Transcendental Worlds and Pilgrimages – The Limits of Politics in the Awliya-Cult

This dissertation project is concerned with an influential and complex spirit possession cult in Ethiopia that has a number of different names but will be called here by its most common denomination – the Awliya-cult. With A. Morton1 this religious institution shall be characteriawliyazed primarily as an arena for divine advocacy, where so called Awliya-spirits regularly possess their mediums and provide solutions to every problem that is brought forward to them by their followers. The solutions are thereby not manipulated outcomes but represent a divine transcendental truth that is directly bound to the ideal constitution of the “early creation” of the world.

The subject of research comes from observing an extensive practice of pilgrimage in the context of the Awliya-cult which is not self-evident but seems to contradict the widespread image of a refracted composition of the Awliya-phenomenon as a loose corpus of countless organizationally and spiritually independent cult-groups.

Possessed medium at the Irecha-celebration in Eastern Shewa

Actually, there is no cult outside the process of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is a normality rather than an exception. The spirits are constantly on pilgrimage when approaching their human mediums from their dwelling places somewhere in the country. In the speech they always back their statements by referring to different points of the pilgrimage-network representing higher or equal levels of the spiritual hierarchy – a kind of virtual pilgrimage. And in a more conventional sense, also the mediums and their followers frequently go on pilgrimage, like the central pilgrimage to Faraqasa Arsi.

This double-movement of pilgrimage represents a reciprocal relationship and the symbiosis of spirit and human being in the cult: the rider-horse metaphor characterizes this mutual approach, which must be understood as a convergent process inducing a gradual and fluctuating appreciation on the side of the audience – the performative effect.

The claims of the – either muslim, christian or traditional – spirit can only be evaluated by means of a counter-pilgrimage in comparison with independent but related experiences of other groups, thereby reflecting the fragmented nature and plural composition of the Awliya-spirit pantheon. In this sense the elaborate network of pilgrimages also provides a nominal frame of reference for the legitimization of the transcendental or spiritual message.

Against this background the limits of politics are dynamically drawn in a two-fold way: being attracted as an individual, and the pluralisation of that experience as a process of reflection and relativisation. The first step is a mode of the spirit-possession performance itself, whereas the second step is to be performed on pilgrimage. The permanently incorporating and integrating cult practice needs that referential complex as a prerequisite for the assessment of the moral quality of the transcendental speech.

It produces a level of compatibility for the new knowledge and furthermore renders authenticity to a principally segregated cult identity that is based more on a commonly shared "ritual feeling"2 (Faraqasa-ness) rather than the existence of fixed and congruent sets of dogmas.



1 Morton, A. L. 1973. Mystical Advocates. Explanation and Spirit-Sanctioned Adjudication in the Shoa Galla Ayana Cult. In: Proceedings of the first United States Conference on Ethiopian Studies. East Lansing: Michigan State University.
2 Mario Perniola. The Cultural Turn and Ritual Feeling in Catholicism. In: Paragrana 12 (2003) 1 und 2: Akademie Verlag

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