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Thursday, October 29, 2015

On the Agency of Religious Objects: A Conversation

David Morgan, Brent Plate, Jeremy Stolow and Amy Whitehead discuss the subject of agency in religious material culture. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sensing Eid al Kabir’s Tactile, Viscous Stickiness: Affect, Embodiment and Material Religion


Rebecca Moody reads Eid al Kabir in Fes, Morocco, through the lens of affect theory. The sights, sounds and smells of Eid yield the circulation of “sticky” affect that, as it touches each participant and observer, in turn renders them sticky and therein “(re)surfaces” their material bodies. Moody argues that affect theory offers a unique approach to the study of material religion, specifically Islam, by combining the materiality of the human body with the “textures” of affect that circulate around Islam in its different, quotidian expressions.


MLA citation format:
Moody, Rebecca.
"Sensing Eid al Kabir’s Tactile, Viscous Stickiness: 
Affect, Embodiment and Material Religion"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 20 October 2015. [date of access]


Figure 1: A small sheep souq on the edge of Fes. Photo by author.
Smoke rising in black plumes into the air; the smell of charcoal mingling with the smell of burnt hair and grilled meat. Water flowing in the streets, on sidewalks, down stairs and out doorways; washing away drying blood, it pools in crevices and potholes. Baas and moos - the sounds of sheep and cows - slowly replaced by their silence. The heavy, hot, humid, almost liquid air of a small room in which one has just been slaughtered. Animal skins - the outline of a whole sheep neatly and completely turned inside out - in piles that steadily surpass me in height. 

Eid al Kabir is a sensory experience, overwhelming in its affective intensity and material impact. Eid al Kabir, as it’s known in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), translates literally into the big holiday; known in Fus’ha (standard Arabic) as Eid al Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, it corresponds with Eid al Saghir, the little holiday that immediately follows Ramadan. Together, they represent Islam’s two major annual holidays and the only two days of the year when the Prophet Mohammed forbade fasting. Eid al Kabir commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (in Islam, Ismael; in Judaism and Christianity, Isaac) and Ismael’s willingness to be sacrificed. The Qur’an is very specific about their conversation and about Ismael’s consent: 

[W]hen (his son) was old enough to walk with him, (Abraham) said: O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice thee. So look, what thinkest thou? He said: O my father! Do that which thou art commanded. Allah willing, thou shalt find me of the steadfast. (Qur’an 37: 101-102, Pickthall translation)

A willing father, a willing son; God was pleased and, stopping Abraham, offered a ram in Ismael’s place. At it’s most religiously significant, Eid al Kabir commemorates this triad: every financially-able family sacrifices a sheep on Eid as Abraham did. In its lived quotidian context, however, this triad is seldom referenced. As Christmas has come to mean Santa Claus and the presents he leaves, Eid al Kabir has become Morocco’s Thanksgiving: young and old alike look forward to the family’s annual sheep and / or cow, to early morning gatherings around the animals as they are slaughtered, to mid-afternoon feasts that follow. [i] For me, this slide from textually religious into religiously-saturated cultural construct is significant, perhaps even more so in post September 11, post Arab Spring, neocolonial and ISIS saturated contexts in which a mention of Islam so readily facilitates a slide into discussion of violence and extremism. 

Whether one is Muslim, permanent resident or tourist, I contend that all who spend Eid al Kabir in Fes are both affectively and materially marked by it: whether you recognize the significance of what you see, smell and hear; whether you associate it with Abraham’s and Ismael’s sacrifice or with one of the year’s most memorable meals; whether you find yourself in Fes without prior knowledge and suddenly recognize that the streets are empty, quiet, different, Eid impresses on you its material affect, specifically its emphasis on embodiment (the animals’, the participants’ and the unique affective and material ways that they intersect). [ii] 

