minor edits added for Center version
Rejected by University of Chicago Press, Cornell University Press, and several others (the concluding section, Dénouement, did not go over with university press editors of the late 1960s)
This work is dedicated to the memories of:
Paris, May 1968
Chicago, August 1968,
and to a future summer which may bring
a completed cultural revolution
. . . the life of mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder. It is this mighty power, not by being a positive which turns away from the negative, as when we say of anything it is nothing or it is false, and, being then done with it, pass off to something else: on the contrary, mind is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it. This dwelling beside it is the magic power that converts the negative into being.
— G. W. F. Hegel, “Preface” to The Phenomenology of Mind
List of Figures .................................................................................................................. v
PART ONE. INTRODUCTION………………………………………………… 1
Background of the Comparative Study…………………………………………… 2
The Timbira……………………………………………………………...……... 15
A Respite …………………………………………………………………........... 27
The Hidatsa …………………………………………………………................... 28
PART TWO. PREFIGURATIONS OF THE SOCIAL WORLD ..................... 38
Prelude to Analysis ..................................................................................................... 39
The Timbira: Synchronic Compartmentalization ......................................................... 49
The Hidatsa: Diachronic Bifurcation ............................................................................. 78
PART THREE. TWO FACES OF INITIATORY DEATH ................................ 98
Liminal Subjectivity, Religious Attitude and Ethos ......................................................... 99
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
. . . actually our ultimate purpose is not so much to discover the unique characteristics of the societies that we study as it is to discover in what ways these societies differ from one another.
— Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology
PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
Background of the Comparative Study The meaning of myth and its role in social life is one of the most important topics in cultural anthropology. As symbolic or semiotic anthropology extends the limits within which imagery, metaphor, and symbolic associations of every sort are seen to form cultural systems, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify areas of social life — politics and the economy are the usual candidates — untouched by the mythologizing power of the human mind. If myth and lived reality, or experience, are no longer axiomatically separate, then it is incumbent on the anthropological semiotician to provide demonstrations of how the two articulate in actual societies. That is what I attempt to do in this book. It strikes me that analyses of myth which confine themselves to the narrative productions of a culture or cultures are lacking in much the way that analyses of social structure which confine themselves to social relations are. Somehow, somewhere, the ideational processes of cultural systems and the behavioral processes of social systems have got to be integrated within a single analytical framework.
I would like to propose that a “natural” framework of this kind exists in the form of ritual symbolism, and particularly in the ritual symbolism of initiation. Initiation is both fateful behavior, in Goffman’s phrase, and a direct conduit into myth, which supplies the rationale for initiation practices and symbolism. The thesis I present here is that the symbolism of initiation ritual is a distillation of cultural experience or identity, which, because of its condensed state, offers a profound insight into the cultural system. If we want to understand the cultural premises that operate in a society to make it what it is, we must at some point turn to those segments of individuals’ histories that are larger than life, that involve them in a confrontation with the most distinctive and awesome truths of their people.
In what follows I attempt to show how the ritual symbolism of initiation in two Amerindian groups, the Timbira of northeastern Brazil and the Hidatsa of what is now the state of North Dakota, expresses essential features of their respective cultures. Initiatory symbolism accomplishes this, I want to claim, by serving as a point of articulation for myth, social organization, and individual personality. Initiation as here described becomes the eye of a needle which first compresses and then draws through itself the distinctive thought and experience of a society. The basis of this argument consists in viewing the events in an initiation ritual as expressly fitted to or resonant with the social institutions and personalities that provide the context of ritual action. It is necessary to ask why the kinds of activities that go into initiation — the initiatory motif or ritual format — should vary so greatly from one society to another. Rather than view differences in initiatory behavior as arbitrary, I argue that they are highly significant statements of cultural identity. The Timbira and Hidatsa possess distinct sorts of initiation ritual because their cultures are organized around distinct principles, or different truths.
Although each initiation ritual is a complex series of events, it is possible to identify a climax, a moment of truth, that captures precisely the dominant ideas of Timbira or Hidatsa life. That climax occurs in conjunction with the phenomenon of initiatory death, the ritualistic dying of the initiand that is necessary to effect his individual and social transformation. For the Hidatsa, initiatory death and consequently the focus of ritual symbolism is the dream that culminates the vision quest and all the self-torture and mutilation accompanying the NaxpikE ritual. For the Timbira, initiatory death is induced by several months of isolation and sensory deprivation that is terminated only with the dance of the pepyé initiands. The dream and the dance are therefore treated here as contrasting initiatory motifs that express contrasting cultural principles. The mode of initiatory death is linked to the structure of myth and to the ethos of the culture.
