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Ancestor Veneration, Etrog on Sukkot, And Celebration of Life and Nature: A Collection Display on Agricultural Harvesting, Cultural and Religious Practices in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia

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A couple weeks ago, we observed the full Harvest Moon elegantly promenading across the night sky. Pumpkins appeared everywhere. These are signs of autumn in North America. However, agricultural harvesting looks different in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The Library of Congress AMED Reading Room has launched a new collection display on this very theme, enticing curious minds to come and explore. The display is titled “Agricultural Harvesting in the Context of Cultural and Religious Practices,” which is scheduled to run through the end of the year.

The following is a brief Q&A with the AMED curators, aiming to let in some insight on this autumn collection display.

Can you say a few words about the display on agricultural harvesting in African religious and cultural traditions?

Edward Miner, Head of the African Section, who has a doctorate in linguistics: Sure! There are no major widely recognized autumn holidays as such, but there are seasonal ceremonies depending on local agricultural and cultural practices. So we approach this topic with a focus upon traditional and modern cash-crop agriculture in the context of ancestor veneration.

In indigenous African religions, reciprocity characterizes relationships between the living and the dead. Ancestral spirits are housemates, advisors, disciplinarians, and the most senior among community elders. They and nature spirits are invoked in seasonal rituals that petition for or celebrate weather conditions favorable to growing food or feeding livestock – in other words, to maintain a desired harmony with nature.

This display highlights rituals that renew this relationship and which center around agricultural seasons. Ensuring adequate food is a collaborative endeavor in which both the living (farmers and ritual specialists) and ancestral spirits play their part.

Image of a display of printed colorful books.
A snapshot of the African Section’s display case.
Color image of a display of postcards and a book, with captions.
A snapshot of the African Section’s display case.
color image of a display of books.
A snapshot of the African Section’s display case.

The Hebraic Section has a display of a number of items relating to the Etrog for Sukkot. What is Etrog?

Sharon Horowitz, Reference Librarian: The Etrog, or citron, is one of the “Four Species” that are traditionally associated with rituals related to the Jewish Holiday of Sukkot (this year October 9th at night, through October 18th). The other three are palm branch, myrtle and willow. Symbolism of these 4 items and especially the Etrog have evolved over time. But interestingly, it is widely understood that the Etrog originally came from Yunnan, China! This display will showcase a number of books discussing the Etrog’s journey from Far East to Israel. Here are two examples: “Be Fruitful: the Etrog in Jewish Art Culture and History” edited by Warren Klein, Sharon Liberman Mintz, and Joshua Teplitsky (2022); and “Etrog : How a Chinese Fruit Became a Jewish Symbol,” by David Z. Moster (2018).

color image of a display of books.
A snapshot of the Hebraic Section’s display case.

How is agricultural harvesting manifested in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian societies? Is it typically tied to Islamic religious practices?

Joan Weeks, Head of the Near East Section: Fall harvesting is not typically associated with religious practices throughout the Islamic Middle East. Nevertheless, agricultural harvest is no small deal in this part of the world.  Barley, cotton, millet, oats, rice, sorghum, soybean, sunflower, wheat, etc. are some of the important seasonal crops produced in the region.

We have assembled a collection with highlights from the Persian, Armenian, Turkish and Arabic perspectives. One example includes Persian books on Persian-Zoroastrian Seasonal Harvest Festivals that underscore nature, celebration and gratitude, and continue to be celebrated today among Kurds, Iranians, Afghans and Central Asians. Another example is related to Navasard, the first month of the Armenian calendar. The god Navasard was considered the protector of crops in ancient Armenian mythology. Since the 19th century, the Navasard festival has been primarily associated with a celebration of life, goodness, plenty, and a rich harvest.

One cannot let autumn pass without mentioning a number of important holidays that fall in this season. One of them is Republic Day (Oct. 29) in Turkey and another is the Prophet’s birthday, which this year began in the evening Oct. 7 and ends in the evening of Oct. 8. Several items on display are centered around these holidays.

color image of a display of books.
A snapshot of the Near East Section’s display cases.
color image of a display of books.
A snapshot of the Near East Section’s display cases.

AMED Reading Room is a main access point to the Library’s vast collection from and about Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, primarily in their local languages with some in western languages. For reference assistance, contact the AMED Reading Room via Ask a Librarian or (202)707-4188.

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