In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed traces the material impressions that affects (i.e.: pain, fear and love) make on us: as they circulate between and across subjects and objects, affects accumulate intensity; as they literally come into contact with us, such that proximity and contact are important, they change our bodies, part of a “dynamic process of (re)surfacing.” [iii] Reading circulating affects as sticky - materially and linguistically adhesive - signs and substances that transfer their ick from object to subject and back again, Ahmed draws heavily on Marx: “[E]motions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign or the commodity, but is produced as an effect of its circulation.” [iv] An emotion like hate “is economic: it circulates between signifiers in relationships of difference and displacement.” [v] Further, “the more signs circulate, the more affective they become.” [vi] For example: we’re not born racist. Instead, we come into contact with hate, including but not limited to the historically and culturally specific hate of racism(s) - affectively similar yet significantly different in the southern US and South Africa - and are therein marked by its sticky fingerprints. And we simply can’t wash it off. Whether it circulates via centuries-old affective and material markers of slavery or decades-old markers of apartheid, our contact with it marks us: we begin to hate; we pull away from some bodies and toward others. Another all-too-relevant example: affective textures of Muslim circulate, accumulating stickiness and (re)surfacing bodies, so that Muslim ultimately slides into terrorist and certain bodies pull away from those perceived as Muslim. [vii] Contact with affect (re)surfaces us, as does contact with that of Eid. Stick with me, as it were.

Figure 2: Manual sharpening stones in Fes. Photo by author.


Figure 3: Charcoal for sale. Photo by author.
The sensory experience of Eid starts the week prior. It’s subtle at first: stands selling knives and kebab skewers pop up. Young boys spin sharpening stones; the sight and sound of metal on stone, sparks flying, becomes increasingly common, as does that of men making their way with really big knives toward the boys. Charcoal and basla (onions) tower in gravity-defying stacks on most every corner, material reminders that barbecues will soon be dusted off and put to good use. Hay appears in the streets, material reminders that, in the meantime, the sheep and cows still have to eat. Standing on my balcony in the middle of Fes, closing my eyes and inhaling, I’m back in my rural southern hometown in the summer hauling hay in enormous fields after dark. My body is drawn toward the smell: I lean toward it and toward the surface textures of those summers. [viii] The smell of grass soon morphs into the smell of poop. And it makes sense: all of that hay has to go somewhere. Like many other sensory markers of Eid in the few days before the sacrifice, the smell isn't overwhelming: you get a slight whiff when the breeze picks up. It’s more like living on a farm than on the edge of agribusiness producing industrial waste.

Figure 4: A stand with cooking supplies, including Morocco’s famous tagines. Photo by author.
Increasingly in the few days before Eid, walking down Fes’ sidewalks and riding in the backseats of cabs, I see patriarchs, often trailed by an ecstatic child, leading his sheep or cow home, meandering alongside pedestrians on the sidewalk or side of the road. Look closely and you can see the trunks of cars slightly ajar; from inside, staring back is a fluffy, white, slightly overwhelmed sheep, its eyes wide, its legs tied together so it can’t escape. And I’ve seen them try to escape: last year, I watched as a member of my Fassi family opened the garage where three sheep and a cow were being stored. Suddenly, from its dark depths one came at full speed. Charging its final obstacle and hitting him square in the chest, his captor wrapped his arms around the sheep and carried it back inside. They’re in truck beds and the back of three-wheeled motorcycles, almost literally everywhere. A friend living with a Fassi host family walked around a sheep in the days before Eid as she made her way to the bathroom, bleary eyed, each morning. 

Figure 5: Walking: just one of the many ways of getting your sheep home before Eid. Photo by author.