The relationships among myth, ritual, and social structure presented here emerged only in the course of an analysis that began with quite different problems in mind. As part of a separate study of South American Indian societies, I devoted considerable time to a close reading of Curt Nimuendajú’s The Eastern Timbira (1946) . This classic work puzzled me, for while it is an exemplary piece of ethnography the treatment it accords Timbira myth is cursory and dry. I was troubled by this because I was beginning to suspect that myth is a vital, contemporary set of ideas that people continually use and revise in their dealings with others. The picture that Nimuendajú painted showed the Timbira to be largely indifferent to their myths, simply acknowledging their presence on the social landscape and not utilizing them in any significant fashion. Was this drab role of myth a product of Nimuendajú’s ethnographic interests and style, or did it accurately reflect something in Timbira culture? Either way, it seemed that the edge of my own interpretation of myth as resilient and engaged was blunted, and that I would have to find other groups who got more excited about their myth or simply give up my theory altogether.
It was only when faced with these depressing alternatives that a new understanding of Timbira cultural experience began to form, an understanding based on a major feature of Timbira society which, in my single-minded pursuit of myth, I had pushed into the background. In the corpus of Timbira myth Nimuendajú collected, one stands out from all the rest. It is the most detailed of the lot and, according to Nimuendajú, the only myth which the Timbira felt actually explained anything. It happens that the myth describes the origin of Timbira initiation ritual. This, finally, was enough to set me thinking. The scrutiny I had applied to myth began to seem misdirected, or at least directed towards too narrow a field of social phenomena. Rather than examine the myth as one part of a numerous set of myths, it seemed more sensible to consider its subject, initiation, and go on to ask what purpose initiation fulfilled in Timbira society.
My perspective altered, I reread The Eastern Timbira, concentrating this time on the lengthy passages that dealt with initiation. The more I looked into it, the more intriguing the ritual became. It was evident that vast amounts of time and psychic energy were invested in the pepyé initiation, both by initiands themselves and by older members of the village. And to what end? On the face of it, initiation is a means of incorporating youth into a responsible adult group whose members more or less run things. Yet such a mundane end hardly seemed to account for the excesses of behavior associated with the ritual. For instance, during his initiation the Timbira youth is penned up alone inside a tiny enclosure for weeks at a stretch. What is there about such a practice that could possibly facilitate maturation? Considered generally, initiation is extremely important for the Timbira as a source of cultural identity, as a focal point of ritual action, and as a key to the maintenance of their social organization. Yet considered in its detail, their initiation ritual strikes one as arbitrary and senseless. In grappling with the Timbira material, one question persistently occurred to me: Why should a society favor one particular mode of initiation over so many other possibilities? Or, put differently, why should a particular kind of initiation be appropriate to a particular society?
In trying to understand how Timbira initiation fitted youth to participate in Timbira society, it seemed logical to examine other cases in which initiation was given a prominent position in the social life of an indigenous community. It happened that while I was puzzling over Brazilian mythology and ritual, I was also reading a monograph on the Hidatsa, a Siouan tribe of the Western Plains. The monograph, by Alfred Bowers (1965), is a masterful study of the social and ceremonial institutions of the tribe, and in particular of the Hidatsa version of the Sun Dance vision quest, the ritual of NaxpikE. I was struck by the dramatic contrast between NaxpikE, in which youths voluntarily mutilated their bodies in pursuit of a dream, and the Timbira pepyé ritual, in which a simple public dance was the culmination and most prominent public occasion of initiation.
Had it not been for my coincidental reading of the Hidatsa monograph at the time I was pondering the meaning of Timbira initiation, this book would never have been written. The comparative study of initiation in the two societies which I present in the following pages is wholly a result of an overwhelming sense of puzzlement at the sheer diversity represented by the two ethnographic cases. Reading the two monographs simultaneously was like combining acid and water: a state of disequilibrium was created that called for a reaction. It became impossible for me to consider the Timbira data apart from the Hidatsa material for any length of time; my train of thought persisted in leading me from one to the other and back again. The similarities and differences I discovered along the way propel a dialectic that generates my analysis of ritual symbolism, initiatory death, mythology, and social structure in the two societies. How such diverse social forms as Timbira and Hidatsa initiation could exist, and what underlying commonality one might discover between them —these are the polarities of an axis along which the following arguments are strung.
