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Zār ceremony on Hormuz Island

In the cultures of the Horn of Africa and adjacent regions of the Middle East,[1] Zār (Arabic: زار, Ge'ez: ዛር) is the term for a demon or spirit assumed to possess individuals, mostly women, and to cause discomfort or illness. The so-called zār ritual or zār cult is the practice of exorcising such spirits from the possessed individual.[2]

Zār exorcism has become popular in the contemporary urban culture of Cairo and other major cities of the Islamic world as a form of women-only entertainment. Zār gatherings involve food and musical performances and they culminate in ecstatic dancing, lasting between three and seven nights.[2] The tanbūra, a six-string bowl lyre,[3] is often used in the ritual.[4] Other instruments include the manjur, a leather belt sewn with many goat hooves, and various percussion instruments.[4]


Scholarship in the early 20th century attributed Abyssinian (Ethiopian and Eritrean) origin to the custom, although there were also proposals suggesting Persian or other origins. Thus, Frobenius suggested that zār and bori, a comparable cult in Hausa culture, were ultimately derived from a Persian source. Modarressi (1986) suggests a Persian etymology for the term.[5]

The origin of the word is unclear; Walker (1935) suggested the name of the city of Zara in northern Iran, or alternatively the Arabic root z-w-r "to visit" (for the possessing spirit "visiting" the victim). The Encyclopedia of Islam of 1934 favoured an Ethiopian origin of the word.[6]

The practice allegedly originated in Harar, Ethiopia via Sheikh Abadir, it was introduced by Harari and Somali women to Aden in Yemen.[7] Messing (1958) states that the cult was particularly well-developed in Northern Ethiopia (Amhara), with its center in the town of Gondar. One late 19th-century traveler describes the Abyssinian "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 passed through the alley would take away the patient's ailment.[8]

Mirzai Asl (2002) suggests that the introduction to Iran likewise took place in the 19th century (Qajar period) by Africans brought to Iran via the Indian ocean slave trade.[9] Natvig (1988) reports that the zār cult "served as a refuge for women and effeminate men" in the Sahel (Sudan) region under Islamic rule.[10]


Among extant varieties of Zār cults are "zār Sawāknī (the zār from the area of Suakin ["Dalūka, that is, zār Sawāknī"[11]]) and zār Nyamānyam (the zār of the Azande)":[12] "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".[13] "Besides the nugāra of the Azande, other zār cults mentioned were those of the Fartīt [Fartīt peoples include "the Karra, Gula, Feroge, and Surro"[14]], the Shilluk people, and the Dinka people and the dinia Nuba cult".[15]


In Ethiopia, zār is used as a term for malevolent spirits or demons. At the same time, many Ethiopians believe in benevolent, protective spirits, or adbar.[16]

Belief in such spirits is widespread among both Christians and Muslims.[17] Ĥēṭ ("thread"[18])[clarification needed] is a term of for the possessing spirits. Tumbura is another term.[clarification needed] Named individual tumbura include: Nuba, Banda, Gumuz, Sawākiniyya, Lambūnāt, Bābūrāt, Bāshawāt, Khawājāt.[19] Depending on which spirit an individual is possessed by, they will don different costumes, such a traditional loincloth for Nuba, a straw loincloth for Bada, a red fez for Bāśawāt, and a pith-helmet and khaki shorts for Ĥawājāt.[20]

According to legend, there are eighty-eight "Sároch", emissaries of evil all under the service of a spirit named "Warobal Mama",[21] who dwells in lake Alobar in the Menz region.[22]

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 performed by shamans to persuade a spirit to leave, thus releasing the person from their duties to that spirit.[23]