Balconies become barnyards: walking through a neighborhood otherwise filled with children yelling, horns honking and men selling and buying all manner of goods from their passing bicycles, you realize that mixed into this quotidian symphony are new sounds: the baas of sheep and moos of cows that are living in the apartments above and around you. This year, the two nights before Eid, I slept to the sound of the baa’ing sheep on the balcony just above me, just outside of my open bedroom window. The day before Eid, there were at least 50 sheep and two cows on my block alone. Their baas and moos meld into one harmonic melody, hypnotizing me into thinking that they are eadi (normal). By the morning of Eid, I could even differentiate between different baas. Some were as smooth as Frank Sinatra, others as gravelly as the voice of a man who has sat at qahwas (cafes) smoking and drinking coffee for the last 50 years. And therein lies the impact of thinking about affect in relation to a material study of religion in general and, more specifically, Eid: eadi becomes anything but, yet as the Eid-specific affect circulates - as the sights, smells and sounds of Fes change - I become materially and affectively sticky. I respond to Fes in a different way. For that matter, I’m differently drawn toward the approaching holiday with each passing year that I’m in Fes. It’s a tough holiday for first-year Fassis, especially those from urban areas. The material reality of knowing what will happen with and to the animals - and, even more so, actually watching it happen, perhaps participating - is difficult. Yet it also allows a different insight into Eid than a textual study of its significance. 

Islam has very strict rules about slaughtering animals: reduce the animal’s pain and fear to the extent possible and make it quick. My Fassi family keeps the multiple sheep they will sacrifice in separate garages, not walking one in until the previous has been slaughtered and skinned, such that they consider the animal’s affect - the fear, perhaps panic - just as they do my own. [ix] The patriarch sharpens his knife after every sheep and the cut is quick: a smooth slicing of the jugular, quickly opening the throat so that the blood can drain from the cavity while, at the same time, not severing the spinal cord. At least one person continues to hold his (and yes, it’s always been a man) knee on the sheep’s upper torso until its muscles and nerves stop twitching.

Figure 6: Three generations of Fassis supervise the slaughter of a sheep.
Photo by author.
Thus, as suddenly as hay appeared on streets, on the morning of Eid everything again changes. The smell of hay and poop morph into the warm, moist feel of flesh and the dry, acrid smell of burning hair. Fassis burn the hair off of the heads and feet of their sheep and cows so they can then cook them. Those who know what they’re doing slowly singe the hair so as not to also burn the flesh. For every family that takes this approach, there are more who simply hand the heads to an anxiously awaiting boy; he jaunts off down the street to the bonfire - often tree stumps topped with kindling, over which lays an old bed frame - to torch the head beyond recognition. The air thus hangs with the smell of singed hair. It’s everywhere; I smell it for days after Eid. At around noon, it’s supplemented by that of grilled meat. The most traditional Fassi barbecue is boulfaf: grilled sheep or cow liver wrapped with a thin layer of stomach fat. The meat is smoky, the fat crispy; the charcoal that I’ve seen for days thus saturates the air, moving sensorially from sight to smell. The other dish traditionally eaten on the first day of Eid: the sheep’s or cow’s stomach. Once the organ is removed, it’s boiled, then cleaned (literally scrubbed) and, finally, cooked in a pressure cooker for several hours. [x] Dry, smoky air meets moist, hot, humid and spicy.

Figure 7: Boulfaf: sheep or cow liver wrapped in a thin layer of stomach fat and then grilled. Photo by author.
Hot, thick, still air: sacrificing the animal inside, either in a garage or the house, lends itself to an entirely different sensory realm than sacrificing it outside, perhaps on the roof. Inside, the air almost instantly changes: it becomes heavier, wetter. From the moment the animal’s throat is cut, the air smells like blood and feels like August in New Orleans. The contrast between outside and inside hits me at the threshold of the door; I pause before moving forward into the new climate. 

I am interested in Ahmed’s articulation of affect as sticky, tangible: the residue that honey leaves on our fingers, the feeling of Scotch tape that we can’t seem to wash off, the extreme ups and downs that the holidays inevitably bring. Beyond honey’s viscosity and tape’s tack, Eid offers the opportunity to think through stickiness via the blood that flows in Fes’ streets. It’s affectively and materially significant; as it circulates, it marks and therein (re)surfaces me. My first Eid in Fes, the first year I spent with my Fassi family, I braided m’sarin (intestines). In front of me was a bucket of long, thin intestines that my Fassi mom had yet to clean, adjacent it the bucket that contained my rope, as it were. The sheep’s head was laying to one side; its torso was steadily dismembered on the opposite side of the small garage. The room felt wet and warm; it smelled like blood. I can still remember what they felt like: cool, wet, sticky. I can also still hear my Fassi sister giggling at my face as she kept repeating when to fold, where to knot, how to tie them together so they could thereafter be cooked. Her giggles weren’t derogatory. Instead she was - and is - impressed that I was willing to roll up the hem of my dress, wade into the waste, and get my hands wet. Three years later, she still points to the gawria (Western woman) and tells others about our morning. The affect that circulated between us stuck to us both. 

