Arquivo da Categoria: Anthropological Entry

The Rite

 The rite constitutes a central theme of the Anthropology of Religion, constituting, in terms of W. R. Smith, “ancient religion in its totality”. According to the author, “primitively, religion was not a system of beliefs with practical applications, but a set of fixed traditional practices to which all members of society were subject”. Ritual hypertrophy is a central aspect in ancient religions with an old structure, as is the case of religions of African origin. Along these lines, Radcliffe-Brown states that beliefs have a much more variable and volatile character than rites, which are more consistent and perennial, the reason why, according to him, rites should be the privileged object of study of the discipline. For Durkheim, the rite has a social dimension, has a character of repeatability, and performs a specific function within a society. In the wake of Freud, Malinowski conceived a psychological size in ritual, which would function as a cathartic and tranquilliser.

Moreover, Malinowski observes a “magical” size in the ritual, resulting from the fact that its efficacy resides in the ritual itself, i.e., when it summons an inherent power (the mana), distinguished, in his idea, from the “religious” dimension, which occurs when its efficacy depends on the intervention of forces external to the rite (gods and spirits). Marcel Mauss made a decisive contribution to the theoretical approach to the ritual. According to him, the ritual is a “traditional act” adopted by the collectivity or by an authority recognised, which concerns things conceived as “sacred”. For Mauss, the rite has the coercive function of manipulating things by employing offerings and requests. Victor Turner, in turn, considers that the study of rituals should be accompanied by the study of symbols, affirming that signs are multivocal, i.e., represent various things at the same time. For Turner, religious life presents characteristics proper to communitas, having “qualities of passage”. Finally, for Turner, ritual is a system of symbols that “stores traditional knowledge”, possessing a rigid and repetitive character, having a dramatic charge that allows the group to overcome divisions and reaffirm unity.

Anthropology of Religion

From the remarkable evolutionist conceptions at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, religious ethnology was born, based on what Albert Marie Bros, in L’Ethnologie religieuse: introduction à l’étude comparée des religions primitives, calls “religious facts observable in primitive peoples” (1923: 15). This evolutionist view of societies remained for quite some time. Lewis Morgan, regarded as one of the pioneers of religious anthropology, in La Société Archaique, 1877, states that religious beliefs are linked to the domain of the imagination and affectivity and are therefore marked by the principle of uncertainty, which is why “primitive” religions are “grotesque” and “unintelligible”.

Despite having freed itself from the methodological and conceptual shackles of evolutionism – a determining obstacle to the construction of an equitable vision of cultures – the discipline remains, even if already under the designation of Anthropology of Religions, devoted to the study of religious forms in primitive societies (Radcliffe-Brown 1945). Nevertheless, British functionalism (with Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard) would mark the discipline by establishing the central place of systematic and rigorous field studies, changing the focus from the origin of religion and its contribution to the formation of human societies to the social functions of religion. As Radcliffe-Brown would later affirm, in response to Lewis Morgan, “the social function of religion is independent of its truth or falsity, and religions which we find false or even absurd and repugnant, as of savage tribes, may play an important and effective role in the social mechanism” (1945: 231). Functionalism, despite its relevance in the formation of an ethnographic model as the basis of analysis, failed to focus, above all, on the social function of religion, neglecting other aspects beyond its dimension of social production.

At the turn of the post-war period, Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism centred the debate on religion on the terrain of the psychological and social aspects of human symbolism. Unfortunately, it reduced the significance of religion within anthropology by arguing that the importance of its study boils down to inscribing it within the larger framework of understanding more general human thought and its “social translations”, i.e., rites, institutions, etc., from which to understand cultural universals.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the exhaustion of interest in the study of religions, leading to a discourse of “exhaustion” of the subject. Claude Lévi-Strauss even claimed (1974) that anthropology seemed to have moved away from religious facts. Evans-Pritchard (1965), argues that religion no longer has the same (central) importance it had for anthropology in its early days, justifying this disinterest with an accompaniment of social changes, with anthropology following society’s disinterest in religion.

The definition

However, Roger Bastide (1978), taking up the approach of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1974b), in an entry in the Encyclopaedia Universalis, considers that the principle of religious ethnology is to study the diversity of beliefs or practices of ethnic groups in relation to each other, with the knowledge it produces “remaining located in a cultural area, as a type of religion, animist, for example, or polytheistic”, whereas the principle of the anthropology of religion is to discover the general laws of man as a religious subject. This means, therefore, observing religion from empirical materials in order to produce theoretical models capable of explaining human nature from its religious nature.


