Abstract

Spirit-themed dreams—whether visitations or soul travels—are altered states that pose special challenges to the anthropologist. They are rooted in subjective personal experience, but their meanings are shaped by culturally and socially constructed religious knowledge and power. This article offers a case study of one Tuareg man’s dream of an elderly female spirit, based on my fieldwork in a small rural community in northern Mali, where residents include Tamajaq-speaking, Muslim, semi-nomadic, and socially stratified Tuareg, as well as Arabic-speaking Kunta, with whom the Tuareg residents have cultural ties but also long-standing tensions. This case study does not represent all local experience, but does illustrate an individual’s interpretation of widespread social, religious, and political predicaments in that village and region. Many Tuareg, whose own cosmological and social systems are at odds with but also influenced by those of North African Islam, express ambivalence toward Kunta efforts to impose more “orthodox” Islamic practices. I show that this spirit dream expresses both religious influences and ambivalence toward them. I explore the meaning of reticence surrounding the spirit’s name and analyze the spirit’s multiple and interpenetrating identities. More broadly, the article shows how dreaming, though psychological and subjective, is also situated in wider contexts of historical, sociopolitical, and religious encounters. Further, it reveals how the cultural models pondered in dreaming and waking interpretations of dreams can involve cultural dissonance and mixed sentiments, rather than agreed upon models, and can refer to past, present, and future concerns. I argue that several possible “kaleidoscopic” identities emerge to describe this spirit figure, thereby reflecting interweaving and contentious models of gender and religion in the dreamer’s community. The article shows the importance of ambiguity in dreams and ambivalence in dreamers as an index of intersecting and colliding meaning systems, contested social changes, and opposed interests.

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