Adam and Eve and Vishnu: Syncretism in the Javanese Slametan

By Beatty, Andrew | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Adam and Eve and Vishnu: Syncretism in the Javanese Slametan


Beatty, Andrew, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


This article, in keeping with its theme, attempts to bring together certain theoretical issues under a common focus and to show an inner relation behind their diversity. The ethnographic focus is the Javanese slametan, or ritual meal. In analysing the slametan I hope to reveal systematic interconnexions between syncretism as a social process, the multivocality of ritual and the relation between local tradition and Islam.

Among the many intriguing aspects of ritual, polysemy or multivocality has proved a fertile source of theoretical debate and a continuing challenge to ethnographers. Leach (e.g. 1954: 86, 286) and Turner (1967), to name only two pioneers in this field, were both concerned in their different ways with how the ambiguity of ritual symbols related to variations and tensions in social structure. Ritual was to be seen as a 'language of argument, not a chorus of harmony' (Leach 1954: 278). Nevertheless, true to the inspiration of Durkheim, the terms of the argument were taken to be shared: they were collective representations, and what they represented was the social order (Leach 1954: 14).

Recent discussions of multivocality have placed a greater emphasis on the interplay between private, often idiosyncratic, interpretation and public constructions of ritual (Barth 1987), or on the individual's manipulation of symbolic meaning through 'implicature' or 'off record' significance (Strecker 1988). There has been a trend away from seeing ritual as 'symbolic consensus' (typically reflecting social processes) towards a greater recognition of the improvisatory, creative use of symbols and the 'fragmentation of meaning'. Humphrey and Laidlaw, to whom I owe these phrases (1994: 80), have emphasized the way in which individuals in a culturally complex setting draw on different sources of knowledge in construing ritual (1994: 202-4). They conclude, in terms which would have seemed startling not long ago: 'We can now see that variety, discordance and even absence of interpretation are all integral to ritual' (1994: 264).

But problems concerning what kinds of interpretation are legitimate, whether symbols mean anything (let alone many things), and whether ritual can aptly be characterized as communication (see Lewis 1980; Sperber 1975) are diminished, or at least modified, when dealing with rituals in which speech is the principal medium. The Javanese slametan is exemplary in this respect. It is an extreme instance of 'ordered ambiguity' and is unusually explicit in that the multivocal elements are not simply actions or material symbols but words; moreover, words whose significance is spelled out in part during the performance. Since the burden of symbolic interpretation is shouldered by the participants themselves (I venture none of my own), the patterning of symbols is relatively conspicuous. And the social processes which give rise to this patterning (to revert to Durkheim) are, again, unusually clear: people of different orientations come together in a single ritual and manufacture consensus, or at least the appearance of it.

As I shall demonstrate, the significance of the slametan hinges on what participants make of certain key terms deriving from Islam. Some draw orthodox conclusions; others situate the Islamic terms in a Javanese cosmology or read them as universal human symbols. Yet all appear to be saying or endorsing the same thing. This unsuspected complexity undermines efforts to determine how far the slametan (and by extension Javanese religion) should be regarded as Islamic. But it also, happily, illuminates a critical function of symbolism in an ideologically diverse setting; namely, its capacity to focus diverse interests and thus to compel a collective respect. From this perspective, the multivocal symbol is itself revealed as an example and vehicle of syncretism.

I will first review discussion of the slametan and its place in Javanese religion before proceeding to an analysis of the rite as celebrated in Banyuwangi, East Java. …

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