Home page Psychology blog Spiritual Psychology other religions and yoga Afrasian indigenous religions: Zar and Berbers

Afrasian indigenous religions: Zar and Berbers

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Afrasian peoples do not have “material carriers” of their divine principle, such as sacred scriptures, icons or temples typically found in the main world religions.

Neither are such concepts as “heaven”, “hell” or “purgatory” present. Other beliefs dominate in Afrasian religious movements, such as the afterlife, good and evil spirits and magic in the form of various rituals. Many ethnic groups living in northern Africa and western Asia, have common beliefs about religion. And yet they are unique for each nationality.

The traditional berber religion

The Berber religion is a set of beliefs held by many Berbers (the indigenous people of North Africa). These developed strictly in one territory, which helped them to preserve ancestors’ traditions. Others experienced a significant influence over time from other religions, mainly Judaism and Islam.

Afrasian indigenous religions

According to many researchers, in ancient times the Berbers had a cult of the dead, which was their distinctive feature. For example, members of the indigenous population of modern Libya consider their ancestors to be gods of the spirits. They communicated with the souls of the deceased, asking them for guidance, and expecting advice from them in their dreams. Also, Berbers worshipped their deceased rulers. The tombs of the Numidian kings are among the most famous historical sites of the indigenous people of North Africa.

Archaeological research of prehistoric tombs in the Maghreb suggests that the Berbers and their ancestors (Numidians and Mauritanians) believed in an afterlife. In northwestern Africa, bodies were first buried in shallow pits, but later they used caves in rocks and mounds for burials. Over time, primitive tombs “evolved” to become more complex. The two most famous Berber tombs today are the 19-meter pre-Roman Numidian pyramid of Madghacen and the 30-meter ancient Mauretanian pyramid.

Throughout their history, the religious life of the Berbers was closely interwoven with the beliefs of other peoples – in particular, the Egyptians, Romans, Phoenicians and Greeks.

Libyan-egyptian beliefs

The ancient Egyptians were the Berbers’ neighbors and their religious beliefs overlapped in many ways. Historians provide similar names of the deities worshiped by the Egyptians and Berber tribes as the main proof of this.

Some researchers believe that the Berbers worshiped Isis and Set. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Libyan tribes did not eat cow meat for the same reason as the Egyptians – in tribute to Isis.

Also, scholars suggest that the Berbers and Egyptians had one common god – Amon. But this theory has its detractors. Osiris also causes similar discussions regarding a common deity. According to some reports, he was originally of Libyan origin, and only later the Egyptians began to worship him. It is also believed that the Egyptian goddess Neith was associated with the Libyan goddess Tanit.

Greco-libyan beliefs

The religious beliefs of the Berbers were also influenced by the culture of the ancient Greeks. This influence was mutual for, over time, the Greeks adopted some of the traditions of the indigenous population of modern-day Libya.

There is an assumption that some of the Greek deities were of Libyan origin, for example, Athena, Zeus’s daughter.  Historian Herodotus recorded that her clothes were typical of a Libyan woman. Some scholars associate the appearance of other goddesses in the Greek pantheon – Lamia and the Gorgon Medusa – with the Berber traditions.

According to ancient Greek legends, giant mythical creatures lived in northeastern Africa (including the territory of modern Libya), for example the Hydra and the Barbary lions.

Phoenician-berber beliefs

The Phoenicians were originally a Semitic people inhabiting the coasts of modern Lebanon and Tunisia. They founded Carthage in 814 BC and gave birth to the so-called Punic culture which stretched back to the Berber and Phoenician religious traditions.

The ancient Phoenicians had two main deities – Baal and Astarte. Having settled in Northwest Africa, they continued to worship their gods. But after the Battle of Gimer, when Carthage became an ally of Berber tribes, the beliefs of these peoples underwent some changes. For example, the goddess Astarte was “replaced” by the local goddess Tanit. Historians agree that the emphasis on the name “Tanit” has the Berber linguistic structure.

Roman-berber beliefs

Historians believe that the religious beliefs of the Romans and the ancient Berber tribes, also had common features. This was largely owing to the conquest of Carthage in 146 BC. 

After the defeat, the Berbers adopted many of their conquerors’ deities. They began to revere Africa (Bellona?), an ancient Roman goddess of war, whose image was even used for coins from the 1st century BC. But the cult of Saturn, even after the conquest by the Romans, remained predominant in the Berber tribes.

Zar cult

The pagan cult of Zar originated in central Ethiopia in the 18th century. Later, its adherents appeared in the countries of East and Northeast Africa – Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, and southwestern provinces of Iran.

Zar cult

The cult adepts who perform various rituals are called sorcerers and they are usually women. It is believed that they are possessed by a deity who gives them the strength and knowledge to heal others. In their rituals, sorcerers use musical instruments, including the tanburu (a six-stringed lyre) and the mangur (a belt of several goat’s hooves).

The Zar cult adherents believed in obsession. They were convinced that a spirit “lives” in every person, and that if this spirit is dissatisfied with something, problems begin, such as diseases of the body. People turned to sorcerers for healing. Zar rituals were designed not to conjure spirits away from the body, but to placate them with music, sacrifice and dancing.

In Europe, at the end of the 19th century, a description of one of the “treatment” methods practiced by the Zar cult appeared. Sorcerers sacrificed a goat or chicken, mixed the animal’s blood with fat and oil, poured this mixture in a container and left it on the road. Cult followers believed that the one who finds and tries this mixture will “take away” the illness of the person for whom the ceremony was performed. That is why many people were wary of Zar traditions – it was believed that sorcerers could hex or bring disease to any person.

Now Zar is practiced by sorcerers from Ethiopia, Sudan and in the Iranian province of Bushehr. At the official level, it is prohibited, but that has not stopped the adherents of the cult.

The important components of traditional Afrasian religions include the formation of secret groups and sects, rituals of initiation and conjuring evil spirits away from the body. Masks are usually worn during the rituals. The beliefs of the local population were greatly influenced by the culture of its neighboring states.