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The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft

This concise and accessible textbook introduces students to the anthropological study of religion. Stein and Stein examine religious expression from a cross-cultural perspective and expose students to the varying complexity of world religions. The chapters incorporate key theoretical concepts and a rich range of ethnographic material.

The fourth edition of The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft offers:

increased coverage of new religious movements, fundamentalism, and religion and conflict/violence; fresh case study material with examples drawn from around the globe; further resources via a comprehensive companion website.

This is an essential guide for students encountering anthropology of religion for the first time.

Rebecca L. Stein is Professor of Anthropology and Department Chair at Los Angeles Valley College, USA.

Philip L. Stein is Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus) at Los Angeles Pierce College, USA. He is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and a past president of the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges.

The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft

Fourth Edition

Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein

Fourth edition published 2017 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN

and by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

© 2017 Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein

The right of Rebecca L. Stein and Philip L. Stein to be identified as authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.

First published 2005 by Prentice Hall Third edition published 2011 by Prentice Hall

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Names: Stein, Rebecca L., 1970- author. | Stein, Philip L., author. Title: The anthropology of religion, magic, and witchcraft / Rebecca L. Stein, Philip L. Stein. Description: Fourth edition. | Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY : Routledge, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2016050966 (print) | LCCN 2017007888 (ebook) | ISBN 9781138719972 (hardback : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781138692527 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781315532172 (e-book) Subjects: LCSH: Religion. | Anthropology of religion. | Religion and culture. Classification: LCC GN470. S73 2017 (print) | LCC GN470 (ebook) | DDC 306.6—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016050966

ISBN: 978-1-138-71997-2 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-138-69252-7 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-315-53217-2 (ebk)

Typeset in Sabon by Keystroke, Neville Lodge, Tettenhall, Wolverhampton

Visit the companion website: www.routledge.com/cw/stein

For Elijah





1 The anthropological study of religion

The anthropological perspective

The holistic approach

The study of human societies

The Fore of New Guinea: an ethnographic example

Two ways of viewing culture

Cultural relativism

Box 1.1 Karen McCarthy Brown and Vodou

The concept of culture

The study of religion

Attempts at defining religion

The domain of religion

Theoretical approaches to the study of religion

Box 1.2 Malinowski and the Trobriand Islands

Box 1.3 Evans-Pritchard and the Azande

The biological basis of religious behavior



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


2 Mythology

The nature of myths


Stories of the supernatural

The nature of oral texts

Box 2.1 Genesis

Box 2.2 The gender-neutral Christian Bible

Understanding myths

Approaches to the analysis of myths

Box 2.3 The Gururumba creation story

Common themes in myths

Box 2.4 The power of storytelling

Box 2.5 The Navaho creation story: Diné Bahane’



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


3 Religious symbols

What is a symbol?

Religious symbols

Box 3.1 Religious toys and games

Sacred art

The sarcophagus of Lord Pakal

The meaning of color

Sacred time and sacred space

The meaning of time

Box 3.2 The end of time

Sacred time and space in Australia

The symbolism of music and dance

The symbolism of music

The symbolism of dance



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


4 Ritual

The basics of ritual performance

Prescriptive and situational rituals

Periodic and occasional rituals

A classification of rituals

A survey of rituals

Technological rituals

Social rites of intensification

Therapy rituals and healing

Revitalization rituals

Rites of passage

Alterations of the human body


Box 4.1 The Hajj

The Huichol pilgrimage

Religious obligations


Jewish food laws

Box 4.2 Menstrual tabus



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


5 Altered states of consciousness

The nature of altered states of consciousness

Entering an altered state of consciousness

The biological basis of altered states of consciousness

Box 5.1 Altered states in Upper Paleolithic art

Ethnographic examples of altered states of consciousness

San healing rituals

The Sun Dance of the Cheyenne

The Holiness Churches

Drug-induced altered states of consciousness

Hallucinogenic snuff among the Yanomamö

Tobacco in South America

Peyote in the Native American Church

Marijuana among the Rastafarians



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


6 Religious specialists


Defining shamanism

Siberian shamanism

Korean shamanism

Pentecostal healers as shamans

Box 6.1 Clown doctors as shamans



Zuni priests

Okinawan priestesses

Eastern Orthodox priests

Other specialists

Healers and diviners

Box 6.2 African healers meet Western medicine




Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


7 Magic and divination

The nature of magic

Magic and religion

Rules of magic

Magic in society

Magic in the Trobriand Islands

Magic among the Azande

Sorcery among the Fore

Wiccan magic


Forms of divination

A survey of divination techniques

Box 7.1 I Ching: The Book of Changes

Box 7.2 Spiritualism and séances


Fore divination

Oracles of the Azande

Divination in Ancient Greece: the oracle at Delphi

Magical behavior and the human mind

Magical thinking

Why magic works



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


8 Souls, ghosts, and death

Souls and ancestors

Variation in the concept of the soul

Box 8.1 How do you get to heaven?

Souls, death, and the afterlife

Examples of concepts of the soul


Box 8.2 Determining death

Bodies and souls


The living dead: vampires and zombies

Death rituals

Funeral rituals

Disposal of the body

U.S. death rituals in the nineteenth century

U.S. funeral rituals today

Days of death

Box 8.3 Roadside memorials



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


9 Gods and spirits


The Dani view of the supernatural

Guardian spirits and the Native American vision quest


Christian angels and demons

Box 9.1 Christian demonic exorcism in the United States


Types of gods

Gods and society

Box 9.2 Games and gods

The gods of the Yoruba

The gods of the Ifugao


Monotheism: conceptions of god in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam




Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


10 Witchcraft

The concept of witchcraft in small-scale societies

Witchcraft among the Azande

Witchcraft among the Navaho

Witchcraft reflects human culture

Witchcraft and AIDS

Euro-American witchcraft beliefs

The connection with pagan religions

The Witchcraze in Europe

The Witchcraze in England and the United States

Box 10.1: The evil eye

Modern-day witch hunts

Box 10.2 Satanism



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


11 The search for new meaning

Adaptation and change

Mechanisms of culture change

Haitian Vodou


Revitalization movements

The origins of revitalization movements

Types of revitalization movements

Cargo cults

Box 11.1 The John Frum cult

The Ghost Dance of 1890

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)

Neo-Paganism and revival

The Wiccan movement

High demand religions

The “cult” question

Characteristics of high demand religions

Examples of high demand religions

UFO religions



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites


12 Religion, conflict, and peace

Religion and conflict

Role of religion in conflict and violence

Box 12.1 Nationalism as religion


Characteristics of fundamentalist groups

Case studies of religion and conflict

The Iranian Revolution

Box 12.2 The veil in Islam

The Arab Spring

The Hobby Lobby case in the United States

Religion, terrorism, and peace

Religious conflict and terrorism

Religion and peace



Study questions

Suggested readings

Suggested websites






1 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Western Hemisphere 2 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Eastern Hemisphere


1.1 Holism 1.2 Brain scans. Courtesy of Andrew Newberg 3.1 Navaho blanket with swastika. Arizona State Museum, University of

Arizona, Helga Teiwes, photographer 3.2 The pentagram 3.3 Some Christian symbols 3.4 The mayan cosmos. D. Donne Bryant\DDB Stock Photography, LLC 3.5 Yin-yang 4.1 Alterations of the human body. 4.1a © Bettman/CORBIS All Rights

