Posted by: Johan Normark | September 26, 2011

Eternal objects, actual objects, and animism in Maya cave archaeology

Prufer and Brady (2005:7) have argued that Maya archaeology have resisted cave literature because mainstream processual (“positivist”) archaeology has been materialist. The New Archaeology of the 1960s downplayed the ideological aspects and emphasized technology and economy. As a contrast to this caves are now interpreted from non-materialist perspectives since it is argued that caves make up good archaeological contexts for studying ancient Maya religion which now is seen in a less fragmented perspective. “Non-Western” religions have often been studied from an atomistic perspective focusing on myth, witchcraft and magic whereas World religions have been seen as distinct entities (Prufer and Brady 2005:3). This is believed to go back to the Weberian distinction between magic and religion. Anthropological definitions of religion often rely on privatized religious forms such as contemporary Christianity (Prufer and Brady 2005:4). Concepts like shamanism and animism are used to explain the contents of caves and the ritual activities that once formed these patterns.

However, no Mayanist dares to go all the way, to follow the line of flight that they potentially could follow. They still stay within the established territory of cultural anthropological research taught at American universities. Animistic ontologies are simply seen as cultural or social constructions that only work for people born within that culture, but they are not seen as “real” in themselves. At best, they are seen as “ideologies” or “cosmologies”.

What if the anthropological assumption that people attribute “animated power” to “inert matter” is wrong? Maybe the objects are active just like the people describe them? Now, that would be a crazy idea if you maintain the modernist ontological distinction that artificially has been set up between “nature” and “culture” (but we have never been modern according to Latour).  Prufer and Brady are just as trapped inside the “Western” way of thinking as the ones they criticize since they dare not follow down into the territory of the Earth Lords, they return to their safe territory of cultural anthropology.

Let us now take a look at some of the ideas developed by the “Western” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and we will see that animistic ontologies are quite compatible with a “materialist” ontology, contrary to what Prufer and Brady claims. For Whitehead everything is an event. The world is made up by events/processes. An object is an event or a series of events. A cave is actually happening. It is always a fresh creation. Whitehead calls events “actual entities” or “actual occasions” and they are the components of reality (Shaviro p 1-2).

There is no ontological difference between objects and subjective acts (Shaviro p 4). For Whitehead will, desire and creation are valid for all entities, not just humans. Every event or entity has a mental and physical pole, and a private and public dimension. Everything in the universe perceives and is perceived. Important here is Whitehead’s use of prehension. This is “the act by which one actual occasion takes up and responds to another” (Shaviro p 10). A stalactite prehends the stalagmite to which it grows. A new entity emerges by prehending other entities. An event is the prehension of another event (Shaviro p 11). Hence, objects “sense” and “perceives” other objects, but it would be wrong to imply a consciousness in this act. It has more to do with communication.

Similar to Deleuze’s notion of virtuality, Whitehead’s eternal objects are pure potentials. Actual entities are singular occasions of becoming, or a set of becomings, but eternal objects provide qualities and relations that enter and define these singular occasions. Any “entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is called an ‘eternal object’” (Shaviro p 18). These include sensory qualities, conceptual abstractions, numbers, physical fundamentals, etc. (Shaviro p 18). They are ideal abstractions that can be encountered within experience (in contrast to Platonic essences), since they are selected or felt by certain actual occasions (Shaviro p 19).

An actual cave would relate to many of these eternal objects (i.e. darkness, temperature, humidity, the Earth Lord, etc.). It is this prehension and selection existent among “inanimate” objects that the ancient Maya conceptualized in a way that anthropologists have termed animism. In many ways, this form of “Whiteheadean materialism” is much closer to Maya animism than the cultural anthropological idealistic conceptualization of Maya animism. It dares to go beyond language and the human. That is what we all should do.

Shaviro, Steven (n.d.). Deleuze’s encounter with Whitehead.



  1. Science And Magic Are Cogruent In The Nine Maya Spirits The Earth Lords Of Mesoamerica,In The Classic ,Tikal Was Dedicated To Them,And Stella Raised,To These Beneficial Spirits.
    Honnored And Summoned By The Present -day Primicia Puja,Preformed By The Yucatec.Many Contempory Households Contain Shrines And Alters,To The Cycle Of The Nine Dark And Present And Pre-columbian Creator Spirits.

  2. The stelae were erected to honor kings and celebrate period endings. The “nine lords of the night” are mentioned in the Initial Series of monuments but the monuments are not dedicated to them.

  3. “The Mother Of The Gods,The Father Of The Gods,Who Reside In The Navel Of The Earth,Who Is Set In The Turquoise Enclosure,With The Waters Of The Lovely Contiga,Enclosed With Clouds…”


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