Amhara people


Amhara / Amara

Amharas are a Habesha Ethiosemitic-speaking ethnic group traditionally inhabiting parts of the northwest Highlands of Ethiopia, particularly in the Amhara Region.

According to, 2023, Amharas numbered 33,390,000 individuals, comprising 26.9% of Ethiopia's population and they are mostly Orthodox Christians members of Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Amhara people

They are also found within the Ethiopian expatriate community, particularly in North America.

They speak Amharic, an Afro-Asiatic language of the Semitic branch, a member of the Ethiosemitic group, which serves as the official language of Ethiopia.

Some Scholars have classified the Tigrayans and the Amhara as Abyssinians proper under an ultra-neo-conservative definition of Habesha identity postulated by a few Western scholars and Ethiopian ethno-nationalist political parties but not widely accepted by the general public or by most indigenous scholars of the region.



The Amhara appear to be descended from the same people group as the Tigray-Tigrinya people.  Their Sabaean ancestors came to the highlands of what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia from the Arabian peninsula.  These Semitic migrants gradually mixed with the Cushitic peoples there.  Successive waves of migrations across the Red Sea straits and around the Horn have enriched the mix of cultural and genetic heritage in the historical period.  The name is sometimes rendered Amara, from their name for themselves in the Amharic language.

Recent reconstruction of human prehistory from DNA studies indicates this narrow southern end of the Red Sea was the major point from which original humans moved from the African continent into Asia and on to the East and West.  This area has continued to be the crossing point for migrations in both directions in recent millennia.

The mix of Cushite and Semitic peoples were united over the centuries in the Amhara-Tigray empire, called Abyssinia.  This word Abyssinia is a derivation from the name for a group of the Tigray people at that time, the Habash.  The Amhara and Tigrinya-Tigray groups claim close ties with the Jews, having adopted many cultural values and religious beliefs from them.

The basic ancestry of the Amhara is Semitic, as is their language.  But they became a unique people as they intermarried and absorbed some of the Cushitic peoples who preceded them in this area.  There was a strong Oromo strain in the royal family and nobles.  The Amhara features are similar to the southern Arabs, olive to brown skin, with fine features and dark circles around the eyes.  Most sources say the name comes from the word amari, meaning "pleasing, agreeable, beautiful and gracious."

The national and ethnic identity of the Amhara has been strongly intertwined with a form of the Christian faith since about 350 CE, when Syrian (Nestorian) Christianity was introduced to the royal family by a young Syrian sailor.  After the Royal Family accepted the new faith, they requested missionaries from Syria and later developed ties with the Egyptian Church, hence the inclusion of the term Coptic (Egyptian) in the name of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church since early times.



Ethiopia is located in the northeastern part of Africa, roughly between 5° and 16° N and 33° and 43° E. It is mountainous, separated from the Red Sea by hot lowland deserts; a steep escarpment in the west borders the hot lowland in Sudan. The mountain-fortress type of landscape has frequently enabled the plateau people to retain their independence against would-be invaders. Begemder, Gojam, and Welo are Amharic speaking, as are parts of Shewa since Amhara expansion under emperor Menilek II in the 1880s.



According to the 1984 census, the population of Ethiopia was estimated as 42 million. Of these, 28 percent referred to themselves as "Amhara," and 32 percent stated that they spoke Amharic at home. Hence, about 14 million could be identified as Amhara, subject to qualification by the effects of Amharization during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) and the political strife against Amhara domination since then. Ethiopia is essentially a rural country. Apart from the capital, Addis Ababa, few towns have a permanent population in excess of 10,000: Gonder, the old caravan town on the way from the highlands to the Sudan; Harer, the coffee city; and Dire Dawa, the railroad junction to the coast. The many small towns are essentially marketplaces, serving the farming hinterland.



