Algeria's Amazighs celebrate 3,000-year-old festival

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The Amazighs' celebration of Yannayar links the group back to its origins through stories and rituals.

Every year, on Jan.12, the Amazigh (Berbers) in Algeria — just as their brethren in all of the nations of North Africa, from the oasis of Siwa in Egypt to the city of Tanja in Morocco — celebrate the Amazigh and agricultural New Year. This falls on the year 2965 on the Amazigh calendar, which precedes the Christian calendar by roughly 10 centuries. Locally, the celebration is called “Yannayar” (with an emphasis on the letter “n”). “Yannayar” is an Amazigh word made up of two words: “yan,” meaning one, and “ayur,” meaning month. The first month of the Amazigh calendar is called “Imlalen” and “Aqouraren,” according to region and dialect. There is also “Bourt Awsqas,” or New Year’s Eve, which is considered the beginning of the agricultural year.

How Algerians celebrate Yannayar differs from one region to another, reflecting the diversity and richness of the country’s culture. Yet there are some shared rituals between all of these celebrations, including the slaughtering of a rooster or a hen, and cooking a lavish dinner, including a cereal product such as couscous, shakhshoukhah, or a porridge prepared using seven varieties of vegetables. Women perform most of the celebratory rituals, and children also participate (as they represent fertility and growth). The men offer only token participation.

With every passing year, questions arise about the celebratory rituals of Yannayar, and about the capacity of the festival to endure for more than 3,000 years without being extinguished or forgotten. How were the Amazigh of North Africa able, despite the constant assault on their lands — beginning in the Phoenician era and persisting until French colonialism — able to continue to celebrate Yannayar year after year without losing or forgetting it?

For an answer, we need to journey to the first moment when the celebrations began, or what is called in religious anthropology “the constituent moment.” We find ourselves forced to resort to myths to discover that decisive moment of origin. Those who hold the theory of the ritual origin of myth, which first appeared in the book “The Religion of the Semites” by Robertson Smith, contend that ancient rituals lose their meaning and purpose with the passage of time, and evolve into mere meaningless gestures. Here, the myth comes to clarify the origin of the ritual and its meaning, and provide a convincing justification for the celebrations passed down by generations. Moreover, the myth and rituals are connected, and neither survives without the other. The myth needs the ritual to survive, and the ritual needs the myth to justify its existence and preserve its actions.

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The Amazigh pharaoh

The celebration of the rituals of Yannayar is connected to a group of myths told by the local population. By far the most famous of these is the legend of the Amazigh leader Shishnaq, the conqueror of the pharaohs, whose family ruled Egypt for 200 years. These stories differ greatly in Shishnaq’s origin and in how he conquered the land of the pyramids. Some stories claim that he built Suez and that he halted an attack near the city of Tlemcen in the west of Algeria by the ancient Egyptians, who aimed to gain control over the Amazigh lands. He dealt them a major defeat and expelled them from their lands, which he conquered. He then proclaimed himself the pharaoh of Egypt and the surrounding lands.

This great victory was celebrated and chosen as the beginning of the Amazigh calendar out of respect and admiration for this leader. On the other hand, other stories assert that Shishnaq descended from a Libyan Amazigh tribe. He was so just and inspiring that the Egyptians asked him to save them from the oppression of the pharaohs, and crowned him their king. A third story claims that Shishnaq was a military leader in the pharaoh’s army, and that Egypt’s chaos and disorder allowed him take over the country and appoint himself king.

The value of these stories as historical truths aside, the celebratory rituals of Yannayar — if we look at them from the perspective of religious anthropology — are great cyclical rituals that connect myths to creation. The ritual here is the myth, and it has evolved into behavior that aims to restore the mythological founding moment, to use the expression of the Syrian scholar Faras al-Suwwah.

The legend of the leader Shishnaq is part of historical events that occurred in a remote time: the time of beginnings. It talks to us about how the Amazigh were created and discovered their identity vis-à-vis the Other — represented here by the ancient Egyptians — and were victorious over them, proved their superiority, and ensured their distinctiveness. This moment of origin is recovered and revived through cyclical rituals, because sacred time is not linear time that reaches from the past into the present. Rather, it is an eternal time that a person can recover and enter. The Amazigh, in their celebration of Yannayar, enter the moment of origin in order to powerfully recover their beginnings, to renew the present, to revive life in the future, and moreover to participate, in a certain way, in recreating their world and identity.

Youm al-‘Ajouzah (“The Day of the Old Woman”)

In addition to the myth of Shishnaq, the Amazigh tell the tale of the old woman whose hubris belittled the powers of nature and attributed her steadfastness in the harsh winter to her own strength, without thanking the heavens. She cursed Yannayar, saying: “I have passed through your days as if they were spring. You will depart and Fourar [the month of February] will take your place, and then cold will not harm me and snow will not delay me.” Yannayar became very angry, and asked the month of February to loan it a day and a night to get revenge on the old woman who cursed him. February agreed, and gave Yannayar two days. The old woman went to the fields with her flock, and she was sure that Yannayar had passed. Then, Yannayar called forth strong cold, snow, and wind, and the woman and her flock perished. This myth also explains why February is the shortest month of the year. Even today, many fear the “day of the old woman,” and do not graze their flocks.

This myth deals with the links between man and nature. One of the myths of fertility is that it is linked to cyclical rituals. Its events repeat and in it the circle of life returns with the goal of the return of green, the reawakening at the end of winter, and the passage of the seasons upon which agricultural life relies. The rituals that the Amazigh perform do not take the form of worship of higher powers. Instead, the Amazigh participate with these powers in a ritual return to their moment of origin, to help them reawaken. Only from this point are we able to understand the attention that women of the home pay on this day to replacing old clothes, replacing the stones of the traditional hearth, and knitting new linens — especially the rug — to welcome the new Amazigh year with new clothes, linens, and times after getting rid of all that is old, as an act of participation with the renewed forces of nature.

The myths of Shishnaq and the old woman, even if they seem at first glance to be different and unconnected, are two sides of the same truth. The first creation of the Amazigh is connected to the cyclical fertility of the earth, and the new reawakening of the seasons, without which the Amazigh could not have survived. The earth is the embracing mother, and she gives birth to all that allows those farmers to survive. For that reason, the earth occupies much of the rituals performed in Yannayar, which glorifies this mother, recognizes her goodness, request fertility, prosperity, plenty, and attempt to escape her anger, which comes in the form of drought, infertility, and plagues.

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Found in: religious minorities, religion, myths, food, folkways and traditions, celebration, amazigh, algeria
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