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Material, Embodied and Lived Religion: Basket Divination in Practice and Theory

Sónia Silva draws upon her ethnographic work with basket diviners and their clients in northwest Zambia, Africa, to argue that the practice of basket divination is a material and embodied one. Further, it is a lived religion defined by the precariousness of human life and the transformative force of suffering. Without this broader existential context, basket divination would not be a lived religion.

MLA citation format:
Silva, Sónia
“Material, Embodied and Lived Religion: Basket Divination in Practice and Theory”
Web blog post.Material Religions. 4 May 2016. Web. [date of access]

The concepts of material religion, embodied religion, and lived religion enable a focus on religion as it is lived by embodied and sensual individuals in full engagement with the material world [i]. Lived religion is material and embodied religion. In addition, lived religion is also religion as it is lived by people on their own terms, and quite independently of the ongoing debate in academia on the place of materiality and embodiment in religion.

What does material and embodied religion mean to different people? What does it mean to Catholics in Spain, Bahá’i Faith followers in the United States and basket divination participants in Zambia? How do individuals recount their religious experiences of embodiment and materiality in their words and on their terms? Having worked with several basket diviners and many of their clients in northwest Zambia during two years of ethnographic fieldwork, I know that they would likely concur with the portrayal of basket divination as a material and embodied practice. Basket divination is a material and embodied religion. This statement, though, opens up a longer conversation. In northwest Zambia, the divination basket and the diviner’s body are perceived to be the concretization of the divination spirit, Kayongo; the concretized spirit takes the form of both the oracle (a personified material object) and the diviner’s body (an objectified human subject); and the entire institution of basket divination is seen as a human project in which human subjects relinquish control in order to regain control in times of suffering and uncertainty. Deprived of this broader existential context defined by the precariousness of human life and the transformative force of suffering, basket divination would no longer be a lived religion.

Material Religion 

The European and North American fascination with the symbolic pieces contained in the divination basket dates back to the early twentieth century, a time of European conquest and colonial domination in Africa. Each basket contains thirty or so pieces of different shapes, sizes and materials. Some of these articles are drawn from the realm of nature (a rooster’s claw, a small duiker’s horn, a tree seed) whereas others are manufactured (a metal bracelet, a coin, wooden carvings). Collectively, they are known as jipelo. While each piece has a different name as well as meaning, it is helpful to associate it with a range of related meanings that are bound to change depending on the surrounding pieces. The Europeans who came across divination baskets during their travels through northwest Zambia and the neighboring regions of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the home of basket divination, were immediately drawn to the basket’s contents, a veritable microcosm of social life in the region. Some of them interviewed basket diviners and wrote down the symbolism of each piece. They were clearly drawn to the sheer materiality of such intriguing collections. This said, they never conceptualized their data as ‘material religion.’ In their view, the material properties of those pieces were secondary to their symbolism, and their overarching interest in symbolism fully justified the descriptive and analytical focus on the basket’s contents. Few of these authors showed any interest in the diviner-oracle relation or other performative aspects of basket divination. Their main focus was symbolism, and not ritual performance or ontology.

Figure 1: Sakutemba’s divining basket, 1999 (photo by S. Silva)

Material religion reverses this approach. While many researchers of material religion continue to see religious objects as symbols (as objects that stand for referents that lie beyond the material substance of those objects) they are also interested in studying the relations between objects and humans in religious practice [ii]. Other authors, less compromising in their approach, opt to peel off the outer layer of symbolism, which they see as a problematic distraction from their focus on the relational categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman.’ Irrespective of theoretical inspiration, however, the engagement between human subjects and material objects in religious practice is paramount. Basket divination is known as basket divination for a good reason: this oracular technique relies on the use of a woven basket. Basket divination is also a technique in which spiritual messages are not exclusively communicated in words. The divination spirit delivers his knowledge in multiple ways, including the material form of divinatory pieces arranged in meaningful configurations. The divination basket plays a key role in basket divination. In northwest Zambia, many diviners employ other material oracles (jingombo), such as wooden poles and pounding mortars filled with medicated water. Basket diviners, who are always men, employ the ngombo yalipele, the oracle known as lipele, a term that in its broadest sense refers not only to the divination basket but also its paraphernalia: for example, the flask (mutumwa), used as a secondary oracle; the bundle of broken arrows (mikuta yamivwi ya vivimbi), which stands for the total number of consultations conducted on the subject of death; and the dumbbell-shaped woven rattle (musambo), which diviners shake to open their séances. A lipele diviner without a lipele is not a diviner; and a lipele oracle without a diviner is not an oracle.

