“You will fly over the ocean,” he continued, “by the power of baraka, the blessing of Sidi Moulay Brahim, tair lajbal, indicating the spirit bird that flies over the Atlas Mountains”
Memoir of a Berber by Hassan Ouakrim
Moulay Brahim, a small town 40 miles south of Marrakech is named after the saint of the same name, whose local Berber name is Tayr al Jabal, meaning the Bird of the Mountain. Here a famous pilgrimage and festival is held on the anniversary of the Mouloud, the Prophet’s birth, where Gnaoua musicians lead pilgrims to symbolically recreate and follow ancient legends and creation beliefs. Moulay Brahim’s zaouia and tomb is in the heart of the narrow twisting alleyways of the small medina and receive thousands of pilgrims over the moussem, each searching for baraka; a form of blessing from Allah directed through the saint which brings blessings as well as comfort and healing for a range of maladies.
Some of those illnesses are considered to be caused by the actions of spirits, locally referred to as jnoun.
The baraka of the dead saint is, however, not the only option available for treatment and healing; a range of alternatives exist at Moulay Brahim. Small stalls sell herbs and other medicaments which may be ingested or rubbed onto skin, items are available to be burnt and incense inhaled, and parts of dead animals ( skulls, tiger skins, skins of snakes, dried vermin ) are sold as offerings to spirits at shrines and other sacred places to encourage favour and propitiation. Small tents and permanent rooms, like little surgeries, are found dotted around the medina, offering private consultations where Quranic prayers are said and infusions imbibed. Elsewhere lead is smelted in saucepans heated by flames fed by rusting gas cylinders; both the smoke produced and the pattern of the cooled metal can be used for healing and/or divination.
Pockets of women ply their skills by painting henna onto the hands and feet of other women, their paint brushes needles attached to old plastic syringes, finely inscribing patterns without the aid of templates. Henna offers a double role, that of a beautiful cosmetic decoration but also of some alliance again with the jnoun, or the spirit world. It was once common for boys to be painted in henna following circumcision; it was believed to ward off the ‘evil eye’ and to promote healing. Following the application woman dry the wet patterns over braziers, or wave their hands or feet in the air as the crusts dry and the patterns dry into the skin. Henna is often plastered liberally over the shrines of female saints or spirits, sometimes in the form of words offering messages to the jinniya.
The more ‘industrial strength’ treatments for maladies are delivered by the brotherhoods, or confraternities, in proscribed rituals. The Gnaoua, Issaoua and Hamadcha are traditional healers, using music, dance and prayer to heal more consistent and serious problems. Each group follows the teachings of its own saint ( a pathway or tariqa ), use different instrument and musical patterns and have followers all across Morocco and other countries in north and west Africa. Each have zaouias, or sanctuaries, throughout the major towns where their ministrations and teachings are remembered and delivered. All the confraternities are present at the moussem of Moulay Brahim.
The Gnaoua brotherhood Sidna Bilal have a particular association with Moulay Brahim and its moussem. The Gnaoua from Marrakech traditionally make an annual pilgrimage to Moulay Brahim on the occasion of mouloud accompanied by a camel which legend demands be sacrificed. The pilgrimage is an historic, traditional event which includes firstly paying homage at the tomb of Abdellah Ben Hussain ( Moulay Abdel Hussein ), the grandfather of Moulay Brahim, at Thamesloht, a town in between Marrakech and Moulay Brahim, before arriving at Moulay Brahmin itself on the same day.
In Gnaoua mythology, its creation myth describes the origins of fundamental tenets of Islamic life; two of those tenets described are those of marriage and circumcision. The pilgrimage acknowledges these important Islamic events by offering animal sacrifices for both.
The first sacrifice occurs symbolically at Thamesloht where a union of 2 camels represents the origins of marriage. There are many references to the importance of marriage in Islam including the prophet’s words “Whosoever likes to follow my tradition, then he should know that marriage is from my tradition.” The symbology contained in the marriage ritual continues with the symbolic slaughter of the animals. Historically the slaughter would actually have taken place. The flowing blood from the creatures is said to represent the blood of the bride when the marriage is consummated.