Reserved; 4.1b © Westend61 GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo; 4.1c © Robert Estall photo agency / Alamy Stock Photo

4.2 Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Granger Collection, New York 5.1 Mayan carving. 5.1a © The Trustees of the British Museum; 5.1b © The

Trustees of the British Museum 5.2 San healing ceremony. © Peter Johnson/CORBIS All Rights Reserved 6.1 Shaman. Photo by Tao Zhang/Nur Photo. Sipa USA via AP

6.2 Okinawan priestesses. © Chris Willson / Alamy Stock Photo 7.1 Divination. © Earl and Nazima Kowall/CORBIS All Rights Reserved 7.2 Painting of the Pythia. Bpk, Berlin/Antikensammlung, Staatliche

Museen/Johannes Laurentius/Art Resource, NY 8.1 The Wheel of Life. © Getty Images/Time Life Pictures 8.2 Vampire burial. Courtesy of the Slavia Project and the Slavia Field School

in Mortuary Archaeology, Drawsko, Poland 8.3 The Day of the Dead. © Danny Lehman/CORBIS All Rights Reserved 9.1 The Greek pantheon 9.2 Venus of Willendorf. INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo 9.3 The Hindu goddess Kali. © Earl and Nazima Kowall/CORBIS All Rights

Reserved 10.1 Execution of English witches. The Granger Collection, New York 11.1 Vodou altar. AP Photo/Lynsey Addiaro 11.2 Wiccan ritual. © Jim Cartier/Science Photo Library 11.3 Mass wedding of the Unification Church. CORBIS-NY 12.1 Hobby Lobby. Mark Wilson/Getty Images 12.2 Terrorist attacks in Paris. Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images


1.1 Culture areas of the world 1.2 Food-getting strategies 2.1 Forms of narrative 2.2 The monomyth in cinema: a sampling of common features 4.1 A classification of rituals 4.2 Causes and treatment of supernatural illnesses 4.3 Characteristics of liminality 5.1 Characteristics of altered states of consciousness 5.2 Factors bringing about an altered state of consciousness 5.3 Drugs that produce an altered state of consciousness 7.1 A classification of methods of divination with examples 9.1 The supernatural world of the Dani

9.2 The Roman gods and goddesses of agriculture 9.3 Some of the Yoruba orisha 11.1 The lwa of Haitian Vodou


Although courses in the anthropology of religion are usually upper-division courses taught at four-year institutions to anthropology majors, the course is increasingly being taught at the lower-division level, especially at community colleges. Here the emphasis is not on the training of majors, of whom there are few, but on meeting a general education requirement in the social sciences or humanities. Most significantly, this course is probably the only anthropology course that such students will take. Therefore the instructor has the obligation not only to discuss the topics of religion, but also to teach the student about the nature of anthropology and to present its basic principles.

We had great difficulty in finding a textbook that is appropriate for this type of course. Three types of books exist. First is the reader, which often includes articles that are too advanced for the introductory student. A major problem is the inconsistency of terminology and concepts as the student moves from article to article. The second is the general textbook on the anthropology of religion; but these appear to be written for upper-division students who have already been introduced to the field and often heavily emphasize theory. Third, there are abundant books on the more familiar world religions but few that discuss religions in small-scale societies, where much of the anthropological studies have been conducted. Our goal in writing this text has been to introduce the beginning student to the basic concepts involved in the anthropological study of religion, including an introduction to ethnographical information from a wide range of societies and a basic introduction to the field of anthropology.

One of the most difficult decisions we have had to make in writing this text is the organization and order of presentation of topics. The range of topics is large, and they overlap in myriad ways—everyone has his or her own approach. We have attempted to present the material beginning with basic concepts and proceeding to the more complex. For example, we begin with

myth, symbolism, and ritual before moving on to magic and witchcraft later in the text.

We have attempted to include a number of ethnographic examples with a good geographical distribution. Societies discussed in the text are included in Table 1.1, “Culture areas of the world,” and the locations of many of these are shown on the maps at the front of the book. Of course, many topics are associated with classic ethnographic studies, which have been included. We have also attempted to balance the presentation of a wide variety of cultures with the inclusion of certain key societies that reappear as examples of several topics throughout the text, to give students some continuity and a deeper understanding of a small group of societies. These societies include the Navaho of North America, the Yanomamö of South America, the Azande and Yoruba of Africa, the Murngin of Australia, and the Trobriand Islanders off the coast of New Guinea.

The writing of a manuscript is a major and complex undertaking. It is a thrill to see the book in print, but when reading it in book form and using it in class, the authors often see things that could have been done a little differently, as well as having ideas for new avenues to explore. We have continued to make a number of changes in this fourth edition. Some of these changes are minor: a little reorganization, an expansion or contraction of a particular topic, the introduction of a new example or elimination of an old one, and a little rewording to make the point a little clearer. Other changes are more substantial. For example, we have added a new Chapter 12 in which we discuss fundamentalism, formerly in Chapter 11, and new material on religion and conflict, violence and peace. We have added small sections on apotropaic features found in archaeological context, vampire beliefs in New English, big gods, and witchcraft in Soweto, South Africa. We have also added four new boxes on “The Power of Storytelling,” “Spiritualism and Séances,” “Nationalism as Religion,” and “The Veil in Islam.”

To assist the student in learning the material, we have divided each chapter into several sections with different levels of headings. Terms that appear in the Glossary have been set in bold. Each chapter concludes with a summary, study questions, suggested reading, and suggested websites. Additional materials for students and instructors are available on the companion website www.routledge.com/cw/stein


We want to take this opportunity to thank the many faculty members who have aided us in the writing of this text by reviewing the manuscript and offering advice and suggestions.

Katherine Bradford, Los Angeles Mission College Nicola Denzey, Bowdoin College Charles O. Ellenbaum, College of DuPage Karen Fjelstad, Cabrillo College Wendy Fonarow, Glendale College Arthur Gribben, Los Angeles Mission College Amy Harper, Central Oregon Community College Barbara Hornum, Drexel University William Jankowiak, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Theresa Kintz, Wilkes University Debra L. Klein, Gavilan College Christopher Kovats-Bernat, Muhlenberg College Lilly M. Langer, Florida International University Phillip Naftaly, Adirondack Community College Lesley Northup, Florida International University Robin O’Brian, Elmira College Lisa Raskind, Los Angeles Valley College Cheryle Ross, Rio Hondo College Terry N. Simmons, Paradise Valley Community College

As well as the many anonymous reviewers for both Prentice Hall and Routledge.

We would like to thank everyone at Routledge for their assistance and support in the writing of this book. We also want to thank our students for

their assistance. After all, this book was written for them. The text was originally based on our lecture notes for an anthropology of religion course which developed over many years with student dialogue. The manuscript was then used as a textbook, which provided an opportunity for student feedback.

Finally, we wish to thank our respective spouses, Robert Frankle and Carol Stein, for their patience and support, and assistance.

Map 1 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Western Hemisphere

Map 2 Map showing location of societies discussed in text: Eastern Hemisphere

Chapter 1 The anthropological study of religion

Human beings pose questions about nearly everything in the world, including themselves. The most fundamental of these questions are answered by a people’s religious beliefs and practices, which are the subject of this book. We will examine the religious lives of a broad range of human communities from an anthropological perspective.

