ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Thinking, acting and knowing through religious 'things': artefacts in the making of cosmology
Location Arch & Anth LT2
Date and Time 7th April, 2009 at 09:15


Nico Tassi (UCL)
Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)
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Short Abstract

This panel aims to further the debate on the material culture of religion. We will explore artifacts as intrinsic to the creation, articulation and experience of cosmology and propose alternative ontological frames to classic dualistic distinctions, such as material/immaterial.

Long Abstract

Ever since anthropologists have studied the religions of non-Westerners, they have grappled with how to conceptualize their informants' experience of the immaterial or spiritual in its relation to the material or tangible world, often ending up by reproducing this division. Thus, the religious 'fetich' and its historical pathologization, underlying which is the idea that artefacts somehow represent or stand for religious symbols, but are devoid of agency or power in themselves. Many recent studies within the so-called sub-discipline of 'material culture' have pursued an explicit dissolution of this dualism, where the general recognition is that things are not just constructed or made by people, but in turn construct and make people through the consequences of their materiality (Miller, 2005).

In this panel, we explore the role of things - religious and ritual objects - in the active construction, negotiation and experience of religious cosmology. We wish to question the object/idea distinction by aiming to take religious 'things' as encountered in the field, be these idols, clothes, or consummables, not as 'containers' or representations of meaning, but as entities where medium and meaning intersect. Such a focus undercuts the taken-for-granted divide between the material and the immaterial in two major ways, by: 1) allowing for artefacts to transgress their status as mere 'objects' and actively participate in the creation of cosmology as concepts or meanings too (Henare, Holbraad, Wastell, 2007), 2) questioning the priority given to the 'transcendent' as the place where knowledge happens and where the 'spiritual' dwells.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Palaeolithic 'Venus' figurines: persons as objects or objects as persons?

Author: Andrew Needham (The University of York)


'Venus' figurines are often considered as representations of people but here, using personhood as a source of inspiration to explore outside the confines of a Western world view, it is suggested that 'Venus' figurines can be interpreted as persons in their own right. It is argued that moving away from what feels 'intuitively right' and beginning to explore alternate perspectives could yield interesting results and important advances. In addition to providing new insights into 'Venus' figurines, this is also a case study in how alternate world views detailed in anthropology more generally may act as inspiration for archaeological models, especially where material evidence is ambiguous, such as in the ritual/religious and social spheres.

The Berimbau: ritual agency of a musical instrument in Afro-Brazilian capoeira

Author: Sergio Varela (University College London)


The aim of this paper is to show how an object, an artifact affects a whole ritual practice, Capoeira. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines fight and symbolic violence with play. Physical movements are followed always by music, which is performed live and played by the own capoeira practitioners. Music is essential to capoeira, especially in the style called Angola (considered the most traditional one), as it provides a dynamic for interaction and regulates the intensity of every fight. There are eight musical instruments from which the berimbaus are the most important. A berimbau is a one-string instrument that resembles a bow. It consists of a wood stick (called Beriba), a gourd that makes resonance, a tensed wire string, a rattle, and a small stone or coin. The sound of the berimbau is very loud and echoes a 'crying voice' that could be either in a grave or a higher pitch. For practitioners, a berimbau is sacred because it embodies the spirits of the ancestor and the dead. It is not regarded as an object, an instrument, but on the contrary, it bears human qualities, because 'It cries', 'it gives orders', 'it talks' to the players, and it induces altered states of consciousness. In a sense, this instrument is considered one more player in the capoeira gatherings. Therefore, I argue that the personalisation of an artifact evinces a constitutive part of capoeira cosmology, where the distance and separation between object and subject are not easy to discern.

Bringing down Orula: objects that speak for themselves

Author: Anastasios Panagiotopoulos (CRIA-Universidade Nova de Lisboa)


In the complex world of Afro-Cuban religions a great deal of emphasis is put on divination. Indeed, divination, including anything from spirit possession to the use of 'material' objects, takes many forms. In this paper, I will be focusing on one particular oracle, an oracle employed by the diviners of the cult which is know as Ifá and is intimately associated with its main deity (oricha) - that is, the spirit of Orula. The oracle's role is central as it is what brings to surface a very particular understanding of people's lives, their relations with the spirits and the world around them. The actual oracle involves two objects, the ekuele and the ikín. The former is used for simple consultations, while the latter on more important occasions such as initiations. Both objects are meant to reveal the client's specific position within a mythological context that is thought to explain his or her life and destiny.