On the same day at Moulay Brahim the actual sacrifice of the tanners camel symbolises the first circumcision of the male, and his formal entering into the Islamic faith, or community. The act of dragging the severed head down the mountain represents the fall of the foreskin following circumcision. Edward Westermark in his books ‘Ritual and Belief in Morocco’ describes many regional variations of the culturally significant custom.of circumcision.
The sacrifice concludes the pilgrimage and festivities continue with the moussem.
The pilgrimage re-enacts the entire creation myth, and in so doing, in the absence of written histories, becomes in itself an act of remembering for future generations of Gnaoua.
Ethnologists, photographers and film makers have documented these events. More information regarding these studies, including a link to a dramatic short documentary made in 1969, is provided below. In the intervening 50 years since ‘Moussem’, a documentary film by a French film maker, was made Morocco has inordinately changed and many of the rituals have developed, changed or stopped altogether. The sacred role of Gnaoua music also appears to have correspondingly diminished and a more popular and secular variant has emerged. The annual Gnaoua World Music Festival at Essaouira is a perfect reflection of modernist demands, attracting musicians and an audience from across the world.
Despite this cultural swerve, the Gnaoua do maintain their association with tradition and the Moulay Brahim moussem and pilgrimage remains important. At Moulay Brahim a full demonstration of the sacred role of Gnaoua can be experienced by attending a ‘Lila’ at their sanctuary. A full description is given below, but a Lila is a ritual the Gnaoua perform where trance is encouraged and opportunity for spirit possession occurs. This continues their affinity with their traditions and creation myth by incorporating those myths and beliefs into the core structure of the ritual.
The Annual Pilgrimage to Moulay Brahim
The Gnaoua are descendants from slaves appropriated from sub-Saharan Africa and incarcerated by the former cruel Moroccan ruler Moulay Ismail who filled his armies with them. They became known as the Black Armies, a term which still has political and cultural currency in Morocco to this day. Spiritually, the Gnaoua are not Sufis and they are not associated with any Sheik, but they are Islamic. They incorporate the animist beliefs of their forefathers into their spiritual ensemble. They have no written history or hagiography. Their history, culture and beliefs are remembered, collected and transferred orally through their music.
The annual pilgrimage to Moulay Brahim is an expression of these traditions, in particular their creation myth which is as follows :
It all began, according to black people of Morocco when the dunya, the red serpent of light that surrounds the world at dawn and dusk, pitched his head, which is the sun, and tried to penetrate the firmament. Then the Hajjaj, a double whirlwind of opposite directions, beheaded it. The sacrificed sun fell on earth. With him fell the Zedra, this bush that all the Marrakech’s region worships.
Likewise, the black slave Bilal, the Prophet’s medina, violated the heaven when he ascended to the top of the minaret to launch the first call to prayer.
Nowadays, in everyday life, this myth is the model of the sacred gestures of existence.
An interpretation of the Gnaoua creation myth is as follows :
- the ‘violation of heaven’ refers to the first rituals of marriage, when the Muslim faith became family
- the sacrifice of the dunya refers to the first circumcision and person to enter into the Muslim community
- the sacrifice of the sun gives birth to the 7 saints/supernatural entities ( collectively called m’luk ) upon which the Gnaouia’s rituals are based
- the sacrifice of the sun also symbolises Mouloud, which commemorates the birth of the Prophet,
- the sacrifice of the sun also symbolises the Tanners who worked with wool, in the name of the 7 m’luk, offer a camel which will be decapitated.
- the Gnawa, the former black slaves, the sons of Bilal, symbolise the head of the dunya who opened the door of Heaven.
- as these slaves were once sold to the wool market, it became for them the symbol of zedra (?), the bush that fell from heaven.
- the religious brotherhood of Gnawa ( and also Aissoua who have their own slight variation of the cremation myth ) will relive this great mythical sacrifice during the seven days of celebration of Mouloud, during the Moussem and the pilgrimage of the tomb of the 7 Saints of Marrakech.
- The pilgrimage travels to Tamesloht, a great zoauia, where the dunya’s head reputedly fell and then finally up the mountain to Moulay Brahim for the final sacrifice and symbology.
A Documentary Following the Pilgrimage and Explanatory Notes :
A documentary film by French anthropologist Jacques Willemont depicting the Pilgrimage in 1969 is here.