The term anthropological perspective means many things. It is a theoretical orientation that will be discussed later in the chapter. It is also an approach that compares human societies throughout the world—contemporary and historical, industrial and tribal. Many college courses and textbooks focus on the best-known religions, those that are practiced by millions upon millions of people and are often referred to as the “world’s great religions”—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others. This book will expand the subject matter to include and focus on lesser-known religious systems, especially those that are found in small-scale, traditional communities. As we do this, we want to look for commonalities as well as to celebrate diversity.

This book will not simply describe a series of religious systems. We will approach the study of religion by looking at particular topics that are usually included in the anthropological definition of religion and providing examples to illustrate these topics from the anthropological literature. We obviously are unable to present the thousands of religious systems that exist or have existed in the world, but we can provide a sample.

The anthropological perspective

The subject of this book is religion as seen from an anthropological perspective. What does this mean? The term anthropology refers to the study of humanity. However, anthropology shares this subject matter with many other disciplines—sociology, psychology, history, and political science, to name a few. So how is anthropology different from these other disciplines?

One way in which anthropology differs from other subjects is that anthropology is an integrated study of humanity. Anthropologists study human societies as systematic sums of their parts, as integrated wholes. We call this approach holism. For example, many disciplines study marriage. The anthropologist believes that a true understanding of marriage requires an understanding of all aspects of the society. Marriage is profoundly influenced by politics and law, economics, ethics, and theology; in turn, marriage influences history, literature, art, and music. The same is true of religious practices and beliefs.

The holistic nature of anthropology is seen in the various divisions of the field. Traditional anthropologists speak of four-fields anthropology. These four fields are physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and cultural anthropology. Today, with the rapid increase and complexity of anthropological studies, anthropologists are becoming more and more specialized and focused on particular topics. The often-simplistic concept of anthropology as being composed of the integrated study of these four fields is rapidly breaking down, but a review of these four fields will acquaint those who are studying anthropology for the first time with the essential nature of the discipline.

Physical anthropology is the study of human biology and evolution. Physical anthropologists are interested in genetics and genomics; evolutionary theory; the biology and behavior of the primates, the group of animals that includes monkeys, apes, and humans; and paleontology, the study of the fossil record. Anthropologists with a biological orientation discuss the evolutionary origins and the neurobiology of religious experience.

Archaeology is the study of people who are known only from their physical and cultural remains; it gives us insight into the lives of now extinct societies. Evidence of religious expression can be seen in the ruins of ancient

temples and in the art and writings of people who lived in societies that have faded into history.

The field of linguistic anthropology is devoted to the study of language, which, according to many anthropologists, is a unique feature of humans. Much of religious practice is linguistic in nature, involving the recitation of words, and the religious beliefs of a people are expressed in their myths and literature.

Cultural anthropology is the study of contemporary human societies and makes up the largest area of anthropological study. Cultural anthropologists study a people’s social organization, economics and technology, political organization, marriage and family life, child-rearing practices, and so forth. The study of religion is a subject within the general field of cultural anthropology. However, we will be drawing on all four subfields in our examination of religion.

The holistic approach

Studying a society holistically is a very daunting task. It requires a great deal of time—time to observe human behavior and time to interview members of a society. Because of the necessity of having to limit the scope of a research project, anthropologists are noted for their long-term studies of small, remote communities. However, as isolated small communities become increasingly incorporated into larger political units, anthropologists are turning more and more to the study of larger, more complex societies. Yet even within a more complex society, anthropologists maintain a limited focus. For example, within an urban setting, anthropologists study specific companies, hospitals, neighborhoods, gangs, clubs, and churches. Anthropological studies take place over long periods of time and usually require the anthropologist to live within the community and to participate to a degree in the lives of the people under study, while at the same time making objective observations. This technique of study is referred to as participant observation.

Students of anthropology are initially introduced to small communities such as foraging bands, small horticultural villages, and groups of pastoral nomads. They become familiar with the lives of the Trobriand Islanders off

the coast of New Guinea, the Navaho of the American Southwest, the Yanomamö of northern South America, the Murngin of northern Australia, and the San of southern Africa. Some people refer to these societies as being “primitive,” but primitive is a pejorative term, one laden with negative connotations such as inferior and “less than.” A better term is small-scale. When we say small-scale, we refer to relatively small communities, villages, and bands that practice foraging, herding, or technologically simple horticulture.

We will also be examining aspects of what are often referred to as the “world’s great religions.” Like the term primitive, the term great involves a value judgment. These familiar religions include Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. They are similar in that the origins of these religions are based on the lives of a particular individual or founder, such as Moses, Christ, Mohammad, and the Buddha. These religions have spread into thousands of different societies, and their adherents number in the millions. The small-scale societies that are more traditionally studied by anthropologists, by contrast, are usually not based on the lives of particular prophets or founders. They tend to be limited to one or a few societies, and their adherents might number only a few hundred or a few thousand.

If they involve only a very small number of people, then why study these small-scale religions? Among the many questions that anthropologists ask about humanity are the following: Are there characteristics that are found in all human societies, what we might call human universals? And when we look at universals, or at least at very widespread features, what are the ranges of variation? Returning to the example of marriage, we could ask the following questions: Is marriage found in all human societies? And what are the various forms that marriage takes? We might ask similar questions about religion. To answer these questions, anthropologists go out into the field, study particular communities, and write reports describing these communities. Questions of universality and variability can be answered on the basis of descriptions of hundreds of human societies.

In addition, the goal of anthropology is to study the broad range of human beliefs and behaviors, to discover what it means to be human. This is best accomplished by examining religious and other cultural phenomena in a wide variety of cultures of different sizes and structures, including our own. It is often said that the aim of anthropology is to make the strange familiar and the

familiar strange. Only through cross-cultural comparisons is this possible.

The study of human societies

Ethnography is the descriptive study of human societies. People who study human societies and write ethnographies about them are cultural anthropologists; they are sometimes referred to as ethnographers.

However, not all descriptions of human societies are written by ethnographers. For example, an archaeologist is someone who studies the physical and cultural remains of societies that existed in the past and are known today only from their ruins, burials, and garbage. Yet archaeologists can, to a limited degree, reconstruct the lives of people who lived in ancient societies. Sometimes the only descriptions we have of people’s lives are those written in diaries and reports by explorers and colonial administrators. Although these descriptions are far from complete and objective, they do provide us with some information.

Although we will visit a few societies that are known solely from their archaeological remains, most of the examples in this book are from societies that exist today or have existed in the recent past. Many of the societies we will discuss were first visited and described by anthropologists in the early to mid-1900s. Although these societies have changed over time, as all groups do, and although many of these societies have passed out of existence, anthropologists speak of them in the ethnographic present; that is, we discuss these groups in the present tense as they were first described by ethnographers.

Throughout this book we will be presenting examples from the ethnographic literature. These communities are found throughout the world, including some very remote areas. To better understand their nature and distribution, we can organize these societies into culture areas. A culture area is a geographical area in which societies tend to share many cultural traits. This happens because these groups face similar challenges from the environment and often come up with similar solutions and because cultural traits that develop in one group easily spread to other nearby groups.