The comparative format I employ is recommended at least by its simplicity. I felt I would soon lose my way if I set out to bring together a vast body of documentation bearing on initiatory myth and ritual as they occur in a number of societies. I therefore limit myself here to a comparison of two Amerindian groups, the Hidatsa and Timbira. This approach has the advantage of illuminating the obscure features of ritual symbolism in one society by providing a contrastive backdrop tailored from the fabric of another society’s religious thought. As I hope to show, the most diverse aspects of a people’s life are central to an understanding of their initiation ritual and attendant myths. By directing attention to only two societies, there is ample space to consider the implications of the two modes of initiatory death as these are worked out within the contexts of social structure and everyday life.
The Hidatsa and Timbira are by no means contiguous societies, and some might object that the comparative approach should be assayed only in the analysis of historically related, if not adjacent societies. There are undeniable benefits to be gained from such a procedure: the use of controlled comparison enables the cultural anthropologist to concentrate on differences in certain practices across tribal boundaries with the assurance that those differences are firmly embedded in a common network of social institutions. David Maybury-Lewis and other members of the Harvard-Central Brazil Project have developed just this sort of carefully executed comparison for the Gê tribes of central and northern Brazil (Maybury-Lewis 1967: vii-ix). Careful, step-by-step comparison of societies within one geographical domain is certainly the way to assure a sound methodological basis for generalization, and the present study might have taken such an approach had it not been inspired by more impulsive considerations. I felt it was crucial — even if a bit suspect — to select societies for comparison that are characterized by fundamental disparities in their orientation to the world.
Critics of my idiosyncratic comparison should not overlook the suppositions built into the methodologically sound practice of controlled comparison. Avoiding comparison of historically unrelated societies may be the best means of assuring adequate control over one’s findings, but that assurance may not always be so desirable in anthropology as it seems to be in the natural sciences. For if one begins by comparing societies that are relatively alike, then it is unlikely that one will come to any understanding of the substantial differences that often set one society apart from another. Since anthropology is the study of human diversity, and since that diversity sometimes assumes extreme forms, it is necessary to cast off the ties that bind comparative analysis to the bulwark of congruity and set it free to wander at will. We will never discover, or even approach, the limits of human imagination if we confine our studies to societies that manifest unusually close affinities for one another. Diversity must be confronted directly; it is not to be comprehended by stealthily edging up on it through a maze of controlled comparison, but instead has to be grasped — or missed — in a fell swoop.
Although the Hidatsa and Timbira are separated by a continent, there is nevertheless more than a fortuitous basis for comparing their initiation, rituals. There are major differences in the myths, social structures, and ritual cycles of the two societies, but these do not obscure a thematic unity that consists in the prominence of initiation ritual in both societies and its importance as a source of dominant symbols. In each case, initiation is the nucleus around which the entire structure of society crystallizes. The basis for comparison is thematic, rather than spatial.
The prominence of initiation ritual in each society and the ethnographic detail present in the monographs of Bowers and Nimuendajú combine to make the Timbira and Hidatsa excellent subjects for comparison. While the two societies were never historically related, there is nothing unorthodox in the belief that the religious life of an indigenous community can be understood as an isolate, that the symbols it employs derive their meaning from their association with other symbols, and that taken together these constitute a whole that is intended to make life tolerable and perhaps even coherent for the members of the community. Since this is a permissible, even traditional view in anthropology, it only remains to ask why one should not employ it to good effect in comparative studies. Great monographs need not be regarded as inviolate monoliths anchored in the bedrock of ethnographic fact and impervious to the vicissitude and turbulence of theory. On the other hand, it does those monographs a great disservice to plunder them recklessly for a few quotable details or anecdotes with which to buttress up an analytic work incapable of standing on its own merits. Competent ethnography deserves thorough study, and imposes by its richness a limitation on the scope of comparison.
