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Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt

Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt: A Study of Spirit Possession

Hans Alexander Winkler
Translated and introduced by Nicholas S. Hopkins
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 170
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  • Book Info
    Ghost Riders of Upper Egypt
    Book Description:

    In 1933 the German anthropologist Hans Alexander Winkler came across a ‘spirit medium’ named ‘Abd al-Radi in a village near Luxor in Upper Egypt. ‘Abd al-Radi was periodically possessed by the ghost of his uncle, and in that state passed messages to those who came to seek help. In an intense study, Winkler lays out the construction of the world shared by the rural people, with its saints and pilgrims, snake charmers and wandering holy men, all under the overarching power of God. Winkler’s book was ahead of its time in analyzing a single institution in its social context, and in showing the debates and disagreements about the meaning of such strange events. “This multilayered study from the 1930s was precocious in its method and conclusions, and thus it retains its relevance today not only for Egyptian folklore but also for the history of anthropology in Egypt." —from the Introduction by Nicholas S. Hopkins

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-259-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xvi)
    Nicholas S. Hopkins

    Ghost Riders of Upper Egyptis the translation of a book published in 1936 by the German anthropologist and specialist in comparative religion Hans Alexander Winkler. The expansive German title reads:Die reitenden Geister der Toten: Eine Studie über die Besessenheit des ‘Abd al-Radi und über Gespenster und Dämonen, Heilige und Verzückte, Totenkult und Priestertum in einem oberägyptischen Dorfe;in other words, “Riding spirits of the dead: A study of the possession of ‘Abd al-Radi and of ghosts and demons, saints and ecstatics, the cult of the dead and priesthood in an Upper Egyptian village.” The imagery of the title...

  4. Map
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    Hans Alexander Winkler
  6. Part I The Environment of ‘Abd al-Radi

    • Chapter 1 The Landscape and the People around ʹAbd al-Radi
      (pp. 3-6)

      Deep green fields on both sides of the railroad tracks, bordered on both east and west by the pale, yellow-gray mountains of the desert, overall a bright blue sky and a shining, burning sun—such is Upper Egypt. In the fields are scattered villages shaded by palms, brown clay houses growing out of the earth, here and there the whitewashed dome of a saint’s shrine. The peasants in their long robes sit in the railroad cars, a bluish-white cloth artlessly folded on their head. Their faces are brown from the daily sun. In the east one can see a larger...

    • Chapter 2 ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Religious Environment
      (pp. 7-40)

      The thoughts of a people on the matters of the far side are everywhere various and of diverse origins, and not only among these fellahin. Many ideas from distant antiquity survive alongside recent ideas, some from abroad combine with old indigenous ideas. Only in the mind of a theologian can such abundance be organized: The scholar organizes the pattern of ideas around a figure, an ideal picture, incorporating many old ideas into the system with a new orientation, while much is simply omitted. The religious outlook of Upper Egyptian peasants appears quite different from that proposed by Muslim theology. It...

  7. Part II ‘Abd al-Radi

    • Chapter 3 ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Origins
      (pp. 43-48)

      I recall my first meeting with ‘Abd al-Radi. In early December 1933 I came for the second time to Kiman and settled at Sanusi’s house. I heard that in the neighboring village of Naj‘ al-Hijayri, about half a year previously, a man had been possessed by a shaykh, the ghost of his uncle Bakhit, and that this ghost/spirit knew how to give miraculous information. I went with my assistant, Mahdi, the oldest son of Sanusi, over to the nearby Naj‘ al-Hijayri. Close to the western edge of the village stood ‘Abd al-Radi’s house; next to it there was the steep...

    • Chapter 4 ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Life History before the Big Illness
      (pp. 49-50)

      In 1933 ‘Abd al-Radi was about thirty-two or thirty-three years old. He spent his childhood and youth in Naj‘ al-Hijayri. Life flowed on in play, and then in peasant work like that of any fellah lad, without any noteworthy event. When he was about twenty years old he married Fatma, from the Shawadi family. This family is friendly with the maternal family of ‘Abd al-Radi, the Atwal. Fatma has been ‘Abd al-Radi’s only wife until now. The relationship between the married couple has always been good, and remains so. This is even perceptible to the outsider who glimpses into the...

    • Chapter 5 From the Big Illness to the Call
      (pp. 51-60)

      The illness of ‘Abd al-Radi can be broken down into two parts. ‘Abd al-Radi feels these are two separate illnesses. He means that the illness that began in Isma‘iliya is the consequence of hard work, and a chill that came on top of that. One has to take into account that this rather frail man had been working for nine months in Isma‘iliya. He returned home sick, with fever and fits of the shivers, then aches, especially in the head, later on in the lower end of the anterior thorax and in the legs. When he had headaches, ‘Abd al-Radi...

