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Shaw, Rosalind (1982) Temne divination: The management of secrecy and revelation. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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Divination is approached as a means of defining and redefining people, events and cosmological beliefs through the management of agreement. Historically, the introduction of Islam and the assimilation of Manding and Fula 'strangers' into influential positions among the Temne was facilitated by Muslim diviners and charm-makers. In Temne thought, power and truth come primarily from outside the social realm and are channelled and controlled through the selective use of secrecy. Distinctions between the principal social categories, especially those of men and women, are also maintained through areas of secrecy. However, since secrecy can also conceal dangerous forces, particularly those of witchcraft and adultery, it is regarded as a potential threat as well as a necessity. Divination brings the hidden into the open, but the amount that it reveals is determined by two factors. Firstly, the numerous methods of divination used by the Temne are divided into those which are private, semi-private and public, the majority being private. Secondly, divinatory speech varies in its degree of specificity; in private divination diviners use restricted codes, while in public divination they use elaborated codes. Being mainly private, divination is regarded with considerable suspicion as well as respect. Diviners are very ambivalent figures, admired for their vision, power and access to 'truth', but suspected of using this power for destructive purposes through witchcraft and the use of bad medicine. Women form the majority of diviners' clients and are themselves regarded with ambivalence by men, who see them as necessary and valuable, particularly as childbearers, but also as potentially destructive through their possible adultery. Men say that women are excessively secretive, but women regard their secrecy positively and see it as essential for their protection. Diviners diagnose problems in terms of breaches in relations between people and between people and spirits or ancestors. By controlling what is revealed and what remains concealed, divination is able to either maintain or threaten the secrecy marking the division between men and women and between other social and cosmological categories, thus managing the definition of 'reality' in particular situations.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 15:05

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