Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


A signifier or thing that represents something else. As cultural beings, humans are symbolizing creatures. This reality has prompted many anthropologists and sociologists to recognize the relationship between religion and symbols. The social scientific study of religion tends to concern itself with symbols of a nonempirical world, notably those present in cosmologies and rituals. Religious symbols entail both intellectual and emotional significance to the people who hold them. Religion is made up either of symbols or of activities that are mediated by symbols.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) rejected the positivist orientation of British social anthropology with his emphasis on symbolic analysis. In his monographs on two Sudanese populations—the Azande and the Nuer—he explored the symbolic coherence of various religious beliefs. In Nuer Religion (Clarendon 1956), Evans-Pritchard insists that the Nuer distinguish clearly between the natural and the supernatural. For example, a particular individual or group may symbolically refer to a crocodile or some other animal as Spirit to conceptualize their respective association with the Spirit. The Nuer, however, do not believe that animals are Spirits.

Like Evans-Pritchard, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz eschews grand theory. He believes it is the task of the anthropologist to interpret the web of significances within which humans find themselves embedded as cultural creatures. The process of "thick description" will reveal the fact that any aspect of human behavior has more than one meaning. In a seminal article, Geertz regards religion as part of a cultural system. He defines "culture" as "historically transmitted patterns of meanings embodied in symbols—a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms" (1966:3). He defines "religion" as

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

In other words, religion defines the cosmos in such a manner that people know how to respond to it. As a symbolic system, religion orders the universe, thereby eliminating chaos, ambiguity, and helplessness. Religion provides an ultimate answer as it explains the otherwise incomprehensible. According to Geertz, religious symbols fuse multiple referents, thus enabling believers to accept or affirm their existence even when their experiences contradict one another. In Islam Observed (University of Chicago Press 1968), he interprets the lives and symbolic representations of two religious leaders, one from Morocco and another from Indonesia.

The anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) significantly contributed to the study of ritual symbols. He analyzed the healing rituals of the Ndembu of northern Zambia (1961). Turner defines a symbol as a "storage unit," the basic unit or "molecule" of ritual behavior. Ritual symbols contain the property of "condensation" in that they allow for the ready relation of emotional tension in various ways. Ritual symbols also are "multivocal" in that they may represent many things. Multivocality endows ceremonies, even those of the simplest form, with multiple levels of meaning, with referents from cosmology to social relations. Turner essentially portrays ritual as a set of symbolic actions and displays of symbolic objects that represent the premises, core values, and norms of a particular culture. In his books The Ritual Process (Aldine 1969) and Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors (Cornell University Press 1974), Turner maintains that humans alternate between socially structured behavior and situations of liminality or nonstructure. Symbols of liminality serve to reinforce rather than to challenge structure. According to Turner (1969:95), the liminal phase exhibits "an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders." Liminality and communitas entail a merging of the symbols of the self and symbols of the sacred other.

In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge 1966), the anthropologist Mary Douglas examines the relation of particular ritual acts to the symbolic meanings of different parts of the human body emphasized in the actions. She regards pollution beliefs as metaphorical statements about the natural and social order. By attaching efficacy to symbols and forms of behavior, pollution beliefs with their accompanying taboos and purification rites manifest a magical attitude. Like her mentor, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Douglas fears that anthropology as an endeavor of demystification may destroy the rich meaning of religious symbolism. In Natural Symbols (Pantheon 1970), she argues that symbols in both indigenous and civilized societies assume salience in groups that possess rigid social boundaries. Conversely, symbols are diffuse in groups where social boundaries are weak.

The anthropologist Edmund Leach (1972) views rituals as "storage systems" that carry powerful symbols and transmit a worldview and ethos. In a somewhat similar vein, Peter Berger, a phenomenological sociologist, maintains in The Sacred Canopy (Doubleday 1967, p. 22) that people "are congenitally compelled to impose a meaningful order upon reality." He argues that religious symbols and systems offer explanations and rationales for the maintenance of the cultural order that include explanations of suffering with different types of theodicy such as karma and millenarianism. Berger portrays religion as a protective cover for the cultural construction and maintenance of reality. Thomas Luckmann, a close associate of Berger, uses an approach to religion that also emphasizes meaning. In The Invisible Religion (Macmillan 1967), Luckmann asserts that religions constitute the institutionalization of the general process by which a "symbolic universe" is socially constructed and related to everyday social life. Symbolic universes function as systems of meaning that bring social reality into relation with a transcendent reality.

