By Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

A Lobi diviner casting cowrie shells to communicate with God, south of Gaoua, Burkina Faso, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


Throughout the world the intermediary between God and humankind is the ritual specialist, priest, minister, rabbi, pastor, or shaman.  Whatever he or she is called, his responsibilities are the same: he serves as an essential link in the chain of communication between the spirit world and the natural world. When people have a problem, when disasters befall them, when they need answers to unanswerable problems, they deal with the gods with the help of the ritual specialist who may use any of hundreds of techniques to open lines of communication between man and God.  Such techniques may include prayer, sacrifices, offerings and divination.  These people are special because they possess a unique language, knowledge, symbolism, skill, and technology of their own.  Such people are central to society.  They are intimately familiar with all the relationships in the group, and are able to make their diagnosis based on this intimate knowledge.  They know the source of conflicts, stress, and anger and their prescriptions often go directly to the source of the affliction.