Faith and Practice
The faith and practice of most Orthodox Christians combine
elements from Monophysite Christianity as it has developed
in Ethiopia over the centuries and from a non-Christian
heritage rejected by more educated church members but
usually shared by the ordinary priest. According to
Monophysite doctrine, Christ is a divine aspect of the
trinitarian God. Broadly, the Christian elements are God (in
Amharic, Egziabher), the angels, and the saints. A hierarchy
of angelic messengers and saints conveys the prayers of the
faithful to God and carries out the divine will. When an
Ethiopian Christian is in difficulty, he or she appeals to
these angels and saints as well as to God. In more formal
and regular rituals, priests communicate on behalf of the
community, and only priests may enter the inner sanctum of
the usually circular or octagonal church where the ark
(tabot) dedicated to the church's patron saint is housed. On
important religious holidays, the ark is carried on the head
of a priest and escorted in procession outside the church.
The ark, not the church, is consecrated. Only those who feel
pure, have fasted regularly, and have generally conducted
themselves properly may enter the middle ring to take
communion. At many services, most parish members remain in
the outer ring, where debteras sing hymns and dance.
Weekly services constitute only a small part of an
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian's religious observance. Several
holy days require prolonged services, singing and dancing,
and feasting. An important religious requirement, however,
is the keeping of fast days. Only the clergy and the very
devout maintain the full schedule of fasts, comprising 250
days, but the laity is expected to fast 165 days per year,
including every Wednesday and Friday and the two months that
include Lent and the Easter season.
In addition to standard holy days, most Christians observe
many saint's days. A man might give a small feast on his
personal saint's day. The local voluntary association
(called the maheber) connected with each church honors its
patron saint with a special service and a feast two or three
times a year.
Belief in the existence of active spirits--many malevolent,
some benevolent--is widespread among Ethiopians, whether
Christian, Muslim, or pagan. The spirits called zar can be
male or female and have a variety of personality traits.
Many peasants believe they can prevent misfortune by
propitiating the zar.
The protective adbar spirits belong to the community rather
than to the individual or family. The female adbar is
thought to protect the community from disease, misfortune,
and poverty, while the male adbar is said to prevent
fighting, feuds, and war and to bring good harvests. People
normally pay tribute to the adbars in the form of honey,
grains, and butter.
Myths connected with the evil eye (buda) vary, but most
people believe that the power rests with members of lowly
occupational groups who interact with Amhara communities but
are not part of them. To prevent the effects of the evil
eye, people wear amulets or invoke God's name. Because one
can never be sure of the source of illness or misfortune,
the peasant has recourse to wizards who can make diagnoses
and specify cures. Debteras also make amulets and charms
designed to ward off satanic creatures.
The belief system, Christian and other, of peasant and
priest was consonant with the prerevolutionary social order
in its stress on hierarchy and order. The long-range effects
on this belief system of a Marxist-Leninist regime that
ostensibly intended to destroy the old social order were
difficult to evaluate in mid-1991. Even though the regime
introduced some change in the organization of the church and
clergy, it was not likely that the regime had succeeded in
significantly modifying the beliefs of ordinary Christians.
Data as of 1991