In any case, the methodological rigor of a comparison of Hidatsa and Timbira initiation does not interest me as much as the rituals themselves. Initiation is a puzzling phenomenon, accompanied by elaborate display and expense on the part of the community as a whole and by genuine hardship or suffering by the initiands who take part in the ritual. Because initiation affects the basic constituents of social organization by redefining statuses and shifting group memberships, its meaning extends beyond the actual performance of the ritual. Everybody, not just the initiand, has some stake in the ritual or must make some contribution. Of the three kinds of life crisis ritual which frequently occur in indigenous communities — birth, initiation and funeral rites — only initiation leaves community membership unchanged. Rather than an actual birth or an actual death, which alters the composition of a group, the initiand enacts the symbolic death of childhood and birth of a mature individual. The life crisis of initiation, on a sociological level, is analogous to the slippage of a land mass along a fault line. Everything along the fault line is disturbed and changed relative to everything else, but nothing actually begins or ceases to exist.
Aside from its importance as a ceremonial occasion, which is considerable, initiation appears to be an awesomely private experience. Symbolic death and rebirth imply a profound change in the fabric of society and in the psychology of the individual initiand. After his initiation, a youth belongs to a new social world: he and his fellows have altered the old world by their appearance as a new age class or men’s group and their experiences during initiation have altered them as individuals.
The notions of symbolic death and rebirth have been present in the literature for a long time (see, for example, Eliade 1953), and have acquired such eloquent spokesmen that one sometimes loses sight of the mundane facts which inspired their formulation. In anthropology, it is fairly easy to compose a kind of waltz of the categories to explain the peculiar doings of indigenous peoples. I will admit at the outset that I begin by doing just that — in order to orient my analysis of initiatory death, I begin by formulating models which are meant to represent indigenous conceptions of the world. While I believe that these models are important to an understanding of initiation, it now seems that they do not account for the phenomenon which makes initiation ritual such a profound activity: initiatory death.
The term “initiatory death” refers to the initiand’s climactic experience during the ritual and to the symbolic complex immediately associated with that experience. Simply defined, initiatory death is what happens to a youth who participates in his society’s initiation ritual. It occurred to me early on in examining the Timbira and Hidatsa materials that if initiation differs so markedly in the two societies, so must the experiences of youths undergoing initiation. And since initiation is performed for the express purpose of hastening maturation, it follows that changes made in the personalities of initiands are significant, and that those changes have considerable social importance.
To grasp the meaning of initiatory death, it is necessary to do more than give an account of social relations and social organization. Initiatory death is a phase in the subjectivity of a person, an extremely important phase. I think it is not only possible to speculate constructively about the subjectivity of Timbira and Hidatsa initiands, but that such speculation is essential to an adequate understanding of initiation ritual in the two societies.
It is debatable whether many anthropologists would share my view, for cultural anthropology seems to instill in its practitioners a distrust for anything vaguely like a psychological explanation of social phenomena (though there are heretics who go to the other extreme and regard indigenous societies as so many patients who have submitted to analysis). Whether psychological arguments are useful in anthropology is not a matter of great concern here; what does concern me is the essentially private nature of crucial aspects of initiation ritual and the concomitant problem of finding some way to discuss those private happenings intelligibly within an anthropological framework. The phenomenon of initiation entails a highly unusual state of mind — a person does not get initiated often, just as he does not die or get born often. Yet the heightened consciousness associated with initiation is not comparable to that of, say, being chased by a bear or being involved in a fight. The ritual format of initiation is highly structured; events and objects have well-established meanings that impart a similarly highly structured experience to the initiand. The symbol-laden environment of initiation leaves a deep impression on the initiand, who has been prepared throughout childhood for the occasion. That impression is the result of the operation of distinct symbols in a context of distinct ritual acts. The state of mind peculiar to initiation not only varies according to the society and its mode of initiation but constitutes a distillation of cultural experience. Initiation promulgates an outlook on life that captures the essence of the social structure responsible for its existence.
I use the term liminal subjectivity to mean that state of mind induced by participation in an initiation ritual. The main purpose of this book is to conduct an investigation into how liminal subjectivity and its objective correlate, ritual symbolism, are related.
In working through an analysis of liminal subjectivity, I was led to consider its manifestations in everyday life. Clearly people do not get initiated and then go around forever after with bells ringing and lights flashing in their skulls. But neither can they forget or unlearn the habits of thought and dispositions they acquire through their experiences during initiation. Were this not the case, there would be no point in the striking differences which set Timbira initiation apart from its Hidatsa counterpart, and, in fact, there would be no point in having initiation ritual at all. I concluded that the nature of liminal subjectivity in the two cases must signal fundamental attitudes or life styles characteristic of the two societies. Toward the end of the book I speak of “religious attitudes” and “ethos” when discussing the ramifications of liminal subjectivity in the everyday world.