Amharic, the language of the Amhara, shows its Semitic origin both in its alphabet and words shared with Hebrew and Arabic.  Amharic is descended from Ge'ez, a language extinct since the middle ages.  Ge'ez developed from the original Sabaean language, changing through the influence of the non-Semitic languages of the earlier peoples.  The Bible is still read in Ge'ez in the Coptic Church.  A modern translation is available now in Amharic.

Amharic is the language of culture and education, spoken by millions of other Ethiopians and Eritreans as a second language.  The fidel alphabet of Ge'ez, used to write Amharic and its sister languages Tigre and Tigrinya, is based on ancient Phoenician, adapted in the form of the Sabaean alphabet.  Other languages, such as Oromo, have been written in this script but recently Latin characters have been used.  Materials and road signs appear in both scripts.

Amharic is related to other Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa, like the Gurage cluster and Harari.  All these peoples are likely related to the original Semitic stream of settlers-conquerors that moved into the area about 3000 years ago.



Life in the Amhara farming society is hard.  Many Amhara live in the harsh and stark mountains, easy to defend, but making it difficult to travel and gain provisions.  The men in the fields, the women around the house and the children at home and watching the sheep — all work very hard.  The fields are plowed with oxen, seeds are sown and harvested by hand, and the harvest is threshed by the feet of animals.  In the home, the primary cooking fuel is the dried dung of the farm animals.  Nothing is wasted.

The staple food of the Amhara is injera bo wot.  Injera is made from a tiny indigenous grain called teff (tyeff in Amharic), which is endemic to Ethiopia.  Wot is a peppersauce that can be made from beans or meat.  The whole process of making these foods is difficult and time-consuming.  Impure drinking water and deforestation are significant issues in Amhara life.  These, plus other factors, cause most Amhara to live in yearly risk of famine.  These famines ravaged the country in 1974 and 1984.

The children from the age of five or six spend their days watching the family animals, mainly sheep.  Increasingly, children are able to attend public schools, though this is mainly for only half a day since the schools are very crowded.  Only a little over 10 per cent of the population has access to an all-weather road.

Though their life is hard, the Amhara are proud people, proud of their ethnicity, their religion, their special place in the world.  Their culture is strong, developed over many centuries, and it has withstood the incursions of outside governments and religions.

Despite their hard life, the Amhara are a friendly and hospitable people.  During the 25 years I lived in Kenya, I travelled in Ethiopia many times, and visited different parts of the country and had coffee or meals with chiefs, military leaders, local villagers and many kinds of settings.

Settlements are typically built on or near hilltops, as protection against flooding.  Farms are terraced on the hillsides to prevent erosion and hold water for crops.  The "hamlet" is usually patrilineal, with sons building their homes in the father's location.

Girls normally marry at age 14, and the groom is three to five years older.  Most marriages are negotiated by the two families, with a civil ceremony sealing the contract.  A priest may be present.  Divorce is allowed and must also be negotiated.  There is also a "temporary marriage," by oral contract before witnesses.  The woman is paid housekeeper's wages, and is not eligible for inheritance, but children of the marriage are legally recognized and qualify for inheritance.  Priests may marry but not eligible for divorce or remarriage.

Children are breastfed for about two years.  Children receive little discipline until about age five to seven, but thereafter are socialized with authoritarian discipline.  Boys herd cows and sheep and girls assist their mothers in watching babies and gathering wood.



The typical rural settlement is the hamlet, tis, called mender if several are linked on one large hill. The hamlet may consist of two to a dozen huts. Thus, the hamlet is often little more than an isolated or semi-isolated farmstead, and another hamlet may be close by if their plowed fields are near. Four factors appear to determine where a hamlet is likely to be situated: ecological considerations, such as water within a woman's walking distance, or available pasturage for the flock; kinship considerations—persons within a hamlet are nearly always related and form a family economic community; administrative considerations, such as inherited family ownership of land, tenancy of land belonging to a feudal lord of former times, or continuing agreement with the nearby church that had held the land as a fief up to 1975 and continues to receive part of the crop in exchange for its services; and ethnic considerations. A hamlet may be entirely inhabited by Falasha blacksmiths and pottery makers or Faqi tanners. Most of the Falasha have now left Ethiopia.