For someone who grows up slaughtering animals at least annually, this stickiness becomes so quotidian that it almost goes unnoticed. [xi] For someone experiencing their first few Eids, it’s obviously, viscerally, affectively and materially sticky. I watch families gather in the early morning wearing plastic sandals; be they men who will do the slaughtering and skinning or women who will dismember the carcass, they will almost definitely, inevitably end up with blood on their feet. It’s eadi (normal). Immediately after the slaughter, some begin draining the blood while others begin cleaning it up: they bring in buckets, some containing water and some empty, brooms and squeegees to collect the blood as it flows from the animal. Nieces and nephews play just out of harm’s way, reenacting the slaughter, skinning and dismemberment. In the days before Eid, my Fassi nephew Si Mohammed practices on his stuffed animals, mimicking the movements his father, uncles and grandfather will make; this year he spent hours alongside his grandfather, helping cut shoulders and ribs into smaller pieces. [xii] He’ll grow up knowing how to do this: where to make the initial incision to ensure that the animal dies quickly and painlessly; how to cut, preserve and store the meat. I, on the other hand, am struck by the overwhelming sensorial newness of it all. We’re both affectively marked, although, I would argue, in different ways and to different degrees, even while it (re)surfaces us both. We’re both drawn toward the animal: he leans in to watch his grandfather make the cuts; I reach down to grab my next intestinal rope. 

I smell burnt hair for days after Eid: it remained in my nostrils, an ongoing reminder of the affective materiality of the holiday. [xiii] I pass piles of animal skins on the street, watch young men on three-wheeled motorcycles collecting them to, in turn, sell to Fes’ famous leather tanneries. In the days following Eid, I also smell charcoal every day around lunch as families gather to grill. As a member of one of these families, I leave lunch smelling like smoke: it’s in my hair and on my clothes. I was surprised on my first Eid to see my family setting up the grill in the indoor stairwell. Why not on the balcony?, I asked. To grill in the open is to brag where neighbors can see and smell the meat: it’s hashuma (shameful). What if they aren’t able to afford the same? [xiv] 

Much as the smell of sheep and the feel of m’sarin touches and (re)surfaces me, so does the anxiety of Eid. I feel the tension in the room as my family discusses this year’s prices and how they will afford them; these conversations ripple across living rooms in poor and middle-class neighborhoods of Fes: the circulation of affect, increasing in intensity and growing stickier as it circulates. [xv] Souqs (markets) small and large selling only sheep and cows skirt the boundaries of Fes and seep into the city center: even the mall parking lot in the center of town sports a market selling hawli (sheep) priced by the kilo. Along with the markets come the stories of families who simply cannot afford this year’s prices. Last year came the news of a man from Meknes, about half an hour from Fes, who committed suicide because he could not afford a sheep; the day before Eid, a riot broke out at the main souq on the southern edge of Fes when the sellers were accused of price gouging. One seller, attempting to escape in his van, ran over several buyers surrounding him, killing one. This peer pressure defies doctrinal tenets of Eid that date to the Prophet Mohammed’s time. The Prophet insisted that, similar to the requirement to perform the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), only those who could afford a sheep should. Yet this slide from suggested to necessary mimics so many others: textual and doctrinal teachings slide into the performativity of religion in contemporary contexts; this quotidian performativity yields incredible affective weight. Doctrinally, it’s acceptable to not sacrifice a sheep; as that doctrine is performed in Fes today, it’s hashuma (shameful): the sign of a patriarch’s financial failure. [xvi] 


Why use affect theory to approach Eid, embodiment and material religion? 