There are few precedents in anthropology for a study of subjective experience of the sort I undertake here. In discussing Hidatsa and Timbira initiatory death, I use the concept of liminal subjectivity which I developed from reading the works of Victor Turner (1967, 1968) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964a, 1964b). For an analysis of the constituent units of experience as they exist for the initiand during his initiation, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological essays offer seminal clues. And for an analysis of ritual symbolism, the influence of Turner’s work on my thinking is evident throughout much of the book. I do not claim that my borrowings are systematic or that they are always faithful to their source. Nor do I offer to justify my use of philosophical concepts in conducting an anthropological investigation. My purpose here is to illuminate the deep mystery of the phenomenon of initiation, and to do that I use any idea or viewpoint that recommends itself.
Concerning the concepts of religious attitude and ethos, my argument is on more traditional ground. Ruth Benedict (1934) has written persuasively on the subject of the emotional life of a people as a kind of gestalt phenomenon that is whole, unitary and unique. After puzzling over the tremendous differences between Timbira and Hidatsa initiation, it took little to start me thinking that each society fosters attitudes and moods peculiar to itself. Following his initiation, a Hidatsa youth simply must think and feel differently from a Timbira youth. The causal relationship, as always with social phenomena, is mutual: the meaning of initiation as perceived by Timbira and Hidatsa youths is different because the components of the initiatory experience are basically dissimilar, and the components of initiation differ because they originated as socializing responses to divergent social conditions.
The conclusions of this book also grew out of my effort to come to terms with the differences in perspective brought to the anthropological study of indigenous cultures by Victor Turner and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Since I wanted to understand the relation between initiation rituals and myths associated with those rituals, it was inevitable that the works of Turner and Lévi-Strauss should play a major role in shaping my thought. Turner has made important contributions to the study of ritual symbolism, while Lévi-Strauss has undertaken the monumental task of unveiling the structure of mythological thought. Their complementarity makes them marvelously well-suited to a comparative essay dealing with both myth and ritual, but it does give rise to certain problems.
Each theorist has inclined, quite naturally, to a concept of indigenous culture based on the aspect of it that most interests him. For Lévi-Strauss, the “savage mind” is first of all a myth-making mind, a relentless classificatory force turned loose on nature. For Turner, it is ritual drama that exemplifies the pre-eminent nature of indigenous life. These differences make it difficult to incorporate elements of both theories here without creating an ungainly pastiche. To avoid this as much as possible, it is necessary to recognize from the outset the antagonistic nature of the complementarity between Lévi-Strauss’ and Turner’s views.
Lévi-Strauss treats myths as stepping stones, developing a vast set of transformations that interrelate hundreds of myths from both continents of the Americas. In this fashion he reveals a continuity among myths drawn from many societies which differ markedly in terms of their social organization and ritual life. His genius issues from a remarkable ability to discern order where others find only a bewildering assortment of disparate elements that sometimes appear to be related meaningfully and at other times to be totally irrelevant to one another. In his quest for systemization, Lévi-Strauss reasons from the apparent diversity of myths to a position that asserts their fundamental commonality, a commonality, he argues, that describes the very nature of human thought.
In marked contrast to Lévi-Strauss’ approach, Turner emphasizes the diversity or, as he says, “multivocality” and “polysemy” characteristic of a single dominant ritual symbol, such as the figure of Kavula in the Ndembu ritual of Chihamba (Turner 1962). His is an intensive focus on one society, resulting in a highly detailed account of the symbolic processes that find their expression in Ndembu ritual. Turner is led to frame propositions about cultural processes that embrace all men, but that are founded principally upon the religious system of a single people. While Lévi-Strauss reduces complex symbols to bundled sets of binary opposites and further reduces those to quasi-mathematical terms in sets of transformations, Turner fastens on to the semantic content of a single dominant ritual symbol and proceeds to identify the several dimensions of meaning he finds intertwined and compressed within it. Having established the complexity of symbolic associations contained in a single ritual, Turner extends those associations within a comparative framework. An ever-widening “fan of meaning” spreads out from a solitary symbol in Ndembu ritual to the symbolic expressions of other, unrelated cultures: the color symbolism of Kavula, for example, he finds reiterated in Melville’s Moby Dick.