To avoid being flooded during the rainy season, settlements are typically built on or near hilltops. There is usually a valley in between, where brooks or irrigation canals form the border for planted fields. The hillsides, if not terrace farmed, serve as pasturage for all hamlets on the hill. Not only sheep and goats, but also cows, climb over fairly steep, bushy hillsides to feed. Carrying water and branches for fuel is still considered a woman's job, and she may have to climb for several hours from the nearest year-round water supply. The hamlet is usually patrilocal and patrilineal. When marriage occurs, usually early in life, a son may receive use of part of his father's rented (or owned) field and build his hut nearby. If no land is available owing to fragmentation, the son may reluctantly be compelled to establish himself at the bride's hamlet. When warfare has killed off the adult males in a hamlet, in-laws may also be able to move in. Some hamlets are fenced in by thorn bushes against night-roving hyenas and to corral cattle. Calves and the family mule may be taken into the living hut at night. There is usually at least one fierce reddish-brown dog in each hamlet.



Much Amhara ingenuity has long been invested in the direct exploitation of natural resources. An Amhara would rather spend as much time as necessary searching for suitably shaped hard or soft saplings for a walking cane than perform carpentry, which is traditionally largely limited to constructing the master bed (alga ), wooden saddles, and simple musical instruments. Soap is obtained by crushing the fruit of the endod (Pircunia abyssinica ) bush. Tannin for depilation of hides and curing is obtained from the yellow fruit of the embway bush. Butter is preserved and perfumed by boiling it with the leaves of the odes (myrtle) bush. In times of crop failure, edible oil is obtained by gathering and crushing wild-growing sunflower seeds (Carthamus tinctorus ). If necessary, leaves of the lola bush can be split by women to bake the festive bread dabbo. The honey of a small, tiny-stingered bee (Apis dorsata ) is gathered to produce alcoholic mead, tej, whereas the honey of the wild bee tazemma (Apis Africans miaia ) is gathered to treat colds and heart ailments. Fishing is mostly limited to the three-month rainy season, when rivers are full and the water is muddy from runoff so that the fish cannot see the fishers. Hunting elephants used to be a sport of young feudal nobles, but hunting for ivory took place largely in non-Amhara regions. Since rifles became available in Amhara farming regions, Ethiopian duikers and guinea fowl have nearly disappeared.

Subsistence farming provides the main economy for most rural Amhara. The traditional method required much land to lie fallow because no fertilization was applied. Cattle manure is formed into flat cakes, sun dried, and used as fuel for cooking. New land, if available, is cleared by the slash-and-burn method. A wooden scratch plow with a pointed iron tip, pulled by oxen, is the main farming tool. Insecurity of land tenure has long been a major factor in discouraging Amhara farmers from producing more than the amount required for subsistence. The sharecropping peasant (gabbar ) was little more than a serf who feared the (often absentee) feudal landlord or military quartering that would absorb any surplus. The revolutionary government (1975-1991) added additional fears by its villagization program, moving peasants at command to facilitate state control and deporting peasants to the south of Ethiopia, where many perished owing to poor government planning and support.

The preferred crop of the Amhara is tyeff (Eragrostis abyssinica; Poa abyssinica ), the small seeds of which are rich in iron. At lower or drier elevations, several sorghums (durras) are grown: mashella (Andropogon sorghum), often mixed with the costlier tyeff flower to bake the flapjack bread injera; zengada (Eleusina multiforme), grown as crop insurance; and dagussa (Eleusine coracana, or tocusso ), used as an ingredient in beer together with barley. Wheat (Triticum spp.), sendē, is grown in higher elevations and is considered a luxury. Barley (Hordeum spp.), gebs, is a year-round crop, used primarily for brewing talla, a mild beer, or to pop a parched grain, gebs qolo, a ready snack kept available for guests. Maize, bahēr mashella, is recognized as a foreign-introduced crop.

