Posted by: Johan Normark | May 22, 2009

Mayanist quote of the day: on the application of Western models in non-Western contexts

“We feel Maya studies have too frequently applied Western models of religion to the ancient Maya” (Brady and Prufer 2005:366).

By this quote it is argued that non-Western religions have primarily been studied from an atomistic perspective (such as myths, witchcraft, and magic) whereas World religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have been seen as distinct entities. The cave specialists Prufer and Brady argue that this probably goes back to Weber’s distinction between magic and religion.

There are three main issues in the archaeology of religion: the difference between ritual action and belief, the degree of embeddedness of religion in other social formations, and using historical analogies while interpreting archaeology. By using examples from ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies, various phenomena are compared and transformed into an ideal “Maya form” of religion.  Frequently used are references to studies on shamanism and animism (Eliade apparently must be included in the bibliography).

By upgrading “atomistic entities” like myths, witchcraft, and magic to a more distinct Maya religion/cosmology (an assemblage in DeLandian terms), Brady and Prufer actually creates yet another “Western model” of religion. I would not regard a religion as a concrete assemblage, it is a conglomerate of atomistic entities that form assemblages with materialities, but never in the way visualized by Brady and Prufer’s arborescent model. Certain rituals and beliefs may be related to caves, but maybe not other activities that otherwise are combined into the same religion or cosmology.

Religion is a “Western” model in its origin, the ethnography used by Brady and Prufer has traditionally been compiled by Western anthropologists, educated within a Western university system that has set up criteria for what is religion, rituals, beliefs, etc. How can there ever be non-western models of religion when religion at its core is made up by certain Western traditions? What about archaeology? Is it of any interest outside a discourse affected by “Western ideas”?

Brady, James E. and Keith M. Prufer (2005). Maya cave archaeology: a new look at religion and cosmology. Stone Houses and Earth Lords: Maya Religion in the Cave Context. Keith M.  Prufer, and James E. Brady (eds), pp. 365-380. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

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