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Shrines, Medicines, and the Strength of the Head: the Way of the Warrior Among the Diola of Senegambia

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The history of warfare has long be associated with a variety of religious practices designed to lessen the likelihood of death and enhance the possibility of victory. Warriors enter a world where the expectation of a normal life span is challenged by the death of comrades and where martial skill cannot ensure survival. This paper examines the way in which the Diola of Senegambia used religious practices and ideas to lessen the uncertainty of war during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Diola warriors sought the assistance of spirit shrines to lessen the uncertainties and dangers of war. There are strong parallels between the types of ritual employed by Diola warriors and Diola wrestlers, who share a common mission of eliminating risks. These parallels are discussed briefly before a detailed examination of Diola rituals related to war, the types of ritual prophylaxis utilized by warriors, and the types of Diola (as well as Christian and Muslim) medicines used for spiritual protection. Several specific war shrines are described as well as the means by which they were created. Finally, the article discusses the "strength of the head", special powers that enable warriors to protect themselves from harm, evade capture, and even transform themselves into certain types of animals. The article concludes with an analysis of the impact of colonial wars, with their greater firepower and more far-reaching consequences, on the connections between religion and the Diola way of the warrior. A central part of the spiritual crisis accompanying the colonial conquest, not only for the Diola but for many other African peoples, was the defeat of the religious structures that provided spiritual support for the way of the warrior.

Affiliations: 1: Division of Comparative Studies in the Humanities The Ohio State University 230 W. 17th Ave. Columbus, Ohio 43210-1311, USA


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