In southern Iran, zār is interpreted as a "harmful wind" assumed to cause discomfort or illness. Types of such winds include Maturi, Šayḵ Šangar, Dingemāru, Omagāre, Bumaryom, Pepe, Bābur, Bibi, Namrud.[24] The film The African-Baluchi Trance Dance is a 2012 film that depicts a variety of zar-related activities in southeastern Iran.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "found in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Arabia, south and south-west Iran, Egypt and the Sudan." 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. doi:10.2307/219657. JSTOR 219657.
  2. ^ a b Guiley, Rosemary Ellen (2009). The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. Infobase Publishing. p. 277. ISBN 978-1-4381-3191-7.
  3. ^ Makris 2000, p. 52
  4. ^ a b Poché, Christian (2001). "Tanbūra". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. xxv (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. pp. 62–63.
  5. ^ Taghi Modarressi, "The Zar Cult in South Iran," in R. Prince, ed., Trance and Possession States, Montreal, 1986, pp. 149-55.
  6. ^ cited after Fakhouri (1968), p. 49.
  7. ^ Spaulding, Jay (1996). "Women of the Zar and Middle-Class Sensibilities in Colonial Aden, 1923-1932". African Languages and Cultures. Supplement. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. (3): 173. JSTOR 586659.
  8. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia, volume 2, p. 291
  9. ^ Behnaz A. Mirzai Asl, "African Presence in Iran: Identity and its Reconstruction in the 19th and 20th Centuries," Revue française d'histoire d'Outre Mer 89, 2002, pp. 229-46.
  10. ^ Natvig, Richard (July 1988), "Liminal Rites and Female Symbolism in the Egyptian Zar Possession Cult", Numen, 35 (1): 57–68, doi:10.2307/3270140, JSTOR 3270140
  11. ^ Makris 2000, p. 141
  12. ^ Makris 2000, p. 12
  13. ^ Makris 2000, p. 64
  14. ^ Makris p. 222, n. 5:15
  15. ^ Makris 2000, pp. 64-65
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Beckwith, Carol, Angela Fisher, and Graham Hancock. African Ark. New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.
  18. ^ Makris 2000, p. 195
  19. ^ Makris 2000, p. 197
  20. ^ Makris 2000, p. 198–203
  21. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia, volume 2, p. 269
  22. ^ William Cornwallis Harris, The Highlands of Aethiopia, volume 2, p. 343
  23. ^ 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): 153–170. doi:10.1093/jrs/15.2.153. Retrieved 5 August 2015.
  24. ^ Maria Sabaye Moghaddam, ZĀR, Encyclopedia Iranica (2009).
  25. ^ Hegland, Mary Elaine. 2017. Review essay. Iranian Studies 50.1:169-172.

General references[edit]

  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

  • Arieli, A.; Aychek, S. (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.
  • 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. doi:10.1093/jrs/15.2.153.
  • Finneran, Niall (2003). "Ethiopian Evil Eye Belief and the Magical Symbolism of Iron Working". Folklore. 114 (3): 427–432. doi:10.1080/0015587032000145414. S2CID 161976625.
  • 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. doi:10.1159/000285051. PMID 9239794.
  • Witzum, E.; Grisaru, N.; Budowski, D. (1996). "The 'Zar' possession syndrome among Ethiopian immigrants to Israel: cultural and clinical aspects". British Journal of Medical Psychiatry. 69 (3): 207–225. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8341.1996.tb01865.x. PMID 8883974.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • Torrey, E. Fuller (1967). "The Zar cult in Ethiopia". International Journal of Social Psychiatry. 13 (3): 216–223. doi:10.1177/002076406701300306. PMID 5585776. S2CID 39519787.
  • 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.
  • Young, Allan (1975). "Why Amhara get kureynya: sickness and possession in an Ethiopian Zar cult". American Ethnologist. 2 (3): 567–584. doi:10.1525/ae.1975.2.3.02a00130.
  • Boddy, Janice. Wombs and Alien Spirits: Women, Men and the Zar Cult in Northern Sudan University of Wisconsin Press (30 November 1989)
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Farah Eisa Mohamed. 2004. "ZAR: SPIRIT POSSESSION IN THE SUDAN." African Folklore: An Encyclopedia, Philip M.Peek and Kwesi Yankah, editors, 1061-1063. New York & London: Routledge.
  • Fakhouri, Hani. "The Zar Cult in an Egyptian Village." Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2 (April 1968), pp. 49–56.
  • Seligmann, Brenda Z. "On the Origin of the Egyptian Zar." Folklore, vol. 25, no. 3 (September 30, 1914), pp. 300–323.
  • Giannattasio, F (1983). "Somalia: La Terapia Corentico-musicale del Mingi". Culture Musicale, Quaderni di Ethnomusicologia. 2 (3): 93–119.
  • Modarressi, Taghi. 1968. The zar cult in south Iran. In Trance and possession states. ed. Raymond Prince. Montreal: R. M. Bucke Memorial Society.

Further reading[edit]

  • El Hadidi, Hager. Zar: Spirit Possession, Music, and Healing Rituals in Egypt. The American University in Cairo Press: Cairo, New York, 2016.

External links[edit]