The divination basket is also known as ngombo yakusekula, meaning the type of oracle in which the diviner, holding the oracle with both hands, shakes it upward with a brisk movement. Not only does this technique define the act of divining, but it is also a requirement for joining the divining profession. This learning process takes place during a formal apprenticeship to senior diviners, and it may take months, and even years, to complete. Apprentices learn on the job. They accompany their masters on divination trips; they carry their masters’ lipele oracles in a large basket known as a kumba; they swiftly grab the divination pieces that sometimes fall on the ground in the process of divining, placing them back in the basket; and they participate in the séances by repeating the shorter segments of their masters’ divination speech, for example. When they show signs of wisdom and skill, their masters may ask them to shake the basket in their stead. Divining is a body technique. To master the difficult technique of basket shaking is at least as important as learning the meaning of the pieces arranged in configurations. The diviners’ apprenticeship is therefore a period of incorporation, a period during which the divination basket becomes a material extension of the human body [iii]. And yet, to fully understand the expression ngombo yakusekula (divining by shaking), we must broaden the definition of incorporation to include another key concept in the study of lived religion—embodiment.

Embodied Religion

Let us preface our engagement with the concept of embodied religion with two questions: What is the source of knowledge in basket divination? How is that knowledge revealed and conveyed?

A divination session opens with a long, formulaic speech known as kukombela, or to invoke. In this speech, the diviner invokes Kayongo as well as renowned chiefs, national political leaders, and diviners, both dead and alive, while he shakes his musambo rattle with his right hand. Following the invocation, the diviner lowers his rattle and readies himself for the longest and most important section of his séance, the divination proper. Now, he grabs the basket with both hands and shakes it briskly upward. He poses questions to the basket in a yes-or-no format (“I see a man; is he dead or alive?”) and receives the answers to his questions in the form of symbolic articles drawn in configurations. Since consulters are not able to fully interpret those configurations, it is the job of diviners to translate the visible language of divination pieces into the audible language of words. Every divination session consists in a rapid succession of basket shakings, observations of symbolic configurations, and verbal translations of those material messages. During his divinatory journey, the diviner moves back and forth in his interpretive readings, searching for knowledge. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his heart. That pain is a sign that the truth has emerged in his basket and should now be shared with his clients in plain words. He lowers his basket and asks, “Do you confirm? That man lying moribund on a mat is still alive; true or false?” Diviners come to their conclusions through pain. They also describe the embodied experience of Kayongo as an upward movement from heart to the head, a growing pressure in the chest, and an increasingly faster and heavier heart beat. Kayongo is experienced in the body.

Figure 2: Mutondo doing the invocation, 1996 (photo by S. Silva)

Although Kayongo, the source of divinatory knowledge, is a spiritual entity, he does not deliver his messages to the living in a flash of understanding. Kayongo communicates in the form of material objects, words, and physical pain. The divination basket is the means—the body—through which Kayongo’s truth becomes perceptible to humans thanks to their sense of sight. The diviner, being human, is the means through which Kayongo becomes not only visible but also audible in the form of words, and felt as physical pain. In this sense, both the diviner and his basket become Kayongo through a process of embodiment.

To better grasp the importance of embodiment in basket divination, it is important to briefly consider other key moments in the diviner’s lifelong relationship with Kayongo. The first moment takes place when the diviner first encounters the religious universe of basket divination. He is still an ordinary man like many of his peers, but he has been struggling with a relentless illness for sometime. Fearing for his life, his relatives take him to a senior basket diviner. The one to blame, the diviner tells them, is Kayongo. Kayongo has ‘caught’ their relative because he wants to recruit him into the divining profession. Whereas other ancestral manifestations, such as Kula, for example, may cause menstrual and reproductive problems in women, Kayongo is known to cause chest pains, breathing difficulty, and episodes of lunacy. Kayongo is also well known for his cruelty. The senior diviner now informs his clients that their sick relative must undergo a nightlong healing ceremony, another defining moment in the patient’s relationship with Kayongo. This ceremony both heals the patient and initiates him into the divination profession. This time, though, the signs of Kayongo possession differ from the initial symptoms of disease. The patient’s eyes roll upward, his throat produces hoarse sounds, his body jerks violently, and his teeth kill a red cockerel by biting its neck. The sick man is no longer himself; he is now Kayongo. While scholars refer to this process as ‘possession trance,’ the Luvale-speakers in northwest Zambia speak of ‘catching’ (kwachila) ‘coming out’ (kulovoka) and ‘jerking’ (kutunguta).