To borrow from Gail Hamner: “affect theory analyzes the pulsing interstices between discourse, emotion, cognition, identity, and institutionality. It prioritizes felt relationships over cognized identities.” [xvii] Another voice within affect theory, Donovan Schaefer articulates it as “how systems of forces circulating within bodies - forces not necessarily subsumable or describable by language - interface with histories. It is about how discourses form ligatures with pulsing flesh-and-blood creatures.” [xviii] Flowing through Raymond Williams’ structures of feelings - emerging collective structures for which we don’t yet have words but which we instead feel - affect theory offers way to physically register and respond to the textures of the world around us: to perform religion both as and when it differs from doctrine. It allows a structured response to the very real, very fluid material stuff that connects bodies, human and other: stuff for which we may not have spoken words but which is nevertheless very real. 

Further, rather than a static or isolated temperature reading of a given space, affect theory insists that we consider culturally-specific histories and contexts, as stressed by Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida and other poststructuralist theorists. Thus, for me, affect theory offers a new way of thinking about bodily - affective and material - realities of religion. Outside of or alongside doctrine, rituals and sacred texts, an affective reading of Eid al Kabir offers a sensory, however extra-traditional way to approach Islam in Morocco and, perhaps by extension, other iterations of different traditions and practices globally. It’s about how and what we feel when we stand still and notice the material and affective textures around us, touching us, (re)surfacing us. Whether or not we have words to describe what we’re feeling, we indeed physically, materially, bodily feel Eid. This process of (re)surfacing allows us to communicate affective realities even in the absence of spoken words or verbal communication structures; it allows us a common affective communication register in which our circulating affect sticks to others around us. 

“It is surprising,” Scott Kugle asserts in Sufis and Saints’ Bodies, “how little has been written on Islamic conceptions of the body.” [xix] “[S]cholars contributing to the new literature on religion and the body,” he continues, “seem to shy away from Islam; worse, many do not recognize that this leaves their writing with serious gaps. It is as if Western scholarship has surrendered Islam to Wahhabi puritans to define as a uniquely ‘disembodied’ religion.” [xx] Kugle puts his finger on a significant struggle in the study of Islam, especially a material rather than textual approach: academics do well to remember the lessons left by poststructuralism, specifically postcolonial and transnational feminist responses to decontextualized, dehistoricized studies of Islam and other ‘world religions.’ At the same time, at its most basic, affect theory insists on a bodily focus: affects as they play out on, in and around human bodies and, here, as they interact with animal bodies. To borrow again from Schaefer: “rather than just thinking about lines of communication between bodies as channels of information flow,” affect theory can help us see them “as vectors of emotion and affect - as capable of shaping embodied responses outside the register of semantic meaning.” [xxi] Unfortunately, beyond Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, global Islam today registers ISIS: we’re touched by the stickiness of beheadings, of men dressed in black carrying sabers, of their startling rhetoric. In this context, an affective reading of Eid offers a decidedly different approach to a material study of Islam: it allows us to obliquely approach Islam with bodily knowledge of the affect associated not with ISIS but with Eid. Whether or not we have the words to describe Eid’s stickiness, whether or not we have a textual knowledge of Abraham and Ismael, we are marked by the bodily knowledge that comes with Eid’s affect. 





Endnotes and References

[i] While not a representative sample of Egyptians during Eid, I nevertheless found this video of short interviews with Egyptians telling. When asked why they sacrifice sheep on Eid, almost none of them list Abraham’s and Ismael’s sacrifice among their reasons. 

[ii] I made similar argument about the affect of Ramadan in a previous Material Religions post. 

[iii] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 91.

[iv] ibid., 45. 

[v] ibid., 40. 

[vi] ibid., 45. 

[vii] Today, the stickiness associated with terrorist circulates with increasing intensity and accumulating affective weight not only in relation to ISIS but also, given the violence of recent days by both Israelis and Palestinians, to Palestinian youth. Sitting in Fes, I can feel affective (re)surfacing pulling Fassi bodies toward Palestinian bodies. 

