Transformations of the Person

The transformations of the Gadaba person are primarily marked or induced by the eating of ritual foods. Sharing kordi rice - rice with bamboo shoots and fish - or feeding someone with it marks situations of transition, such as the entrance of a bride into her husband’s house, the birth of a child, or the dedication of a new house. In contrast, the sacrificial meal (tsoru) effects the transformation of social relationships. Local groups are linked to one another as tsoru “brothers” (tsorubai), among other ties, and reciprocally perform for one another the service of cooking and feeding the sacrificial meal. Through the feeding of tsoru as part of life-cycle rituals, social relationships are initiated (as at a wedding) or gradually dissolved (as in the mortuary rituals). In this context, it is significant who cooks and who serves or feeds the food. As the representative of a group, a person feeds another the particular quality of the relationship in question. In other words, a brother can feed someone only as a representative of his own agnatic group; his food cannot transmit any affinal qualities. The food stands for the relationship and has a relational ontological quality; it “is” this relationship. For this reason, the illicit consumption of another group’s sacrificial meal is considered a transgression entailing compensation payments, because consuming food changes a person’s status and would make him or her a member of the group in question. Moreover, such transgressions can provoke attacks by certain demons (degoi duma).

Food also connects a person not only to a group, but also to a place. Being a person also means belonging to particular places: a house, a neighborhood, a village. The alimentary processes integrate a person into different spatio-social relationships. As a consequence of the significance of this spatial aspect, movement is a central element in the rituals described, in which dynamic processes that structure time and space are manifested. Within the framework of a ritual, actors move, objects and persons circulate, food is exchanged, rice is collected, or meat is distributed. These movements are not arbitrary, but largely prescribed. Spaces open or close, bringing into existence borders that are stressed or created and ritually objectivized. Borders are highlighted, but they are also weakened, and transitions take place across them. These correlations between social and spatial units have become clear in the description of the life-cycle rituals and will play an important role in the analysis that follows, in which I seek, among other things, to trace the “paths” taken by exchange elements between villages and across generations. Such movements within rituals and the movements of rituals themselves will also be a focus of my interpretation of the rituals of the annual cycle.

David Parkin (1992, 18) considers movement or “formulaic spatiality” to be ritual’s constitutive element. By this he understands “the capacity to create and act through idioms of passage, movement, including exchange, journey, axis, concentricism, and up-and-down directions.” Rituals have a particular effect, according to this author, on the actors’ bodies, which are transformed, split, and distributed across space (23). The Gadaba’s life-cycle rituals also illustrate this last aspect. For example, the dead of a generation are embodied in buffaloes and given to agnates from other villages. As part of this transaction, some buffaloes are cut open in the fields - that is, between the villages - and their entrails are buried in the earth.

Edmund Leach is one author who dedicates equal attention to the structuring of space and time and correspondingly speaks about “social space-time” (Leach 1991, 35).[1] Time and space, according to Leach, are ordered by means of the cultural construction of discontinuities, that is, the creation of boundaries and distinctions. This ordering based on the articulation of oppositions takes place both conceptually and empirically. The opposition of the categories mar- ried/unmarried distinguishes temporal segments of the life cycle by a conceptual boundary that is without temporal and spatial extension. In ritual, this transition from one status to another is given form through the structuring of temporal and spatial segments and thereby made empirically perceptible to the senses. A ritual’s structure is thus part of its meaning.

In such [ritual] performances the movement of individuals from one physical locality to another and the sequence in which such movements are accomplished are themselves part of

the message; they are direct representations of ‘changes in metaphysical position.’ (Leach

1991, 52)

There are few limits to the creative manipulation of time and space as parameters subject to the cultural construction of meaning, so that time in ritual can, for example, run backward (Leach 1977; cf. Gell 1992, 37ff), different processes can be synchronized (Iteanu 1999), and the sequences of ritual actions can articulate and reinforce hierarchies (Leach 1991,52), as is particularly evident in the case of the Gadaba’s collective sacrifices.

