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SIEF2011 10th Congress: Lisbon, Portugal.
17-21 April 2011

(P226)

Death, materiality and the person in Afro-Caribbean religions

Location Tower A, Piso 3, Room 302
Date and Start Time 19 Apr, 2011 at 11:30

Convenors

Diana Espirito Santo (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile) email
Ana Stela Almeida Cunha (CRIA) email
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Short Abstract

This panel will seek to examine materiality as a constitutive aspect of self, namely, through the lens of death. The question we will be specifically raising is how to relate the materiality of death practices and traditions to understandings of personhood in Afro-Caribbean religions.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists such as Maurice Bloch (1988) remind us that our ethnographic difficulties in grappling with themes relating to death in the different societies we study may owe more to Western 'punctual' understandings of death than to problems of translation. Underlying concepts of death and dying are not just specific views of growth, demise and renovation, but assumptions regarding the nature and constitution of persons. While in societies dominated by a notion of a self-enclosed individual the barrier between life and death is unambiguous, in others this separation is softened by radically alternative understandings of the person and the distribution of his or her agency in space and time. In this panel we are interested in examining the role of the material culture of death in expressing, mediating, and creating forms of personhood that subvert life/death boundaries, particularly in religious practices associated with African influences, such as Candomblé, Santería, and Vodoun. In many forms of Afro-Caribbean religion the category of 'death' or 'the dead' already implies a life, of sorts. The spirits of the deceased may be remembered and cared for via the manipulation of certain objects, representations or gifts, but may also become 'materialized' in and through these objects, gaining in presence or potency in the process. Matter is, to many such practitioners, creative of spirit forms, not simply reflective of them, which invites us to question purely representationalist views of the death 'object'.

Discussant: Roger Sansi-Roca (Goldsmiths)

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Create a nganga, beget a god

Author: Katerina Kerestetzi (Musée du quai Branly)  email
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Short Abstract

Palo monte is an Afro-Cuban religion whose practice is organized by the nganga, a cauldron hosting the spirit of a dead. By describing and analyzing the formulating process of this object-god this paper will reveal some of the reasoning that governs palo monte’s religious practice.

Long Abstract

Palo monte is an Afro-Cuban religion of Bantu origin. One of the prominent features of its ritual practice is that the spirits of the dead interfere with human action. Believing in their ability to influence human matters, the priest of palo monte, the palero, seeks to establish a relationship with these spirits and eventually make an alliance with them. To that effect, the worshipper has to go to the cemetery, trace an abandoned tomb and seal a pact with the spirit of the dead resting there. He unearths the body and takes parts of its skeleton. He then brings them to his domestic sanctuary and introduces them in a cauldron, la nganga. This installation reassigns a body to the spirit and enables it to retrieve some attributes distinctive of life: warmth, growth, need, pleasure, desire. This paper, by giving prominence to the nganga's materiality will attempt to shed a new light on this object, relegated until now by the scientific literature to the status of a mere artefact. By describing and analyzing the set of operations leading to the composition of a nganga, this paper will reveal some of the reasoning that governs palo monte's religious practice and will show that this composition is about giving life and shape to a god.

A Casa de Egun e o Pé de Cajá: mortuary traditions of Nagô and Ketu Candomblé

Author: Brian Brazeal (CSU, Chico)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores the conflicts and accommodations between Ketu and Nagô Candomblé as the members of this terreiro grapple with their unquiet family dead. It shows the imbrication national traditions and ritual lineages and explores the role of the dead in the lives and deaths of the living.

Long Abstract

Cachoeira, Bahia Brazil is known throughout the Northeastern interior as a place of extraordinary power and danger. Since the 1930's Cachoeira's Candomblé has transformed. Ketu Candomblé and the lineage of Menininha de Gantois has come to the fore. They have displaced the autochthonous and deeply syncretic traditions known locally as Candomblé Nagô. This transformation has not always gone smoothly.

This paper charts the conflict in a blood and ritual family over its mortuary shrines. Members of the family built an altar according to the Ketu conventions that was supposed to supplant offerings to the dead rendered at a nearby hogplum tree (pé de cajá). Soon afterwards people began to die suddenly and under increasingly mysterious circumstances, throwing the leadership of the temple into disarray. This was interpreted as ancestral or perhaps divine vengeance for the betrayal of the Nagô tradition.