[viii] For more on affect as texture and the texture of affect, see M. Gail Hamner’s “Filming Reconciliation: Affect and Nostalgia in The Tree of Life,” Journal of Religion & Film 18:1 (2014), available from http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1167&context=jrf, accessed 16 October 2015, and Jenna Supp-Montgomerie’s Affect and the Study of Religion, Religion Compass 9:10 (2015): 335-345. 

[ix] For a fascinating approach to religion, affect and animals, see Donovan Schaefer’s forthcoming Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Duke University Press, 2015). 

[x] Cleaning the stomach is an involved process, as are so many associated with slaughter. Unlike a human’s stomach, a sheep’s has three layers of flesh. Once the stomach is removed from the cavity of the animal and its contents are discarded, it’s boiled and then scrubbed, thus removing the top layer of flesh that is considered dirty. What’s left - a clean, smooth surface - is cooked for several more hours in a pressure cooker before being eaten.

[xi] Animals are slaughtered at many celebratory events, such as weddings and s’bu3as (the celebration of a new baby, which takes place on the seventh - s’b3a - day after its birth). 

[xii] Si Mohammed is a local variation of Mohammed. In Fassi Darija (Moroccan Arabic), si is an abbreviation of sidi: sir. Thus we - everyone, including his mother and grandmother - call my five year old Fassi nephew Mr. Mohammed. The irony is not lost on anyone, and at the same time it’s a common name in Fes. For example, when you don’t know a man’s name and you want to get his attention, simply refer to him as Si Mohammed or even Simo. 

[xiii] I’m drawing here on a phrase - affective materialisms - that my colleague, Courtney O’Dell Chaib, uses to discuss affect theory such as Ahmed’s in relation to materiality. I take this phrase specifically from “Eyeless Shrimp, Clawless Crabs, and Me? Nomadic Becomings and Affect in the Post-Deepwater Horizon Anthropocene,” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting 2014, although she also uses it elsewhere. 

[xiv] On Eid, this practice is more habit than hashuma. On Eid, after all, most families grill meat. It’s much more important to grill indoors on other days of the year: on special occasions when only one family in the neighborhood is grilling. Especially in lower-class neighborhoods, the point is two-fold: to not gloat about one’s good fortune and to protect one’s family from others’ jealousy that could easily result in the evil eye. 

[xv] In The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), Teresa Brennan outlines a theory of affect that is transmitted across individuals and groups, one that is not merely surface-level but biological, physiological, hormonal, pheromonal and synaptic: a transmission that “literally gets into the individual” (1). Brennan traces the generative violence of our embodied interactions with each other: moments when my sadness is heavy and your anger caustic. As my pheromones (hormones’ counterparts extending into the space around me) mix with yours, I physically change you. We don’t metaphorically feel feel the tension in a room; we literally feel it. 

[xvi] Jean-Pierre Warnier’s differentiation between practice and representation is helpful in thinking through this difference. Referencing René Margritte’s series of ceci n’est pas pipe images, Warnier says: “when talking of bodily and material cultures, I propose that we need to consider the pipe together with the picture of the pipe; the bodily and material cultures of religious practice together with their representations” (“The ‘Margritte effect; in the study of religion, Part I and II,” [http://materialreligions.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-magritte-effect-in-study-of.html] blog post, Material Religions, 12 November 2014, web. accessed 13 October 2015. 

[xvii] Hamner, “Filming Reconciliation.” 

[xviii] Donovan Schafer, “The Promise of Affect: The Politics of the Event in Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and Berlant’s Cruel Optimism" Theory & Event 16:2 (2013). 

[xix] Scott Kugle, Sufis and Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 9. 

[xx] ibid., 15. 

[xxi] Donovan Schaefer, “Using Affect Theory to Think about Islamophobia,” Religion and Media Workshop, American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, November 2012.






Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review


Mikael Aktor reviews the panel he co-organised on Aniconism at the 2015 IAHR World Conference in Erfurt, Germany.