The structuring of time occurs both within a single ritual process and between different rituals. The different phases of a ritual can be opposed to one another in myriad ways, thereby marking changes or articulating opposed values, as two examples from the Gadaba mortuary rituals illustrate. When someone is cremated immediately after death, the deceased’s liminal situation and his surviving family’s temporary ritual impurity are expressed by the manipulation of his ax. The axhead is removed from the handle, reversed, and replaced in that position. Three days later, the next stage of the rituals ends this impure status, and the ax is also correspondingly returned to its original condition. The second example draws on Leach’s (1991,78) distinction between phases of especially formal action and phases of extreme informality within the framework of a ritual. In the Gadaba’s final mortuary ritual, gotr, different phases are differentiated by means of two contrasts: formality / effervescence and aggressive effervescence / peaceful effervescence. Before they start to arrive in the sponsors’ village, the buffalo-takers behave in an entirely effervescent way, and their armed entry into the village itself indicates their readiness for violence (cf. Pfeffer 1991, 2001a). Initially, however, they merely dance and drink wildly before the tied- up buffaloes. This continues through the night, until all the buffalo-takers assemble in the house of one of the sponsors in the early morning hours in order to regulate the distribution of the buffaloes. At a stroke, the wild dancers appear to have become strategic negotiating partners. After the formal distribution of the buffaloes, an effervescent phase again follows, reaching its aggressive climax in the tearing to pieces of several buffaloes and the struggle over the animals’ entrails. On the last day of the ritual, the same contrast between formality and effervescence is found, only this time the informality is peaceful in character. First, all the participants engage in an effervescent mud and water fight.

Afterward, different groups receive specified gifts from the sponsors. The recipients are formally seated on bamboo mats, and in some cases, a drawn-out debate ensues about the appropriateness of one or another gift. These contrasts distinguish different temporal phases of the ritual - the precarious period of aggressive effervescence before the departure of the dead and the phase of relief and peaceful effervescence after this has taken place - at the same time that they stress different aspects of the relationships involved. On the one hand, the groups are linked to one another in a quasi-contractual way as partners in the exchange of brides, buffaloes, and food, and on the other, the ritual also offers a framework for the conventional articulation of emotional dispositions that likewise play a role in these relationships.[2]

The rituals are not only internally structured through the opposition of different phases, relationships, and elements, but also refer to one another and thereby shape the rhythm of social time and space. The example of the reversed ax has already shown how linked rituals - in this case, the cremation and the second phase of the mortuary rituals soon afterward - mark out periods of time. These periods can also extend over many years. A sacrifice promised to a deity or demon may be performed only years later in some cases, and during the intervening period, those concerned are subject to specific prohibitions that express a particular relationship to these powers. For example, shortly after a child’s birth, the rau demon is asked to leave the newborn unharmed and is promised the sacrificial offering of a white rooster once the child learns to walk. In this ritual, cords are tied around both the potential victim (the child) and the foreseen victim (the rooster), stressing the parallel or homology between the two beings for this limited period, in my interpretation. During this time, the child is not permitted to eat any food prepared in the context of rituals addressed to rau, and the meat of white chickens should be avoided in general until the promise has been redeemed. The child’s ritual status corresponds to that of white chickens, which are therefore excluded as potential food. Before I turn to the analysis of the life-cycle rituals against the background of these reflections, I will now summarize the basic elements of the ritual processes.

  • [1] Leach is one of many anthropologists who have devoted themselves to the topic of culturalor structural time. In his book, Alfred Gell (1992) summarizes the various debates and alsocriticizes Leach’s hypothesis of the inversion of time in ritual and his remarks on alternatingconcepts of time (33f). I will return to the subject of temporal patterns and the idea of oscillationin the context of the rituals and festivals of the annual cycle. Nevertheless, I will not discuss thedifferent theoretical approaches, since the complexity of this topic demands a more extensivetreatment than is compatible with the focus of this study. In order to be able to say somethingabout Gadaba concepts of time at a more fundamental level, it would be necessary to analyzenot only the rituals, but also the linguistic categories of time and how the Gadaba speak abouttime in the course of daily life, something that I hope to do in a separate publication. For presentpurposes, let it simply be noted that the Gadaba attach little significance to linear time and thattime - as Leach (1977, 126) says - has no depth. For example, the Gadaba speak about the“people from before” (agtu lok) in contrast to the “people of the present” (ebro lok), and absolutetemporal reference points are meaningless, as is also shown by the Gadaba’s indifference toindividuals’ absolute age. On the other hand, relative time - expressed in the idiom of seniority,for example - is of great social significance. The fact that little importance is assigned to linearconcepts of time and the placement of historical events along an axis of this kind does notmean, however, that the linear progress of time is not perceived. In my view, Gadaba ritualprocesses articulate a variety of temporal patterns, such as alternation and cyclical movement -which Gell (1992, 34) claims are inevitably logically connected to one another in any case - andparallelism or synchronization (cf. Iteanu 1999).
  • [2] Alongside the different characterizations of the various agnatic and affinal relationshiptypes, rightly emphasized by Pfeffer (2001a), such as the aggressiveness of the panjabai and thedevotion of the moitr, individual relationships are also regularly characterized by contradictoryqualities. Affinal relationships, for example, manifest both qualities of cooperation and interdependence and aggressive and potentially hostile tendencies.
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