Translating the Ineffable: How Hunters Consult the Dead in Northwestern Côte d’Ivoire

Part of the Comparative Philosophy of Religion book series (COPR, volume 1)


In Côte d’Ivoire, initiated hunters called dozos organize their hunting and other activities through ritual sacrifices. Such offerings are especially important for placating a dead dozo’s spirit at his funeral. The dead man expects living dozos to offer game meat to his family as he once did; otherwise he may ruin his family’s harvest, make their livestock ill, and spoil the hunt out of spite. Hunting is therefore a process of social reciprocity that dozos sustain by emulating the former generosity of dead colleagues. Living dozos communicate regularly with the dead in order to do so. But because the dead are disembodied and cannot speak human language, they send dreams or use ritual divination to convey their intentions. Living dozos then translate these desires into models for dozo action. At their initiations, for example, dozos make offerings to the spirit of the first dozo, Manimory, promising to follow his moral code in exchange for his protection in the forest. Without invoking the dead, no such protection is possible.

Whereas theologians may focus on God’s difference from humanity, and religion scholars may reduce notions of spirituality to ideology, dozos commune with the dead through stories, dreams, and rituals to embody the moral conduct dead dozos once personified, making dozo spirits as real as the dozos who invoke them. Far from God’s idealized being or an ideology grounded in mere “belief,” the ineffability of dozo spirits is near and pragmatic, the result of practical discernment.



I dedicate this chapter to the memory of Edie Turner, who passed away on June 18, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia at the age of ninety-five. Her spirit remains alive in all those she taught or enlivened by her presence. I was completing revisions on this chapter in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire when I heard the news. As a graduate student at the University of Virginia, I had the privilege of renting a room in her home for three years, where I shared meals and conversation with her and her family and attended her fieldwork seminar. A discussion with her around her kitchen table one afternoon led me to Côte d’Ivoire for my fieldwork. I owe her a debt of respect and love beyond words.

I also want to thank Drissa Koné and Diadié Bathily for their friendship and ongoing help with my work in both Côte d’Ivoire and the United States. Drissa transcribed Dramane’s songs and translated them into French for me, and Diadié and his family in Yamoussoukro were my second home in Côte d’Ivoire. I am grateful, too, beyond words, to Dramane Coulibaly and the dozos and people of Denguélé who hosted me there, to Urmillah Deshpande for her editorial comments on this chapter, and to Tim Knepper for having invited me to give the talk at Drake University on which this chapter is based and at which Diadié Bathily performed a dozo dance. I thank Tim as well for his insight and grace as an editor and Leah Kalmanson for her editorial help. I alone take responsibilty for any errors or inaccuracies in this chapter.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

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