The intercessory objects

On Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 April, the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac is organizing a new edition of “Ethnology will surprise you! Two days to explore the 21st century on the theme of the invisible”. Partner of the event, Liberation will publish this Thursday a supplement in the daily newspaper and a special file at find on our site.

No doubt you have already come across one without noticing it. They are called intercessory objects: a mask, a tarot deck, a shell or even a comforter. They are supposed to protect us, to reveal to us a still unknown reality. In almost all cultures, man has set up rituals to come into contact with the invisible. Some don’t require any materials, a kind of inner journey, but others use objects to create this connection. It is these famous intercessory objects that will be discussed during the weekend “Ethnology will surprise you”.

“A mask, for example, makes it possible to put a face in parentheses to be penetrated by a supernatural spirit”explains Philippe Charlier, director of research and education at quai Branly, before continuing: “Take a relic, a Marian medal, and even a chestnut you picked up on the street for good luck. That’s also part of it.” But beware, according to custom, these objects should not be left in everyone’s hands. They refer to specific rituals, carried out by those who know, priests or sorcerers, and cannot be handled by the uninitiated, at the risk of doing wrong or unleashing wrath.

The mouse box

(Quai Branly Museum)

It testifies to a time when humans did not die but transformed into animals, like mice for example. From a distance, this oval box carved in wood looks like a magic cauldron. In reality, it is a very old divinatory device of the Baoulé population, in Côte d’Ivoire. Within it, the receptacle is divided into two floors. The first accommodates a rodent and the second a series of small objects, screws, nails, feathers, grains, shells, sprinkled with flour.

When the box closes, the mouse goes upstairs, attracted by the flour, and creates a mess. But for the diviner in charge, this chaos is neither fortuitous nor trivial. On the contrary, it becomes a language to be interpreted. Answers to formulate the questions that are put to him: should I travel that day or marry that girl. The oracle box has spoken…

story fabric

It is a brown and black fabric, made by hand and originating from West Timor (Indonesia). A royal skirt, intended to be worn by a man on his wedding day, and featuring ten rows of geckos to celebrate the peace of the future home. “Over there, in East Timor but also in West Timor, each population group has its own types of textiles. Styles, colors vary, even if we often find the same patterns, lizards, flowers or plants like bitter melon. Worn, these fabrics have a meaning, they demonstrate the social, religious and political roots of the individual.details Brunna Crespi.

This postdoctoral researcher at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac examines the impact of development projects on this island in Southeast Asia, a zone at war until 1999 and until then little studied. “During my fieldwork, between 2014 and 2018, I was able to observe several rituals, the importance of textiles, and the series of stories attached to them.” In December 2021, these fabrics were classified as intangible heritage by Unesco. “Many weavings have already disappeared with evangelization, colonization, wars and industrialization. It was urgent to safeguard this practice.”

The divinatory machine

The intercessory objects

Seated, a divination stick in his hand and throwing six shells, the diviner is a central figure in the Sèmè society, these peasants of western Burkina Faso. In their world populated by geniuses, he relieves the misfortune of men. Among the Sèmès, each individual is indeed protected by invisible forces and two spirits who are at their head, he owes them prayers and sacrifices. In case of bad dreams or troubles, he must identify which entities are involved and how to remedy them.

At the service of his community, the diviner then sets up a device that allows him to communicate with the invisible powers and inserts his own body into it. “During the rite, he engages in meticulous gestures (9), incomprehensible to the stranger”, explains Anne Fournier. This ethnologist researcher at the Institute of Research for Development, is the first to work among the Sèmès, to whom she has been going every year since 2009. A group that fascinates her, in particular by this divinatory ritual, “very complex and which involves all the institutions of society”. She will be present this weekend of April 9 and 10 at the Quai Branly to detail it.

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The intercessory objects


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