Intro: In their reaction to possessions Nepal and Egypt are very different. Their religious and cultural interpretations influence Pyakhan; the masked dance-drama performed in Nepal and the Zar exorcism ritual performed in Egypt. Current OHMA student Nairy AbdElShafy reflects on Ellen Coon’s talk on The Mountain with Two Wives: Landscape and Embodied Memory in Kathmandu on March 7th, and our role as oral historians in documenting experiences of possessions.
“For a woman’s powers to be acceptable, they had to come from devotion – the desire to serve the dyas in every way – and be used in the service of compassion, to heal the suffering of others. Moved by her devotion, a deity would come to a woman willingly, entering her home, her dreams, and even her body, through Possession.”
-Ellen Coon: Dil Maya Aji; Narratives of a traditional Newar midwife in Kathmandu
Ellen Coon’s thesis tells the story of Dil Maya Aji: a traditional Newar midwife in Kathmandu, Nepal and her experiences of possession. This state of possession stems from devotion and purity. To be possessed by a deity or a Goddess is a blessing, as the Goddess chooses the individual’s body as a vessel for communication.
In response to and in celebration of possessions, the Newaris hold Pyakhan; a sacred masked dance-drama event where people come together with dance and music during religious festivals in temples and market squares. In her thesis, Ellen writes that Dil Maya refers to her possession during Pyakhan as an embodied experience in sync with nature.
“The sacred dance-drama, performed by then-illiterate farmers, draws connections between
the forest and the village, the goddess and the fields.”
During her talk on March 7th, Ellen was asked if she believed that Newar women who experienced possession in Kathmandu -or some of them- might actually be experiencing a form of mental illness. Having personally witnessed various forms of possessions, she adamantly replied that it isn’t a mental illness. In my understanding, women experiencing possessions are held in high regard and celebrated during Pyakhans.
This question of mental illness was asked by a Nepali, and it makes me think of traditional religious and cultural rituals and experiences and how we interpret them in an age of science and modernity.
In Egypt, where I am from, as a predominantly Muslim country, the general religious belief is of one God. Thus, individuals who are perceived as possessed would be taken over by spirits - not Gods - and mostly evil ones. The Zar exorcism ritual therefore takes place to get rid of evil spirits that possess men, women and even children. The Zar -very common, especially in the south of Egypt- has evolved over time to become a cultural practice.
Performances by the Mazaher ensemble bring together female musicians, who are among the last remaining Zar practitioners in Egypt. I have attended several of their performances, and have immensely admired their work from a cultural perspective and their preservation of music heritage.
Unlike Ellen, I have my own doubts regarding the spiritual and ritualistic aspects of possession experiences. I am not very confident that all individuals who are perceived to experience possessions are actually experiencing that.
How can one know for sure if someone’s going through a process of possession? Is possession an indication that the individual has heightened senses, a different form of clairvoyance, even?
Or could it be a sign that the individual is suffering from trauma? Or even, acting or pretending?
What if someone needs help and we prolong their suffering through these rituals, instead of giving them the kind of support they need?
I am fascinated by how -across cultures- whether perceived positively or negatively, music and dance is the go-to when it comes to possession experiences. Do music and dance help us reach a zen state or help expel evil spirits?
As an oral historian, this makes me wonder about our role when faced with narratives of possessions or other spiritual experiences we may not understand. Should we embrace them on the narrator’s terms? Or continue questioning and striving to understand beyond the narrative? How do we genuinely portray the embodied experience and document it?
Here are some of the questions I would like to ask my narrators (within an oral history context) if they experience possession, hoping for deeper understanding and intellectual growth:
How is the experience of possession like? How does it feel?
When possessed, are you aware of your surroundings?
How does it feel after?
Are there any other situations when you’ve felt similar?
How did it start?
Do you think you can do something to lead up to it? As in, do you have to go through certain stages before reaching it?
How do you feel about it?
How do you think others feel about it?
Would I be able to interview my narrator while in possession?
I would hope that this would start a conversation about the “feelings” of it, helping guide my understanding of possession as an embodied experience and a spiritual journey.
Nairy is a social activist with a passion for community service and social work. Currently a Fulbright Scholar to the OHMA program, she draws from her experience in volunteering and working with refugees through different local NGOs in Egypt and international humanitarian organizations to attempt a documentation of identity and movement narratives for social change.