Separation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Initiates into the priesthood of Shango, Ipari-Nla, northwestern Ijebu area, Nigeria, 1986. Photo by H. J. Drewal and M. T. Drewal.

Ritual possesses a three-part structure: a symbolic death separating the person from earlier life, a liminal period marking the difference between who one has been and who one will become, and a “rebirth” as a person of new status and abilities. Through ritual, people deliberately create a hiatus from all that is comfortably ordinary or profane. Time and space are interrupted, as sacred experience is sought. We all know as we enter a mosque, shrine, or other holy place—even if of a religion we ourselves do not profess—that the dissonance of everyday life is suspended. Inside, a special ambiance reigns, close to divinity. African ritual is constructed by a similar architecture, sometimes through actual buildings but always through sacred dramas that may include special dress and body arts, as seen in this photograph of Yoruba people preparing for ritual. In such a theater of change, education is of the essence, but as we shall see, ritual initiation not only leads people to learn what is already known, but to imagine what might be as well.