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Snakes, Peoples, and Spirits

Le professeur Jean-Claude Muller, décédé en 2018, avait pris sa retraite du département en 2007. Nous avions organisé un colloque en son honneur, dont les Actes ont été publiées en format électronique ( Jean-Claude a été un protagoniste important dans les débats autour des systèmes politiques et de parenté en Afrique de l’ouest. Grand savant, ses intérêts et son influence touchaient plusieurs personnes qui œuvraient en autres domaines. Une de ces personnes est Robert Hazel[1], qui a récemment publié Snakes, People, and Spirits. Traditional Eastern Africa in its Broader Context (2 tomes; Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, Angleterre, 2019). Ce livre est dédié à Jean-Claude Muller. Nous reproduisons la description anglaise du contenu, telle que présentée par la maison d’édition :

To Professor Jean-Claude Muller, recently deceased, whose commitment to African studies and comparative anthropology was outstanding. His on-going support and encouragement enabled the author to undertake and carry out this wide-ranging research programme.​

This two-volume publication offers an in-depth analysis of ophidian symbolism in Eastern Africa, while setting the topic within its regional and historical context: namely, with regards to the rest of Africa, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Greek world, ancient Palestine, Arabia, India, and medieval and pre-Christian Europe. Through the ages, most of those areas have connected with Eastern Africa in a broad sense, where ophidian symbolism was as “rampant” and far-reaching, if not more so, as anywhere else on the continent, and perhaps in past civilisations. Much as in the wider context, snakes were held to be long-lived, closely related to holes, caverns, trees, and water, life and death, and credited with a liking for milk. Even though ophidian symbolism has always been developed out of the outstanding biological and ethological features of snakes, the process of symbolisation, which plays a crucial role in the elaboration of cultural systems and the shaping of human experience, was inevitably at work.

The first volume deals with snakes as a zoological category, snake symbolism as perceived by encyclopaedists and psychologists, and ophidian symbolism as it occurred in ancient civilisations. It explores the traditional African scene in general with a view to set the scene for a more proximate baseline for comparison. The divide between animals and humans was porous, and snakes had a more or less equal footing in both the animal realm and the spiritual world. Key features of snake symbolism in traditional Eastern Africa are then examined in detail, especially phantasmagorical snakes, the rainbow serpent, snake-totems, and snake-related witches and ritual leaders, among others.

In Eastern Africa, the meanings attributed to snakes were multifaceted and paradoxical. Overall, the two volumes of this publication show that African snake symbolism broadly echoed the diverse representations of ancient civilisations. The widely acknowledged assimilation of snakes to death and Evil is therefore unrepresentative, both historically and culturally.

The second volume focusses on southern Abyssinia, an area of Eastern Africa latu senso where the connection between snakes and paramount religious leaders was especially far-reaching. Their clans were said to be the outcome of sexual encounters between a young woman and an ophidian. These leaders bred and fed snakes. Some of them buried dead snakes in their compounds. Their curse was likened to the bite of a deadly serpent. This volume is devoted to a few communities of southern Abyssinia, notably the Oromo, an important group that has fascinated European travellers, missionaries, and social science specialists over a period of 150 years. The rich Oromo ethnographic record lends itself to full-circle analysis. This volume represents a significant contribution to the study of the mysterious “snake priests” of the Oromo, Hoor, Konso, and Burji peoples.

[1] Robert Hazel est auteur (avec Mohamed Mohamed-Abdi) de L'infibulation en milieu somali et en Nubie. Crime contre la femme? Perfectionnement de la forme féminine? Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l'Homme, Paris, décembre 2007.