This paper explores the conflicts and accommodations between Ketu and Nagô Candomblé as the members of this terreiro grapple with their unquiet family dead. These conflicts take shape in the Axexé mortuary rituals, in Ebós de Egum and in the innumerable and interminable discussions and divinations about who should control the temple. It shows the imbrication national traditions and ritual lineages and explores the role of the dead in the lives and deaths of the living.

Between tortured bodies and resurfacing bones: the politics of the dead in Zimbabwe

Author: Joost Fontein (University of Johannesburg)  email
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Short Abstract

Ancestors and angry spirits, resurfacing bones and leaky, fleshy bodies: the transforming materialities of death in postcolonial Zimbabwe

although not directly related to afro-caribbean religions, it is certainly about african religion, but also violence, and most importantly, the political efficacy of fleshy materialities and transforming, leaky materials of bodies and persons.

Long Abstract

Bones occupy a complex place in Zimbabwe's postcolonial milieu. From ancestral bones rising again in the struggle for independence, and later land, to resurfacing bones of unsettled war dead or the troubling remains of gukurahundi victims, it is clear that bones are intertwined in postcolonial politics in ways that go far beyond, yet necessarily implicate, contests over memory, commemoration and the representation of the past. As both extensions of the dead (spirit 'subjects' making demands on the living), and as unconscious 'objects' or 'things' (retorting to and provoking responses from the living), bones in Zimbabwe not only challenge normalising processes of state commemoration and heritage, but also animate a myriad of personal, kin, clan, class and political loyalties and struggles. But recent political violence indicates that it is not only dry bones but also the fleshy materiality of tortured bodies that are entangled in Zimbabwe's troubled postcolonial milieu. Therefore I seek to explore and contrast the complexity of agencies entangled in the affective presence and emotive materiality of both bones and bodies in Zimbabwe. If bodies inscribed with torturous performances of sovereignty do have substantial, if duplicitous, political affects, how does this contrast with the unsettling presence of the longer dead? What does the passage of time - both the material and leaky decomposition of flesh, but equally the transformative processes of burial - do to the affective presence and emotive materiality of the dead? How do broken bodies become bones?

The 'alien', the nfumbi and the 'affine': a glance at the various 'paths' of the dead

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

This paper explores the various kinds of spirits of the dead that make their appearance in Cuba, and more specifically within the Afro-Cuban religious milieu, and the way that they might afford us with novel understandings of materiality and personhood.

Long Abstract

Death in the Cuban ethnography has not attracted much attention. Especially in the context of Afro-Cuban religiosity, entities like 'the dead' (los muertos), although occasionally mentioned by researchers, have very rarely been brought to the fore (with noticeable exceptions such as Figarola, Palmié, Ochoa and Espirito Santo). An aspect of such a 'necrographic' void is the fact that when it comes to research in Afro-Cuban religiosity, there is an overwhelming predominance of the ritual complex of a putatively Yoruba origin, known as Regla de Ocha/Ifá or Santería, which, if treated in its own terms, seems to be placing the emphasis on the interaction between humans and deities (the orichas) rather than the dead. Yet, my fieldwork experience of almost 14 months in Havana, pointed to a rather different reality. Death, and more precisely the dead, seemed to be all over the place. Thus, this paper deals with this unexplored presence of the dead and what it might suggest about materiality and personhood, not only as an unfamiliar way of the former instantiating the latter, but also as something that might unsettle the very familiarity of the two. In the Afro-Cuban cosmos, after the demise of the body the person keeps walking on its destiny's 'path' (camino), but this is not qualitatively the same for everyone. I propose an initial distinction and classification of the dead into three categories: the 'alien', the nfumbi and the 'affine', and I explore what each involves.

Death and afterlife: nomadic wanderings in French Caribbean literature

Author: Adriana Umana (Rice University)  email
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Short Abstract

Maryse Condé and René Depestre offer a unique opportunity to study representations of death in literature. What at first glance could be perceived as the expression of tragedy in the post-colonial context later emerges the reinvigoration of a long-standing French philosophical tradition.

Long Abstract

Death, sometimes referred to as "the great equalizer of men," has found its way into religious, artistic and literary expressions since the beginning of recorded time in what can be understood as an attempt to demystify the inescapable end that awaits all men. For all its diverse expressions, a literature that deals with the question of death is ultimately grappling with our most profound existential preoccupations, that is, with the very seeds of any philosophical enterprise.