Notes providing some explanation of the events of the film are below. It maybe useful to allow them to remain here because they do provide further explanation of the pilgrimage without watching the film :
The departure for Tamesloht and Moulay Brahim is done in solemn procession from Marrakech. The brotherhoods and corporations gather to accompany the animals they will offer in sacrifice. Departing with them is the tanners’ female camel, which is to be slaughtered in Moulay Brahim.
The camels are dressed in fabrics that recall the celestial sutra ( 7 colours celebrated in Gnaoua ritual ). To each color corresponds a family of jnoun, a group of stars, a set of animals. Processions get out by one of the seven doors of Marrakech, specifically the Gnawa’s door, Bab Agnaw, which is adjacent to Bab Robb, God’s door, which leads to Tamesloht
Tamesloht is on the plains on the way to Moulay Idress and it is where the sacrificed dunya’s head, severed by the whirlwind, landed. The village was founded, like Moulay Brahim, by the descendants of the prophet, the Shorfa, of the faction Ait Amghar. They are the high priests; the circumcisers and master butchers. Pilgrims flock to this small village.
The Gnawa families routinely sacrifice a billy goat and its liver grilled on skewers without salt. This is the food of the jnoun. In sacred places, everything takes on a symbolic value, including seemingly profane children’s games. The Gnawa, in those games, see the representation of the sunset and sunrise, an image of death and resurrection.
For three days many processions stop at the house of Shorfa Ait Amghar, founders of the village, to present offerings, and then go to the tomb of Sidi Hajj u Brahim Hajj. At the sanctuary’s entrance is the Gnawa, the gatekeepers. Their stringed instruments, the goumbri invites attendance by the jnoun. In the film a woman wears the white veil, color of the jnoun that possesses her.
A Gnawa group arrives and enters the sanctuary to sacrifice billy goats in Sidi Brahim Hajj’s name, their master. The moqaddem, religious leader, presents the billy goat’s phallus to the sky representing the Dunya before the sacrifice. He collects the blood in a bowl for the possession ceremony.
Processions then lead to the sanctuary of Moulay Abdel Hsein, founder of Tamesloht, which symbolises the high priest. Each procession will turn three times around the fountain. A bull is sacrificed for Moulay Abd El Hsein but all animals are accepted by the Shorfa. The Gnawa dance the great whirlwind, the hajajj, as the bull is sacrificed.
On the last day in the kucina, Moulay Abdel Hsein’s old kitchen, symbolically sacrifice 2 camels. Gnawa members, sat in front of the door, play to invite the jnoun to attend the sacrifice. In the kitchen, the people from the small town of Oulad Mtaa prepare continuously a slurry of barley and oil. This symbolic sacrifice symbolises for the first time in the pilgrimage marriage and circumcision as referenced in the creation myth..
From one of Oulad Mtaa’s families, Moulay Abdel Hsein, the founder of Tamesloht, took his first wife. In the film, a Gnawa priestess can be seen washing Moulay Abd El Hsein’s old wooden dish. This dish is called Lalla freha, “Madame la joie”.
At the other end of the town, two processions are organized to accompany two female camels, which symbolize the two wives of the high priest. They proceed around the city in different/opposite ways, symbolising the whirlwind that sacrificed the dunya. The Ouled from Tamesloht to the left, the Oulad Mtaa, to the right. Both head to the kucina.
The dish Lalla FREHA decorated with henna is brought to the Kucina. Formerly, the dish travelled by magic, thanks to Moulay Abd El Hsein’s three hundred and sixty six powers. Now the Oulad Mtaa carry it.
Barley porridge is shared by the Oulad Mtaa amonsgt all the families present, as it is done at a wedding. The sacred cycle of death and resurrection is fulfilled by the growing, reaping ( sacrificing ) and sharing of the barley .
The female camels are presented; firstly the Oulad’s camel from Tamesloht followed by the camel from the Oulad Mtaa; the latter has been protecting the Kucina’s door. When it enters the Kucina the first symbolic wedding is so consummated. Formerly, both were slaughtered. The blood which flowed was symbolic of the blood of the virgin deflowered by her husband.
