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A debtera (or dabtara; Ge'ez\Tigrinya\Amharic: ደብተራ (Däbtära); 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 Lenten services, 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.
Debteras participate in liturgy as singers and musicians and, outside the Church religio-magical healers by performing as herbalists, astrologers, fortune-tellers etc. Some Ethiopian authors consider these healers as ‘spiritual healers’ whereas, they are purely religio-magical healers. 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.
A debtera may charge a fee for his charms, exorcisms, and astrological practices, but not liturgical activities.
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.
A major theological difference in the healing practices of Priests and Debteras is that for the priests, sin Vs virtue or evil-spirit Vs God is the basis for any sickness and healings. Therefore, they prescribe prayer (degmit) and holy water (tsebel), baptism (washing of sins), fasting, penance together with holy water as a remedy. For the debteras it is evil spirit Vs human beings; almost all the sickness are possession of evil spirits or caused by evil spirits, therefore, prayer (degmit) and holy water (tsebel) become the integral part of any ritualistic religious healing ceremony. Besides these, kitab or amulets are also prepared and give by them to be worn to wade away the evil spirits and evil eye (buda). On the other hand, the priests use the practice of confession, fasting, penance and Church attendance as a means of healing together with some sort of advice and guidance. The soul-father, called yenafs abbat is a kind of family spiritual-doctor, common in many places makes frequent visits to the home and performs services as required.
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.
- Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide, by Stuart Munro-Hay, I.B.Tauris, 3 May 2002, p.52-53
- Ethiopian evil eye belief and the magical symbolism of iron working, by Niall Finneran, Folklore 114 (2003):427-433
- Wolf Leslauwhite magic, 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
- Turner, John W. "Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity: Faith and practices". A Country Study: Ethiopia (Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, eds.) Library of Congress Federal Research Division (1991), public domain
- 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
- Ethiopian Christian liturgical chant: Performance practice ; The liturgical portions by Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Peter Jeffery, published by A-R Editions, Inc., 1994, pp.3-6
- Socialization and Social Control in Ethiopia By Reidulf Knut Molvaer, Published by Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1995, pp. 34, 44, 50, 67, 70, 111, 142, and 259
- Munro-Hay, p. 47
- Land and Society in the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia: From the Thirteenth to the Twentieth Century, p.174, by Donald Crummey, University of Illinois Press, 2000
- Ethiopia, p.175, by Paulos Milkias, ABC-CLIO, 30 Apr 2011.
- Janetius, S.T. Abyssinia in the New Millennium (Revised Edition), 2016. ISBN 9783659710629
- "Healer," Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: He-N, by Siegbert Uhlig, publ. by Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007, p. 4
- 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