Each human society—and even subgroups within the society—exhibits

unique characteristics. The common traits that define a culture area tend to lie in the realm of subsistence activities and technology, a common response to the challenges from the environment, although some similarity in other facets of the society, including religion, may also be found. For example, the California culture area, whose boundaries are somewhat different from the present-day political unit, includes a group of communities that exploit acorns. Acorns require processing that involves many steps and much equipment, but they provide a food resource that is plentiful and nutritious and that can be stored. These features permit the development of permanent and semipermanent communities, unlike those developed by most foragers.1Table 1.1 lists the major culture areas of the world along with the names of representative groups. All of the groups used as examples in this book are included. Many are located on the maps at the front of this book.

Table 1.1 Culture areas of the world

Culture area Societies discussedin text Features

North America

Arctic Coast Inuit, Yup’ik

Hunting of sea mammals and caribou, fishing; shelters made of snow blocks,

semisubterranean sod houses, summer tents made of skins; dog-drawn sledges, tailored skin clothing; settlement in small family


Northern Subarctic

Chipewyan, Winnebago

Hunting caribou, fishing; conical skin tents, bark or skin canoes, snowshoes, toboggans;

highly nomadic bands with chiefs.

Great Basin- Plateau

Paiute, Shoshoni Acorn collecting, fishing, hunting of small game; small brush windbreaks, elaborate

basketry; band organization.

California Cahuilla,

Acorn collecting, fishing, hunting of small game; simple brush dwellings,

semisubterranean lodges; basketry;

Chumash, Pomo multiplicity of small contrasting tribes, semipermanent villages.

Northwest Coast

Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw,


Salmon and deep-sea fishing, hunting and collecting; large rectangular plank

dwellings with gabled roofs, large canoes, lack pottery, elaborate development of

decorative art; permanent villages, chiefs, elaborate system of rank.


Arapaho, Blackfeet,

Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota,


Hunting of bison, some horticulture; tipi dwellings; transport by dog, later horse; absence of basketry and pottery, hide

utensils; large bands, competitive military and social societies, warfare important.

Eastern Woodland

Iroquois, Seneca Horticulture, hunting; multiple-family

dwellings of bark (longhouses); matrilineal clans, village chiefs.

Southeast Cherokee, Natchez

Similar to Eastern Woodland with Mesoamerican influence.


Apache, Hopi, Navaho, Akimel O’odham, Tewa

Yaqui, Zuni

Intensive cultivation of beans, maize, and squash; pueblos consisting of great

multifamily terraced apartments, single- family dwellings with more nomadic

groups; highly developed pottery and loom weaving; village as largest political unit.

Mesoamerica Aztec, Huichol,


Intensive agriculture; state societies with developed technology including

monumental stone architecture, stone sculpture, system of writing, woven textiles, metallurgy; fully developed

dynastic empires, social classes.

South America

Marginal Siriono, Yahgan Hunting, fishing, and gathering; family as basic social unit.

Tropical Forest Jivaro, Mehinaku,

Pirahãs Yanomamö

Slash-and-burn horticulture; villages often consist of one communal dwelling located on rivers; bark canoes and dugouts, clubs and shields, bows and arrows, blow guns,

bark cloth, hammock, tobacco; village settlements under chiefs, warfare strongly

developed with cannibalism present.

Circum- Caribbean

Arawak, Carib

Intensive farming, hunting and fishing; pole and thatch houses arranged in streets and

around plazas surrounded by palisade; hammocks, poisoned arrows, loom weaving

of domesticated cotton, highly developed ceramics, gold and copper worked; large villages, social classes, chiefs, extreme

development of warfare.

Andean Araucanian, Inca

Intensive irrigation agriculture; paved roads, monumental architecture, highly

developed ceramics, weaving, and metallurgy; large cities, divine ruler over

large empires.


Mediterranean Berbers Agriculture and sheep herding; marginal Near Eastern culture, towns and cities;


Desert Tuareg

Livestock herding (horse and camel) and tent shelters; intensive fruit and cereal

cultivation, camels, sheep, goat herding, stone and plaster dwellings; Islam.

Egypt Egyptians, Nubians

Flood-irrigated agriculture (wheat and barley); early civilization.

Western Sudan

Fulani, Hausa Agriculture and cattle herding; urban

centers, dynastic rule and empires; Islam and animism.

Eastern Sudan Dinka, Nuer Cattle herders and scattered agriculturalists; Islam and animism.

East Horn Abyssinians,

Somali Agriculture and cattle herding; Coptic


East African Cattle

Bunyoro, Maasai, Swazi, Zulu

Cattle herding, dairying, hoe agriculture; iron work, age grades, warfare, ancestor


Madagascar Tanala Marginal Indonesian culture; wet rice

irrigation agriculture.

Khoisan Ju/’hoansi San Hunting and gathering; nomadic bands,

brush shelters.

Guinea Coast Beng, Bushongo,

Dogon, Fon, Kpelle, Yoruba

Hoe agriculture, root crops and maize; large dynastic kingdoms, city and towns, market

centers, judicial systems, craft guilds, artistic development.

Congo Azande, Kongo,

Mangbetu, Pygmies

Yam and banana cultivation; double-court kingdoms, markets, native courts; iron and

brass work; Pygmies: hunting and gathering, trade with agriculturalists.


Southwest Asia

Bedouin Cereal irrigation agriculture, plow, herding;


Central Asian Steppe

Mongols Horse domesticated for transportation,

milk, hides; Islam.

Siberian Tungus, Tuva,


Fishing, hunting, reindeer domestication; conical skin dwellings; tailored skin


East Asian civilizations

Chinese, Japanese, Korean,


Intensive agriculture including wet rice and animal husbandry; ancient civilizations;

urban centers and industrialization; several religious systems including Shinto and


Wet and dry rice agriculture, water buffalo;

Southeast Asia Balinese, Hmong, Javanese

bamboo houses; Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam.

India Nayar, Toda Plow agriculture, wheat and barley; caste


European Basques, Viking Mixed agriculture and animal husbandry; urbanization and industrialization; mainly



Indonesia- Philippine

Berawan, Dyaks, Ifugao, Tana


Irrigation and terracing, wet rice agriculture, water buffalo; large

multifamily dwellings on piles, betel chewing, elaborate textiles, blow guns; Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, animism.

Australia Murngin, Yir


Hunting and gathering economy; simple windbreaks, spears and spear-throwers,

bark containers; independent bands, highly elaborate kin organization; totemism.


Asmat, Buka, Dani, Fore,

Gururumba, Trobriand Islanders

Yams and taro horticulture, fishing; elaborate ceremonial houses, high

development of wood carving, canoes, bows and arrows; isolated hamlets under

local chief, regional specialization in economic production, trading voyages;

chronic petty warfare.

Micronesia Palau, Truk

Yams and taro horticulture, fishing, collection of breadfruit and coconut; expert

navigation in sailing canoes; intertribal warfare.

Polynesia Maori, Samoan,


Taro, yams, coconut, breadfruit cultivation, fishing; large thatched dwellings, tapa

cloth, kava, tattooing, sculpture in wood and stone, outrigger canoes with sails;

hereditary social classes and divine chiefs;

mana, tabu.