The pilgrimage continues to Moulay Brahim. While the symbolic Tamesloht ceremony evoked the mythical marriage, the actual camel’s sacrifice offered by the Marrakech tanners to Moulay Brahim in his sanctuary on the mountain symbolizes the first circumcision. As always the Gnawa are present to invite the jnoun. Next to the zaouia is the mosque and the saint’s tomb. A blacksmith is present and a door has been cut in the wall to join them, like every year, before the ceremony. The female camel has to go through the door where it is sacrificed.
The head is cut off and is dragged through the streets of Moulay Brahim. It must get to the bottom of the mountain whilst still quivering. This descent symbolizes the fall of the foreskin during the first circumcision, which in turn symbolises the fall of the dunya, sacrificed when it violated the sky.
This signifies the end of the pilgrimage
The 22 minute film from 1969 can be seen here. It is true that much has changed in the following 50 years from when it was made, but it is an fascinating and horrific evocation of the pilgrimage in its purest form.
In the moussem at Moulay Brahim in November 2019, just several days ago, the Gnaoua had established its sanctuary in the courtyard adjacent to the zaouia of Moulay Brahim. A tarpaulin sheet formed a roof and a series of colourful banners provided suitable backdrops for the rituals and music performed there. Lines of cushions formed seating for those who might want to enter trance and experience healing. A young camel was a part of the spiritual installation, and lay quietly mostly chewing cud, a colourful cloth wrapped over its back.
Each evening of the festival Gnaoua musicians from Marrakech and other cities performed ceremonial rituals called Lilas, which, as can be seen in the film, are invitations for people to become spirit possessed. Repetitive, rhythmic and percussive music, aided by incense and ecstatic dancing, encourages dissociation, trance and any attendant jnoun to occupy a human being. The ritual is always led by the Maâllem, or master musician, who plays the guimbri ( lute ). The rituals at the moussem went on well into the night, with both men and women attaining various degrees of exaltation, often falling to the ground exhausted. More incense was then provided, together with bottles of flower water, in order to aid recovery for people either to resume their experience or return to their cushion and recover. A more detailed explanation of Lila is below.
I was told that a camel sacrifice was planned for the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday. It was unclear whether the camel at the sanctuary was the animal to be sacrificed. There had been controversy the previous year when the decapitation ritual was captured on a camera phone and shared on social media. The footage showed the head and neck, according to tradition, being dragged down the mountain by excited pilgrims; justifiably the footage engendered a public outcry. Several Gnaoua musicians suggested to me that times have changed and practices must also change despite the ancient traditions being compromised. There is already acknowledgement that change is happening anyway; traditionally sacrifice occurred at every Lila; now it is rare to see sacrifice at a Lila, and certainly not at public performances or festivals, though why Moulay Brahim should be an exception is unclear.
Many Moroccans believe these traditions to be archaic and barbaric; many discount the existence of Jinn. Many see the belief of spirit possession to be antiquated, and having no place in a country pursuing modernity. Though Morocco seems to be a country where the disparate worlds of both science and the supernatural co-exist in some unresolved limbo. There is ubiquitous reference to the Saints in the naming of towns, villages and streets, children are often called after the festival during which they were born, or the Saint that their parents consider has the most propitious baraka. There seems comfort and safety in following the ritualisation of the calendar, of the personalisation and adoption of the personalities of the Saints, and the acceptance of Jinns which can bring as much help and support in times of need as they can bring illness. In the absence of widespread medical services and the presence of very real poverty and poor education, especially in rural areas, what other solutions are there to help explain, understand and treat illness and malady, which of course also includes psychological problems?
Increased modernity appears to have reduced the extremity of that need for ritual and superstition, and to have also reduced the reliance on extreme practices to ensure the same level of security and peace of mind. Sacrificing an animal to appease an angry spirit or to attract spirits for a possession ritual appears harder to justify today. It is, though, perhaps important to note the existence of world wide Muslim ceremonies where animal sacrifice remains acceptable not for Jinns but to propitiate Allah. The annual Feast of Sacrifice is the obvious example of this.
