Unit 6 - Religion and Magic

Mythology and the Supernatural
 What is the purpose of religion
from an anthropological
 What is religion?
 “Any set of attitudes, beliefs, and
practices pertaining to
supernatural power, whether
they be forces, gods, spirits,
ghosts, or demons”
 Simple definition, extremely
difficult cultural concept
 Associated with all known contemporary societies
 Evidence of religious practices 60,000 years ago in early
homo sapiens
 Anthropological concerns/questions:
 Why is religion found in all societies?
 How and why does it vary from society to society?
 Most believe religion is a human creation in response
to certain needs (4):
 Intellectual understanding, reversion to childhood
feelings, anxiety and uncertainty, and a need for
 First 3 theories deal with psychological
 Understanding the world around us, and our
place in it
 Last theory (need for community) – Emile
 Humans living in societies feel pushed and
pulled to act a certain way
 Religion arises out of this to affirm a person’s
place in society, enhance community, and
give people confidence
 Example: totem animals
 In aboriginal societies in Australia, an animal
comes to represent the social group
 The animal on its own isn’t significant (lizard,
rat, frog, etc.) but it’s representation of the social
group is significant to that society
 Types of supernatural forces and beings
 Many societies in Polynesia believe in
 Supernatural, impersonal force thought to
inhabit some objects and people, but not
 Think The Force in Star War…more on this
 Is there anything like this in our society?
 Very similar to superstitions (ex. A baseball
player’s “lucky bat” or a four-leaf clover)
 Idea of a taboo is very similar to mana
 Difference: objects with mana are to be
touched; taboo objects are not, for their
power can cause harm
 Types of supernatural forces and beings
 Supernatural beings fall into two categories: nonhuman
and human origin
 Nonhuman: gods and spirits
 Human: ghosts and ancestral spirits
 Types of supernatural forces and beings
 Gods
 Beliefs usually that gods created
themselves, then created other things
(other gods, the world, humans, plants
and animals, etc.)
 Examples
 Maori of New Zeland believe in 3 gods:
sea, forest, agriculture
 They call on each god as needed
 Ancient Romans: much more specialized
 There were 3 gods just for the plow, one for
sowing seeds, one for weeding, one for storing
grain, one for manuring, etc…
 Types of supernatural forces and beings
 Spirits
 Usually below gods in prestige
 Guardian spirits, mischievous spirits
 Sanpoil N.A.’s of Washington sent little
boys and girls out overnight to acquire
their Guardian spirits
 Types of supernatural forces
and beings
 Ghosts and ancestor spirits
 The idea that ghosts can be
perceived by humans is
almost universal across
 Explanations?
 Many cues in everyday life
that evoke remembrance of a
loved one (smells, pictures,
dreams, etc.)
 No coincidence that ghosts are
usually close relatives, not
 Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – all believe in one
 However, there is room for other supernatural beings
(ex. The Devil, angels, demons, etc.)
 Why do some societies have a belief in a “high god”
and others do not?
 G.E. Swanson: cross-cultural study of 50 societies
 Societies with complex social hierarchy (ex. Family, clan,
cheifdom) – 17 out of 20 believed in a “high god”
 Societies without complex social hierarchy – 2 out of 19
believed in a “high god”
 Conclusion? Strong suggestion that the realm of the gods
parallels and reflects everyday social and political worlds
 How do people interact with the
 A short list (not exhaustive):
 Prayer (asking for supernatural help)
 Physiological experience (doing
things to the body and mind; ex.
 Simulation (manipulating imitations
of things)
 Feasts
 Sacrifices
 Different than prayer
 Prayer is asking; magic is
compelling the supernatural to act
in some intended way
 We tend to associate this with
“simpler” societies
 Keep in mind – over 80,000 people
in the U.S. take magic seriously,
and claim to be witches
 Magic is often employed in
societies to bring about cures as
well as to cause harm
Ju-ju charm protecting a
canoe in Suriname, 1954
 Central to many societies’ daily lives
 Azande of Zaire (DRoC)
 Used to explain the unexplainable
 A man is gored by an elephant. He
must have been bewitched, because
he’s never been gored by an elephant
 A man goes to his beer hut at night,
lights some straw on fire, holds it up
to see his beer, and his hut catches on
fire. Must be witchcraft, since he has
done this hundreds of times before,
and his hut never caught on fire
 A skilled potter produces a bowl and it
cracks. Witchcraft
 Cultural roots of witch craft
 One theory: political turmoil and
fear of others
 The witch craze of Europe (think
Salem 1692)
 In 1692 the government of Mass.