As a result of the geography of the discipline, i.e. the fact that it was formulated in the West, between Europe and the United States, the illusion is established that there is only one anthropology of religions. This is why Luís Batalha writes, “there is American anthropology, another British, another French, another Chinese, another Japanese, another German, etc. Or, perhaps, in each of those countries there are even several anthropologies” (1998: 320). This is understandable insofar as, as Kishimoto (1961) states, each cultural context produces its own definition of “religion,” which demands localized methodologies and conceptualizations that are globalized in the broad sense of generating tools for the discipline rather than localized globalized conceptions that tend to sin by their inability to fit the realities under study.

Witchcraft, Oracle and the Azande

Edward Evans-Pritchard’s book, published in 1937 under the title Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, remains one of the most remarkable works in anthropological studies. Fundamental in the validation of the ethnographic model, this book is the result of twenty months of fieldwork carried out in Southern Sudan between 1926 and 1929. It is a work of enormous theoretical and ethnographic relevance, where the idea of “witchcraft” occupies a central place in dealing with a vital category in the framework of Azande community life. According to Evans-Pritchard, the Zande belief in witchcraft constitutes an explanatory model for misfortunes. Contrary to the postulates of the founders of anthropology such as Lewis Morgan, who saw in the religions of non-Western societies grotesque and fanciful principles, Evans-Pritchard shows how witchcraft actually belongs to a coherent and racial system of thought and action, which involves oracles, “magic”, “sorcery”, among other elements, composing an explanatory model of objective events and chance. Each element of the system (in chain) explains and validates the other. Even in cases where ritual or divination failures occur, they are explained from a framework of autochthonous mystical and idiomatic references.

In general, the Azande conceive “witchcraft” as a hereditary biological condition that is activated by often involuntary psychic states (impulses), such as envy, hatred, greed, and jealousy, which trigger a series of misfortunes in the person targeted. As these misfortunes range from the simplest situations to death, recourse to the oracle is a daily practice, and the various types of oracles available reveal the identity of the witch, as well as resolve doubts on a wide variety of subjects, which otherwise would be impossible to assess. In opposition to “witchcraft” is “magic”, which is a resource in combating the evils caused by the other, curing illnesses, positively controlling agriculture and hunting (sources of livelihood), as well as acting as a form of revenge against the witches and wizards identified in the oracles. While “witchcraft” among the Azande is involuntary, resulting from natural and unconscious impulses, “magic” is a conscious act, manipulation of the elements by means of specific drugs for each purpose and the performance of “incantations”. A further distinction occurs on the ritual level: “good magic”, i.e., that which is socially accepted, is opposed to “sorcery”, which would be malignant, anti-social and immoral since it has a deliberate intention to harm another person physically and economically.

By identifying a rational logic in Zande “witchcraft”, Evans-Pritchard gives an enormous boost to the study of reasoning in the so-called “primitive” societies of the time, ahead of his predecessor Lucien Lévy-Brühl. The work brings new data and contributions to various social sciences by showing the sociological dimension – conflicts and power relations – produced by accusations of “witchcraft” and “sorcery”, as well as to studies of social change in colonial and post-colonial contexts.

A Antropologia Religiosa

A partir das conceções evolucionistas marcantes da viragem do séc. XIX para o séc. XX nasce a etnologia religiosa, partindo daquilo que Albert Marie Bros, em L’Ethnologie religieuse: introduction à l’étude comparée des religions primitives, chama de “factos religiosos observáveis nos povos primitivos” (1923: 15). Esta visão evolucionista das sociedades manteve-se por bastante tempo. Lewis Morgan, tido como um dos pioneiros da Antropologia Religiosa, em La Société Archaique, de 1877, afirma que as crenças religiosas estão ligadas ao domínio da imaginação e da afetividade, sendo, por tal, marcadas pelo princípio da incerteza, motivo pela qual as religiões «primitivas» seriam “grotescas” e “ininteligíveis”.

Apesar de se ter libertado das amarras metodológicas e conceptuais do evolucionismo – entrave determinante à construção de uma visão equitativa das culturas -, a disciplina mantém-se, ainda que já sob a designação de Antropologia das Religiões, como devotada ao estudo das formas religiosas nas sociedades primitivas (Radcliffe-Brown 1945). Não obstante, o funcionalismo britânico com Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown e Evans-Pritchard) iria marcar a disciplina, ao estabelecer o lugar central dos estudos de campo sistemáticos e rigorosos, alterando o enfoque da origem da religião e o seu contributo para a formação das sociedades humanas, para as funções sociais da religião. Como viria a afirmar Radcliffe-Brown, em resposta a Lewis Morgan, “a função social da religião é independente da sua verdade ou falsidade, e as religiões que achamos falsas ou até absurdas e repugnantes, como das tribos selvagens, podem desempenhar um papel importante e eficaz no mecanismo social” (1945: 231). O funcionalismo, pese a sua relevância na formação de uma modelo etnográfico como base da análise, pecou por se centrar, sobremaneira, na função social da religião, descorando outros aspetos além da sua dimensão de produção social.