The fascinating and harrowing documentary film by French anthropologist Jacques Willemont from 1969 ( to see the film click here ) provides an astonishing insight into the Morocco of only 50 years ago. How much the country has changed. Many of the scenes are harrowing, and the final sacrifice depiction is traumatic. I considered omitting it from this posting but decided to allow the link to remain as an opportunity to both see examples of rituals which are difficult to imagine and also to witness the intensity and fervor of belief accompanying those rituals.
The three Lilas I saw at the Gnaoua sanctuary at Moulay Brahim thankfully involved no sacrifice.
The final photograph below is of Maâllem Younes Hadir, from Marrakech, affectionately communing with the camel at the Gnaoua sanctuary at Moulay Brahim the morning after the previous night’s Lila. Today’s young Maâllems seem more into Facebook, WhatsApp and You Tube, and musically touring in the West, rather than propitiating ancient spirits by animal sacrifice. They continue to believe in Jinn and the seven spirits of the Mluk, but see tradition as a flexible construct which will always evolve, where the the best of those ancient beliefs and practices will be retained and absorbed into a modern lifestyle, while the most extreme practices are correctly left behind in history and old documentary films.
Younis can be seen performing at the 2019 Gnaouia Music Festival at Essaouira here.
This description of a lila is taken from here
Gnawas perform a complex liturgy, called lila or derdeba. The ceremony recreates the first sacrifice and the genesis of the universe by the evocation of the seven main manifestations of the divine demiurgic activity. It calls the seven saints and supernatural entities (mluk, Arabic: ملوك) represented by seven colors, as a prismatic decomposition of the original light/energy. The derdeba is jointly animated by a maâlem (master musician) at the head of his troop and by moqadma or shuwafa (clairvoyante) who is in charge of the accessories and clothing necessary to the ritual.
During the ceremony, the clairvoyante determines the accessories and clothing as it becomes ritually necessary. Meanwhile, the maâlem, using the guembri and by burning incense, calls the saints and the supernatural entities to present themselves in order to take possession of the followers, who devote themselves to ecstatic dancing.
Inside the brotherhood, each group (zriba; Arabic: زريبة) gets together with an initiatory moqadma (Arabic: مقدمة), the priestess that leads the ecstatic dance called the jedba (Arabic: جذبة), and with the maâlem, who is accompanied by several players of krakebs.
Preceded by an animal sacrifice that assures the presence of the spirits, the all-night ritual begins with an opening that consecrates the space, the aâda (“habit” or traditional norm; Arabic: عادة), during which the musicians perform a swirling acrobatic dance, playing the krakebs.
The mluk (sing. melk) are abstract entities that gather a number of similar jinn (genie spirits). The participants enter a trance state (jedba) in which they may perform spectacular dances. By means of these dances, participants negotiate their relationships with the mluk either placating them if they have been offended or strengthening an existing relationship. The mluk are evoked by seven musical patterns, seven melodic and rhythmic cells, who set up the seven suites that form the repertoire of dance and music of the Gnawa ritual. During these seven suites, seven different types of incense are burned and the dancers are covered by veils of seven different colours.
Each of the seven families of mluk is populated by many “characters” identifiable by the music and by the footsteps of the dance. Each melk is accompanied by its specific colour, incense, rhythm and dance. These entities, treated like “presences” (called hadra, Arabic: حضرة) that the consciousness meets in ecstatic space and time, are related to mental complexes, human characters, and behaviors. The aim of the ritual is to reintegrate and to balance the main powers of the human body, made by the same energy that supports the perceptible phenomena and divine creative activity.
Later, the guembri opens the treq (“path,” Arabic: طريق), the strictly encoded sequence of the ritual repertoire of music, dances, colors and incenses, that guide in the ecstatic trip across the realms of the seven mluk, until the renaissance in the common world, at the first lights of dawn.
Almost all Moroccan brotherhoods, such as the Issawa or the Hamadsha, relate their spiritual authority to a saint. The ceremonies begin by reciting that saint’s written works or spiritual prescriptions (hizb, Arabic: حزب) in Arabic. In this way, they assert their role as spiritual descendants of the founder, giving themselves the authority to perform the ritual. Gnawa, whose ancestors were neither literate nor native speakers of Arabic, begin the lila by recalling through song and dance their origins, the experiences of their slave ancestors, and ultimately redemption.