Table 1.2 Food-getting strategies

Foragers Pastoralists Horticulturalists Intensiveagriculturalists

Examples San,

Murngin, Shoshoni

Nuer, Maasai Gururumba, Yanomamö,


Aztec, Korean, Amish

Food getting

Food collectors: gathering, hunting, fishing

Animal husbandry

Farming with simple hand


Farming with advanced

technology (e.g., irrigation,

fertilization, plows)

Community variables

Low population

density, small

community size

Low population

density, small to medium community


Moderate population

density, medium community size

High population density, large

community size

Settlement patterns

Nomadic or seminomadic

Nomadic or semi-nomadic

Basically sedentary, may

move after several years

Permanent settlements


No full-time specialists, some part-


Few full-time specialists,

some part-time

Few full-time specialists, some


Many full-time specialists

Social stratification

Generally none

Some Some Significant

Besides geographical distribution, there are other ways in which

anthropologists organize societies. One commonly used scheme is to organize societies in terms of their subsistence strategy, focusing on how they make a living (Table 1.2). Commonly used categories are foragers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agriculturalists. Of course, these are not precisely delineated categories but divisions of a continuum. Foragers are peoples without any form of plant or animal domestication. They tend to live in small, isolated groups that are found today primarily in areas that are difficult to farm. Horticulturalists are peoples who garden in the absence of fertilization, irrigation, and other advanced technologies. Pastoralists are peoples whose primary livelihood comes from the herding of domesticated animals. Peoples who plow, fertilize, and irrigate their crops are termed agriculturalists. The latter develop relatively large communities with more complex technologies. Societies that have the same subsistence strategy generally have other features in common, such as settlement patterns, population density, and the presence of specialists.

The Fore of New Guinea: an ethnographic example

In the preceding sections of this chapter we learned about some basic concepts of anthropology, such as holism, and we were introduced to the concept of ethnography. Now let us turn our attention to a particular example to illustrate these ideas.

The holistic approach sees human behavior as a complex set of interacting behaviors and ideas. In examining a society, we might begin with a particular problem that interests us, but we soon realize that to truly understand this problem, we have to look at many other aspects of the society.

An example of this was a study of the Fore, a group of about 14,000 horticulturalists living in the eastern highlands of New Guinea (Melanesia culture area). The problem that brought the Fore to the attention of the Western world was a medical one. The solution to the problem brought the Nobel Prize in Medicine to one of the investigators.

When the Australian government first contacted the Fore in the 1950s, a significant number of individuals were found to be suffering from a particular illness. The illness was having a major impact on the population: about 200

people were dying of the illness each year, the victims being primarily women and children.

This illness is characterized by a variety of symptoms, but the most obvious ones are jerking movements and shaking, which make planned motor activity difficult. The course of the illness is about nine months. At the end the victim can no longer stand or sit up and can no longer eat or drink water and soon dies. The Fore call this illness kuru, which means “to tremble with fear” in the Fore language.

The medical team that was sent in to deal with the disease sought the cause. Because it appeared to be largely confined to the Fore, the team thought it might be genetic or due to a toxin in the environment. However, kuru was finally determined to be the result of an infectious agent called a prion. The major question was how the kuru prion was passed from one person to another. Was it passed on through contaminated water, through the air, or through sexual activity? The answer to the puzzle was proposed by anthropologists: cannibalism.

It was the custom of the Fore to eat the body as part of the funeral rituals— one aspect of their religious practices. The body of the deceased was carried down to an abandoned field, where kin dismembered and cooked it. Close relatives then consumed the pieces. Because cooking does not destroy the prions, some of them entered the bloodstream through cuts and open sores and eventually entered the brain, where, many years later, the person began to show symptoms of the disease. Because women and children, who have lower social status, were more likely to eat the brain, they were the most likely to develop the disease.

The modern medical community now had an explanation for what caused the disease and knew how it was transmitted from one individual to another. The government had a “cure” to the epidemic: eliminate the practice of cannibalism. As a result, cannibalism stopped, and kuru eventually disappeared, although this took some time because the disease has a long incubation period. However, the Fore themselves did not understand this explanation and stopped eating the bodies of their dead only because not to do so would mean spending time in jail. The Fore did not accept the scientific explanation of the disease. Think about how difficult it would be for the doctors to convince the Fore that kuru was caused by tiny prions that no one could see. One might as well be talking about tiny evil spirits that also cannot

be seen. The Fore knew the cause of kuru, at least in their world. It was the result of

sorcery. Sorcery is the evil form of magic, which we will discuss in Chapter 7. The sorcerer, the person who practices sorcery, would steal something that was once a part of or in contact with the victim, such as a piece of clothing or a lock of hair. The material was then made into a bundle along with some leaves, bark, and stones and was bound up into a package. After reciting a spell, the sorcerer would place the bundle into muddy ground, and as the bundle rotted, the victim would develop the symptoms of the disease. This belief influenced everyday behavior, as individuals were careful to hide things that could be retrieved and used by a sorcerer.

In spite of this caution, people still developed kuru. In this case, a divination ritual was used to reveal the identity of the sorcerer causing the illness. As we will see in Chapter 7, many people use such techniques to reveal things that are difficult or impossible to discover by other means. Once the sorcerer was identified, the Fore had many options to counter the activity of the evildoer. A person with kuru might also have consulted a healer.

The fact that kuru struck primarily women had significant social consequences. Many men lost wives through kuru, and the shortage of women meant that many men were unable to find wives. In addition, men with children who had lost their wives had to perform many domestic chores normally reserved for women, including farming.

Figure 1.1 Holism. A complete understanding of the disease kuru among the Fore of New Guinea requires an understanding of the relationship of kuru to other aspects of Fore culture, some of which are shown in this diagram.

The ethnography of the Fore and the description of kuru illustrate the concept of holism (Figure 1.1). From the Western point of view, we begin with a medical problem: a disease. Then we see how this fatal disease affects various aspects of the society because of the death of women of childbearing age. This includes marriage, the family, the raising of children, farming, and so forth. Also, we see how the society attempts to explain and deal with the disease through religion. A description of kuru among the Fore as only a medical problem fails to provide us with a complete understanding of that disease.

Two ways of viewing culture

We can ask the question: What causes kuru among the Fore? From our viewpoint a complete answer to that question includes both biological factors (the disease-causing organism) and cultural factors (the practice of cannibalism). However, the Fore themselves would give another answer to this question: Kuru is caused by sorcery. Another aspect to the holistic approach is to consider both insider and outsider perspectives.

An anthropologist—or any scholar, for that matter—cannot be completely neutral and objective when describing a culture. Observation, recording, and analysis involve processing data in one’s mind. One’s own cultural background, education, training, and other factors will act as a filter or lens that colors what are thought of as objective observations. Physicians, using a medical model, searched for the cause of kuru through techniques learned in medical school that are based on a set of postulates developed through the scientific method. Although the physicians were able to discover the biological cause of kuru, the disease-causing protein, they were unable to discover the mode of transmission. Medical science identifies a series of transmission pathways, and none of them offered a valid explanation. It took anthropologists, viewing the situation from a holistic, anthropological viewpoint, to make the connection between kuru and cannibalism, although this had to be confirmed through a set of procedures mandated by the scientific method.

