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Dreams of power: social process in a West African religious movement

  • Richard T. Curley

In the present paper we shall describe the ways in which dreams are regarded by the members of a West African religious sect and explain how dreams figure in the social organization of the sect. Our point of departure will be largely sociological, and in this respect our study differs from most anthropological writings on dreams. The dream narrations which we are considering arise as much out of the social organization of the sect as from the psyche of the individuals. Furthermore, the narrations are public performances and are evaluated by members of the sect for the purpose of situating each other within the community of church members. The narrations are used by church members to demonstrate the depth of their religious commitment and to assist them in competing for key roles within the church. Thus dreams are important as indicators of a person's worth and as instruments of social mobility. Following Charsley's treatment of dreams in a Ugandan independent church we will not focus on the use of dreams as a ‘privileged channel of insight into the culture’ (1973: 244), although the themes and symbols which are described in the narratives can indeed reveal much about the beliefs of church members and suggest ways in which their beliefs might guide their behaviour. It is appropriate to discuss some of these themes and symbols en route to our objective, and in doing so it will be possible to shed some light on the teachings of the sect and on the mentality of many of its members. It is important to state, however, that the primary data of this study are not accounts of dreams such as those that might be told privately to an analyst or an ethnographer. Rather they are mostly accounts which people present in public at church services. They are sometimes retold, embellished and circulated throughout the community of church members. Thus the data are speech events which are often used instrumentally by the narrator, sometimes for the purpose of ennobling the self and sometimes for the purpose of praising the sect. This means that one would have to question the authenticity of the narratives if one were to use them as windows into the minds of church members. We are on safer ground if we view the narratives of dreams as public performances which are patterned in accordance with the expectations of the church community and which have an effect on social action within that community.

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  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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