The most important vegetable oil derives from nug (Guizotia abyssinica ), the black Niger seed, and from talba (Linum usitatissimum ), flax seed. Cabbage (gomen ) is regarded as a poor food. Chick-peas are appreciated as a staple that is not expected to fail even in war and famine; they are consumed during the Lenten season, as are peas. Onions and garlic are grown as ingredients for wot, the spicy stew that also contains beans, may include chicken, and always features spicy red peppers—unless ill heath prevents their consumption. Lentils substitute for meat during fasting periods. The raising of livestock is traditionally not directly related to available pasture, but to agriculture and the desire for prestige. Oxen are needed to pull the plow, but traditionally there was no breeding to obtain good milkers. Coffee may grow wild, but the beans are usually bought at a market and crushed and boiled in front of guests; salt—but not sugar—may be added.


Division of Labor

Although much needed, the castelike skilled occupations like blacksmithing, pottery making, and tanning are held in low esteem and, in rural regions, are usually associated with a socially excluded ethnic grouping. Moreover, ethnic workmanship is suspected of having been acquired by dealings with evil spirits that enable the artisans to turn themselves into hyenas at night to consume corpses, cause diseases by staring, and turn humans into donkeys to utilize their labor. Such false accusations can be very serious. On the other hand, the magic power accredited to these workers is believed to make their products strong, whereas those manufactured by an outsider who might have learned the trade would soon break. The trade of weaving is not afflicted by such suspicions, although it is sometimes associated with Muslims or migrants from the south.


Land Tenure

Land tenure among traditional rural Amhara resembled that of medieval Europe more than that found elsewhere in Africa. Feudal institutions required the gabbar to perform labor (hudād ) for his lord and allocated land use in exchange for military service, gult. In a system resembling the European entail, inheritable land, rest, was subject to taxation (which could be passed on to the sharecroppers) and to expropriation in case of rebellion against the king. Over the centuries, endowed land was added to fief-holding church land, and debber ager. Royal household lands were classified as mād-bet, and melkenya land was granted to tax collectors. Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to change the feudal system early in his administration. He defeated feudal armies, but was stymied in abrogating feudalistic land tenure, especially in the Amhara region, by feudal lords such as Ras Kassa. The parliament that he had called into existence had no real power All remaining feudal land tenure was abrogated during the revolutionary dictatorship (1975-1991), but feudalistic attitudes practiced by rural officials, such as shum shir (frequently moving lower officials to other positions to maintain control), appear to have persisted.



The extended patrilocal, patrilineal, patriarchal family is particularly strong among holders of rest land tenure, but is found, in principle, even on the hamlet level of sharecroppers. There are several levels of kin, zemed, which also include those by affinity, amachenet. In view of the emphasis on seeking security in kinship relations, there are also several formal methods of establishing fictive kinship, zemed hone, provided the person to be adopted is attentam ("of good bones," i.e., not of Shanqalla slave ancestry). Full adoption provides a breast father (yetut abbat ) or a breast mother (yetut ennat ). The traditional public ceremony included coating the nipples with honey and simulating breast-feeding, even if the child was already in adolescence.



There are three predominant types of marriage in Amhara tradition. Only a minority—the priesthood, some older persons, and nobility—engage in eucharistic church marriage ( qurban ). No divorce is possible. Widows and widowers may remarry, except for priests, who are instead expected to become monks.