was falling apart. No governor, and
judicial practices broke down
 Led to the accusation of hundreds,
and the execution of 20
 Another theory? Disease
 Ergot (a fungus) when eaten can
cause hallucinations (it contains
LSD). Symptoms are very similar to
what we saw from the “witches” of
 Could have cultural roots
 Why does witchcraft appear in so many societies?
 Beatrice Whiting: found in societies which lack
procedures to deal with crime and other offenses
 Basically, if you do something wrong the person you wronged
can cause you ill-will
 Very similar to karma
 Incan society: if you do something wrong, you can bring
destruction to your entire village. Great social control.
 Shaman: part-time male specialist
who is involved in healing (usually
has high status in society)
 Enters into a trance, journeys to other
worlds in order to get help from
guardians or spirits
 Sorcerers and witches: invoke
supernatural forces to cause harm or
ill-will (usually low social and
economic status)
 Mediums: very similar to shaman,
but usually female
Urarina Shaman,
Amazonian rainforest, 2006
 Priests: full-time male specialists
who are able to relate to gods
beyond the ordinary person’s
control (usually high status)
 Dependence on memorized ritual
protects the priest
 If a shaman repeatedly fails to cure
illness, he will probably lose his
 If a priest performs his ritual perfectly
and the gods choose not to respond,
the priest will retain his position and
the ritual will preserve its assumed
 Are religions adaptive?
 They should be, right? If the purpose of religion is to
reduce the anxieties of a people, the religion should
adapt to changes in society
 Contradictions to this
 Hindu belief in cows as sacred
 May seem to be the opposite of an adaptive custom
 However, it is possible that the benefits of a live cow still
outweigh the benefits of a slaughtered cow
 Revival religions = efforts to save a dying culture (perceived
or real)
 The Seneca and the Religion of Handsome Lake (ca. 1799,
New York)
 Handsome Lake and his text, the Gaiwiio (“Good Word”)
 Preached the evils of sin, and the path to salvation by temperance
(drunkenness was a huge problem among the Seneca), peace and
social unity, preservation of tribal lands, proacculturation (such as
learning English), and domestic morality
 Led to a rapid revival among the Seneca
 Agricultural production improved 10-fold, temperance was widely
accepted, public health and hygiene dramatically improved
 Handsome Lake church still exists to this day
 Cargo Cults – and Yali’s Question
 Though there are many differences from
religion to religion, there are also many
 Across cultures, the great hero’s and tales
often have the same components
 Joseph Campbell: “The Hero With a
Thousand Faces”
 Cross-cultural analysis of world religions
 Conclusion: the monomyth
 “A hero ventures forth from the world of
common day into a region of supernatural
wonder: fabulous forces are there
encountered and a decisive victory is won:
the hero comes back from this mysterious
adventure with the power to bestow boons
on his fellow man.” – Joseph Campbell
 Three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return
 Not all myths have all components of the monomyth
 Can be only partial, out of order, etc.
 Examples: Osiris (Egyptian), Prometheus (Greek), the
Buddha (Indian), Moses (Judeo-Christian), Christ
 All over the place
 Many books and movies are based,
either consciously or unconsciously,
on the monomyth
 Literature: The Odyssey, Lord of the
Rings, Beowulf, Siddhartha, Harry
Potter, etc.
 Music: Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison, and
Bob Dylan all attribute much of their
music to Campbell’s book
 Film: Aladdin, The Lion King, The
 Perhaps the best (and most direct)
example is Star Wars
 George Lucas used The Hero…
deliberately in writing the scripts
 How can we, from an anthropological perspective,
account for the universality of religion?
 What is the purpose of religion?
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