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anthropology english

Multivocality

Yongho Kim
October 8, 2003
Anthropology (248) of Religion

Our author Hicks tells us that blood is a multivocal symbol, and this makes it particularly useful in ritual contexts. What IS a “multivocal symbol”? How have cultures used blood to transmit powerful religious concepts? (Use specific ethnographic examples to illustrate your discussion.) Can you think of another entity or substance that, like blood, is a multivocal symbol used in ritual context? (Illustrate your points with specific examples.)

A multivocal symbol is that which is referred to from different conceptual schemes. (Hicks 203) In Hicks and his choice of ethnographies, blood may be invoked to bring about the images of fertility, productivity, purification and forgiveness of sins, sexuality, initiation, and salvation.

It is noteworthy to mention than in all these instances, blood is only recognized as such when it is poured – when it becomes externally apparent. The killing of a goat, menstruation and childbirth, mutual slashing and circumcision all share the aspect that a body is cut and blood is externalized, visible to the believers in its red form. An exception, in which blood acquires meaning in its absence, is in the ritual passage into death hood in the U.S. societies, in which the ritual specialist – the funeral director – will replace the blood with embalming fluid and tint with the purpose of giving it an acceptable appearance to the dead in front of the ritual participants. (Whitaker III, Hicks 306)

I can recall a number of trivial instances when the drawing of blood invoked different social meanings. In among urban Chilean youth (and possibly for many other western societies), a wound involving blood is considered as more serious than one not involving one. For instance, once I hung myself from a football pole, which fell seriously injuring my ankle. However, the concern of my friends who came to help was not as great as when I had fallen while running tracks in the football court and scratched the whole leg, for I was not bleeding. A possible fracture needed to be consciously examined before it was recognized as danger. Also, among high school students in South Corea, nose bleeding is considered a feat to be proud of, since it is sign, according to popular conception, that the student has gone through hardships while studying.

In Jewish societies, the use of blood causes the purification of the person or object washed with it, and carries the subsequent symbolic meaning of forgiveness of sins. (Archer, Hicks 237)

The flow of blood can be also compared based on gender. Male circumcision, which involves blood flowing from the male genitalia, represents the integration of the baby into the general society. This practice is considered a cultural or civilized act, since it is man-controlled (presumably, the time of circumcision is agreed upon elders’ consensus), and thus acquires a positive spin when compared to the case with females in Judaism. (Archer 242) Menstruation and childbirth, both biological symptoms in the female understood as events preceding and following sexual intercourse, are considered nature-controlled (for the female does not decide when to menstruate), and thus, are considered negative. (239)

Because blood is also considered an instrument of purification (when produced willingly, with a positive connotation), a female during menstruation or during a period of time following childbirth (which is produced passively, with a negative connotation) is considered polluted, and contact with her may be regarded as impure. (Douglas, Hicks 54) A detailed ritual cleansing the person who accidentally touched any object touched by a menstruating female exists in the traditional Jewish custom. (Archer, Hicks 240).

Sacrifices involving the pouring of blood are thought to please god in the Judaic tradition (238), in which the priest daubed blood on the altar and burned the fat, and offered the smell to god. This belief served as a basis to argue that pouring of blood led to expiation. Similar belief among Balinese Hindi, in which the blood drawn from two warrior-priests slashing each other was thought to please local spirits, led to the different application of obtaining good harvest. (Hicks, 60). The Christian religion extends over the Judaic system and conceives a high priest taking his own blood as expiation, which secures eternal redemption for his believers. (Archer, Hicks 247)

Finally, blood can also establish kinship relations. Among the Wari, the very definition of close consanguinity utilizes the shared blood or other bodily fluids in determining kinship. This is straightforward for the children of a couple, to whom the blood has been transferred. However, this concept is also applied over the married couple, whom share bodily fluids through sexual intercourse, and it is through this physical aspect of intercourse, and not the legal or social recognition of marriage, that the couple is considered as consanguine. (Conklin, Hicks 215)

Another substance with multivocal symbolism is the bodily flesh. The Wari practice postmortem anthropophagi, and Conklin argues that this is performed because of the Wari beliefs in the function of the body. Two concepts come into play when a person in a Wari community dies. One is consideration of the ground, the earth, as a polluted space, particularly undesirable for dead people to stay. The undesirability is stronger for cold and wet soil as opposed to dry and warm soil. (Conklin, Hicks 220) The other one is the strong social ties that hold a Wari community together, and the belief that social relationships, as well as personal attributes, are present in the physical body of a person, not in a detached soul. I will focus in the second one, since this is relevant in discussing the multiplicity of meanings of the body.

Among the Wari, “impersonal attachments are conceived as shared physical substance”. Changes in bodily substance are believed to cause change in behavior and personality. (Conklin 221-22) Conklin does not specify what exactly these kinds of body-personality relationships could be, but it is feasible to imagine the remembrance of dangerous hunting moments by looking at a deep scar, or recalling a powerful speech through the throat of the corpse, as it is practiced among lovers of soap operas in the television in Chile. Given that the Wari practice an overarching elimination of all kinds of physical remainder of the dead, called “sweeping”, during which senior consanguine slash and burn a whole area surrounding sites with memory cues of the dead, (such as a hunting blind, a felled tree, or a logging site), (223) the social ties Wari members hold between each other is presumably strong.
Anthropophagi among the Wari is not simply practiced by roasting the whole body and eating its slices; the corpse is first dismembered in its raw form and then roasted in small pieces. (216) In the act of dismemberment, the participating consanguine physically dismantle the social relationships formed around the dead’s body parts; and in so doing, they also disentangle the symbolic relationships that form in parallel to this physico-social web of signifiers. (224)

There is one portion in the justification of anthropophagi that does not fit together with the rest of the set of beliefs. Wari elders also argue that the ghost of the dead may return looking for the body, and in eating the body (and cremating the remainder) the ghost is effectively rendered homeless in the earth, returning to the “otherworld of the dead.” (222) This is in contradiction with the belief that a person is only conceived as a body, for to assume the existence of ghosts would bring about the notion of mind/body dualism and the belief in the soul or spirit. I can’t see why Conklin does not put her attention to this problem; she was more focused in uncovering the complex relationships between body, social link, favor exchange and belief in Hindu-style reincarnation (225-29), and in such case this contradiction stands out as a small one.

A comparison can be made with Dogon beliefs about the structure and origin of the cosmos. In the Dogon cosmology, body parts, particularly reproductive organs, are conceived in the universe as large and all-encompassing symbols of the universe, resembling psychoanalysis in its symbolic linking of mother and reproduction. For example, the placenta is conceived as the earth and the world is described as an enormous egg. (Griaule and Dieterlen, Hicks 47). These two ethnographic examples of the Wari and Dogon shows the multiple cross-cultural contexts from which the body may be invoked to explain a phenomenon or justify a particular behavior.

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