Kin-negotiated civil marriage ( semanya; lit., "eighty") is most common. (Violation of the oath of marriage used to be penalized by a fine of 80 Maria Theresa thalers.) No church ceremony is involved, but a priest may be present at the wedding to bless the couple. Divorce, which involves the division of property and determination of custody of children, can be negotiated. Temporary marriage ( damoz ) obliges the husband to pay housekeeper's wages for a period stated in advance. This was felt to be an essential arrangement in an economy where restaurant and hotel services were not available. The term is a contraction of demewez, "blood and sweat" (compensation). The contract, although oral, was before witnesses and was therefore enforceable by court order. The wife had no right of inheritance, but if children were conceived during the contract period, they could make a claim for part of the father's property, should he die. Damoz rights were even recognized in modern law during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Socialization in the domestic unit begins with the naming of the baby (giving him or her the "world name"), a privilege that usually belongs to the mother. She may base it on her predominant emotion at the time (e.g., Desta [joy] or Almaz [diamond]), on a significant event occurring at the time, or on a special wish she may have for the personality or future of her baby (Seyum, "to be appointed to dignity").



Breast-feeding may last two years, during which the nursling is never out of touch with the body of the mother or another woman. Until they are weaned, at about age 7, children are treated with permissiveness, in contrast to the authoritarian training that is to follow. The state of reason and incipient discipline begins gradually at about age 5 for girls and 7 for boys. The former assist their mothers in watching babies and fetching wood; boys take sheep and cows to pasture and, with slingshots, guard crops against birds and baboons. Both can be questioned in court to express preferences concerning guardianship in case of their parents' divorce. Neglect of duty is punished by immediate scolding and beating.

Formal education in the traditional rural church school rarely began before age 11 for boys. Hazing patterns to test courage are common among boys as they grow up, both physically and verbally. Girls are enculturated to appear shy, but may play house with boys prior to adolescence. Adolescence is the beginning of stricter obedience for both sexes, compensated by pride in being assigned greater responsibilities. Young men are addressed as ashker and do most of the plowing; by age 18 they may be addressed as gobez, signifying (strong, handsome) young warrior. On the Temqet (baptism of Jesus) festival, the young men encounter each other in teams to compete in the game of guks, a tournament fought on horseback with blunt, wooden lances, in which injuries are avoided by ducking or protecting oneself with leather shields. At Christmas, a hockeylike game called genna is played and celebrated by boasting ( fukkara ). Female adolescents are addressed as qonjo (beautiful), no longer as leja-gered (servant maid), unless criticized. Singing loudly in groups while gathering firewood attracts groups of young men, away from parental supervision. Young men and women also meet following the guks and genna games, wearing new clothes and traditional makeup and hairstyles. Outdoor flirting reaches a peak on Easter (Fassika), at the end of the dry season.


Domestic Unit

The traditional age of a girl at first marriage may be as young as 14, to protect her virginity, and to enable the groom to tame her more easily. A groom three to five years older than the bride is preferred. To protect the bride against excessive violence, she is assigned two best men, who wait behind a curtain as the marriage is consummated; later, she may call on them in case of batter.

The term shemagelyē signifies an elder and connotes seriousness, wisdom, and command of human relations within the residential kin group or beyond. He may be 40 years of age and already a grandfather. There is no automatic equivalency for elder women, but they can take the qob of a nun and continue to live at home while working in the churchyard, baking bread and brewing beer for the priests. Only women past menopause, usually widows, are accepted as nuns by the Monophysite Aybssinian church. Younger women are not considered sufficiently serious to be able to deny their sex drives.



When death is approaching, elder kin of the dying person bring the confessor, and the last will concerning inheritance is pronounced. Fields are given to patrilineal descendants, cattle to ail offspring. Personal belongings, such as oxhide mats and a shamma (toga), may be given to the confessor, who administers last rites and assigns a burial place in the churchyard. Endowments to the church are handled by the qes gobez.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social organization is linked to land tenure of kinfolk, feudalistic traditions and the church, ethnic division of labor, gender, and age status. The peasant class is divided between landowning farmers, who, even though they have no formal political power, can thwart distant government power by their rural remoteness, poor roads, and weight of numbers, and the sharecroppers, who have no such power against local landlords. Fear of a person who engages in a skilled occupation, tebib (lit., "the knowing one," to whom supernatural secrets are revealed), enters into class stratification, especially for blacksmiths, pottery makers, and tanners. They are despised as members of a lower caste, but their products are needed, and therefore they are tolerated. Below them on the social scale are the descendants of slaves who used to be imported from the negroid Shanqalla of the Sudanese border, or the Nilotic Barya, so that both terms became synonymous with "slave."