Anicionic objects from different religious traditions together form a broad category of religious material sources. In fact, it seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’ at least in some religious traditions, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. A South Asian river can be a Hindu goddess, while it is hardly an image of her. Similarly, a black meteorite could be described as Cybele the mother goddess, yet it does not seem to articulate a vision of the divinity’s imagined appearance. At the same time, a river and a stone have markedly different physical and visual relations to their viewers and worshippers as well as the deities to which they are linked. In order to explore the range of aniconism, Mikael Aktor and Milette Gaifman organised a panel at the 21st World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) to discuss these questions. 

In particular panelists were invited to address three themes: How to build up a more precise terminology? There is much confusion as to the meaning of several central words such as ‘representation’, ‘symbol’, ‘icon’, ‘iconicity’, ‘aniconic’ and subcategories of the aniconic such as ‘physiomorphic’, ‘petromorphic’ and more. It is also open to debate as to how many and what categories must or can be included in the aniconic. Is a body relic an aniconic representation of a sacred being? Is fire? It is also common that a god or goddess appears in both anthropomorphic and physiomorphic forms. The river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, India, is worshipped as a goddess and so is her anthropomorphic image in front of which we find the aniconic banalinga, the direct manifestation of Shiva. What kinds of mediation are going on here? Is the river an ‘aniconic representation of Mother Narmada’ or simply her true form? 


Figure 1: Narmada Temple at the Western point of Mandhata Island in the middle of Narmada River at Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by Mikael Aktor.
Another theme is about historiography. Scholars working in different religious traditions, for instance Greek, Hindu and Buddhist, have often assumed that aniconic symbols predate later pictorial, typically anthropomorphic modes of expression. Recent scholarship has revealed that such periodizations sometimes go together with the hypothesis that early aniconic symbolism was the expression of an original unwillingness to imagine divine beings in iconic forms, an unwillingness that only gradually gave way to iconicity and an anthropomorphic visual imagery. But do such hypotheses stand for a fresh historical scrutiny within single traditions, and if they do, can such developments be explained within general macro-historical frameworks? Lastly, it is interesting to ask questions about how aniconic objects embody and mediate their prototypes. Even if aniconic modes of expression predate iconic imagery, aniconism was never lost. Rather aniconic forms continued to exist as a deliberate choice side by side with anthropomorphic or other iconic representations. What, then, do aniconic forms accomplish in terms of mediating the divine prototypes to which they are related? Also the lack of direct visual links between aniconic objects and the holy or ritually potent presences they mediate raises questions as to how the sensory properties of such objects generate notions of ritual agency and trigger religious thought and practice. Is the missing visual link a way of expressing a more esoteric understanding of the prototype? 

Nine papers were presented at the panel. 

Milette Gaifman critically addressed the genealogy of the notion of ‘aniconism’ from its birth into archeological scholarship in the middle of the 19th century. The word was coined by the German archaeologist Johannes Adolph Overbeck, in the context of an account of the development of ancient Greek art. But it was overlaid with a Protestant ideological bias in favor of transcendence that is inadequate today. The paper also stressed the idea of aniconism as a deliberate choice and showed how Greek gods were given both anthropomorphic and aniconic forms. 


Figure 2: Seat of Zeus and Hekate. Halki Island, Greece. Photo by Milette Gaifman.
Robert G. Bednarik argued that contrary to the widely held belief that iconic palaeoart preceded the aniconic during the early history of humans, palaeoart commenced as non-iconic forms, and in most parts of the world then settled by hominins continued as such during the Pleistocene era. He paid attention to the question of the continuation of aniconism after the introduction of iconicity and the apparent connection between the former and adult initiated groups. He pointed out that the neuroscientific explanation of aniconism shows that it is cognitively more complex than iconic depiction. 

Figure 3: Petroglyph in Kienbachklamm, Austria. Photo by Szojak via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Jay Johnston considered the materiality and mediality of sacred and ‘magical’ stones in Northern European vernacular belief practices (especially Gaelic traditions). Her paper focused on the materiality and ontology of the objects, their associated visions and the relations such stones are understood to have produced. As sites of divine agency and efficacy the stones were imbued not only with spiritual agency, but also placed within an invisible network of relations that linked individuals, non-human animals, the landscape and the metaphysical realms. 

