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Trends in the Anthropology of the Supernatural: From Misperception to Transpersonal Experience

Jack Hunter Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol


Since its earliest incarnation in the nineteenth century, anthropology has been concerned with attempting to understand the supernatural, magical and religious beliefs of human beings around the world. E.B. Tylor (1832-1917), the rst chair of anthropology at Oxford University, noted the prevalence of belief in supernatural beings in the early ethnographic literature and labelled it animism. Tylor considered animism to be the minimum denition of religion and sought to explain this belief in terms of the irrationality of primitive humans, he emphasised their supposed inability to draw accurate conclusions from their own subjective experiences.
When the sleeper awakens from a dream, he believes he has really somehow been away, or that other people have come to him. As it is well known by experience that mens bodies do not go on these excursions, the natural explanation is that every mans living self or soul is his phantom or image, which can go out of his body and see and be seen itself in dreams (Tylor 1930:88)

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) promoted a social-functional approach to magic and religion. He argued that although religion was characterised by error and illusion it still performed an important role in society: ...though the performance of religious rites does not actually produce the effects that are expected or hoped for by those who perform or take part in them, they have other effects, some at least of which may be socially valuable (1968:154) While Radcliffe-Browns approach echoed Durkheims emphasis on magic and religion as social-functional phenomena, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) emphasised their personal and psychological function. Malinowski suggested that magical and religious beliefs served the purpose of assuaging human fears and uncertainties, for example magical rites to promote good crops counter the fear of a bad harvest. E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973), while conducting ethnographic eldwork amongst the Azande in Sudan, came to realise that witchcraft, in the Azande worldview, was an ever present force used to explain unfortunate and unusual occurrences. Furthermore, he learned that the Azande worldview was by no means an irrational one, in fact he concluded, quite radically at the time, that Azande beliefs were logical and that belief in witchcraft was not incompatible with a rational appreciation of nature. Although functionalist approaches ...social groups, to achieve provided a framework through which their reciprocal ordering, need to call upon orders of supernatural beliefs can be understood without recourse to classifying them as different types, irrational or primitive, they nevertheless corresponding to a field external to objective reality failed to take which we call account of the supernatural. These experiences and thought of orders cannot be altered states of checked against the consciousness experience to which they that underlie refer, since they are one and many the same as this experience (Levi-Strauss supernatural belief systems. 1986:313) This vital aspect was essentially bracketed out and ignored.

For many the publication, in 1968, of Carlos Castanedas infamous book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that rekindled the supernatural debate in anthropology. The book documents the authors unusual experiences while consuming sacred psychoactive plants, presenting them in an autobiographical ethnographic account. Regardless of its veracity, the inuence of the book on subsequent anthropologists was enormous and inspired many to follow similar courses of ethnographic eldwork in other societies. Edith Turner highlights the importance in the ethnographic study of religion, and religious experience more specically, for the ethnographer to learn to see what the Native sees (1993:11). She writes that it is only through attaining the experiences important to the host culture that the anthropologist is able to move away from making excessively reductive assumptions about their beliefs. Through participating fully in the host culture, to the extent of accessing culturally relevant experiences, the anthropologist is able to gain a perspective that could not be attained through any normal means of objective observation. Writing on his experiences with the Yanomami in Venezuela Zeljko Jokic, describes how his own subjective experiences under the inuence of the hallucinogenic snuff Yopo represented a point of intersubjective entry into the Yanomami life-world (Jokic 2008:36).
[A Transpersonal Anthropologist is] capable of participating in transpersonal experience; that is, capable of both attaining whatever extraordinary experiences and phases of consciousness...enrich the religious system, and relating these experiences to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies all over the planet (Laughlin 1997)

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) disagreed with Tylors emphasis on the irrationality of early man and suggested that supernatural beliefs might have their origins in the experience of genuinely supernormal phenomena. J.G. Frazer (1854-1941), like Tylor, saw supernatural beliefs as remnants of primitive mentality destined to be superseded by scientic rationality. He posited an evolutionary scheme in which magic gave way to religion which, ultimately, will give way to science.

Magic

Religion

Science

Emile Durkheim(1858-1917), the founding father of French Sociology, interpreted the sacred as an expression of society: Because we are conscious of [social] pressure on us, we locate those forces outside ourselves, as we do the objective causes of our sensations...Consequently, we feel as though we are engaged in two distinct realities, separated by a clearly drawn line of demarcation: the world of profane things on the one hand, the world of sacred things on the other (Durkheim 2008:160)

Over the course of its development as a discipline anthropology has been forced to modify its interpretation of supernatural beliefs, moving from a perspective that sees such beliefs as irrational and primitive, to an appreciation of the lived experience of other cultures and their concomitant modes of consciousness.
References Castaneda, C. (1976 [1968]). The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd. Durkheim, E. (2008). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Frazer, J.G. (1993 [1890]). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions. Jokic, Z. (2008). Yanomami Shamanic Initiation: The Meaning of Death and Postmortem Consciousness in Transition. Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 33-59. Lang, A. (1900 [1898]). The Making of Religion. Levi-Strauss, C. (1986). Structural Anthropology, Volume I. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Laughlin, C. (1997). The Cycle of Meaning: Some Methodological Implications of Biogenetic Structural Theory. In S. Glazier (ed.) Anthropology of Religion: Handbook of Theory and Method. Westport: Greenwood Press. Malinowski, B. (1948). Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press. Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. (1968). Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen & West Ltd. Turner, E. (1993). The Reality of Spirits: A Tabooed or Permitted Field of Study? Anthropology of Consciousness, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 9-12. Tylor, E. B. (1930). Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization. London: C.A. Watts and Co. Ltd.

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