"Marriage and Madness": Marriage Stability and Demon Possession in Irigwe, Nigeria,

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Introduction. I lived and carried out research in Irigwe, Nigeria, between August 1963 and June 1965. They then had a population of approximately 18,000, and were one of several distinctive ethnic groups in Plateau State practicing mandatory polyandrous polygnous marriage. Fewer than 5 percent had received primary schooling, and had forsaken their traditional religion and marriage practices. This paper deals with the 95 percent living in their traditional Irigwe homeland in the mid 1960s, and who viewed themselves as “traditionalists [ne tede].” Elsewhere I have published a score of scholarly articles on the Irigwe, several of which focus on their traditional marriage practices. This paper examines, in effect, a “downside” of their marriage system, namely, a form of spirit or “demon” possession that was pandemic among married women. These episodes of “demon [rïjé]” possession afforded them a major socially tolerated outlet for venting their feelings of separation and loss stemming from the affiliative disjunctiveness inherent in traditional Irigwe conjugal relationships. I describe in some detail a “Demon Taming [Nyí Rîjé]” ceremonial that I witnessed on the very last night of my fieldwork in Irigwe (June 21–22, 1965). This ceremonial, which is the usual first step towards a victim’s achieving demon mastery and becoming a “demon possession healer [nevo rîjé],” exemplifies the socially integrative importance of demon possession activities for many traditionally married Irigwe women. I also include glimpses of my own interaction with Irigwe, along with other anecdotal material, to help convey some of the texture and quality of interpersonal ties, and the rhythm and flavor of their household and community life.