To pre-determine if you should read this article, please answer the following:
- Did you ever own a vest with many pockets and do you still have (and love) your poly-pocketed vest?
- In your younger years, would you have been more interested in taking hallucinogenic herbs with an aboriginal shaman than sitting with hostile chimpanzees in a forest?
- Would you rather read a book, or watch a documentary entitled something like Witchcraft, Magic and Religion instead of The Leakeys in Olduvai Gorge?
- Are you both fascinated and puzzled that witches all over the world are casting spells in an effort to remove the U.S. president from office?
If you answered "yes" to all of the questions, you may already be a cultural anthropologist. The fabulous perk of cultural anthropology is that you don't have to have any sort of opinion about what's right and wrong, good or evil...in fact, it's largely discouraged. Your task is to put on your vest, maintain a neutral expression and observe. (You will have an opportunity to order the accessorizing goat-leather backpack and jewelry made from twine, nuts and rocks at the end of the reading.)
Not that this will matter much to you - you unexpressed Margaret Mead, you - but there are two major branches of anthropological study. Physical anthropologists are required to learn the origins of hominids (us), their likely time on the earth and their probable evolutionary path. Questions about "Robustus", "Australopithecine" and "Java Man" are on all the exams. There are a lot of dates. I mean a LOT. And they keep changing.
Evolution takes forever and it's still going on. You could spend your own entire evolutionary cycle digging around Ethiopia and never find even a bipedal's knuckle. But, as a newly identified cultural anthropologist, you don't have to dwell too long on which Homo came first...the habilus or the sapien.
Cultural anthropology is all about observing human behavior ... mating, courtship, tribal identification, ritual, magic and religion. These are titillating times for us, because as scary as things may be witnessing the rise of tribalism and religious zealotry (which history teaches us, never ends well), we also have the means to observe the entire population of the planet act and react simultaneously. Time and distance are no longer a factor. We don't have to wait for a butterfly effect, or get a grant to go study Tuvians in Tuva. It's happening in real time, in color, with sound on little widgets that we carry in our vest pockets or handwoven mud-cloth bags.
But in case you forgot to major in anthropology in college, here's a brief summary to catch you up. College cultural anthropology courses are taught by professors who tend to wear interesting ethnic clothing (from cultures not their own) and appear to be forever recovering from something parasite-related. They often wax nostalgic for their fieldwork in New Guinea or the Trobriand Islands, but their health does not allow them to return for the summer circumcision ritual (it's probably on YouTube these days in any case). They are the gatekeepers for admission to one of the most fascinating areas of human behavior – the beliefs and rituals that surround the practice of magic and religion.
Studying the cultural basis for religion has a tendency to blow your mind (particularly if you were raised in Central Texas). Most of us from small villages are taught that the predominant religion is the one, true and absolute Word. It is rare that our religious teachers go off book and say, "Oh, and by the by...it's quite possible that what I'm telling you is based on a folk story so old and so historically inaccurate that its meaning is entirely allegorical." Nor do they mention that other people, out beyond where there be dragons, have an entirely different version of the one, true and absolute Word.
Observing magic and religion through the lens of anthropology can really blow apart those doors of perception, and there's no stuffing that genie back in the bottle once it escapes (or losing an opportunity for a mixed metaphor). One could find oneself in an existential crisis and never get around to graduating with a masters degree.
Among the things you come to understand is that while religion and its magical twin may feel like a deeply personal relationship with the Big Everything, it comes standard with the human body. Some form of belief and ritual that invokes a higher being, or beings, is almost universal. And while that doesn't argue for or against the existence of the Prime Mover (far from it), it means that humans are programmed for religious experience.
There is a part of the brain responsible for spirituality, and anthropologists propose that believing in a higher power may be an evolutionary asset that supports survival. Shared belief creates bonds between people in a tribe and a commitment to preserve those members with whom you share those bonds against outsiders. (See Politics and Religion, Presidential Election; 2016)
Anthropology will not tell you whether god is real in an objective sense. However, it will inform you that spiritual expression has a commonality in practice and goes by many, many names. At its heart, religious and magical practice is a human effort to make sense of the unfathomable and to shape outcomes.
And this brings me to where I'm going.
In the church that I attend, back in early November of last year, the priest prayed for a particular candidate to win the presidential election. (Since then, an even Bigger Priest has declared that he is not too happy with the behavior of the winner of that election and the subject has been dropped.) As a one-time anthropology student, I perked right up. All the elements were in place - a sacred space, candles, a person (in a costume in this case) who assumed spiritual authority, ritual objects, and a group of people who believed in the power of their religion to make things happen. And, most significantly, a communal request that a supernatural being fulfill a specific desire with a tangible outcome.
If you are a believer in that church, you might conclude that God answered your prayers. If you are an unbeliever or belong to a different church with different priests and prayers, you might say that the outcome was caused by gerrymandering congressional districts, and leave God out of it.
Now, months have passed since November and it has become obvious that people across the world are resisting the outcome of that election. Anthropologically speaking, we've never been here before. We are witnessing a non-military world get royally pissed off, and using modern media to organize their dissent. When Genghis Khan was the leading "Bad Hombre" on the planet, your average villager was clueless until the pillaging and massacring was on their doorstep (if they had doorsteps). I'm guessing that Rasputin wasn't popular, but people in Fiji were not in a position to express their outrage from the other hemisphere. But in this decade, the ability for humans virtually everywhere to organize without the barriers of geography or even time is not only without precedent, it is a freaking cultural tsunami.
In case you missed it, some magical practitioners have set out a schedule over the next several months during which participants across the world will simultaneously cast spells. The aim of these spells is to eject the current U.S. president and his supporters from office via universal spell-casting magic.
Yes, this movement has a Facebook page and the purpose of the spell-a-palooza is “a mass binding ritual to be performed at midnight on every waning crescent moon until ... is removed from office.”
No particular magical organization is taking credit for the movement. But, happily enough for we cultural anthropologists, the group has posted a handy list of needed supplies including…wait for it… a baby carrot! Easy-to-follow instructions are handy for any non-magical partcipants who need the equivalent of Casting Spells for Dummies. See if you recognize anything. Guidelines include creating a sacred space, candles, a person who assumes spiritual authority (costume preferred, but optional), ritual objects, a group of people who believe in the power of their religion to make things happen. And, most significantly, a request that a supernatural power fulfill a specific desire. Twitter is alive with outrage from the other side of the magical spectrum and calling this an act of "spiritual warfare." (Spoiler alert: the presence of another, malevolent, supernatural being is said to be at work.)
Whether the 45th will be ushered out of office or stays entrenched remains to be seen. But I admit that I am charmed by the idea of a Demon Carrot and feel like it’s a pretty tame adversary as far as spiritual warfare goes.
We should also keep a close eye on the brussel sprouts. I’m pretty sure they’re up to no good as well.
Copyright Ingrid Gabriel, February 2017