Two: Rituals and Festivals

Fed and Eaten: Transformations of the Person

[A]fter the child is weaned, his flesh and blood continue to be nourished and renewed by the food which he shares with his commensals, so that commensality can be thought of (1) as confirming or even (2) as constituting kinship in a very real sense.

William Robertson Smith (1997 [1889], 257)

Pregnancy and Rebirth

When a person dies, his breathing stops, and his eyes no longer move, his vital essence or vital energy (jibon, punda) is set free. Carried on the wind, it later attaches itself to another, female person. When the child in a pregnant woman’s belly begins to move, or one of the dead speaks to her in a dream and demands a particular food, for example, this is considered a sign that the deceased’s vital energy has been reincarnated. People say that the jibon has attached itself (lagla) or the deceased person (duma) has arrived (ailani). This in itself demonstrates that social quality (duma) and vital energy (jibon), although conceptually distinct for the Gadaba, are nevertheless associated with one another.

A pregnant woman’s activities and movements are scarcely restricted before the time of birth. She may continue to perform work of all kinds and may remain in the vicinity of the house god (doron deli) and the village goddess (hundi). She should keep away from sites of ritual pollution (sutok), meaning that she should not go to the cremation site or visit the houses of the recently deceased.

The reincarnated vital energy retains some characteristics (the will or consciousness, mon) of its previous bearer and is the cause of the woman’s desire for particular foods, which her husband should provide for her. If these wishes are particularly idiosyncratic, they make it possible to draw conclusions about the jibon’s identity even at this stage. In many cases, the deceased reveals himself or herself to the pregnant woman in dreams. If the identity of the reincarnated jibon is still not clear after the birth, the dissari determines it by divination. Sometimes, it is said, the corpses of the dead are marked with ash immediately before cremation, so that the children can later be identified by these marks. In some cases, however, the origin of the duma remains unexplained, and it is assumed that an earlier (agorta) or another, unknown duma (palna duma) has returned.

During his wife’s pregnancy, her husband should not kill any living thing, whether as part of a ritual, while hunting, or in the course of daily life. If a ritual has to be performed, as part of a seasonal festival, for example, one of the man’s brothers will take over the ritual killing. The man is permitted to participate in the hunt, but he should not kill any animals. Killing during this period is considered a transgression (dos, umrang*) and would endanger the child’s life.[1] A man whose wife is pregnant is not permitted to join in eating the head of an animal killed in the hunt, consumed together by the hunters, but this restriction does not apply to the meat from the head (mundo manso) of an animal killed as part of a sacrificial ritual.

Until the time of birth, no rituals are performed, as a rule. If the woman has already lost several children, suffered stillbirths, or given birth to “only” girls, however, the dissari is summoned, and in the case of pains, the midwife, the “old woman of the umbilical cord” (bondki dokri), as well. In most cases, cords (suta) are then tied around the woman to protect her and the child and removed on the day of the birth. More elaborate rituals may also be performed, addressed to the rau demon so that he does not eat (kai debar) the unborn child’s jibon, resulting in a stillbirth. Alternatively, a promise (mansik, titi leno’*) can be made to offer a sacrifice in the event of a successful birth. Along with rau, another threat to the unborn child is jom, the god of the dead, who endows human beings with their bodies (deho, neri*) and is therefore also considered responsible for deformities. He can also take (nela) the jibon, in which case the child dies in the womb. Harmful magic (nosto) does not affect the unborn child. Only about a week after birth, when the child receives a name, does he or she also become a potential target of these destructive powers.

  • [1] If a man whose wife was pregnant were to cut off a cat’s paw, the child would also come intothe world with only one hand, the midwife (bondki dokri) explained.
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