My discussion will focus on whether these two objects can be seen as embodying a distinct kind of agency and what this implies. Is an oracle both an object and a subject? Can objects be seen as agents that do not represent relations but constitute them? How do they relate to human agency and in what way can they effect the relations between the past and the future?

Knowing what has been done: technology of ritual 'objects' amongst the Abelam (East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea)

Author: Ludovic Coupaye (University College London)


Developed in French ethnography, the methodological concept of "chaîne opératoire" describes the sequence of technical actions transforming materials from one original state to a finished product. While familiar in Anglo-American archaeology, this tool remains absent of contemporary mainstream approaches of material culture, not to mention of rituals.

This paper explores the ritual agency of objects as stemming from their nature of material concretions of technico-ritual processes. Long yams of the Abelam (East Sepik Province, Papua-New Guinea) are a case in point. Tubers reaching up to 3 metres, cultivated in specific conditions and with ritual requirements are revealed during annual ceremonies, adorned and decorated in a fashion that echoes with ancestral images and human initiates. Villagers and visitors evaluate the quality of the tubers displayed. At intersection of food, valuables, and ancestral images, long yams are then integrated in ceremonial exchanges between ceremonial partners, compensations for dispute or bridewealth, to be consumed and/or replanted.

By their "presence-ing" during the ritual, yams appear as the indexes of (now invisible) practices, especially the "technology" by which they "came into-being". The paper shows how a detailed analysis of technical practices, made possible by the recording of "chaînes opératoires", reveals the process by which ritual objects become imbued with properties and qualities, allowing the intertwining of medium and meaning.

In turn, the paper discusses the shifting position of technology within material culture studies and analysis of rituals, and questions the separation between rites, art and techniques.

Objects, bodies and gods: analysis of an ontological process in the Xangô Cult in Recife (Brazil)

Author: Arnaud Halloy (University of Nice Sophia Antipolis)


Drawing on my ethnography of the Xangô Cult in Recife (Brazil), I set out a theoretical framework for understanding why and how some objects become intimate and powerful mediators between worshippers and their deities. What I suggest is that some objects (stones, iron pieces, necklaces) acquire such a power by enhancing mythological imagination, hijacking ordinary expectations and eliciting intense emotional responses during their ritual manipulations. My best candidates to the "why" question are some cognitive processes involved in cultual objects' conceptualization - characterized by "ontological" twists (the cognitive hypothesis). The answer to the "how" question would lay in the form of the body/objects treatments (the pragmatic hypothesis).

Divinity and experiment: conversion in a Japanese jam jar

Author: Philip Swift


This paper is concerned with the question of efficacy in religious practice and in social science alike. Through an ethnographic focus on the Japanese new religion Mahikari, in which members conduct experiments on samples of foodstuffs placed in jam jars, the paper attempts to ask not only what such experiments are intended to do, but also, what it is that social science does to such experiments.

According to Mahikari practitioners, their experiments demonstrate that their practices are capable of producing changes in people and things. Scholars, by contrast - and guided by a mode of inquiry that has recently been highlighted by Keane (2008) - take the jam jars as evidence of something else beyond them: the prior beliefs which make such experiments credible. Where - in Hacking's terms (1983) - Mahikari members say they are intervening, scholars have said that they are merely representing.

The paper tries to argue that Mahikari practice, encapsulated in the jam jars, is indeed a form of intervention. It does so by advocating a more experimental method in anthropology, in which the effectiveness of experiment is contrasted with the efficacy of interpretation in much social science. In conclusion, it is argued that Mahikari jam jars are capsular conversions that allow us to imagine a very different concept of religious conversion from that which is often articulated in sociology, in which conversion is much less intellectual than it is visceral, moral and material.

'The birth of the word': Mapuche ritual power and the metalinguistic imagination

Author: Magnus Course (University of Edinburgh)


This paper explores the peculiar artefactual qualities of a non-referential speech act as the sole constituent of ritual hierarchy among rural Mapuche people of southern Chile. In an otherwise highly egalitarian society, a hierarchy of 'masters,' 'captains,' and 'sergeants' is established through the circulation of the 'word' during the organization of the ngillatun fertility ritual. This 'word' is conceived as a material artefact handed from one ritual leader to another in the weeks preceding the ritual, and through its passage forming a boundary around the entire ritual congregation. Yet not only is this 'word' immaterial, it bears no referential content, nor does it seem to refer directly to any particular utterance. It is rather, a way of describing a system of circulation in which the question of what is actually circulated remains unclear. Nevertheless, to impede the circulation of the 'word' is to invite death and destruction. I argue that to understand this process we need to address a semiotic ideology in which persons are created by words to a greater extent than persons create words. In this instance, therefore, certain kinds of speech have an agency above and beyond the persons through whom they are transmitted.

