EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Spirits going global: translocal aspects of spirit beliefs and practices

Location Wills 3.31
Date and Start Time 19 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Andrea Lauser (University of Goettingen) email
Kirsten Endres (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email
Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

In many parts of the globalised world, local traditions of engaging supernatural entities (spirit worship, spirit possession, witchcraft, sorcery, etc) are important arenas through which the dynamics of political, economic and social change are confronted and negotiated.

Long Abstract

In many parts of the globalised world, local traditions of engaging supernatural entities (spirit worship, spirit possession, witchcraft, sorcery, etc) are important arenas through which the dynamics of political, economic and social change are confronted and negotiated. The various ways in which devotees transact with the spirit world in dealing with the discontinuities of their lives indicate that spirit beliefs and practices possess a tremendous creative potential. Spirits thus play a key role in fusing the global into the local and vice versa, defying Max Weber's paradigm of an inevitable Entzauberung of the world in the face of modernity. Moreover, spirits and their mediums no longer appear to be bound to well-defined spatial and cultural frames of reference. Instead, they seem to add to Appadurai's five dimensions of cultural flow by constituting multicultural spiritscapes. These spiritscapes not only enable relocated/diasporic communities to weave the beliefs and practices of their homelands into the fabric of their lived experiences, but also enlarge the repertoire that spiritual seekers in Europe and elsewhere may draw upon in order to experience and mimetically appropriate the Other. The primary objectives of this workshop are to explore, in a comparative perspective, how different factors (market relations, migration, tourism, etc) contribute to the reconfiguration of local spirit worlds, and how these processes in turn (re)shape local and translocal discourses on gender, class, power relations and interpretative control. A second focus is to reflect on the ways in which diasporic communities and spiritual seekers engage global spiritscapes in the task of redefining and positioning their identities in the cultural flow of a deterritorialised world. Some questions for consideration are: What kind of spirits and supernatural forces are engaged and for which purposes? Who are the social actors involved in engaging the spirits? Why do certain spirits flourish in a global context and others do not? Which qualities or characteristics attributed to them are essentialised and which are subject to negotiation across borders? Which dynamics evolve in the process of (re)contextualising these spirits in local/translocal social networks? How do objects and commodities used in ritual practices contribute to these dynamics? What is negotiated through encountering the Other? To what extent can the dynamics of globalised spiritscapes be analysed in terms of 'occult economies' (Comaroff and Comaroff)?


The contrasted patterns of spirit worship and possession in Iceland and Faroe Islands

Author: Christophe Pons (CNRS)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

In a recent book, Luc de Heusch underlines the long-established ethnocentric' scope of social anthropology. Considering Marx, Weber, and the many generations of scholars after them, he states that western societies have always been considered as distinctives from others (2005 :218). It is particularly true in the topic of spirit worship and spirit possession. In this field of research, western societies are considered as exceptions, without any relevant matter of this type. Moreover, when facts of spirit worship and possession occur in western societies (and of course they do), they are usually considered as marginals (folk beliefs and popular religion), historically over (spiritualism, occultism) or belonging to diasporic - and often black - communities (pentecostalism). In that way, these anthropological facts are permanently kept at a good distance from the modernity of western societies. It was already true when Tylor was participating to mediumnic' seance among londonian spiritualists' groups (Stocking 1971). It is still true when beside the word "possession" one can read in the french dictionary of ethnology and anthropology : « Contrary to most of anthropological phenomenon, cults of possession have mostly disappaered from contemporary western societies (…) / A la différence de la plupart des phénomènes qui relèvent de l'anthropologie, les cultes de possession ont disparu pour l'essentiel dans les sociétés occidentales contemporaines (…) » (1991 :594).

Apart from this usual conception, my intention in this communication is to examine the local traditions of symbolic exchanges with supernatural entities in two modern western societies from northern europe : Iceland and Faroe Islands. Indeed, beside the official Lutheran State Church, spirit worship and possession have been strongly embedded in the religious fields of these two societies since the end of the 19th century. Nevertheless, each one has developped its specific orientation. Iceland was influenced by modern esotericism and movements such as spiritualism, theosophy or astrobiology ; the network of centers for psychical research, the tradition of mediumship and seances, and the rise in the number of mediums and channelers witness how important is the local tradition of engaging a large range of supernatural entities. Faroe was influenced by the evangelical milieu, since the prophetic' times of the end of the past century to the spiritual' renewal of charismatic and pentecostal christianity ; the high number of free churches, the amount of people belonging to these sects (around 30% of the population) and the great growth of preachers and missionaries witness how much the single supernatural entity of holy ghost (or Jesus) is actively refered. Taking into account that Iceland and Faroe have closed historical and cultural background, the contrast between their "spiritscapes" is of high interest.

In a comparative perspective, my communication will draw the symbolic configurations of Icelandic' mediumship and Faroean' pentecostalism, through the relationships that are distinctively engaged with spirits on the one hand, and through the great figures of social actors on the other hand (mediums vs preachers). Indeed, the question of the strongly opposed figures of medium and preacher is particularly relevant in these islands that have in common a traditional folklore of seers and healers. Although the occultist' medium and the evangelical' preacher were locally invented at the end of the 19th century, their status of intercessor was structurally present in former period. Trying to understand the self-identity of these recent figures suppose to take into consideration the processes of rupture and filiation in the reconfiguration of the local spirit world.

