The People of Solitude
Also known as: Kel Esuf; Goumaten
The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic African people who, until the mid–20th century and the advent of airplanes and automobiles, controlled the Sahara’s salt roads and caravan routes. The Tuareg began to be converted to Islam in the 16th century; however strong traditional spiritual elements survive and remain vital.
In recent years, many of the Tuareg have been forced into sedentary existence but previously they roamed the vast Sahara and Sahel: no one knew the mysteries of the desert better. The Kel Asuf, Spirits of Solitude are among those mysteries.
“Solitude” may be understood to mean remote; distant from human habitation; a synonym for desolation. Kel Asuf are spirits of the bush; spirits who dwell beyond human thresholds. They linger near people but remain independent. They will not adjust for civilization. They will not submit to Islam or otherwise be co-opted. They are pre-Islamic spirits who refuse to be abandoned or forgotten. Propitiate them; make them into allies or get sick and die.
Solitude is also the Tuareg euphemism for spirit possession. The Kel Asuf are the spirits who possess but through ritual these spirits are transformed from debilitating illness into helpers and guardians. Kel Asuf possession doesn’t resemble The Exorcist; there’s no spinning heads or vomiting pea soup. Instead, it manifests as illness: Western society might not recognize symptoms of Kel Asuf possession. The afflicted person might just be sent for endless medical testing: no physical cause for their ailment is ever found. (See the Glossary entry for Possession.)
Signs indicating possession or a Kel Asuf spirit’s interest in a human being include depression, malaise, loss of appetite, red eyes with no apparent physical cause and loss of the faculty of speech. It is also characterized by intense cravings for beautiful aromas like perfume or incense. Kel Asuf, like Zar spirits, generally, though not always, manifest in gradual, wasting illnesses as opposed to the sudden severe strikes that are characteristic of many Djinn and Sidhe.
There is very little written about the Kel Asuf, especially in English. As the Tuareg have been forced into sedentary communities amongst more orthodox conventional Muslim neighbors, they have lost much autonomy and Tande N Goumaten, which are public ceremonies, are discouraged, if not outright forbidden. Susan J. Rasmussen’s Spirit Possession and Personhood Among the Kel Ewey Tuareg (Cambridge University Press, 1995) describes her experiences among the Tuareg.
Rituals to summon, celebrate, and propitiate the Kel Asuf are called Tande N Gou maten.
• Goumaten, the plural of Gouma, is the word for Kel Asuf in Tamacheq, the Tuareg language, related to Berber
• Tande has three meanings: mortar (as in mortar and pestle); a type of drum constructed by stretching goat skin across a mortar and also a generic term for musical events
Rituals feature drumming, dancing, and singing. Carefully selected ritual music activatesand summons the Kel Asuf similar to songs played for Lwa and Orishas. Women play prominent roles in Tande N Goumaten. Social conventions are broken. During rituals women hold swords, traditionally men’s weapons, even if menstruating.
It is usually considered best to remove Koranic amulets during Tande N Goumaten. (Whether because the amulets are so powerful, the spirits cannot approach or because the spirits are offended by the amulets and thus will not is subject to interpretation.)
Kel Asuf may attack out of anger, if disturbed or annoyed but may also cause symptoms of possession because they are interested in starting or maintaining a relationship with someone. Spirits are often passed from mother to daughter and thus one or more Kel Asuf spirits may be venerated by a family over many generations.
Tande N Goumaten is not the only way to cure illness caused by Kel Asuf. Illness may also respond to healing via Koranic verses especially when men are afflicted, possibly because Kel Asuf tend to strike men out of anger but infect women to form alliances. Kel Asuf, both male and female, tend to prefer human women. The Kel Asuf spirits most closely associated with Tande N Goumaten rituals afflict women almost exclusively.
Kel Asuf resemble Djinn and are sometimes classified as a type or subset of Djinn.
Illness caused by Kel Asuf does not respond to conventional treatment. Once infected, ritual healing is required if someone wishes to get well. However, it is possible to ward off Kel Asuf and avoid them via the use of amulets and metal:
• Silver, the metal of purity, may keep you safe (in Tuareg cosmology, silver is considered the purest of metals; gold the least pure and thus offers the least protection)
• The Tuareg amulets known as the 21 Crosses including the Cross of Agadez are traditionally crafted from silver and intended to protect against Kel Asuf
• Iron may frighten and repel them
Individual Kel Asuf have names, distinct personalities and preferences although Kel Asuf as a group also display certain predilections:
• They detest dirt. In order to maintain a personal relationship with Kel Asuf, you must keep your body clean and fragrant.
• They like blood and thus may be found lingering near slaughterhouses. They have no problem being served by menstruating women.
• They insist on becoming active participants in your life. They are nosy and bossy when it comes to devotees’ sex lives. You must request their permission before getting married. (They will likely give it but are highly offended if not asked.)
• They are nocturnal but like things that glow in the dark. Anthropologist Susan J. Rasmussen describes a ritual held after midnight outside in the dark. The patient wore a white festival blouse described as “glowing white.” Kel Asuf respond favorably to this glowing white contrasted against darkness.
• They are very sensitive to smell: maintain the aroma of perfume and fragrant incense
Favored people: Kel Asuf generally prefer to maintain relationships with women
Day: They’re at the peak of their power on Fridays (and believed especially active on important Muslim holidays).
Sacred sites: They prefer wild, desolate, untamed places. They can live within people either as debilitating parasites or as guardian advisors who bring blessings of health and good fortune.
See also: Bori; Djinn; Lwa; Mami Waters; Orisha; Sidhe; Zar and the Glossary entry for Menstruation
From the Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.