Sacred Rites and the Function of Religion in “Les Maîtres Fous”
Five decades after it was produced and invited the ire of its audiences, “Les Maîtres Fous” continues to be hailed as a landmark film in ethnography. Henley (2006) observes that the film is one of the “most salient” among the numerous films that Rouch made in a span of more than fifty years. (p. 732) This observation presents a stark contrast to the filmmaker’s own ambivalence about the power of “Les Maîtres Fous.” Lim (2002) notes that Rouch’s attempt to defend the film as “depicting the colonial white lords as the true “mad masters” was rather lame compared to the real themes that can be identified from its images. (p.41) Arguably, “Les Maîtres Fous” is made interesting and provocative not only for the controversial images it contains and the image of Africa it conjures but also for the valuable insights it provides on the meanings and symbols of religion and religious rituals for African people in relation to their historical and cultural realities and experiences.
“Les Maîtres Fous” or “Mad Masters”
Jean Rouch’s (1955) “Les Maîtres Fous” or “Mad Masters” is an ethnography about the spirit-possession ceremonies of the Hauka, a religious sect in Ghana, Africa. The practice of the Hauka was prevalent among members of immigrant communities such as Songhay and Zerma people (referred to as Zabrama in the film) who came from the rural areas in the Niger and became workers in the cities of Ghana, then colonized by the British. Rouch, using his camera and an improvised tape recorder to capture sound simultaneously with the visuals, captures the image of animal sacrifice, trance, and spirit possession among Hauka practitioners. (Ricard 2004, p. 7)
“Les Maîtres Fous” gained notoriety for showing the participants of the Hauka rites kill and then eat a dog in their moments of trance and possession, wherein they are possessed by spirits identified with colonial powers. (Lim 2002, p. 40; Henley 2006, p. 731) The footage of the rituals provoked an angry reaction from both the Europeans and the Africans, who alleged that the film was racist in both ways, depicting unfair caricatures of both the colonizers and the colonized. The film was subsequently banned by the British from being shown in Africa and denounced by French anthropologists as “a travesty” that must be destroyed by Rouch himself (Lim 2002, p. 40) Rouch, in defense of his work, suggests in the film that his documentary shows how the Songhay-Zerma people use the Hauka ritual as a coping mechanism to endure their low social status and degrading employment as laborers and workers in menial jobs.
Ambiguity of the Sacred
The European’s and African’s shock at the images of the religious ritual is not entirely surprising as pervasive ethnocentrism opens the film to the risk of being interpreted out of context. Indeed, the hauka, just like other “primitive” rituals, involves practices that may be considered violent by outsiders, especially those who identify themselves as “civilized.” However, it is worthy to note that the butchering of the dog as a sacrificial animal resonates with the early Semitic religious rites studied by William Robertson Smith. Smith & Segal (1956) observe that majority of pagan religious rituals involved the sacrifice of two distinct types of animals: the ordinary ones that were commonly used for consumption and the “extraordinary or mystical sacrifices” involving the consumption of forbidden or taboo flesh to achieve communion or bloodbond with the “Godhead.” (p. 312)
It is in this context that the dog-eating activity should be seen by its audience, as an aspect of religion that enables the people to break taboos by assigning symbols to ordinary things. Hence the dog-eating as a “sacred function is the act of the whole community, which is conceived as a circle of brethren, united with one another and with their God by participation in one life and life-blood.” (Ibid) Here, the dog, which in normal life is considered a pet and an animal unfit for meat, is the nearest kin to humans in the lines of beasts because of its being part of the community, must die be consumed in order to restore social order and to appease the spirits of the colonial masters.
However, such is the elusive character of ritual symbols: they often defy conventional ways of categorization. This is evident in Durkheim’s (1912) concept of the “ambiguity of the sacred,” wherein he argues that things associated with religious symbols such as gestures, may not always have the same meaning—or any meaning at all—even for the members of the same religion as “in so far as the beings to whom the cult is addressed are imaginary, they are not able to contain and regulate this exuberance.” (p. 381) Thus, the symbolism of the dog-eating itself becomes a source of mystery for the audience, as the motive and the necessity of the violent and macabre feast is hidden in the supernatural realm of the hauka. Even its willing participants clearly cannot explain enough the reasons or justification for tearing the dog from limb to limb and eating its raw flesh.
The Social Function of the Hauka
The significance of “Les Maîtres Fous” lies in its narrative and in its almost surreal imagery. It shows an important aspect of the practice of the hauka ritual and its pervasiveness not only among immigrant Songhay-Zerma but the African people in relation to their collective experience of colonization. Clearly, what is interesting about the film is that it locates the construction of religion as a social phenomenon, as suggested by such scholars as Mary Douglas, Emile Durkheim and William Robertson Smith. In the film, the Songhay-Zerma people devote their time off work to the conduct of the hauka ritual, wherein the priests go into trance in the presence of other cult members. Through their involvement in the hauka rites, people transcend their normal lives and enter the supernatural realm, which, according to Durkheim (1912), is largely imaginary in nature. This realm is necessarily built based on the need of the members of the community, which is collectively responsible for the creation of symbols that make up the mysterious realm of the hauka. (Durkheim 1912, p. 347) Douglas (1996) contends, for instance, that the particular characteristics of a group’s cosmology can be explained from its social structure. (p.117) This is exemplified in the manner by which the participants of the hauka ritual in “Les Maîtres Fous” insisted on invoking the spirits of their colonial masters instead of the primitive god of thunder, Dongo; apparently, colonization has altered the social structure wherein the colonizers either replaced or were perceived to be next to God in the hierarchy of stratification. It also explains why the hauka waned after Ghana gained independence; the people either left it because they had no more use of the symbols or it was replaced by a new set of symbols that were as distinct from the hauka ritual as the emergent social relations and social structures after colonization. As Emile Durkheim (1912) notes, “the sacred principle is nothing more nor less than society transfigured and personified.” (p. 347)
Thus, the imagery of “Les Maîtres Fous” is a vivid illustration of how societies and social groups create and appropriate symbols in order to address their particular needs and as a form of adaptation to changes in their environments. It is in this aspect that Rouch’s film is a significant contribution to the quest for understanding human nature and in explaining why people will always have the constant need for religion in trying and difficult times. In the end, it is not the colonizers as the “mad masters” who are perpetuated in the film, but the “mad masters” in all of humanity in constant need of subjugating the forces of nature and phenomenon beyond his or her understanding.
Douglas, M. (1996). Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. United States: Routledge.
Durkheim, E. (1912). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Joseph Ward Swain. New York: Free Press
Henley, P. (2006). Spirit possession, power, and the absent presence of Islam: re-viewing Les Maîtres Fous. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 12, 731-761
Lim, K.K. (2002). Of Mimicry and white man. Cultural Critique, 51:40-73.
Ricard, A. (2004). Jean Rouch: Some personal memories. Research in African Literatures, 35(3): 6-7.
Rouch, J. (1955). Les Maîtres Fous (Mad Masters).
Smith, W.R. & R.A. Segal (1956). The Religion of the Semites: Fundamental Institutions. Transaction Books.