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"Spirits Follow the Words”

Stories as Spirit Traces among the Khmu of Northern Laos

Rosalie Stolz

A general conundrum for the Khmu of northern Laos is the persistent unknowability of spirits. The locals gauge the potency of spirits by keeping track of spirit stories. Spirit narratives can be conceived of as transient traces of intangible spirit phenomena, as will be exemplified by the story of a young man’s spirit affliction. Sharing and silencing spirit stories are a means of determining the strength of spirits, as well as an efficacious way to evoke them. Using works that embark from the fragmentary and experiential character of animist cosmologies, it will be shown that approaching spirit stories as traces of spirits will be a suitable way to address the perspectives of those who navigate a world that is not inhabited by humans alone.

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Recursivity and the Self-Reflexive Cosmos

Tricksters in Cuban and Brazilian Spirit Mediumship Practices

Diana Espírito Santo

In this article, I explore how the cosmologies of two popular spirit possession cults—Espiritismo in Cuba and Umbanda in Brazil—exhibit forms of recursivity and self-reflexivity. Taking my cue from Don Handelman’s notion that the cosmos often contains its own logic of self-becoming, I argue that in these ethnographic cases, recursivity results from the interplay between, on the one hand, the spirits’ expression of their autonomy from living beings and, on the other, the spirits’ contingency for their effectiveness on human belief, representation, perception, and action. In Espiritismo and Umbanda, spirits intervene in human affairs unpredictably, throwing new light on anthropological and native conceptualizations of reflexivity.

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Treating the Sick with a Morality Play

The Kardecist-Spiritist Disobsession in Brazil

Sidney M. Greenfield

This essay examines a ritual called a 'disobsession' by Brazilian Kardecist-Spiritists, discussing how it might affect the biophysiology of the patient and provide more than symbolic assistance. In the ritual, mediums enter into trance, communicate with and/or receive spirits, and engage in exchanges with them, while the patient being treated merely observes. Since the sufferer is not knowledgeable about the Kardecist belief system, an analysis that assumes shared values, contexts, and systems of semiosis between healer and patient does not apply. I argue instead that the participants are in a trance-like, hypnotic state during which they respond as do patients treated elsewhere with hypnotically facilitated psychology or hypnotherapy. While not necessarily aware of it, during the ritual they internalize beliefs about the powers of spirits that may be transduced to produce proteins that activate the immune and other bodily systems, thereby contributing to their cure.

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Loyalty and Command

Shamans, Lamas, and Spirits in a Siberian Ritual

Galina Lindquist

This article considers a ritual of blessing the spirits of locality in Tuva, Southern Siberia, and compares the ways in which shamans and lamas perform it. The rituals are treated as pragmatic ways of attaining human ends rather than 'signifying practices' based on shared meanings, wherein practices create a certain version of reality. Ritual specialists and lay people share this social universe but differ in their positioning relative to various types of its inhabitants. In these conditions, it is suggested, it makes more sense to speak of bodily and emotional attitudes and styles of interpretation of signs than shared 'beliefs' as cognitive stances.

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George Ross

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme is 843 pages long. Its considerable heft, however, has not prevented it from being widely read and commented upon. Herein lies a mystery. Why has such a dense and difficult book struck such a chord?

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Medical Ethnography over Time

Penetrating “the fog of health” in a Nigerian community, 1970–2017

Murray Last

Too often, research into the health of a particular community is brief and superficial, focusing only on what is public and leaving the private health of women and children ‘foggy’. By contrast, long-term anthropology can offer access to processes taking place within a local culture of illness. Here, an account of a community’s experience of health over the past 50 years not only outlines the key changes as seen anthropologically but also shows how even close ethnography can initially miss important data. Furthermore, the impact of a researcher – both as a guest and as a source of interference – underlines how complex fieldwork can be in reality, especially if seen through the eyes of the researcher’s hosts.

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When Good Luck Is Bad Fortune

Between Too Little and Too Much Hunting Success in Siberia

Ludek Broz and Rane Willerslev

Two indigenous Siberian groups-the Yukaghirs and the Telengits-share rather similar ideas about success in hunting as an elusive and highly precarious tension between too little and too much luck. In the catalogue of semiotics, it corresponds to the homonym whereby one sound/spelling is the manifestation of two words with different meanings. The result, as we shall show, is that any lucky hunter always inhabits the alternative possibility of his own failure. In this sense, good luck in hunting might at any point be exposed as bad fortune.

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Seals and mountain spirits

Making tri-lingual folktale books

Kira Van Deusen

For political and economic reasons, oral storytelling has lagged behind other art forms in the Siberian cultural revival. The deep spiritual philosophy found in ancient tales can clarify and unite viable approaches to today's political, artistic and ecological concerns. Since most Siberian indigenous languages are considered to be threatened, if not almost extinct, and since languages are basic to stories, perhaps revival of storytelling can facilitate initiatives to preserve language. This article looks briefly at storytelling and language during the Soviet period and the first decade after, and describes two tri-lingual folktale book projects undertaken in collaboration with Udeghe and Khakassian folklorists and cultural activists.

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Javanese Kanuragan Ritual initiation

A Means to Socialize by Acquiring Invulnerability, Authority, and Spiritual Improvement

Jean-Marc de Grave

Kanuragan is a secret ritual initiation tied to local cosmological practices and cults used by the Javanese as a source of self-help on issues related to health, welfare, and protection. At basic levels, the practitioners of kanuragan use special entities called aji to gain strength and invulnerability. At the next level, the teaching of the master involves a specific mystical knowledge tied to the acquisition of spiritual authority. This article describes the process of transmission, the persons involved, and the role that kanuragan plays in Javanese society for security purposes and in warfare. The analysis shows how kanuragan competes with new secular and religious systems of value as well as with sorcery and new embodied practices such as sports competitions, to provide comparative insights on the formation of social categories.

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Discourse of Decline

Local Perspectives on Magic in Highland Jambi, Indonesia

J. David Neidel

Scholarly studies of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft have differed in their conclusions about the empirical efficacy of such practices and the persistence of related concepts. Often marginalized in these accounts, however, are local commentaries that address those same issues. Drawing on two years of ethnographic research in the highland Jambi region of central Sumatra, this article examines magical practices found in the region, the modes through which they are acquired, and connections to a set of ethereal beings that lie at the source of those supernatural abilities. While the belief in and practice of magical powers remain widespread, there exists a general 'discourse of decline'. This article analyzes several elements of that discourse, particularly declining potency, practice, relevance, and believability, showing where local perspectives converge and diverge with those that underlie alternative scholarly frameworks.