The physician and the anthropologist are outsiders looking in. They see Fore culture in terms of Western philosophy and theory. They speak of the Fore using words that categorize experience in a particular way. This is referred to as an etic perspective. There are advantages to an etic perspective. Just as a friend or therapist might see patterns to a person’s life that the person might overlook, an outside analyst might see patterns of behaviors or beliefs in a culture that the members of that group might be unaware of. Another advantage is that the anthropologist can apply a consistent form of analysis to many different societies that are being studied. This permits anthropologists to make comparisons between societies and perhaps to discover some universal principles about human behavior.

Yet the Fore see their world from an altogether different perspective, using

linguistic categories and basic assumptions about their world that differ profoundly from ours. To the Fore, sorcery is the ultimate cause of kuru, and this makes sense in their culture. An emic perspective is one that attempts to see the world through the eyes of the people being studied. Of course, the big question is, how successful can we really be at this?

Cultural relativism

How do you feel about the Fore practice of cannibalism? In the course of looking at different societies, anthropologists often observe behaviors that seem strange and sometimes disturbing. We have grown up in a particular society, and the behaviors and ideas of our own society seem to us to be natural and correct. It is also natural to use our own society as the basis for interpreting and judging other societies. This tendency is called ethnocentrism.

Anthropologists realize, however, that a true understanding of other peoples cannot develop through ethnocentric interpretations. Thinking of other people as primitive, superstitious, and immoral only colors our observations and prevents us from reaching any kind of true understanding about human behavior and thought. Anthropologists attempt to remain neutral and to accept the ways of life of other communities as appropriate for those who live in these communities. Anthropologists attempt to describe and understand people’s customs and ideas but do not judge them. This approach is known as cultural relativism. The goal is to study what people believe, not whether or not what they believe is true.

For example, funeral rituals differ from other rituals in one major respect: there is a dead body. All societies have ways of disposing of the corpse in one way or another. Burial is quite common, but there are a number of variables such as where the grave is located, what the body is buried in, what objects are buried with the body, and so on. Bodies can also be placed in trees to decay, and later the bones may be cleaned and buried. Bodies can be cremated, and the remains kept in a container, buried, or scattered at sea. Among the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil, the cremated remains are ground into a powder. At various times after a person’s death, the family

gathers together and prepares a banana stew into which some of the cremated ashes are mixed. Then they drink the mixture. And, of course, as we saw with the Fore, there is the custom of eating the body.

The practice of drinking cremated remains or eating human flesh would probably horrify most North Americans, and its practice in U.S. society would probably lead to some type of reaction on the part of the society—most likely psychiatric confinement. On the other hand, the Yanomamö are horrified by the U.S. practice of burial because it leads to the decay of the body in the ground. They believe that the finest expression of love is for close relatives to provide a final resting place for their loved ones within their own bodies. Is this practice wrong, immoral, or dangerous? The answer to this question, of course, lies within the cultural practices of the group and how that group defines correct and appropriate behaviors.


We may wonder if it is at all possible for someone from one society to truly get to know and understand people living in another society. Beginning with the Renaissance, scholars based their knowledge on the ideals of rationality, objectivity, and reason. Science was seen as the means for the discovery of knowledge, truth, and progress. This way of approaching an understanding of the world is termed modernity. It was thought that through modernity order could be created out of chaos. Based on the principles of modernity, scholars believed that it was possible to gain a true understanding of all peoples and all societies.

Beginning in the 1980s, the postmodern movement had a broad academic impact across many disciplines. In stark contrast to the ideas of modernity, postmodernism denies the possibility of acquiring, or even the existence of “true” knowledge about the world. All knowledge is seen as being a human “construction” that we must try to “deconstruct.” The postmodern movement emphasizes the limitations of science, that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, that there are multiple viewpoints and truths, and the importance of being aware of our own viewpoints and biases. In contrast to modernity’s emphasis on order, postmodernism sees contradictions and instabilities as

being inherent in any social group or practice. The value of postmodernism for anthropology has been to reinforce the

idea of multiple ways of seeing the world—that there is no one right way to think or to do things. This is an extension of the concept of cultural relativism. Postmodernism serves as a reminder of how the ethnographer herself can influence the fieldwork situation. As a result, ethnographers are more self- conscious and more aware of their own positions and biases (Box 1.1). Every person sees the world through the lens of his or her own culture. We cannot remove the lens, but we can become more aware of it.

Postmodernism, taken to its logical extreme, says that it is impossible for a person from one culture to understand someone from another culture. Perhaps it is even impossible for any one person to truly understand any other person. Given all this, could anthropology as a discipline even exist? Most anthropologists have taken a middle ground approach—appreciating the lessons of postmodernism while attempting to avoid this extreme point of view.

Box 1.1 Karen McCarthy Brown and Vodou

Karen McCarthy Brown first met Mama Lola in 1978. On the basis of a dozen years of research and writing, Brown would write the classic ethnography Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn.2 This book was at the forefront of many important trends in anthropology. It was centered on the experiences of a single individual and was influenced by feminist and postmodern ideologies. In the book, Brown speaks candidly of her own experiences doing participant observation research and how she became involved in the religion of Vodou to a degree that perhaps even goes beyond that standard—becoming a Vodou priestess herself. (The Vodou religion will be discussed in Chapter 11.)

The book focuses on the life and practices of Mama Lola, a Haitian immigrant living in New York City. Among the themes of the book is the persecution experienced by Haitians in the United States and the difficulties they face in trying to practice their religion. Brown continues to focus on religious practices that take place outside of standard

religious institutions. This kind of activity has become a major part of religious life in modern urban cultures. This is especially true in the United States, where religious pluralism is on the rise, partly owing to recent immigration patterns.

Universal human rights

Some anthropologists, however, question the approach of complete neutrality represented by cultural relativism and the approach of complete subjectivity of postmodernism and ask: Are there any basic human rights and universal standards of behavior? This is an area of debate, one that often focuses on the religious practices of other peoples that may include such customs as physical alterations of the genitalia or cannibalism.

Cultural relativism is one of the basic concepts necessary to anthropology, and it should not be put aside lightly. Our first approach to any cultural practice should be to try to understand it in context—to understand the meaning it has for people in that culture. After doing so, however, is it possible to say, “I understand this practice and why this culture does it, but it is still wrong”? The difficulty in this is knowing where to draw the line, and strict criteria must be used. One such set of criteria was proposed by Robert Edgerton:

I shall first define [maladaptation] as the failure of a population or its culture to survive because of the inadequacy or harmfulness of one or more of its beliefs or institutions. Second, maladaptation will be said to exist when enough members of a population are sufficiently dissatisfied with one or more of their social institutions or cultural beliefs that the viability of their society is threatened. Finally, it will be considered to be maladaptive when a population maintains beliefs or practices that so seriously impair the physical or mental health of its members that they cannot adequately meet their own needs or maintain their social and cultural system.3

It is important to note that the criteria are based on the survival of the society and its ability to function—not on an outsider’s perception of morality. Edgerton includes as an example the high levels of stress and fear related to witchcraft beliefs in some cultures, a topic to which we will return in Chapter

10. The Aztec practice of cannibalism is another example. The prehistoric

Aztecs were an agricultural society located in the Mesoamerica culture area. In Aztec society a small elite used religious and military power to conquer neighboring groups. They took tribute in the form of gold and other valuables from the people they conquered. Both slaves and captured prisoners of war were sacrificed and eaten. The benefits of the conquest went almost exclusively to the elite. One analytical approach to the practice of cannibalism by the Aztecs argues that it was an adaptation to a protein-poor environment. A culturally relativistic approach would also point out that the sacrifices were done to please the Aztec gods. Edgerton argues against both of these interpretations.

