Regional fields

Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad, Hungary

Thematic fields

ethnopsychiatry, anthropology of illness, ritual, divination, possession, initiation, matrilineality, “visiting husband systems”, secret, secret societies, national rites, museology


Wolof, Senufo, Mundang, ethopsychiatry, illness, possession, divination, initiation, poro, matrilineality, visiting husband, secret, national mindset, reburial, museology

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H. Collomb at a group therapy session
in Fann (© Eduardo di Muro, 1980)

After studying ethnology, psychology and African linguistics and the Sorbonne and the Museum of Man, Andreás Zempléni initially combined ethnographic methods with a clinical approach in order to describe mental illness interpretations and traditional therapy among the Wolof and Lebou people of Senegal. His 1968 doctoral thesis and his other writings – on possession (ndëpp), on the nit ku bon child, on the socialising properties and projective interpretations of illness, on the link between the social causality of illness and its socio-political customs, on the path leading from symptom to sacrifice, on the role of denial in the effectiveness of magic, and on the transition between persecution and culpability in Ivorian prophetic therapies – are among the foundational works of the “Dakar school” of ethnopsychiatry, which he co-founded with Dr Henri Collomb and Marie-Cécile Ortigues.

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A pregnant Mundang woman undergoes a ritual possession cure, 1969 (photo A. Zempléni)

In 1968 he joined the University of Paris X-Nanterre and the LESC, where he introduced teaching and research programs on the anthropology of illness. Following new field research, he wrote a book with Alfred Alder on the divination, medicine and female possession rites of the Mundang people of Chad. This marked a turning point in his interests. He shifted to the comparative anthropology of rituals: possession rite rituals (analysed as a specific form of sacrifice), divination rituals (conceived as an assertive action whose truth depends on the ritual evacuation of the human subject of the enunciation), initiation rituals (which his self-referentiality distinguishes from strictly religious rites).

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Tribute to initiates leaving the poro at the market,
1975 (photo A. Zempléni)

In 1972, he settled among the Senufo Nafara of the Ivory Coast. In this duolocal matrilineal society, he deepened his study of the two closely linked institutions: kekurugu, a system of nocturnal visits by Nafara men to the maternal village of their sexual partners, and the poro, a ubiquitous male initiatory system to which he was admitted in 1974. In his writings, he shows that the main character of the poro – the fictional mother of the initiates – is an entity made up of four female figures who exercise their authority over the Nafara “visiting husband” on a daily basis.

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Kafolo, mother of the initiates, at the funeral
with her “children”, 1993 (photo A. Zempléni)

In attempting to define this initiatory entity not comparable to the invisible beings of religion, and in describing the sophisticated judicial operation of the poro’s secret assemblies, he was led to refine his earlier theory of secrecy and propose a dispassionate approach to the methodological consequences of the ethnologist’s inevitable intrusion into the lives of others.

Since 1989, he has also been studying the political reburial rites that took place in post-Soviet Hungary as well as Hungarian notions of homeland, nation and country. Along with medievalists and anthropologists invited to Collegium Budapest, he extended this work to the study of European spatial structures, to the Western history of the notion of homeland and, more generally, to the distinguishing traits of national societies, from the striking particularities of national mindsets to the specific ways in which nations worship their dead and their relics.

The co-author of several films and texts on the renewal of anthropological museology, he recently designed a multimedia installation on Senufo divination that can be seen in the permanent collection of the Musée du quai Branly.

Principal publications

  • 2011, Le reliquaire de Batthyány: du culte des reliques aux réenterrements politiques en Hongrie contemporaine, in G. Vargyas (ed.), Passageways: From Hungarian ethnography to European ethnology and sociocultural anthropology (Budapest, L’Harmattan): 23–89 [Hungarian version: 2009].
  • 2003, La politique et le politique: les assemblées secrètes du Poro sénoufo, in M. Détienne (ed.), Qui veut prendre la parole? (Paris, Éditions du Seuil): 107–147.
  • 1996, Savoir taire: du secret et de l’intrusion ethnologique dans la vie des autres, Gradhiva, 20: 23–43 [Hungarian version: 2000].
  • 1991, L’amie et l’étranger: hommes et femmes en société matrilinéaire, Autrement: 57–75 [German edition,1993; Hungarian edition, 2004].
  • 1985, La maladie et ses causes, L’ethnographie, 96-97: 13–44 [special issue: A. Zempléni (ed.), Causes, agents et origines de la maladie dans les sociétés sans écriture].
  • 1984, Possession et sacrifice, Le temps de la réflexion (Paris, Gallimard), V: 325–352 [Developed version: Des êtres sacrificiels, in M. Cartry (ed.), Sous le masque de l’animal: essais sur le sacrifice en Afrique noire (Paris, PUF), 1987, 267–317].
  • 1974, Du symptôme au sacrifice, Histoire de Khady Fall, L’Homme, 14: 31–77 [english edition: From symptom to sacrifice: The story of Khady Fall, in V. Crapanzano and V. Garrison (eds), Case studies in spirit possession (New York, John Wiley), 1977, 81–139].
  • 1972 (with A. Adler), Le bâton de l’aveugle: divination, maladie et pouvoir chez les Moundang du Tchad (Paris, Hermann).
  • 1966, La dimension thérapeutique du culte des rab: ndëpp, tuuru et samp, rites de possession chez les Lébou et les Wolof, Psychopathologie africaine, II (3): 295–439.
  • 1965 (with J. Rabain), L’enfant nit ku bon: un tableau psychopathologique traditionnel chez les Wolof et les Lébou, Psychopathologie africaine, I (3): 329–441 [republished in T. Nathan (ed.), L’enfant ancêtre (Grenoble, Éditions La Pensée Sauvage), 2000, 33–91].

Publications available at the Éric-de-Dampierre library

CV [english]

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Mis à jour le 16 January 2013

Directeur de recherche émérite
[Emeritus Research Professor CNRS]