Materiality, cosmogony and presence in Cuban espiritismo

Author: Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)


In contrast to propositional models of 'knowledge' as a transactable commodity independent of knower, where 'belief' stands as its ontological antithesis, in Cuban espiritismo knowledge is a direct function of the 'coming closer' of one's spirits, achieved mostly through material offerings and spirit representations. 'To have knowledge' is not about internalizing information, but about becoming, where one's self-awareness and ability to 'know' are tied to the development and visibility of one's spirit guides, the 'knowers'. Cuban spiritists cultivate a pragmatic project of belief-as-action - enabled by the use of material objects and consumables - in order to activate the agency of a spiritual world that would otherwise lay dormant. Producing 'things' here is tantamount to producing spirits - making of the spirit medium the creator of a cosmology, rather than just a voice for it. Through matter, then, spirits become. But further, through matter the medium herself comes into being, for such entities are also constitutive of her 'self'.

In this paper I will explore the possibility of collapsing the distinction between 'concept' and 'thing' in two ways: first, by underlining the ways in which objects domesticate but also create spirit presence by materializing it; and second, by suggesting that the spirit medium's self - as experienced through the materiality of her body - be understood as constituted on knowledge, and not as its mere vehicle. The ontological leap is thus one of achieving presence from an initial state of non-presence - form from formlessness, knowledge from matter.

Material abundance as a spiritual principle: insights on a cholo cosmology

Author: Nico Tassi (UCL)


Cholos (urbanised indigenous highlanders) are a group of affluent traders in Bolivia's capital city La Paz who despite their rather prominent economic position maintain a strong bond with the indigenous world, its practices and beliefs. In fact, cholo economic practices remain imbued with profound religious connotations.

The Andean cosmology has been described as animated by an interconnective network and flow of energy linking beings, objects and spiritual forces and making them interdependent. This determined both a continuous interchange of forces among these different domains and a concomitance of different features in a same entity. The relation between these domains has been described as based on reciprocal exchanges of a physiological quality. Cholos often refer to as 'attraction' the situations when this interchange and concomitance of forces is instantiated. In this paper I will analyse the case of material plenty in cholo economic and religious practices as constituting an element of attraction.

Cholos place material abundance at the core of both their economic and spiritual activities as simultaneously constituting a means to God and to prosperity. The material abundance of the cholo practices is supposed to determine material and sensorial amplifications where material things and spiritual power intersect. The Christian ascetic and individual renunciation of the material as a pathway to God, is here paralleled by an exaggerated, collective participation in the production of abundance. It is not cholo's incapacity to abstract from the material that is at stake here but rather the understanding of the material and the transcendent as an encompassment of each other.

The potlatch in Kinshasa: dispersal of material goods, sounds and dances in Kinshasa

Author: Joseph Trapido (School of African and Oriental Studies)


The urban imagination in Kinshasa is obsessed by the idea of the mikiliste a bon viveur who travels to Europe, and associates with popular musicians. Central to the success of the mikiliste is his capacity to engage potlatch-like events. The mikiliste will be expected to engage in acts of conspicuous consumption. He will take care to be seen drinking beer and whisky, wearing designer clothes, having his name sung by famous musicians, driving fancy cars and dispensing largesse on a retinue - especially on famous courtesans and on street children. Migrants will engage in widespread criminal activities in order to be able to participate in these expensive rituals of success. This potlatch, where the the dispersal of objects is combined with music and dance to create a particular kind of emotional context, where joy and luck and material excess are mediums of social dominance.As in earlier Central African political and economic theories, the capacity to engage in such acts of wild expenditure is linked to the idea that social and political dominance is a power drawn from the land of the dead, and specifically from having traded the lives of lineage members in exchange for luck, blessing and power. Locally this kind of power is seen as extremely unstable, thus the dispersal of goods confers a very unstable kind of legitimacy.