The Stranger at the Feast

Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community

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Tom Boylston
The Anthropology of Christianity
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For more than a century, the study of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity has been dominated by scholars trained in the languages and literatures of the Christian Orient. Working with sources preserved in Ge’ez (Ethiopic), they published editions and translations of texts that were either translated from languages such as Arabic and Greek, or were original Ge’ez works modeled on such foreign prototypes. Not surprisingly, scholars working from such texts have placed an emphasis on the theological views they present, the philological challenges they pose, and the textual history they reveal. Inevitably, these scholarly studies privileged the literate, who in Ethiopia were almost exclusively members of the church’s hierarchy.        

At the same time—and in contrast to scholarship on much of the African continent—anthropology was slow to develop in Ethiopia. This was due in part to the intimate links between this discipline and colonial rule. Ethiopia was only briefly under Italian fascist colonial domination from 1936 to 1941. Moreover, the country’s state religion of Orthodox Christianity was not viewed as suitable for anthropological study, which for many years focused on “tribal” groups and ethnic religions. When the Church was disestablished in 1974, the political turmoil of the ensuing Marxist military rule made it difficult and often impossible to carry out fieldwork. Thus, only in the last years of the 20th century did Ethiopian Christianity become the subject of extended ethnographic research and anthropological analysis. 

In this context, Tom Boylston’s book, based on his 2011 dissertation written at the London School of Economics, is particularly welcome. Boylston carried out fieldwork on the Zege Peninsula, which juts into Lake Tana about four hundred miles north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Zege is home to several monasteries and historical churches, as well as an active Orthodox community. From February 2008 until January 2009, Boylston was engaged in fieldwork, with annual follow-up visits until 2014. 

To the small cohort of researchers already familiar with Ethiopian Christianity, much of the material Boylston discusses will be familiar. However, he brings an immediacy and social relevance often lacking in works that offer general surveys of the Ethiopian church. Thus, the Christian cycle of feasts and fasts (particularly the latter) are not merely dates on a calendar, but a rhythm through which Christianity is embodied in the lives of believers (37-55). Coffee is both the focus of hospitality and a major source of livelihood for those who live on the peninsula (72-85). As Boylston notes, it was, moreover, a major factor behind the expansion of slavery into the Zege region. 

Although not a historical work per se, Boylston’s volume is sensitive to both short-term and long-term historical issues (22-36). He has no problem tracing Christian life in Zege to the traditions about Batra Maryam (The Scepter of Mary), the 14th-century monastic holy man who is said to have introduced monasticism to the region. Similarly, he understands that however important the coffee ceremony may be today in Ethiopian Christian self-identity, it was only in the late 19th century that coffee ceased to be a “Muslim” beverage (77). Boylston is also sensitive to the challenges the church has faced in recent decades. In this context, it must also be stressed that Boylston began his research more than three decades after the fall of the Imperial Order and a new policy of religious pluralism. At the time, many predicted the demise of the church. Yet while both Islam and Protestant Christianity have made inroads into Orthodox dominance, as Boylston documents, in many regions Orthodoxy remains firmly entrenched and it has proven to be surprisingly adaptable. Although funeral feasts (103-18) and regular commemorations of the dead (tazkar) have long been a vital part of Christian social life, their lavishness can cause genuine economic hardship, with mourners bankrupting themselves in pursuit of social status. The introduction of concrete grave markers may have shifted the focus of memory from time to place, but also created a land shortage. Thus, after a short period (1991-2006), a local church edict forbade the practice. In both cases, authorities have intervened to curb these “excesses.” However, as Boylston astutely notes, it is easier to control feasting and building than it is to keep believers from fasting. 

As with any ethnography, one cannot help but wonder how representative the site where Boylston worked is of Christian society writ large. As he writes in the first sentence, “On the Zege peninsula it is forbidden to plough the land or to keep cattle or horses” (1, see also 74-75). In much of the historical writing about Ethiopia, the existence of literacy, historical monotheism, and plough agriculture have been understood as distinguishing factors from much of the rest of the African continent. How does the absence of the last of these transform religious life? Similarly, although Ethiopian Christians do not generally display a “cattle complex,” such as has been documented among Nilotic groups such as the Nuer or Dinka, there is no question that cattle figure prominently in their thought, as expressed in “endless proverbs.” For the inhabitants of Zege, much of this daily involvement with cattle is absent. Does this change the meaning of sacrifices? 

These are however, only minor quibbles. Tom Boylston has written an important monograph, which greatly enriches our understanding of the social world of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. While always respectful of his predecessors, he has succeeded in challenging old methods and highlighting the interconnectedness of social, economic, and religious systems. His work is both accessible to non-specialists and thought-provoking for scholars in the field. It deserves a wide and varied readership.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Kaplan is Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tom Boylston is Lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.


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