Social control is traditionally maintained, and conflict situations are resolved, in accordance with the power hierarchy. Judges interpret laws subjectively and make no sharp distinction between civil and criminal procedures. In addition to written Abyssinian and church laws, there are unwritten codes, such as the payment of blood money to the kin of a murder victim. An aggrieved person could appeal to a higher authority by lying prostrate in his path and shouting "abyet" (hear me). Contracts did not have to be written, provided there were reliable witnesses. To obtain a loan or a job, a personal guarantor ( was ) is necessary, and the was can also act as bondsman to keep an accused out of jail. The drama of litigation, to talk well in court, is much appreciated. Even children enact it with the proper body language of pointing a toga at the judge to emphasize the speech.


Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious belief of most Amhara is Monophysite—that is, Tewahedo (Orthodox) Christianity, to such an extent that the term "Amhara" is used synonymously with "Abyssinian Christian." Christian Amhara wear a blue neck cord ( meteb ), to distinguish themselves from Muslims, In rural regions, the rules of the church have the de facto force of law, and many people are consecrated to church functions: priests, boy deacons and church students, chorister-scribes, monks, and nuns. Besides the ecclesiastical function of the qes (parish priest), the chorister-scribe—who is not ordained—fulfills many services. He translates the liturgy from Ge'ez to Amharic, chants and sometimes composes devotional poetry ( qēnē ), and writes amulets. The latter may be unofficial and discouraged by the priests, but ailing persons believe strongly in them and may use them to prevent disease. Prior to examinations, church students often chew and swallow a Datura weed called astenager (lit., "to stimulate talk") to enhance memory of biblical quotations and other details learned by rote and to aid correct pronunciation of the liturgy.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies often mark the annual cycle for the public, despite the sacredotal emphasis of the religion. The calendar of Abyssinia is Julian, but the year begins on 11 September, following ancient Egyptian usage, and is called amete mehrāt (year of grace). Thus, the Abyssinian year 1948 A . M . corresponds roughly with the Gregorian (Western) A . D . 1956. The new year begins with the month of Meskerem, which follows the rainy season and is named after the first religious holy day of the year, Mesqel-abeba, celebrating the Feast of the Cross. On the seventeenth day, huge poles are stacked up for the bonfire in the evening, with much public parading, dancing, and feasting. By contrast, Christmas (Ledet) has little social significance except for the genna game of the young men. Far more important is Epiphany (Temqet), on the eleventh day of Ter. Ceremonial parades escort the priests who carry the tabot, symbolic of the holy ark, on their heads, to a water pool. There are all-night services, public feasting, and prayers for plentiful rains.

This is the end of the genna season and the beginning of the guks tournaments fought on horseback by the young men. The long Lenten season is approaching, and clergy as well as the public look forward to the feasting at Easter (Fassika), on the seventeenth day of Miyazya. Children receive new clothes and collect gifts, chanting house to house. Even the voluntary fraternal association mehabber is said to have originated from the practice of private communion. Members take turns as hosts at monthly meetings, drinking barley beer together with the confessor-priest, who intones prayers. Members are expected to act as a mutual aid society, raising regular contributions, extending loans, even paying for the tazkar (formal memorial service) forty days after a member's death, if his family cannot afford it.

