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Mellby Lecture explores animism

Chair of the sociology and anthropology department Christopher Chiappari delivered the fall 2019 Mellby Lecture, titled “Beings, Relations, and Power: The New Animism in the Highlands of Guatemala,” on Nov. 12 in Viking Theater.

Chiappari explored animism through his research in Guatemala and the work of several other anthropologists. Animist belief systems assign personhood to things that do not, under common Western philosophy, have animate properties. These include rivers, plants and, as specifically mentioned in Chiappari’s lecture, stones.

Chiappari examined anthropological interpretations of animism to encourage the audience to expand their way of thinking. Chiappari stressed that the line between truth and fiction – particularly in spiritual symbolism – is not always as obvious as it may initially seem.

Although indigenous spiritual practices are foreign to Western thought, symbolism, metaphors and the real effects they can have on people are not unique to animists. In animism, it is believed that certain things possess personhood. In Mayan spirituality in Guatemala, animism is seen through an emphasis on ancestors, ceremonies, stone beings, and Nawales – a complicated term Chiappari said to be loosely translated to “spirits.”

Because of how broadly and erroneously spirits are often defined, Chiappari carefully and intentionally used the word “person” to describe the attributes assigned to objects by animists.

“The way we use [the word] ‘spirit’ is profoundly unclear and it often would be clearer if we just said ‘person,’” Chiappari said.

He further defended his deliberate word choice by reminding the audience of the secular use of the word ‘spirit’ in Western religious traditions.

“We introduce a term from our own religious tradition to describe other cultures when it is alien to [us],” Chiappari said.

This othering of animism by Western ways of thought has existed since the term was first used. Chiappari discussed the work of E.B. Tylor – the man who coined the term – as heavily influenced by British imperialism. This influence is reflected in Tylor’s Eurocentric writing that describes animism as a primitive belief system, further emphasizing Chiappari’s call for the audience to redefine how they view symbolism and spirituality.

It is easy from a Western social context to write off animism as silly or fictitious, Chiappari said.

“[People would] like to think certain things are literal as opposed to metaphorical – real versus imaginary. I think the line between those are not always clear,” Chiappari said. “Let’s think about how we talk about the sunrise and the sunset. On one level we know how the sun and the planets orbit, but by saying the sun rises – in that sense – is the sun doing something metaphorical?”

Chiappari used the applications of metaphors in Western society to challenge the audience’s preconceptions of what truth is and how to practice faith. In order to strengthen this point, Chiappari returned to anthropologist Irving Hallowell’s example of stones in animism.

“One might say ‘C’mon Chris, that’s a metaphor. Stones can’t speak. They can’t listen. They’re not alive.’ [However] we might think about it, the idea of animism … [can] expand our way of thinking,” Chiappari said. “It’s not to come up with a new systematic approach to everything, but if we think about the way we use language and metaphors, I say metaphors are real.”

nizhny1@stolaf.edu