Malara, “Sympathy for the Devil”

Malara, Diego Maria. (2020) “Sympathy for the Devil: Secrecy, Magic and Transgression among Ethiopian Orthodox Debtera.” Ethnos. DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2019.1707255.

Abstract: Debtera are Ethiopian Orthodox ritual specialists known for their advanced religious education, as well as for engaging in illicit magic. This article traces how their secret magical knowledge and practices emerge from the official Orthodox tradition. Yet, while drawing on this tradition, the debtera’s ritual repertoire also transgresses some of its central proscriptions. Transgression, in this context, does not abolish the boundaries it violates, but reinstates their legitimacy. This dynamic prompts debtera to engage in imaginative ethical reassessments of the unstable relationship between illicit knowledge and official tenets. Through their transgressive performances, debtera enable their clients to secretly address and actualise sinful desires that otherwise remain unacknowledged or are suppressed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. By examining this ritual management of covert desires, I conclude that the study of debtera’s secrecy illuminates fundamental complexities and contradictions in Ethiopian Orthodox sociality which operate beneath the surface of public moral discourse.