Monday, June 17, 2024

Tiki time

At thirty, the French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) was appointed chair of History of Religions of Uncivilized Peoples at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. In his inaugural lecture he declared that "uncivilized peoples do not exist." As Roberto Calasso observed, "Mauss had been appointed to teach a subject that he declared did not exist." [1]

Mauss deplored the use of the term "primitive" to describe nonliterate cultures. He had met Sir Edward Tylor, the first professor of anthropology at Oxford and author of the immensely influential work Primitive Culture (1871) . At sixty, Mauss told his audience at the Collège de France that "all the rest of humanity, who are called primitive and are still living, deserve instead the name archaic." [2]

Let us note that both Mauss and Tylor were armchair anthropologists, relying on the books and reports of field observers. Despite Tylor's Victorian language - "primitive", "savage", "lower races" - he made a great contribution with his theory of animism and his well- documented thesis that dream experiences had generated and sustained the near-universal belief in a soul that is sepaarble from the body and survives physical death. [3]

Mauss' imagination was fired up when he saw the hei-tiki of a Maori noblewoman - not even the jade talisman itself, but an illustration in John White's Ancient History of the Maori - with a list of correspondences between deities and parts of the body. Microcosm and macrocosm, sculpted in portable green stone.

When he was able to study all seven volumes of White's Maori cycle, he averred that this is "one of the most coherent bodies of cosmogonic myths that we know". The Greeks had nothing to match it. "Comparisons have been made with Hesiod's Theogony. The Maori version (and the Polynesian version in general) appears more coherent, better developed, closer to living institutions than that sort of Greek compilation." [4]

Coherent, cohérent. Mauss uses the word over and over in his commentaries on Maori cosmology. It becomes a drumbeat. The word comes from the Latin cohaerentem, present participle of cohaerere: com "together" plus haerere "to adhere or stick" If things are coherent, they "stick together". They are connected, consistent, in harmony. 

Around the little green man with the tilted head and the huge staring eyes, the powers of the greater universe muster and adhere, the war god and the god of peace to right and left, the gods of sky and intelligence and dreams at the head, the god or magic at feet. [5] And you can wear it all on a necklace. In the 1960s and 1970s, Air New Zealand used to routinely hand out plastic tikis to passengers on its plane. 

Instead of comparing Polynesian cosmology with Old World models, Mauss thought we should study how the conceptions of advanced civilizations might fit within the Polynesian cosmic plan. "All of the themes of the great ancient cosmogonies find their place there." [6]


1. Roberto Calasso, Ardor trans. Richard Dixon (London: Penguin Books, 2015)m p. 272
2. Marcel Mauss, "Leçon sur l'emploi de la notion de 'primitif' en sociologie" Oeuvres (Paris: Minuit, 1969) p. 237
3. "Animism is, in fact, the groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men…Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body ; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities." Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom 2nd edition(London: John Murray, 1873) Vol 1 p.426' 4, Mauss, "introduction aux myths" Oeuvres vol. 2. p. 269
5. Mauss, "Debat sur les visions du monde primitif et moderne" Oeuvres vol. 2 p.156
6. Mauss, "Leçons sur la cosmologie polynésienne"  Oeuvres vol 2 p. 189

Photo credits. Maori women (19th century): Wellcome collection. Hei-tiki: Pitt-Rivers collection. 

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