Lecture 10: Religion: Sacred knowledge or Opiate of Masses?
Although many artists argue that there’s a universal human sense of aesthetics,
anthropologists caution that the idea of “art” is culturally variable.
For instance, as art, the G’psgolox totem pole deserved, according to the Swedish
museum, to be preserved as part of our common human heritage. For the Haisla
though, this object was intended to return to the earth once its life ended.
Is Maisin tapa cloth art? As we will see, in 1995 the Berkeley Museum of Art in
California organized “an exhibition of [the Maisin’s] extraordinary tapa cloth
paintings.” But while Maisin will wear, or sit on, tapa cloth on important ritual
occasions, it’s usually stored out of sight; in the museum, as a “painting,” it was
mounted on the wall.
For the Maisin, tapa is also:
o Utilitarian: a garment
o Wealth: exchanged at marriages and other ceremonial occasions
o Commodity: can be sold for cash to tourists
o Femininity: represents women’s power
Rituals are moments of heightened sacred activity, although their meaning is not
always obvious to the observer (or even the performers). They often mark
important changes of social status, such as births, deaths, and marriages (rites of
Anthropologists have noticed that many rites of passage share a similar structure:
o Separation: participants are separated from families and old social roles
o Transition: participants are in the course of changing their status; they are
“betwixt and between”
o Re-aggregation: participants rejoin old social groups, but with their new
Separation Transition Re-aggregation
Recruits leave family, live in Go through basic training Celebrate with families as
Bride walks with father Instructed by priest; Couple exit church as man
down aisle exchange vows, rings and wife; feast
Parents drop off students at Instructed by professors in Receive degree and rejoin
residence arcane knowledge family as graduates
The transition stage is often considered the most important. Anthropologists use the
term liminality (from the Latin “limen” for doorway) to express the in-between
nature of the transitional stage.
o Liminality is a sense of being neither one thing nor another, yet both at the
same time, in the course of a ritual.
People who go through rituals together often develop deep and long-lasting bonds.
Anthropologists call this communitas. o