Na viragem do pós-segunda guerra, o estruturalismo de Lévi-Strauss centrou o debate sobre a religião no terreno dos aspetos psicológicos e sociais do simbolismo humano. Infelizmente reduziu o significado da religião no seio da Antropologia, ao defender que a importância do seu estudo se resume à inscrição no quadro maior que é o do entendimento do pensamento humano mais geral e das suas “traduções sociais”, i.e., ritos, instituições, etc., a partir das quais se compreender os universais culturais.

As décadas de 1950 e 1960 marcam o esgotamento do interesse pelo estudo das religiões, levando a um discurso de «esgotamento» do tema. Claude Lévi-Strauss chega a afirmar (1974) que a antropologia parecia ter-se afastado dos factos religiosos. Evans-Pritchard (1965), defende que a religião já não tem a mesma importância (central) que tinha para a Antropologia nos seus primórdios, justificando esse desinteresse com um acompanhamento das mudanças sociais, sendo que a antropologia seguia o desinteresse da sociedade pela religião.

A definição 

Entretanto, Roger Bastide (1978), retomando a abordagem de Claude Lévi-Strauss (1974b), numa entrada da Encyclopaedia Universalis, considera que a etnologia religiosa tem por princípio o estudo da diversidade das crenças ou das práticas das etnias umas em relação às outras, sendo que o conhecimento que produz “permanece localizado numa área cultural, num tipo de religião, animista, por exemplo, ou politeísta”, ao passo que a antropologia da religião tem por princípio descobrir as leis gerais do homem enquanto sujeito religioso. Isto significa, portanto, observar a religião a partir de materiais empíricos a fim de produzir modelos teóricos capazes de explicar a natureza humana a partir da sua natureza religiosa.

A Pluralidade 

Em resultado da geografia da disciplina, i.e., do facto desta se ter formulado no Ocidente, entre a Europa e os Estados Unidos, estabelece-se a ilusão de que existe apenas uma antropologia das religiões. É por isso que escreve Luís Batalha, “existe uma antropologia americana, outra britânica, outra francesa, outra chinesa, outra japonesa, outra alemã, etc. Ou, talvez, em cada um daqueles países existam mesmo várias antropologias” (1998: 320). Isto é compreensível na medida em que, como afirma Kishimoto (1961), cada contexto cultural produz a sua própria definição de «religião», o que demanda por metodologias e conceptualizações localizadas que se globalizam no sentido amplo de gerar ferramentas para a disciplina, ao invés de se localizarem conceções globalizadas que tendem a pecar pela incapacidade de se adequarem às realidades em estudo.

O Rito

rito constitui tema central da Antropologia da Religião, constituindo-se, nos termos de W. R. Smith, “a religião antiga na sua totalidade”. Segundo o autor, “primitivamente, a religião não era um sistema de crenças com aplicações práticas, mas sim conjunto de práticas tradicionais fixadas, às quais se submetiam todos os membros da sociedade”. A hipertrofia ritual configura aspeto central nas religiões antigas e de estrutura antiga, como é o caso das religiões de matrizes africanas. Nessa linha, Radcliffe-Brown afirma que as crenças têm um caráter muito mais variável e volátil face ao rito, o qual se apresenta de modo mais consistente e perene, razão pela qual, segundo ele, devem ser os ritos o objeto de estudo privilegiado da disciplina. Para Durkheim, o rito comporta uma dimensão social, tem um caráter de repetibilidade, desempenha uma função específica no interior de uma sociedade. Na esteira de Freud, Malinowski concebe uma dimensão psicológica no ritual, o qual funcionaria como catártico e tranquilizador. Além disso, Malinowski observa uma dimensão «mágica» no ritual, resultante do facto da sua eficácia residir nele próprio, i.e., quando convoca um poder imanente (o mana), distinguindo-se, na sua ideia, da dimensão «religiosa», a qual ocorre quando a sua eficácia depende da intervenção de potências externas ao rito (deuses e espíritos). Marcel Mauss deu um contributo decisivo na abordagem teórica ao rito. Segundo este, o rito é um “ato tradicional” adotado pela coletividade ou por uma autoridade por aquela reconhecida, e que versa sobre coisas concebidas como “sagradas”. Para Mauss o rito tem a função coercitiva de manipular as coisas por via de oferendas e pedidos. Victor Turner, por sua vez, considera que o estudo dos rituais deve ser acompanhado do estudo dos símbolos, afirmando que os símbolos são multívocos, i.e., representam várias coisas ao mesmo tempo. Para Turner, a vida religiosa apresenta características próprias da communitas, tendo “qualidades de passagem”. Enfim, para Turner o ritual é um sistema de símbolos que “armazena saber tradicional”, possuindo um caráter rígido e repetitivo, possuindo uma carga dramática que permite ao grupo superar divisões e reafirmar a unidade.