Edgerton points out that sacrifice and cannibalism were conducted with very little ritual preparation—bodies were rolled down steeply sloped temple steps to be butchered below. The bodies were dealt with in much the same way as a side of beef might be. Human flesh was considered a delicacy and greatly desired, to such an extent that wars were fought with the primary goal of gaining human captives for sacrifice.

The negative impacts were not only on the neighboring groups. The Aztec elite did not share the wealth with the commoners. Even commoners who served in the army did not do so as equals. While the nobles wore helmets, armor, and shields, the commoners had none of this equipment. As Edgerton writes, “The splendors of Aztec culture cannot be denied, but they were achieved at great cost by the many largely for the benefit of the ruling few.”4

Despite this questioning, cultural relativism remains of utmost importance to anthropologists. Our first approach should always be to try to understand a culture’s beliefs and behaviors in context, to learn what meaning the world has through their eyes.

The concept of culture

In the previous examples of the Aztec and the Fore, we observed a number of specific behaviors and beliefs. For example, an anthropologist living among the Fore for a period of time would, of course, record descriptions of Fore life

in much more detail and cover many other aspects of their lives—marriage and family, child rearing, hunting and farming, trade, technology, political organization, folklore, and so on. It is obvious that the body of behaviors and beliefs of the Fore are quite different from ours. These behaviors and beliefs make up Fore culture.

In anthropology the term culture is used as a technical term. It does not refer to the arts or the “finer things of life.” Although the term is widely used and discussed, finding a definition that is acceptable to all anthropologists is a difficult task.

The British anthropologist Edward B. Tylor (1832–1917) first used the term culture in its anthropological sense. In 1871, Tylor wrote, “Culture … is that complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”5 In this definition Tylor recognized that culture is a “complex whole,” which is a reference to the holistic concept. And he noted that culture includes customs that people acquire by growing up in a particular society; that is, culture is learned.

When we look at a group of social insects, such as ants, we see a society in which individuals behave in certain stereotypic ways. When we look at a group of humans, we also see certain behaviors that appear to be stereotyped, repetitive, or customary. Yet besides the much greater complexity of human behavior, there is a major difference between ant and human behavior. Ant behavior is innate; that is, it is coded in the genes—it is a part of the ant’s biological heredity. Although some aspects of human behavior are likely to be innate, the preponderance of human behavior is learned, handed down from one generation to the next, and is shared by a group of people. Culture is seen in the way people dress, how they greet one another, how they go about their chores, and how they worship their gods. For example, the actions that are performed in a ritual are actions that are learned from someone else, perhaps a parent or a priest, and thus they are passed down from one generation to the next.

One of the consequences of the social transmission of culture is that human behavior is complex and variable. Unlike biological inheritance, in which change occurs slowly through the mechanisms of biological evolution, learned behavioral patterns can change very rapidly in response to changing

conditions. Also, the human species, which is very homogenous biologically, exhibits a great many different cultures.

Another important feature of culture is that it is based on the use of symbols. Symbols are shared understandings about the meaning of certain words, attributes, or objects, such as the color red symbolizing stop in traffic signals. The connection between the two is arbitrary; there is no obvious, natural, or necessary connection. For example, in most Western societies black is the color associated with mourning. However in other cultures, the color associated with mourning may be white, red, or even green.

Culture is learned primarily through symbols. Language can be thought of as a string of symbols, and we learn, communicate, and even think through the use of these symbols. Symbols are obviously an important area of discussion for the study of religion. The Christian cross, for example, symbolizes not just the religion itself, but a particular philosophy and history. Chapter 3 discusses the nature of symbols and their role in religious practice.

Viewing the world

The idea of culture involves much more than describing human activity. People also have different belief systems and different perceptions and understandings of their world and their lives.

Culture gives meaning to reality. We live in a real, physical world, yet this world is translated through the human mind onto a different plane. We look out a window and see a mountain rising above us. To the geologist the mountain is a structure made of rock formed through natural processes. To the hydrologist concerned with bringing water to a desert town, the mountain is the place where snowfields are found. To the biologist it is the home of a great many plants and animals, many of them perhaps endangered.

To many people, however, a mountain is much more than a physical thing. The mountain might be the home of the gods or the place where the souls of the dead congregate after death. Mountains figure prominently in many Biblical stories; for example, Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and Mount Ararat was where Noah’s ark came to rest. Psalm 121 reads: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh

my help.”6 Other sacred mountains include Mount Olympus, where the gods of ancient Greece lived, and the four sacred mountains of the Navaho world. We may label these images as being part of the imagination of a people, yet to the people the sacredness of a mountaintop may be as real as the presence of rocks, snow, or plants.

The study of religion

The beginning point of any discourse is to define the object of study—in this instance, religion. Yet the task of defining this term is a challenging one indeed. We must avoid using a definition that is too narrow or one that is too vague. Many definitions that have been proposed have been so narrow that they apply only to some cultures and only to some of the phenomena that anthropologists traditionally place within the domain of religion. Such definitions often are ethnocentric, including only those ideas that are considered “religious” for that culture. In such definitions many topics, such as magic and witchcraft, are often excluded. On the other hand, a definition that is too inclusive and vague loses much of its meaning and usefulness.

In spite of the difficulties of defining religion, anthropology is a social science, and the methodology of science requires that we define our terms. We need to use an operant definition. This is one in which we define our terms so that they are observable and measurable and therefore can be studied. So what would a good operant definition of religion be? We can start by looking at the various ways in which scholars have attempted to define the term.

Attempts at defining religion

Many definitions of religion share many of the elements that we included in our definition of culture. Perhaps we can define a religion as a system of beliefs and behaviors, based on a system of symbols. But how can we distinguish religious beliefs and behaviors from other aspects of culture? After

all, we can recognize, for example, particular beliefs, behaviors, and symbols that define political or economic processes.

Analytic definitions focus on the way religion manifests itself or is expressed in a culture. An example would be defining religions by stating that religious practices generally include rituals.

Ninian Smart, for example, stated what he felt were the six dimensions of religion.7 These comprise the following:

the institutional dimension (organization and leadership); the narrative dimension (myths, creation stories, worldview); the ritual dimension (rites of passage and other important ritual activities); the social dimension (religion being a group activity that binds people together); the ethical dimension (customs, moral rules); the experiential dimension (religion involving experiences of a sacred reality that is beyond ordinary experience).

Functional definitions focus on what religion does either socially or psychologically. For example, rituals would be seen as a means to bring a group together and bring individuals comfort. Theorists who have used a more functional definition of religion include Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and anthropologists Émile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz. Geertz wrote:

A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.8

One of the problems with functional definitions is that they could apply equally well to beliefs and behaviors that are not religious in nature. Others feel that functional approaches are reductionist, reducing religion to a few feelings and behaviors that are not, in and of themselves, religious. For both these reasons, it can be difficult to separate religious and nonreligious systems using a functional definition. This does not mean that the social and psychological functions are not important. They are, and functionalism as a theoretical approach to studying religion (discussed further below) has much

to offer. As a definition, however, it alone is not sufficient. An essentialist definition of religion looks at what is the essential nature

of religion. It emphasizes the fact that religion is the domain of the extraordinary—things beyond the commonplace and the natural. On the basis of this idea we would say that a religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that deals with the relationship between humans and the sacred supernatural.