The multivocality of symbols is not a concept that lends itself to a study of the sheer diversity of cultures; it is rather a means of discovering resemblances among elemental properties of cultural systems. As with Lévi-Strauss’ transformations, Turner’s emphasis on multivocality aims at generalizations that hold true for apparently unrelated phenomena. But unlike Lévi-Strauss, who methodically includes such phenomena in the body of his analysis, Turner executes quick forays into the fields of comparative religion and literary criticism from his ethnographic base among the Ndembu.
Despite their very different perspectives, however, Turner and Lévi-Strauss appear to share the view that indigenous thought is contradictory, that its symbols cannot be interpreted satisfactorily by straightforward exegesis, and that its vitality may issue from its conflict with mundane, sociological reality. Lévi-Strauss maintains that contradictions lie at the deepest level of thought and that instead of being resolved through myth and ritual, they are merely papered over by a dissemblance of institutions. Social organization as conceived in the indigenous model constitutes for him a web of artifice that conceals the logically precise structure of myth. Note that this summary is merely a gloss on Lévi-Strauss’ theory of myth, and that he emphasizes discrepant aspects of the relationship between myth and social structure according to the ethnographic case before him At times he describes contradiction as the motive source of myth, yet well beyond the ratiocinations of mythological thought to resolve. At other times he so engrosses himself in the subtle structure of myth that he describes contradiction as the residue or product of that thought. It is therefore rather difficult to know the precise place Lévi-Strauss assigns contradiction in his intricate scheme of things, but it is enough here to note that he believes the principle of contradiction to be a generative force behind the myth-making process.
Turner takes a different approach to the study of contradiction in ritual and social structure. He introduces a sociological dimension to this problem, which, again, Lévi-Strauss treats in essentially logical (or ‘‘socio-logical”) terms. Referring to the Ndembu, Turner shows that it is perfectly feasible for a society to be so arranged that its basic institutions continually work at cross purposes. The problem of reconciling matrilineal descent with virilocal residence is present and real so long as Ndembu society preserves itself (Turner 1957). There is no possibility of doing away with one of the two antithetical principles represented by those institutions while maintaining Ndembu society in any recognizable form. Turner also points to the polarized historical situation of the Ndembu as one reason behind their predilection for ritual. Lunda tribesmen descending from the north subjugated and intermixed with a native Mbwela people. The resulting schism has been only partially resolved through political organization. This failure to achieve social integration, Turner argues, goes a long way to explaining why the Ndembu are fervent practitioners of ritual. Their fractionated political existence is an impetus to an active ritual life. Social and interpersonal tensions that cannot be resolved by any other means are shunted over into a symbolic framework where they are dealt with by ritual specialists. The efficacy of ritual thus consists in its ability to bring about a catharsis in participants and spectators alike, thereby uniting them in sentiment where they are divided in everyday social life. Rent historically by war and conquest and structurally by the conflicting principles and demands of matrilineal descent and virilocal residence, the Ndembu find the solution to their problems in the social drama of ritual. What they lack in political and social structural stability they compensate for in heightened religious sensibility.
Turner and Lévi-Strauss agree, for different reasons, that myth and ritual conceal contradictions which the mind finds intolerable. Their approaches involve a recognition of ambiguities and oppositions that generate the symbolic process but are not dispelled or resolved by it. Rather than function as a Malinowskian charter, a pleasing affirmation of the status quo, myth and ritual are often vehicles for antagonism, embodying however implicitly a perpetual struggle between order and chaos. I suggest that the notion of contradiction as a fundamental aspect of social phenomena is at the heart of both theorists’ work, but, as I have indicated, they pursue very different implications of that common theme.
Of course, the crucial role of contradiction in a system of thought was not first identified by contemporary anthropologists; that has been a fixture of philosophies ancient and modern. But its importance in the works of Turner and Lévi-Strauss represents far more, I believe, than a mere grafting onto ethnology of miscellaneous selections from a philosophical tradition. Neither theorist’s work can be understood as a simple extension or application of bits and pieces gleaned from philosophy, for in each case ethnographic materials suggest the themes of opposition and synthesis. The need to explain phenomena such as dual organization or the co-presence of antagonistic rules of residence and descent are at the heart of Lévi-Strauss’ and Turner’s theoretical expositions. If the historian of ideas can discern the shadows of Plato, Hegel and Marx in their writings, he should not neglect the intimate connection between those writings and the ethnographic materials which inspired them.