Arts. Verbal arts—such as bedanya fit (speaking well before a judge)—are highly esteemed in general Amhara culture, but there is a pronounced class distinction between the speech of the rustic peasant, balager (hence belegē, unpolished, sometimes even vulgar), and chowa lij, upper-class speech. A further differentiation within the latter is the speech of those whose traditional education has included sewassow (Ge'ez: grammar; lit., "ladder," "uplifting"), which is fully mastered mainly by church scholars; the speeches of former emperor Haile Selassie, who had also mastered sewas-sow, impressed the average layperson as esoteric and hard to understand, and therefore all the more to be respected. In the arts of politeness, veiled mockery, puns with double meanings, such as semmena-worq (wax and gold), even partial knowledge of grammar is an advantage. The draping of the toga (shamma) is used at court and other occasions to emphasize spoken words, or to communicate even without speech. It is draped differently to express social status in deference to a person of high status, on different occasions, and even to express moods ranging from outgoing and expansive to calm sobriety, to sadness, reserve, pride, social distance, desperate pleading, religious devotion, and so on. Artistic expression in the fine arts had long been linked to the church, as in paintings, and sponsorship by feudal lords who could afford it, especially when giving feasts celebrated with a variety of musical instruments.

Medicine. The basic concepts and practices of Amhara medicine can be traced to ancient Egypt and the ancient Near East and can also be attributed to regional ecological links within Ethiopia. Often no sharp distinctions are made between bodily and spiritual ailments, but there are special occupations: the woggesha (surgeon-herbologist) is a pragmatist in practice; the debtera (scribe) invokes the spirit world. The latter is officially or unofficially linked to the church, but the zar cult is apart and may even be female dominated. Its spirit healing has a complex cosmology; it involves the social status of the patient and includes group therapy. The chief zar doctor is often a matriarch who entered the profession when she herself was possessed by a spirit; she has managed to control some powerful spirits that she can then employ in her battles to overcome the spirits that possess her patients. No cure is expected, only control through negotiation and appeasement of the offended spirit, in the hope of turning it into a weqabi (protective spirit).

Many men consider the zar cult effeminate and consult its doctors by stealth only, at night. Husbands may resent the financial outlays if their wives are patients, but fear the wives' relapse into hysterical or catatonic states. Women, whose participation in the Abyssinian church is severely limited, find expression in the zar cult. The zar doctors at Gonder hold their annual convention on the twenty-third night of the month of Yekatit, just before the beginning of the Monophysite Christian Lent (Kudade; lit., "suffering"). There is much chanting, dancing, drumming, and consumption of various drinks at the love feasts of the zars. Poor patients who are unable to pay with money or commodities can work off their debts in labor service to the cult—waitressing, weaving baskets, fetching water and fuel, brewing barley beer, and so forth. They are generally analyzed by the zar doctor as being possessed by a low-status zar spirit.

By contrast, possession by an evil spirit ( buda ) is considered more serious and less manageable than possession by a zar, and there is no cult. An effort is made to prevent it by wearing amulets and avoiding tebib persons, who are skilled in trades like blacksmithing and pottery making. Since these spirits are believed to strike beautiful or successful persons, such individuals—especially if they are children—must not be praised out loud. If a person sickens and wastes away, an exorcism by the church may be attempted, or a tanqway (divinersorcerer) may be consulted; however, the latter recourse is considered risky and shameful.

Death and Afterlife. When an elder is near death, other elders from his kin group bring the confessor and say to him, "Confess yourself." Then they ask him for his last will—what to leave to his children and what for his soul (the church). The confessor gives last rites and, after death, assigns a burial place in the churchyard. The corpse is washed, wrapped in a shamma, carried to church for the mass, and buried, traditionally without a marker except for a circle of rocks. Women express grief with loud keening and wailing. This is repeated when kinfolk arrive to console. A memorial feast (tazkar) is held forty days after the death of a man or a woman, when the soul has the earliest opportunity to be freed from purgatory. Preparations for this feast begin at the time of the funeral: money is provided for the priest to recite the fetet, the prayer for absolution, and materials, food, and drink are accumulated. It is often the greatest single economic expenditure of an individual's lifetime and, hence, a major social event. For the feasting, a large, rectangular shelter ( dass ) is erected, and even distant kin are expected to participate and consume as much talla and wot as available.