Whereas most studies of religious symbols have adopted an interpretive or phenomenological orientation, prior to the heyday of symbolic anthropology, Eric Wolf, a leading proponent of a political economic perspective within anthropology, attempted to situate the symbolism of the Virgin of Guadalupe into the context of the Mexican nation-state. He refers to the Virgin of Guadalupe as a "master symbol" that "seems to enshrine the major hopes and aspirations of an entire society" (1958:34). Wolf posits connections between the Guadalupe symbol and several sets of social relationships. At the familial level, for example, the Guadalupe symbol is associated with a desire to return to the comfort that a Mexican mother provides to her offspring. For Mexicans of Indian descent, the Guadalupe symbol validates their right to legal rights, citizenship, supernatural salvation as well as salvation from social oppression. According to Wolf (p. 38), "The Guadalupe symbol thus links together family, politics and religion: colonial past and independent present; Indian and Mexican. . . . It provides a cultural idiom through which the tenor and emotions of these relationships can be expressed."

In her ethnography of a specific indigenous group in Mexico, Barbara G. Myerhoff analyzes the deer-maize-peyote symbol complex in her book Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journal of the Huichol Indians (Cornell University Press 1974). She argues that the deer symbolizes an earlier foraging stage among the Huichol while maize symbolism concerns their present efforts to function as agriculturalists within the Mexican economy. Peyote symbolically resolves the dialectic between foraging and agrarian modes of subsistence by allowing the Huichol to return to their aboriginal homeland and culture during the annual Peyote Hunt, a symbolic recreation of their primordial past when humans and the gods, plants and animals, the natural and the supernatural, and men and women coexisted in harmony. During the peyote pilgrimage, humans become gods and the social distinctions of age, gender, ritual status, and family are eradicated.

In his book Kwaio Religion (Columbia University Press 1982), about the religious system of a Melanesian horticultural society, Roger Keesing provides a sobering critique of symbolic anthropological studies of religion. He maintains that symbolic anthropologists tend to adopt an essentialist view when they impute meanings to a culture when any population exhibits differential understandings. Keesing asserts that "ritual symbols, like other cultural symbols, evoke meanings, which may depend on who individuals are, what they have experienced, and what they know" (p. 185). In the case of Kwaio society, he observes that whereas religious specialists often exhibit extensive knowledge of the grammar of religious symbolism, "most Kwaio see only segments and elements" (p. 207). Conversely, a ritual specialist may demonstrate detailed knowledge of how to conduct a ritual without fully comprehending its symbolism. Keesing maintains that the view that ritual constitutes a system of communication predisposes anthropologists to seek meanings when in reality the natives of a particular culture engage in ritual primarily as a mode of action directed at specific social ends. He criticizes symbolic anthropologists for their common failure to recognize the fact that indigenous religions and societies have histories that are embedded in political-economic realities, including ones shaped by an ever-expanding capitalist world system. According to Keesing,

Religious systems like that of the Kwaio do not simply infuse human life with meaning. Like other ideological systems they serve political ends as well: maintaining relations of dominance and submission, power and privilege. Ideologies of women's pollution and men's control of sacred knowledge may serve, as in many New Guinean societies, to sustain male subordination and exploitation. Ideologies in New Guinea that semen is necessary for growth sustain male homosexual cults in which seniors dominate, brutalize, and sexually exploit juniors. . . . A symbolist anthropology is necessary; but we cannot let it blind us to earthly political and economic relationships by a wave of the analytical wand, telling ourselves that meanings are shared. (p. 245)

Hans A. Baer


C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion , ed. M. Banton (London: Tavistock, 1966): 1-46

E. Leach, "Ritualization in Man in Relation to Conceptual and Social Development," in Reader in Comparative Religion , 3rd ed., ed. W. A. Lessa and E. Z. Vogt (New York: Harper, 1972): 333-337

V. Turner, Ndembu Divination (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961)

E. Wolf, "The Virgin of Guadalupe," Journal of American Folklore 46(1958):34-39.

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