Finally, by the light of historical circumstances (post-colonialism, independence, ethnicity, nationhood…) and cultural factors (settlement, sociability, economy, individualism and community…), I will also suggest some clues that might explain the contrast of pattern between Iceland and the Faroe Islands.


Heusch (de), L. 2006, La transe et ses entours, Editions Complexe, Bruxelles.

Olivier de Sardan, J-P. 1991, « Possession » in Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie, PUF : 594-596.

Stocking, G. W. J. 1971. « Animism in theory and Practice : E.B. Tylor's unpublished 'Notes on "Spiritualism" », Man 6: 88-104.

Spelling out change: transforming witchcraft past and present

Author: Helen Cornish (Goldsmiths College, University of London)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

History and heritage are often asserted as indicators of continuity. However, meaningful pasts are also mobilised according to the needs of the present: explanations of historical events or periods are continually reinvented and transformed. This paper seeks to explore the dynamic and fluid ways that the past is continually under revision to meet such needs. Contemporary British witches are currently experiencing a radical shift in the ways they conceptualise, evidence and rationalise their history. Until recently practitioners claimed that on the basis of written texts, historical evidence and crucially, emotional connections to the past, contemporary practices could be traced back to pre-Christian times: formal groups of witches (covens) had a continuous and unbroken religious tradition going back to antiquity. This position has recently been subjected to extensive critique which suggests a prevailing scepticism to the idea of continuity which, it is argued, provides a mythic rather than historic view of the past. Ideas about the past are being aligned with recent interpretations of scholarly historians to source an apparently rational history to promote a mainstream public profile. While they criticise the 'inventions' of earlier writers, the invention of new traditions is an ongoing process. In turn, this shift questions the value of history for contemporary witchcraft practice. Therefore, it is clear that dynamic ideas of what constitutes both the content and context of history are central concerns to change and continuity.

Spirits on the move: religious practices in Vietnamese communities across the borders

Author: Kirsten Endres (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

Co-author: Andrea Lauser

The Vietnamese spirit-scape is bewilderingly vast and heterogeneous. It comprises of ancestral spirits, wandering souls, spirits of legendary Vietnamese warriors and heroines, celestial beings that had been sent from heaven to spend a lifetime among humans, and spirits of human origin who have suffered an unjust or untimely death. These are but a few categories within the world of spirits, saints and deities with whom devotees may ritually transact for good health, family happiness, economic success and other this-worldly benefits.

Whereas almost every Vietnamese household maintains an ancestral altar, other spirit beliefs and practices are less prevalent in mainstream Vietnamese society. As an example, this presentation will briefly elaborate on spirit possession rituals related to the worship of the Mother Goddesses and the spirits of the "four palaces" (Tu Phu). Although still a "marginal practice" in most stratums of society, spirit mediumship has been drawing an ever-growing number of devoted believers and initiates in the past decade.

With the Vietnamese exodus after 1954, and particularly after 1975, the spirits of the four palaces have also made the journey to the United States, to Canada, as well as to France. In Germany however - especially in the new federal states where the majority of Vietnamese migrants had been contract workers before the fall of the wall - the trend still seems to be in the making. In contrast to the tremendous resurgence of ritual activity in Vietnam during the past two decades, Vietnamese in the German diaspora have only just started to revitalize their religious and ritual practices. In order to articulate their identity in public space, Vietnamese communities in different parts of the country have embarked on building Buddhist temples. The paper will explore the increasing role of various worshiping activities in coping with grief and stress and in establishing continuity between their past and present. Furthermore, it will reflect on the likelihood that the spirits of the four palaces will sooner or later cross the border into Germany.

Spirit economy and Mami Wata rituals in the Bight of Benin

Author: Anna-Maija Aguilera Calderon (Brunel University)  email
Mail All Authors

Long Abstract

Mami Wata a light skinned mermaid goddess who is fond of Western consumer items, has almost solely been analysed through the ideas of modernity and tradition.Posters, lithographs and paintings of mermaids and snakecharmers are the key signs of the Mami Wata cult in the articles that I have read.For this reason when I encountered Mami Wata devotees during my doctoral fieldwork in Benin, I was struck by the variety of spirits that had little to do with the sea, water and feminine seduction. Furthermore these spirits , though of recent arrivals in Benin, were not exogeneous deities "outside any social system" (Drewal 1988:102). Neither were they a series of "autonomous cult and shrine practices" disembedded from region-wide practices (Gore&Nevadomsky 1997:60).

My intention in this paper is to elucidate the linkages between Mami Wata spirits in my fieldwork village and elsewhere in Benin and to situate these relationships to my fieldwork context, where creative ritual bricoleurs (Comaroff) have been importing " foreign" deities for hundreds of years.

In addition to this I argue that the literature on Mami Wata phenomenon does not really dwell into the realities of the actual worship of the goddess or portray the multifaceted social environment that brings this phenomenon into being. The guiding idea of my research has been an attempt to observe the categories that the informants use themselves in their daily lives and the processes that constitute them.