have also been noted to use Datura stramonium to cause hallucinations.
Charms, exorcisms, and astrological practices, unlike liturgical activities, may be charged for.
Not all of the debteras duties and cures are supernatural. Debteras place scarecrows in farm fields to protect them and shave heads to prevent lice outbreaks. Before the 1974 revolution, nobles would often hire debteras to educate their children.
In popular culture
- The poet Gebre Hanna, renowned in Amharic oral tradition for (to quote Donald Levine) "his quick and biting wit," was a debtera.
- Jazz flautist James Newton wrote a song titled "The Dabtara" for his album Axum.
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- Wolf Leslau, Comparative Dictionary of Geʻez (Classical Ethiopic): Geʻez-English, English-Geʻez, with an index of the Semitic roots, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1987, ISBN 9783447025928, p. 122
- Isaac Greenfield, "The Debtera and the education among Ethiopian Jewry until the arrival of Dr. Faitlovitch" in Menachem Waldman (ed.), Studies in the History of Ethiopian Jews, Habermann Institute of Literary Research, 2011, pp. 109-135 (Hebrew)
- Glossary, Eritrean Print and Oral Culture, hosted on Canada Research Chair Humanities Computing Studio.
- Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, Part 4 edited by Paul Allan Mirecki, Marvin W. Meyer, Published by BRILL, 2002, p.170
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- Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions By Stephen D. Glazier, published by Taylor & Francis, 16 Jan 2001, p.134
- Case Study: Demonization and the Practice of Exorcism in Ethiopian Churches by Amsalu Tadesse Geleta. The Lausanne Movement, Nairobi 2000.
- Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions By Stephen D. Glazier, published by Taylor & Francis, 16 Jan 2001, p.124
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- Description of Ethiopian Magic Scroll at Portland State University's Medieval Portland site.
- A History of African Higher Education from Antiquity to the Present: A Critical Synthesis By G-m G-m Lulat, ABC-CLIO, 30 Aug 2005, p.56