Death appears as a very important topos in the literature of the Caribbean, in some cases representing the need to break away from a painful past, the hope for new beginnings, and the dream of conceiving non-linear origins. My paper looks at how Maryse Condé and René Depestre, two French Caribbean writers, negotiate their complex histories. Born out of the French literary canon, facing the challenges of historical racial conflict and in a constant struggle for political self-determination, these writers find in the crisscrossing of nomadic wanderings through death and the afterlife the possibility for the constant re-writing of their identities.

Guaranteeing moments of encounter, death serves as the backdrop upon which the characters face diversity without fear. It allows for the safe crossing of borders and leads the protagonists into endless, but extremely fruitful, wanderings. In both cases, death opens a space for dynamic lines to be drawn. Instead of an experience of loss, these Caribbean writers portray death as a productive and fertile ground for (un)making received traditions and their identities.

Embodying the sacred in Abakuá performance: transnationalism and legitimacy of practices

Author: Géraldine Morel (Institute of Ethnology/University of Neuchâtel)  email
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Short Abstract

This presentation highlights the modalities of Abakuá’s transnationalism and how initiate’s bodies perform a religious belonging in public spaces, despite the prohibition placed on practicing rituals outside of Cuba.

Long Abstract

Nowadays, in the Afro-Cuban religious field, the Abakuá-a masculine secret society- is the only cult that cannot be considered transnational and is exclusively present in the realm of western Cuba. In fact, this territorial anchorage has two principals reasons : (1) the ritual and its particularities : all participants of this cult are initiated with a sacred drum which, according to the cult's rules, is meant to stay in this particular area in order to keep its efficiency in the rite, (2) the system of recruitment of its disciples : before the initiation, an investigation of the candidate's antecedents is engaged in the districts of Havana.

Consequently, there are no abakuá religious ceremonies held outside of Cuba despite the high number of Cuban migrants in the United States, especially in Miami.

However, the Cuban Diaspora in the USA is currently creating new forms of religiosity and is seeking for recognition of its doing. On both sides of the Atlantic, this quest for legitimacy is related to religious practices and discourses as well as sociability and the construction of masculinity in public spaces. Therefore, this paper questions how religious belonging is transnationally staged/practiced in both the local Cuban and American contexts ? The religious practices do not limit themselves to the rite but also have impact on the participant's bodies and in extension on their everydaylife. Thus, the sacred and the profane are simultaneously embodied by the abakuá participants in Cuba and the USA where Abakuás also perform a distinctive identity.

Continuing bonds, changing practices: charity and moneymaking in African-Surinamese death rituals

Author: Yvon van der Pijl (Utrecht University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper depicts contemporary trends in African-Surinamese death culture by examining how the supply of commercial services affects the ways living-dead are cared for and remembered, especially how care is materialized under conditions of commercialization and technological/biomedical changes.

Long Abstract

Within African-Surinamese death practices ritual experts e.g. dinari play an important role. They prepare the body for the funeral and have a crucial function in guiding relatives in a series of separation rituals. Dinari, organised in associations or fraternities, are rooted in folk religious (Winti), Christian (Moravian) and esoteric (lodges) traditions. Most dinari claim to have spiritual knowledge and can communicate with spirits of the dead. In general they function as mediators between the bereaved and the deceased. Their work aims at purification (both hygienic and symbolic) and has strong religiousspiritual, sociocultural and emotional meanings. Dinari are key actors in 'traditional' Creole death culture, but may also be considered as modern players in a booming funeral industry. Like elsewhere, Surinamese death practices are subject to technological, biomedical developments and progressive commercialization. People indicate that dinari work as a work of charity has turned into a moneymaking business; the associations are exemplary for broader trends in the African-Surinamese death culture and the funeral industry in the capital of Paramaribo. These developments affect the ambivalent attachment between the living and the dead and the ways relatives deal with continuing bonds with the living-dead. The proposed paper, starting from an ethnographic approach of dinari practices, aims to depict contemporary trends in African-Surinamese death culture and examines how the supply of commercial (new) services has an effect on the ways living-dead are being cared for and remembered, especially how care and remembrance is shaped and materialized under conditions of progressive commercialization and technological/biomedical changes.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.