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The Stranger at the Feast

Prohibition and Mediation in an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Community

Tom Boylston (Author)


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The Stranger at the Feast is a pathbreaking ethnographic study of one of the world’s oldest and least-understood religious traditions. Based on long-term ethnographic research on the Zege peninsula in northern Ethiopia, the author tells the story of how people have understood large-scale religious change by following local transformations in hospitality, ritual prohibition, and feeding practices. Ethiopia has undergone radical upheaval in the transition from the imperial era of Haile Selassie to the modern secular state, but the secularization of the state has been met with the widespread revival of popular religious practice. For Orthodox Christians in Zege, everything that matters about religion comes back to how one eats and fasts with others. Boylston shows how practices of feeding and avoidance have remained central even as their meaning and purpose has dramatically changed: from a means of marking class distinctions within Orthodox society, to a marker of the difference between Orthodox Christians and other religions within the contemporary Ethiopian state.
Tom Boylston is a lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.
"Boylston demonstrates the power of ethnography at its best: engaging, challenging, with a superb sense of history and place. He uses close observations of the rhythms of life and of ritual among Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to make illuminating points about mediation, boundaries, systems of knowledge, and trajectories of change."—Simon Coleman, Chancellor Jackman Professor, University of Toronto


"By choosing an unusual field site—a forest controlled by monasteries near Lake Tana—Tom Boylston offers unique insights into themes of fasting and feasting, of ritual prohibition, mediation and hierarchy in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. For the first time, the Ethiopian case is placed within the wider anthropology of Christianity. A major achievement."—Donald L. Donham, author of Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution

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