Kayongo communicates with his victims through pain and physical suffering. Initially, as we have seen, Kayongo forces them to join the divinatory profession by causing pain in their chest, strong headaches, and periods of lunacy. These symptoms are the physical signs that Kayongo has caught them. Yet Kayongo is an ambivalent spirit. Having afflicted his victims with pain and disease, Kayongo proceeds to heal and initiate them into the divining profession by taking over their bodies. This reversal of fortune takes place during their healing and nightlong initiation rituals. Later, in the context of séances, Kayongo delivers knowledge by inflicting chest pain on the diviners each time the truth emerges inside the basket. Kayongo also ensures that diviners watch over their oracles and perform the required rites throughout their lives. Diviners know that Kayongo is never absent. Should they break taboos such as eating food with a slimy texture or engaging in sexual intercourse during daytime, Kayongo strikes them with pain and mental confusion. Diviners develop a lifelong relationship with Kayongo, a cruel yet benevolent ancestral manifestation whom they come to know through their bodies.

Lived Religion

So far we have seen that basket divination is material religion and embodied religion, confirming that these concepts illuminate the ethnography in new, refreshing ways, and that the ethnography confirms the heuristic value of those concepts. Although it would not be entirely incorrect to say that the diviners and their clients ‘believe’ in Kayongo, we should acknowledge that in this ‘belief system’ most people are not particularly interested in the nature of the ancestral realm and its place in the broader cosmology. It is said that Kayongo, being an ancestral manifestation (a lihamba), travels in the wind, but few people would ever asks such absurd questions as how Kayongo is able to travel in the wind or where he presumably resides. Every time I broached such topics, I received the same one-word answer: Kwiji (Who knows). My interlocutors seemed perfectly satisfied with the general understanding of Kayongo as a spiritual manifestation of dead relatives who practiced basket divination during their lifetime. In the universe of mahamba (plural of lihamba), the distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘practice’ is merely theoretical. Kayongo is the lipele; Kayongo is the diviner’s body as it shakes the divination basket and feels pain; and Kayongo is the words of knowledge that the diviners deliver to their clients. Kayongo does not exist apart from these material and physical manifestations. Basket divination is material and embodied religion.

Yet basket divination is more than material and embodied religion. For theoretical purposes, it may suffice to bring out the relation and interaction between spirit, embodied human subject, and material object. For the participants in the séances, however, such a perspective does not capture the specificity of basket divination as it is locally practiced and understood. Firstly, basket divination is not simply the setting where three ontological entities meet and interact; it is also one means through which Kayongo acquires perceptible form. People refer to this process in the language of ‘coming out.’ Basket divination is a ‘coming out’ ritual, a ritual where an ancestral manifestation makes itself known to the living by becoming materialized in three related forms: material configurations of symbolic pieces that can be seen and interpreted; physical pain inflicted on the diviners each time they come across a truthful interpretation; and the words uttered by the diviners when they translate the meaning of material configurations for their clients. This is an important point. Kayongo makes himself visible, felt, and audible to the living. The synergistic engagement between the spirit, embodied subject, and material object is, in effect, a process of spiritual concretization.

Secondly, this process of concretization follows a certain pattern. Although the distinctions between the three ontological categories at play in divination—ancestral spirit, material object, and human subject—are never completely lost to the participants, those categories combine in predictable ways. When Kayongo comes out, the divination basket (a material object) becomes an embodied subject, and the diviner (an embodied human subject) becomes a vessel for Kayongo. What may appear to be a relation between a material object and a human body is better described as a relation between a personified material object and an objectified human subject. When Kayongo comes out, the basket exhibits human characteristics. The oracle is now said to hear and understand the diviner’s questions, to obligingly respond or stubbornly remain silent. Conversely, at the same time that the basket becomes personified, the diviner becomes objectified. My friend Sapasa once explained this process of objectification by saying that the diviner becomes Kayongo’s megaphone. The diviner is a subject deprived of subjectivity. Consulters convey the same idea when they insist that ‘real’ basket diviners do not speak for themselves, tainting their messages with their biased interpretations; ‘real’ diviners convey Kayongo’s truth.

