Liminality and the Isoma Ritual

6 June 2017

The Isoma ritual is a corrective ritual used to remedy a woman’s inability to produce children, a condition commonly known as lufwisha, meaning “to give birth to a dead child” (16) as well as the “constant dying of children. ” Lufwisha is thought to be caused by angry shades that inflict the condition upon the would-be mother, because she has forgotten direct ascendants as well as “the immediate progenetrices of their matrikin” (13). soma, therefore, is used so that the afflicted woman, being able to once again remember the offended shade(s), will cease to be the angry shade’s victim nd thus have the ailment affecting her fertility cease to exist. This ritual consists of three parts: phase one consists of Ilembi, where the victim is separated from the profane world; the second, known as Kunkunka, isolates her from secular life; finally, the third part, Ku-tumbuka, consists of a festive dance to celebrate the ending of the shade’s affliction and the victim’s ability to once again produce children.

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Before the Ilembi phase of the ritual can begin, the husband of the woman (if there is one) builds his wife a grass hut outside approximately a dozen huts, onstituting the Ndembu village, that will be used during the second phase of the ritual. The attending doctor adept, led by the senior, collects the necessary medicines with symbolic purposes to treat her during the ritual, including a red cock and white pullet, supplied by the husband and the wife’s matrikin.

The doctors search and locate the burrow of a giant rat or ant-bear, and upon finding one, address the animal as it represents the “troika” of the afflicting agencies, including the witch, shade, and ikishi (22). After this, they begin to prepare the hole for the ritual by igging into the hole, forming a tunnel (ikela dakuhanuka) big enough for a person to pass through to another hole or opening, the first entrance being “hot” to represent the animal or witch, and the second hole representing the “cooling down” stage or “domesticating. This hole is known as ku-fomwisha or ku-fomona. The area surrounding the holes are prepped by men and women in symbolically different ways; a senior adept places a piece of calabash near the first hole, while female adepts place some edible roots from their gardens, such as cassava rhizomes and weet potato tubers, which represent the muJimba, or body, of the patient. The contributions of women, especially those of the patient’s matrilineage, are significant to the ritual process.

Finally, a ring (chipangu) is placed around the ritual site to create the sacred space necessary for the ritual, establishing a realm of order. During the ritual phase, the lufwisha-affected woman must enter the hole of life and pass through the tunnel, entering into the hole of death, where she is sprinkled with cold and hot medicine by a doctor and his assistant (29). The woman’s husband, tanding to the right of her, does this as well. After being splashed with medicine, she enters the tunnel once more, and her husband follows behind her (31).

Together, the husband and wife are nearly naked, wearing waist cloths, to represent that they are both simultaneously like infants as well as the dead. When the woman first enters the tunnel, she does so holding the white pullet to against her left breast, which represents the place where a child is held as well as the pureness and the life and death. Near the end of this stage, the red cock is sacrificed, representing the ystical misfortune and pain caused to the woman, or chisaku.

Following the cocks beheading, the couple is again splashed with cold and hot medicine, followed by the pouring of water over them in a 2:1 ratio. While the final splashing continues, male adepts, standing at the right, and female adepts, left, sing the initiation and great life-crisis rites songs of the Ndembu people. At the end, the couple is secluded in the seclusion hut where the wife continues to hold the white pullet until it lays its first egg.

Occasionally, they sing “mwanami yaya punkila,” the Isoma song accompanied by waying dances called kupunJila, representing the style of Mvmengl ikishi as well as the contraction of an abortive labor. The couple, then, is once more thought to be able to procreate, having been reborn in the community. While in the luminal phase of the ritual, the couple symbolically represents life and death, living and dying, as well as birth, death, and rebirth.

While passing through the tunnels, the couple is no longer considered alive or dead- rather, they are passing through these phases between the world of the living and the dead. They re both symbolically represented as corpses and infants to symbolize this difference between the living and the dead, for they are neither and both at the same time. Their rank and status as members of the community are therefore stripped from them- symbolically, they must be reborn at the end of the ritual before they are to retake their place within the group, the affliction preventing fertility being removed.

It is through this stripping of their rank, social ties, and status amongst the living and the dead that they are thought to be reborn and rejoin society, renewed and ideally ble to once more procreate once the shade’s affliction has been removed Turner describes the condition of liminality as being “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial” (95).

Those fitting this are ambiguous, because they elude the classifications assigned to people within relative, stable states of being within a culturally defined setting. Thus liminalitys ambiguous attributes are expressed culturally through symbols as well as ritualistic traditions where liminality is compared to “death, to being in the womb, to nvisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to wilderness, and to an eclipse of the sun or moon. Liminal entities themselves are thought to possess nothing within the phase of liminality. These entities, often neophytes in initiation or those undergoing puberty rites, “may be disguised as monsters, wear only a strip of clothing, or even go naked, to demonstrate that as liminal beings they have no status, property, insignia, secular clothing indicating rank or role, position in a kinship system”in short, nothing that may distinguish them from their fellow neophytes or initiands.

These “initiands,” if there are more than one, often bond during their period of liminality together; during such rites, they must be modest and passive while listening to their instructor’s commands, facing punishment as necessary as they prepare for the transition into the next phase of their lives, returning to a more stable, culturally “safe” condition. Communitas is Turner’s preferred term to the sense of community developed amongst the spirit of solidarity and equality within a group, which can be applied to those undergoing a luminal transition together.

Turner uses the term communita to distinguish [the] modality of social relationship[s] from an ‘area of common hold sacred attributes in some variety. However, the sacredness of these offices is acquired during rites de passage, where members undergo transitions from one position to the next and are thus stripped of their previous status. Through these rites de passage, members within a communita are able to reach an equal level socially. The difference between liminality and communitas, then, is that one undergoes a period of liminality before he rejoins the communita as an equal.

Liminality reflects a tateless, instable phase of transitioning where the individual is no longer a part of his past status and has yet to become part of the status he will hold following the rite, while communitas reflects the stripping of these titles and the social harmony established between individuals who normally would not be seen as equals in society. According to Turner, those within the realm of liminality are often thought of as sexless and anonymous, where members of both sex are dressed similarly and referred to with the same term (102-103).

He goes on to say that “symbolically, all ttributes that distinguish categories and groups in the structured social order are here in abeyance; the neophytes are merely entities in transition, as yet without place or position. ” These entities are often submissive and silent while submitting to the authority of the entire community, becoming a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which the knowledge and wisdom of the group pertaining to the new status is imparted.

The idea is that they must be prepared for their new position in society by that society. As Turner states, “The powers that shape the neophytes in liminality for the ncumbency of new status are felt, in rites all over the world, to be more than human powers, though they are invoked and channeled by the representatives of the community’ (106), showing that liminal entities are the products of the societies to which they belong.

By these specifications, college students are in a stage of liminality, where the lines between adolescence and adulthood are blurred; the students are not considered adults by society, yet they aren’t seen as children. Undergrad years are marked by social changes as students make their way through this transitional period. At the end of it, they pass through the ritual of graduation, marking their initial entrance into adulthood which is later sealed by attaining a career, purchasing a home, and settling down.

Individuals living within the U. S. on a Green Card face similar circumstances”they are not fully American citizens, yet they benefit from the rights of living amongst Americans. Once they pass through the naturalization process, a liminal transition period in itself, they are eventually accepted and invited to a formal ceremony where they take an oath to become an American citizen, receive certificate, and take their place as fellow Americans, officially ending the luminal period of the naturalization process.

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