Translating the Ineffable: How Hunters Hear and Talk to the Dead in Côte d’Ivoire

HellwegTranslating the Ineffable: How Hunters Hear and Talk to the Dead in Côte d’Ivoire
Lecture by Joseph Hellweg, Associate Professor of Religion, Florida State University

Thursday, March 27, 7:00 p.m., Cowles Library Reading Room

In the northwestern, Muslim area of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), hunters communicate with a forest spirit, Manimory, and the spirits of other dead hunters through ritual sacrifices. The goal is to assure safe hunting. Since spirits cannot speak human language, they communicate through divinatory signs. They also send dreams to hunters. Hunters then translate these signs of the ineffable into human terms in order to hunt. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians, in contrast, associate the ineffable with God on high. For theologians, talk of ineffability reflects the assumption that God is beyond human understanding. For hunters in Côte d’Ivoire, however—who also practice Islam—the spirits of dead hunters link them to God because, they say, the forest spirit, Manimory, descended from Abraham. Ineffability, in their case, reflects the sacred nature of local, practical pursuits like hunting as much as God’s transcendence.

Joseph Hellweg is Associate Professor of Religion at Florida State University. A cultural anthropologist by training, he has done over five years of field research in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. His first book, Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d’Ivoire, chronicled a security movement manned by West African hunters. He is now writing a second book about these hunters titled, Practical Religion: Hunting, Islam, and the Poetics of Action in the Songs of Dramane Coulibaly; it examines the praise-songs and epics that hunters sing. He has also written a book in French on anthropological research methods. More recently, he has been studying the African-invented N’ko alphabet in Guinea and Mali. His article on the literacy movement linked to this alphabet appeared in the collection, Living the City in Africa. He does his research in French and Malinké, which he speaks fluently.

Watch the video of Hellweg’s talk: