What do Yemenis believe in? A Brief History of Popular Beliefs

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Wherever human community can be found, there is a collective perception of the world that manifests in symbols and signs. Through the conception of things and phenomena, people search for answers to their psychological, spiritual and cognitive questions in a quest to build a rational framework for their existence. Early humans invented myth to understand the epic clash of existence in the world and sought to adapt to society and environment through culture as an act that produces meaning. Popular culture is a collective achievement that fulfills an urgent human need.

Altogether, diverse genres of folklore, such as songs, poems and proverbs, reflect broader popular beliefs – that is, knowledge or perception of certain things and phenomena, and their relationship to the world – or acts of belief that are expressed through rituals. Beliefs encompass a wide variety of practices that range from customs (actions carried out in the hope they will yield a desired benefit) to basic concepts that are sometimes mystical or supernatural. These are often learned through oral narratives, such as myths, or through observation and interaction with other communities and cultures. In general, the act of belief expresses a holistic vision or understanding of the ideas and principles that are of interest to us.(1) Popular belief is the most complex component of popular culture in terms of study and research, because it relies on individual imagination, which is variable and relative in terms of role and influence.

Popular beliefs, or so-called belief systems, include popular knowledge, myths, legends, folk medicine, magic, the belief in awliya (sing. wali),(like the common appeal to Ahmed Bin Alwan (2) or the Five under the Cloak”Ahl Al-Kisa (3)|  good or bad omens, dreams, visions, telepathy, evil eye, supernatural beings, metaphysical worlds, and the possibility of being influenced by the world of jinn through possession or other interference. They are contiguous with superstition as both require a similar mindset. In this sense, popular belief is composed of two fundamental parts: the structure of thought and imagination that stems from the social organization one belongs to, and rituals and superstitions as acts of belief.4 Yemen’s popular beliefs are naturally intertwined with legendary heritage, forms of popular religiosity (religious beliefs and practices formed outside the official religious authority), and greater myths that crystallized in the collective unconscious of a traditional agricultural society.

The term “myth”, in Arabic, (خرافة) has its roots in the word (خرف), which means dementia. Therefore the term itself carries a prejudice towards the idea or belief in myth, as it appears a kind of dementia. However, rather than approach it with bias, the idea or popular practice must be studied like any other phenomena. It is important to identify its expressive and symbolic function, which allowed it to gain acceptance and circulation within societies. Its continuation through generations is an outcome of the human need to explain what is unexplainable.

Artwork by Ahad al-Hadrami

Superstition should not be dealt with in terms of scientific logic, of wrong or right, but rather in terms of its expressive and semantic function in its specific cultural and social context.

There are beliefs associated with the idea of the supernatural, that is, the belief in metaphysical beings, such as the popular belief in jinns as beings who can see but cannot be seen, and as creatures capable of appearing as other animals, such as black dogs, black cats or lizards. Other types of popular belief are related to mythical creatures that are often hybrid human-animal or human mutants. Some of these beings appear in Yemeni folk tales, such as ‘al-Jarjouf’, a flesh-eating monster, but many believe that it exists and does in fact appear. Popular myth in Yemen differs from that of Greek mythology; for example, as Abdullah al-Baradouni pointed out, “If the Greek myth relies on gods and divine heroism, the Arab myth or legend in any form relies on the paranormal and metaphysical figure of the jinn.”5

Yemeni society recognizes the role and power of belief in the perception of things, which is reflected in the Yemeni proverb: “If one believes in a stone, it comes to his aid.” In some parts of Yemen, people use the word ‘Amana!’ (honestly) as a stronger term for ‘I swear or promise to god.’ Its use became so widespread, to the extent that the common belief  was that a single ‘Amana’ promise is equivalent to swearing on the name of god seventy times.

One of the most known supernatural beings in Yemeni myth is ‘Sayad’. Although the name and details of its attributes differ from one region to another, the overall perception is similar among all regions. This applies to most supernatural beings in Yemeni myths. In the case of Sayad, it is generally agreed that it is female, tall with long hair, sagging breasts and donkey legs. In other regions, she appears as an old hunchback called ‘Umm al-Sobyan’, and elsewhere she is known as ‘al-Dajra’. The common belief is that every place or region has its own unique Sayad, who acquires her characteristics from the area. For example, the village of Ma’zaj is inhabited by ‘Sayad al-Ma’zaj’.6 Usually Sayad lives near a water source or at the entrance of areas dense with trees and bushes. Some say that she usually bathes at night in streams or springs and appears to those who frequent water sources at night. She is also said to inhabit ruins and appears to passersby who wander during moonlit nights, calling their names and trying to talk to them. It is believed that a Sayad can manifest through a person, mainly those who fear her, and then the person is believed to be possessed and in need treatment or magic to exorcise her.

Another mythical creature similar to the Sayad is ‘al-Bida’, believed to be an old topless woman, and that those who dare to suckle her breasts are safe from her harm. In some parts of Yemen, it is believed that she transforms any man who obeys her into a donkey. In some ways she resembles ‘al-Nadaha (7) in rural Egyptian myth.

‘Adar al-Dar’ is an invisible being who inhabits houses, but there is no clear description; some believe that whoever can capture the testes of the creature will be lead to a treasure. Another being that inhabits houses is ‘Jarat al-beit’, also known as ‘Jarat al-Shahda’. Al-Shahda is the corner in the kitchen with a ventilation opening to allow cooking smoke to escape, similar to a chimney.  These beings may not appear to the residents of the house, but their presence is made visible through strange sounds or other activity. They also inhabit houses that have been abandoned or houses whose residents have been away for a long time, only to return to a house that has been inhabited by Jarat al-beit.

Other supernatural beings include ‘al-Shajeh’, a ghostly being whose name is derived from the word for ‘to obstruct or obscure’. The name reflects its ability to interrupt the path of passersby to intimidate them. There are not many accounts or descriptions of his appearance, perhaps because of the absence of a clear mental image.

Artwork by Ahad al-Hadrami

Finally, ‘Abu Kalbah’, in some regions called ‘Abu As’as’ (As’as in Arabic means coccyx, the small triangular bone at the base of the spinal column), is a mythical being who possesses animal organs such as the tail of a dog, as well as human organs. Most commonly it appears in the countryside and remote valleys.

The second component of popular belief takes form through rituals and superstitions. Superstitions are events contingent on certain circumstances. The belief here is either to avoid the convergence of those circumstances so that the adverse effect does not occur (avoidance here is a negative practice, where no action is done and the person remains passive) or to deliberately influence circumstances through certain rituals, with the idea of  stopping or deflecting harm (potential positive action).

Superstitions presuppose the existence of relationships beyond perception or natural law. Elements of nature, such as stars, often carry symbolism and meaning. In some Yemeni regions, people believe that counting stars is a harmful act. If a person engages in this activity, the same amount of counted stars will appear on his skin or hands in the form of warts. Others believe that it is harmful to wear clothing that were hanged on clothesline after being washed on the starlight. Astrological superstitions are also common. If an Aries person dies, relatives guard the grave for several nights to protect the body of the deceased from being exhumed by a fictional animal that resembles a lamb. When a person pulls out one of their teeth, they should throw it out during the early hours of the next morning toward the ‘eye of the sun’, with the belief that it will ensure the growth of a new healthy tooth. When throwing the tooth, the person should say: “O sun, I’ll give you a milk-tooth and give me a donkey tooth.” This belief may have been influenced by the ancient Sabean civilization, who worshiped the sun.

Other rituals and superstitions draw on plants and animals to expel evil eye. Grandmothers hang small pouches filled with salt and black eye seeds around the necks of their grandchildren. These pouches, called ‘Ghahta’, are meant to protect them from evil eye. In other regions, people place small bracelets lined with garlic cloves on their children’s wrists. It is a common belief in many cultures that hot spices have the power to expel evil eye or evil spirits. In Yemen, many people believe that evil eye, jinn and demons have the power to disturb a person’s life – or disrupt his or her happiness. Newborns are often surrounded by local aromatic plants such as basil or alum incense (a carbon stone). Additionally, in rural areas some people hang a single old slipper on the necks of livestock or domesticated animals to divert evil eye.

If a family faces difficulties or disputes within the household, grandmothers burn donkey hair in the lower part of the house to expel any evil spirits that fill the house with hatred. Another belief is that a person who suffers from trauma or severe anxiety must be treated by drinking his or her own urine. If you feel an itch at the bottom of your foot, this is a sign that a guest is coming in the next few days. If the palm of the hand itches you will receive money soon, but if your eye flickers it is a bad omen, and if you have a sudden cough attack, this means that someone is speaking ill of you.

The examples mentioned above reflect how deep-rooted popular beliefs are in Yemeni society. These beliefs carry a history of popular social, psychological and existential dimensions that need to be documented and studied. Riddled with imagination, popular belief also offers fertile and raw material for creative and aesthetic inquiry.

Safwan al-Shuwaiter is a writer and researcher.

* All the beliefs mentioned in this article originate in central Yemen.

End notes and references

  1. Martha C. Sims & Martine Stephens, Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Tradition. Pg 56. (2005), Utah State University Press.
  2. Ahmed bin Alwan (D. 1267 AD) is a well-known Sufi and social reformer. He is the author of several books and a poetry collection. Alwan is among the most famous and recognized Sufis in Yemen.
  3. Ahl al-Kisa, or the People of the Cloak, are the prophet Mohammad and his daughter Fatima; his cousin and son-in-law, Ali; and his two grandsons, Hassan and Husayn.
  4. مجلة عالم الفكر، عزيز العرباوي، الثقافة الشعبية وآدابها. قراءة في فنون الحلقة بالمغرب، ص١٢١، العدد ٢، المجلد ٤٢، أكتوبر/ديسمبر ٢٠١٥
  5. Abdullah al-Baradouni, Popular Culture in Yemen (Dar al-Hadatha, 1998) p. 36.
  6. Al-Ma’zaj is a village in al-Abs, part of Ash Sha’ir district in Ibb governorate.
  7. Al-Nadaha is a creature found in Egyptian rural myths. She is claimed to be a very beautiful and strange woman who appears in dark nights in the fields. She calls a certain person by name (Nadaha in Arabic comes from Nadah, which means to call), and this person becomes enchanted and follows the call only to be found dead the next morning.
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