The term supernatural refers to things that are “above the natural.” Supernatural entities and actions transcend the normal world of cause and effect as we know it. In the supernatural world, wondrous things occur. Supernatural beings defy the basic laws of nature. In the supernatural world, objects move faster than light, heavy objects fly, and creatures become invisible.

However, not all supernatural phenomena are thought to be religious. Consider the folktale in which the handsome prince is turned into a frog. This is surely a supernatural occurrence—handsome princes do not turn into frogs in the natural world—but this occurrence is hardly a religious one. To address this problem, we add the term sacred to the definition of religion. Sacred denotes an attitude wherein the subject is entitled to reverence and respect.

Many theorists have defined religion in terms of the supernatural as the core religious beliefs of any religious system. In 1871, Edward Burnett Tylor defined religion as animism, a belief in spirit beings (gods, souls, ghosts, demons, etc.). Much later, Melford Spiro defined religion as an “institution consisting of culturally patterned interactions with culturally postulated superhuman beings.”9

The problem with an essentialist definition is that such definitions often become too specific, focusing narrowly on spirit beings for example, or risk being too vague if they only reference the supernatural. As with other definitions we have looked at, essentialist definitions by themselves may not be enough but do point to areas of great importance in religion.

A true understanding of the breadth of religious practices among the world’s societies will become clear as you progress through this text. We encourage you to keep an open mind and settle on your own definition as you gain more knowledge and understanding. However, as was discussed previously, as an endeavor in the social sciences, this text needs an operant definition in order to proceed.

One would like to have a simple definition of the term religion. However, the search for a simple, yet useful definition remains elusive. Religion is a concept constructed by the human mind that includes a particular set of human beliefs and practices. As a cultural construct it is strongly influenced by culture and by philosophical and theoretical backgrounds. The practices that are included under the rubric of religion vary from scholar to scholar, and definitions that focus upon religious systems found in large, urban societies differ considerably from those found in small-scale societies. Each definition previously explored offers clues to important elements of religion, but each by itself is incomplete.

Perhaps it is best to think of religion as a set of cultural beliefs and practices that usually include some or all of a basic set of characteristics. While not an exhaustive list, it will provide us with an operant definition as we move ahead with our studies of religious systems. These characteristics are as follows:

a belief in anthropomorphic supernatural beings, such as spirits and gods; a focus on the sacred supernatural, where sacred refers to a feeling of reverence and awe; the presence of supernatural power or energy that is found in supernatural beings as well as physical beings and objects; the performance of ritual activities that involve the manipulation of sacred objects to communicate with supernatural beings and/or to influence or control events; an articulation of a worldview and moral code through narratives and other means; provides for the creation and maintenance of social bonds and mechanisms of social control within a community; provides explanations for the unknown and a sense of control for the individual.

The domain of religion

The discussion of definitions highlights the contrasting concepts of etic and

emic. The very concept of religion as a separate cultural category is a Western one. Western cultures are divided into very distinct cultural domains, such as economics, politics, technology, and, of course, religion. As we move through our day, we move from one domain to another, yet the domains do not overlap, or they overlap to a small degree. For example, when we go to work, we might punch a clock or sign in, for “work” is a distinct segment of our life, which we can define in terms of location, activity, relationships to coworkers, and so forth. Religion as a domain may be restricted to very specific activities held in special places during specific times—a Sunday morning church service, for example. When we use the term religion, we might immediately picture such things as special buildings dedicated to religious activities (churches, temples, and mosques) and full-time specialists who perform religious rituals (priests and rabbis).

Our analysis of religion becomes more difficult when we turn our attention to more traditional societies. If we analyzed small-scale religious systems by applying the definitions and concepts that have been developed in Western cultures, we would likely find that certain elements that we consider to be vital parts of our religious systems simply do not exist—in our terms. For some people it follows from this that other religious systems are “defective,” “incomplete,” “primitive,” “false,” or “full of superstitions.” Clearly, this leads us into highly ethnocentric conclusions that cloud our ability to understand the religious systems of other peoples.

When we study traditional societies using an emic (insider) approach, there might be no equivalent term to our concept of religion. Religion is not separated out from other dimensions of life but is fully integrated into the fabric of beliefs and behavior. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote, “To the believer, they are parts of the universe; to the observer, they are parts of a religion.”10

Theoretical approaches to the study of religion

Just as there are many definitions of religion, there are also many approaches to the study of religious phenomena. Here we will describe five approaches that anthropologists have used to study religion: evolutionary, Marxist,

functional, interpretive, and psychosocial.

The evolutionary approach

The evolutionary approach was centered on the questions of when and how religion began. This viewpoint developed in the late 1800s when the focus was on the concepts of science, logic, and monotheism as the pinnacles of human achievement. Scholars of the time emphasized empiricism, or observing and measuring, saying that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge; any knowledge beyond that is impossible.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the concept of a general evolution of culture. It was thought that religion naturally evolved from the simple to the complex and that this evolution was a natural consequence of human nature. An interest in the religion of “primitive” peoples arose from the supposition that “primitive” peoples represented an early stage of cultural evolution and that one could learn about and understand the historical roots of the religion of “civilized” societies by studying living “primitive” peoples.

Edward B. Tylor used this approach in his book Primitive Culture (1871).11

He concluded that all religions had a belief in spiritual beings. Whereas the religions of “civilized” peoples included beliefs in gods and souls, those of “primitive” peoples focused on the belief in spirits and ghosts. He termed this early belief system animism.

Tylor thought that the belief in spirit beings was the natural and universal conclusion reached by all peoples through the observation of sleep and dreams, possession, and death, during which the soul is thought to leave the body, temporarily or permanently. Because other animals are also living, they must also have souls that leave the body when the animal dies. All living things are animated by souls, as are nonliving things such as waterfalls and mountains.

In attempting to find a common thread in all religious systems, Tylor failed to discover the great variability among the world’s religious systems. This was in part because Tylor did not go into the field to become immersed in the complexity of a particular culture. Instead, he relied on reports of explorers,

missionaries, and colonial administrators who described, often in simplistic and biased ways, the peoples they encountered in their travels.

Robert R. Marett developed the concept of a simpler, more basic, and more ancient supernatural force that he labeled animatism.12 Marett thought that the idea of animatism simply grew out of human emotional reaction to the power of nature. This belief in an impersonal supernatural power is well articulated in the religions of Polynesia and Melanesia, where it is referred to as mana. In Chapter 7 we will discuss the ideas of another scholar from the evolutionary school, James Frazer, who wrote extensively about magic, a category that he considered to be separate from religion. Frazer saw a natural progression in cultures from magic to religion to science.13

The evolutionary approach has many critics. Many of the ideas found in this school of thought are ethnocentric—for example, Tylor’s idea that the religion of “primitive” peoples focused on spirits and ghosts while more “civilized” peoples focused on gods. In addition, any ideas about the origin of a cultural practice are, of course, highly speculative. Although the idea of cultural progression, with Western societies being more “evolved” than smaller-scale traditional ones, is no longer used in anthropology, the general question of the origins of religion has remained a concern.

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