In any case, whether my interpretations of Turner and Lévi-Strauss are correct is less important than identifying the real heart of their respective arguments: the elements of myth or the episodes of ritual often oppose and contradict one another; they do not fit together to form a single picture with an unambiguous meaning. Nor does myth or ritual provide a clear example of behavior for others to follow; neither functions as a social charter or as a pantomime of morals.
If contradiction and pronounced ambiguity are important features of myth and ritual, then my analysis of initiation ritual must give them due consideration. Where myth and ritual are concerned, the foremost question is always: What is the meaning of particular symbols or performances? By definition, symbols are words, objects, events, or persons imbued with meaning, and because of this it seems odd to emphasize their supposedly contradictory nature. How can symbols carry deep meaning and yet be inherently contradictory? With subjects other than ritual symbolism and its associated myth, one might get by on the strength of an argument that reveals the beauty of opposing principles in a particular cultural system. Identifying elegant and intriguing oppositions can be a gratifying exercise for the student of comparative religion (consider, for example, the fashionable currency of the cosmic principles of yin and yang). But initiation ritual, for those who examine it closely, does not lend itself to a detached appreciation of its elaborately balanced oppositions. Initiation is intended to transform the child into an adult, a practical rather than aesthetic goal, and one accomplished by a variety of unattractive and often horrifying means .
I suggest that deep and irresolvable contradictions do in fact underlie Hidatsa and Timbira initiation, and that they are there, not to provide intellectual delight to ceremony sponsors (the elders) or a comprehensible plan for adult life to initiands, but to insure that participating youths are unable to assign a definite meaning to their initiatory experience. Rather than a glorification of the harmonic complexity of human thought, I think the contradictions associated with initiation represent an institutionalized terrorism: an attempt, almost always successful in indigenous societies, to suppress youthful nostalgia for a state of metaphysical rebellion. This Introduction holds out no promise of an affirmative, coherent meaning of initiation to be revealed in the Conclusion. On the contrary, it posts a warning that the structural or systematic properties of initiation established in the course of analysis will crumble when subjected to a final scrutiny.
Sadly, a similar fate befalls the hope expressed earlier that a comparative approach might serve as a key to unlock the closed door of initiation ritual. Comparison ultimately fails here, I believe, because it succeeds too well: not only does the approach illuminate crucial differences which occur in initiation from one society to another, but in the final analysis it penetrates the cloud obscuring a common, and oppressive truth. Following the first phase of my analysis in Part Two, Hidatsa and Timbira symbol systems appear to be distinctive arrangements of thought, attitude and behavior. In the concluding section of Part Three (Dénouement) their distinctiveness erodes away, so that the two symbol systems reveal themselves to be depressingly alike.
An inquiry into the appropriateness of certain symbols to the initiation rites of two societies thus leads to the rather paradoxical conclusion that symbol systems, however different in their structural properties, have a common effect on individual initiands of those societies. This surprising conclusion provokes an epistemological suspicion about the project of comparing disparate belief systems and, disturbingly, about cultural anthropology’s stock-in-trade, its raison d’être: the comparison of the world’s societies. I leave the reader to ponder this dilemma while he examines my analysis.
To compare and contrast the dominant symbols of culturally disparate peoples inevitably sets in motion a dialectic between the meaningful and the arbitrary. If a ritual performance springs to life under the comparative gaze, if it is possible to understand something about what people are doing by concentrating for a time on what they are not doing, it is also true that the realization of distinctiveness one takes away from the comparative act infects one with an acute sensitivity to the arbitrariness of every cultural formation. That arbitrariness is all the more distressing because one encounters it, not in a fleeting mood of skepticism, but at the conclusion of an investigation embarked upon for the express purpose of revealing the meaningful relationships — in short, the necessities — that underlie ritual symbols and that infuse those symbols with their own vibrant individuality.
Having dragged the reader into the murky depths of the analysis, I now turn to the first duty of any cultural anthropological work: a presentation of the ethnographic case(s). I would have liked to incorporate the following two ethnographic précis into the analysis proper, but I found the sheer complexity of the data made that impossible, Consequently, I ask the reader to digest the abbreviated descriptions of Timbira and Hidatsa societies given below. The important details are contained in those descriptions and there is in them the advantage that easy reference can be made back to the data when I propose a particularly idiosyncratic interpretation for some aspect of a myth or ritual .