Many northwest Zambians as well as scholars share an understanding of spirit possession as a continuum along which particular experiences and cultural definitions of spirit possession may be placed. While in some cases, the possessed fall into a trance (as happens to Kayongo’s victims in their healing and initiation ceremonies), in other cases, the possessed move to an altered state of consciousness without falling into a trance (as professional diviners do during séances). This said, many northwest Zambians would challenge academics to extend the concept of possession to the realm of material objects. Such empowered objects as the lipele may be ‘possessed’ as well. Interestingly, the language of ‘coming out’ is preferred to the language of ‘catching’ in this context. Whereas the language of ‘catching’ is typically reserved for humans (as when Kayongo’s victims are first ‘caught’ and made ill as a way to force them into the divining profession), the language of ‘coming out’ is inclusive of both humans and material objects. Irrespectively of the terms used, however, the concretization of Kayongo in the ritual space of séances takes place through ontological reversals in which an object becomes a person, and a human subject becomes an object. The efficacy of basket divination (its ability to reveal spiritual knowledge) is predicated on this process of ontological reversal that takes place when Kayongo ‘comes out.’

Thirdly and lastly, as lived religion, basket divination is a human project. We have seen that the engagement between the material object and human subject is best described as a process of spiritual concretization, and that such a process of concretization generates an ontological reversal in which the object becomes personified and the human subject becomes objectified. We are now in a better position to recognize that the entire institution of basket divination is, in effect, a human project. In this project, human subjects take the risk of relinquishing control in order to acquire spiritually authenticated knowledge and thereby regain some measure of existential control over their precarious lives.

In basket divination, this existential theme is tied to the ritual process of de-subjectivation. Diviners let Kayongo take over their bodies and sense of subjectivity. To receive Kayongo’s knowledge, the diviners endure pain and lose control of their own thoughts and bodily sensations, becoming extensions of the material and spiritual world. They become objectified human subjects, the reversal of object animation. Diviners are also men who are willing to suffer on behalf of their clients because they recognize value in suffering. In the same way that they joined the divination profession through physical suffering inflicted on them by Kayongo, so here they access true knowledge through chest pain, a pain caused by Kayongo. In order to assuage the suffering of others, diviners (all mahamba healers) must suffer, too. Basket divination is a circle of suffering, a circle built on the principle that suffering heals and transforms [iv].

In this circle of suffering, and similarly to the diviners, the consulters are not in a position of power. True, they may decide to end their séance at any point should the diviner’s performance disappoint them. They may even lose their temper and chase out the diviner should he accuse them of witchcraft (and add insult to injury by asking them to pay for the accusation). Consulters do have some power. This said, existentially speaking, consulters are not in a position of control. Maybe they have lost a close relative, fear for the life of a loved one who is moribund, or worry about infertility or impotence. They feel at a loss. They do not know what to do next. They realize that by participating in séances they relinquish control to Kayongo, who explains their predicament on his own terms; nevertheless, they hope that by relinquishing control to Kayongo they may return home with both truthful knowledge concerning the cause of their misfortunes and a treatment plan. This existential movement from confusion to clarity, and inertia to resoluteness, is key in basket divination as well as other divination systems worldwide. As lived religion, basket divination is a human project in which humans yield control in order to regain control.

The concepts of material religion and embodied religion enable us to recognize the place of material objects and embodied human subjects in lived religion. The concept of lived religion enables us to infuse this insight with life as lived on the ground by real, embodied human subjects in engagement with material objects. This should be our goal as scholars and students of religion: to show that lived religion is always material and embodied religion without ever reducing it to a theoretical statement against immaterialism and disembodiment in the study of religion. How do people live their ‘lived religion’?

I would like to extend my gratitude to David Morgan, Urmila Mohan and Keith Forbes for all their help in preparing this post.
Recommended Reading 
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