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Dying as Transformation to Ancestorhood: The Sherbro Coast of Sierra Leone

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Summary

People who live in the Sherbro coastal area of Sierra Leone have a social organization based upon descent from named ancestors and acestresses. Ancestors, the living, and those not yet born constitute a great chain of being. This continuum of existence is punctuated, and made discontinuous, by rites of passage (birth, puberty, death). Dying is a period of categorical ambiguity in which a person is still among the mundane living, but babbles of the past, a sign that he or she is also in the process of becoming one with the ancestral shades. Indeed, senility is positively interpreted as a sign that the person has begun to slip across into that other aspect of being, in close communication with ancestors. Since ancestors are the ultimate source of blessings (and misfortune), the dying are treated with great consideration. The ambiguity of senility and dying is resolved through rituals which ‘carry’ the immediate deceased through this betwixt-and-between stage, placing him or her unambiguously into the category of ancestors. Until this is done, the period of ambiguity is perceived by the community as a period of danger. Post-mortem examinations of internal organs are routinely done by officials of Poro, the men’s secret society, to look for signs of the true character of the deceased (a possible witch). These signs have a bearing on the specific content of the death rites. The paper will consider the status of moribund males and females, in descent systems which are patrilineal, matrilineal, or cognatic (as with the Sherbro). Although the paper is based upon 15 years’ intermittent field work in coastal Sierra Leone, this analysis of death in societies structured into descent groups will be relevant for most of Africa, and many other non-European societies as well.

Zusammenfassung

Menschen der Sherbro Küstengegend von Sierra Leone haben eine soziale Organisation, die auf der Abstammung von namentlich bekannten weiblichen und männlichen Vorfahren beruht. Dieses Kontinuum der Existenz wird durch ‘rites of passage’ (Geburt, Pubertät, Heirat, Tod) unterbrochen. Sterben ist die Periode einer Ambivalenz, in der ein Mensch noch unter den Lebenden weilt, aber von der Vergangenheit schwatzt, als Zeichen, daß er oder sie ebenfalls im Übergangsstadium zu einem Schatten der Vorfahren wird. Senilität wird positiv bewertet als Zeichen dafür, daß ein Mensch beginnt in den anderen Aspekt des Seins hinüberzugehen, zu den Vorfahren. Da die Vorfahren die Quelle allen Segens (und Unglücks) sind, werden die Sterbenden mit großer Achtung behandelt. Die Ambivalenz von Senilität und Sterben wird durch Rituale beendet, die den unmittelbar Verstorbenen durch dieses Zwischenstadium ‘tragen’ und ihn unzweideutig der Kategorie der Ahnen zuordnen. Bis dahin wird die Ambivalenz vom Gemeinwesen als Gefahr empfunden. Poro-Beamte, aus der Geheimgesellschaft der Männer, untersuchen post-mortem innere Organe routinemäßig, um daraus den Charakter des Verstorbenen (möglicherweise eine Hexe) zu erkennen. Diese Zeichen beeinflussen den Inhalt der Totenrituale. Obwohl dieser Beitrag auf 15 Jahren gelegentlicher Feldforschung in Sierra Leone basiert, wird diese Analyse von Sterben und Tod in den meisten nach der Abstammung organisierten Gesellschaften Afrikas und anderer nicht-europäischer Gesellschaften zutreffend sein.

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© 1986 Friedr. Vieweg & Sohn Verlag, Braunschweig/Wiesbaden

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MacCormack, C.P. (1986). Dying as Transformation to Ancestorhood: The Sherbro Coast of Sierra Leone. In: Sich, D., Figge, H.H., Hinderling, P. (eds) Sterben und Tod Eine kulturvergleichende Analyse. Vieweg+Teubner Verlag. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-322-88770-2_14

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-322-88770-2_14

  • Publisher Name: Vieweg+Teubner Verlag

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-528-07931-4

  • Online ISBN: 978-3-322-88770-2

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