New PDF release: Feasting With Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology

By Stanley Walens

Professor Walens exhibits that the Kwakiutl visualize the area as a spot of mouths and stomachs, of eaters and eaten. His analyses of the social rituals of nutrition, local principles of the ethology of predation, a key Kwakiutl fantasy, and the Hamatsa dance, the main dramatic in their ceremonials, exhibit the ways that oral, assimilative metaphors encapsulate Kwakiutl principles of man's position within the cosmos.

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Example text

This is evident, for example, in the subject of Kwakiutl shaman­ ism. One of Boas's most famous manuscripts (1930) deals with shamanism, especially with the theatrical ruses and sleight-of-hand tricks shamans perform during curing ceremonies. The shamans themselves, and the rest of the Kwakiutl as well, seem well aware of the artificiality of the tricks— that is, that they are meant to mimic actions. Anthropologists have often wondered why it is that the natives do not complain that the shamans are performing tricks and not real cures.

The shaman has the ability to summon the spirits only because he observes the correct ritual taboos and performs the correct prayers. He can direct the power of the spirits by the perfection of his actions, but he himself, as a human individual, never possesses that power. That megalomaniacal hubris, which we have come to asso­ ciate with shamans in general and with the Kwakiutl in particular, is sim­ ply not a function of Kwakiutl shamanic behavior. The shaman is de­ pendent at all times on the spirits; he is at all times reminded of his inferiority to them and aware that his ability to control spirit-power comes only from his willingness to endure the torments, abstinences, fasts, ritual tortures, and complicated taboos that prevent the power he controls from backfiring upon himself.

In sum, prayers act to create relationships of form, networks along which power can flow from spirits and spirit-objects to humans who, through carefully directed ritual actions, can then utilize the power in specific ways that will lead to a single inescapable conclusion. Neither prayer nor ritual can exist alone. If the formal relationship is not first created, then the motion of the performer will have no higher conse­ quence; if the relationship is created but not reinforced by action, then it dissipates and has no effect.

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