Jørgen Podemann Sørensen presented material from ancient Egyptian religion, where images of the gods served to secure their presence in the world. Statues used in ritual were the vital presence of the god, and when kings were called ‘the living image’ (as in the name Tutankhamun) of a god, this was really based on the role of statues in ritual. At the same time there was an idea that gods had a ‘true form’, independent of all kinds of iconic or aniconic representation. This was demonstrated by the many iconic and aniconic representations of Osiris. 

Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen discussed the promotion of aniconism as a general rule for the Yahweh-religion: Images of the god Yahweh were strictly prohibited. The reason for the prohibition was not Yahweh’s inherent indescribability but can be understood in the broader context of the religious revolutions (the so-called ‘axial age‘) in the middle of 1. Mill. BCE. As such it can be regarded as an element in a general transformation from a ‘pre-axial’ type of religion, based on cult, ritual and material culture, to an ascetic, and cognitively sophisticated, form of religion. 

Mikael Aktor presented his field work in Nepal and India on the Hindu pancayatanapuja, a ritual where five deities, Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Ganesha and Devi, are worshipped in the form of five stones from different locations of South Asia. In particular, he examined the anthropomorphization that seems to take place when aniconic objects are appropriated in devotional rituals of worship. Inspired by Milette Gaifman’s idea of seeing aniconism not as an absolute mode of representation but as part of a spectrum he presented a chart showing the continuity between various aniconic forms. 

Figure 4: Shalagramas (Ammonite fossils), the manifestations of Vishnu, with tilaka marks and facial characteristics. Muktinath, Nepal. Photo by Mikael Aktor.
David L. Haberman presented his research on the worship of landscape elements in Hinduism. He focused on the worshipful interaction with three such natural phenomena: the Yamuna River, sacred trees of Varanasi, and Mount Govardhan. He stressed that although all three would be considered aniconic religious objects, they all have iconic forms as well, typically personified as various gods or goddesses. Like the previous paper, a major aim of the presentation was to examine the devotional tendency to anthropomorphize aniconic objects as a way of manifesting their full being and bringing out their personality—in other words, to draw the iconic out of the aniconic. 

Richard H. Davis discussed the many manifestations of Shiva that we see in South Indian temples as understood from the perspective of Shaivasiddhanta theology. A Shiva temple contains both iconic and aniconic forms, for Shiva to inhabit and for human devotees to worship. Davis presented the varied forms that are transformed ritually into manifestations of Shiva during a Shaiva temple festival, as spelled out in medieval priestly guidebooks. Apart from the aniconic Shivalinga and the anthropomorphic processional icons, these also include a flagpole, a sacrificial fire, a trident, a pot of water, a drum, and a temporary linga made of rice and yogurt. The festival provides a demonstration of Shiva’s divine ubiquity. 

Klemens Karlsson stressed that meanings attributed to objects are not inherent to the objects themselves. Instead, meanings are the result of cultural and historical processes and are constantly changing. The same applies to ‘aniconic’ objects. Early Buddhist cultic sites in South Asia were covered with signs that have been interpreted as ‘aniconic’ representations of the Buddha. This paper focused on the shifting meanings of these signs from the early ‘aniconic’ phase to the time when these signs exist side by side with anthropomorphic presentations of the Buddha and became symbolic signs that serves as vehicles for Buddhist doctrines. 


The panel was convened by Mikael Aktor, co-editor of Objects of Worship in South Asian Religions (Routledge 2015) and Milette Gaifman, author of Aniconism in Greek Antiquity (Oxford University Press 2012). 


MLA citation format: Aktor, Mikael "Exploring Aniconism: IAHR 2015 Panel Review" Web blog post. Material Religions. 14 October 2015. [date of access] 


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Miracle-working Images in Italy

Jane Garnett considers objects of domestic devotion from Italy that frame personal engagement in cults of miraculous images. Their presence within a complex network is powerful in connecting the everyday with the transcendental, the individual with the community.