n Acta Classica : Proceedings of the Classical Association of South Africa - The madness of women : the Zulu and Euripides's

Supplement 3
  • ISSN : 0065-1141
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Possessed by a spirit or spirits, groups of women accompanied by drums and song, roam the countryside, falling upon villages, some demanding dog's flesh as sacrifices. Others begin to cry, beating themselves on the chests with their fists, their limbs and fingers numb, their muscles twitching and trembling; they growl and roar, oblivious to their surroundings and then fall into unconsciousness. On occasion, dressed in red 'handkerchiefs', they dance all night long, sometimes letting their garments fall, dancing in the nude until the early morning, terrorising the villagers. To get rid of them, the villagers give them presents and sacrifice animals (usually goats), thus appeasing the angry spirits within.

This account is not of bacchantes possessed by Dionysus, falling upon the villages on the lower slopes of Mount Kithairon as the first messenger in Euripides's reports (751-54), but a reconstructed composite account from colonial records, of groups of Zulu women in what was known as Zululand during the period 1894-1914.2 These women, known as after the kind of spirit possession manifested (, 'possession'), surface in a number of British colonial discourses (legal, religious, medical and bureaucratic) which construct their possession as 'madness' or 'witchcraft', depending on the epistemology of the writer.

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