    • Chapter 6 The Call and the Irregular Possessions in the First Period
      (pp. 61-66)

      After three months the illness lightened somewhat and ‘Abd al-Radi was able to move a little and circulate. Perhaps at this time, he occasionally participated inzikrs,in which through gentle swaying of the body he could recite for himself the names of God,Allahorallaha,or the breathinghh-h,which has the same meaning. The relatives of ‘Abd al-Radi report this, and also ‘Abd al-Radi has an unsure, cloudy, perhaps not original memory of this. It is also possible that it was merely the wheezing or panting of an ‘Abd al-Radi whose spirit was absent while he was...

    • Chapter 7 Regular Possession Episodes
      (pp. 67-92)

      Shaykh Bakhit appears in ‘Abd al-Radi on Monday until the afternoon prayer, on Wednesday after the afternoon prayer, all day on Thursday, and on Friday until the noon prayer. At these times, ‘Abd al-Radi withdraws to thekhilwa,the yard in his house, which is considered “holy,” where mats are laid out and which is shaded by a thatched roof. The clients also come in here. They are segregated by sex. Usually the women come to him first; when they are done, then the men can enter. In the larger space in front of thekhilwayard the visitors can...

    • Chapter 8 The Impact of the Possessed on the Religious and Social Life of the Fellahin
      (pp. 93-116)

      When ‘Abd al-Radi first began to display the characteristic traits of possession—running into the desert and hitting himself, then returning home with a vacant look, and speaking as another, as a stranger to his own people in obscure language—his relatives thought he had gone crazy,majnun. The phrasemajnunlacks the polished, cool meaning of our words ‘crazy’ or ‘mad.’ The Upper Egyptian fellah is too close to demons to interpret a spiritual disturbance just as a matter of mental disturbance, a confusion of the real, a delusion or a hollow deception. If he calls a mentally ill...

    • Chapter 9 ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Character
      (pp. 117-120)

      Let us now bring up to date the physical impression that ‘Abd al-Radi made on us. We can elaborate the picture in a few brushstrokes.

      ‘Abd al-Radi appears weak and suffering. His posture is poor, his back is curved, his shoulders pulled forward. After I got to know him and heard of the long and difficult illness, I thought at first of a case of tuberculosis. His facial color is pale. But that can be explained because, in contrast to other fellahin, ‘Abd al-Radi spends most of his time at home in the shade. At the time of research, ‘Abd...

    • Chapter 10 ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Subjective Relationship to his Ghostly Spirits
      (pp. 121-124)

      ‘A bd al-Radi experiences the onset of possession as falling asleep. When he awakes, he feels his heart beating strongly and a pounding in the temples. Everything around him—the walls, the people—spins. He feels as if he has been shattered. In particular he can sense the aftereffects of the pressure of the ghosts on his shoulders and the front thorax—‘Abd al-Radi laid both hands under the nipples in order to show me—and in the knees. ‘Abd al-Radi’s legs hurt, especially after a lengthy possession. As he says, this is because Bakhit obliges him to remain on...

    • Chapter 11 The Relationship Between ʹAbd al-Radiʹs Waking Consciousness and the Possession Situation
      (pp. 125-132)

      For ‘Abd al-Radi it is an unshakable truth that Bakhit himself and other ghostly spirits enter into him. Many of his visitors also hold fast to this belief. Others may doubt, but the doubt does not concern the factuality of the spirits, but only the type of spirits. They think that demons, not ghosts, are present in ‘Abd al-Radi when he is possessed.

      We modern Europeans doubt that spirits manifest themselves, doubt above all that there are spirits in the first place. We only relax when we bring such spirit appearances into accord with our worldview, based on a close...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 133-136)

    We have attempted to demystify ‘Abd al-Radi’s ghosts. We have partially succeeded. Our acceptance has been shattered in a couple of places, when we were able to explain Bakhit on the basis of ‘Abd al-Radi’s old memories, the call-dream as the expression of an image in a shrine wall painting, a couple of ghosts as mirror images of others. In no case was it compellingly proven that there were ghosts who entered into ‘Abd al-Radi from the outside. So we can doubt that any spirits whatsoever penetrated ‘Abd al-Radi, and we are also skeptical that ghosts exist in the first...

  9. Index
    (pp. 137-140)