Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Younger Brother and Fishing Hook on Timor: Reassessing Mauss on Hierarchy and divinity./Petit Frere et Hamecon a Timor: La Hierarchie et la Divinite Selon Mauss Revisitees

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Younger Brother and Fishing Hook on Timor: Reassessing Mauss on Hierarchy and divinity./Petit Frere et Hamecon a Timor: La Hierarchie et la Divinite Selon Mauss Revisitees

Article excerpt

In two of his most influential essays Marcel Mauss proposes contradictory perspectives on the status relationship between gods and human beings. In the earlier study, written in collaboration with his Annee sociologique colleague Henri Hubert (Hubert & Mauss 1888), he emphatically asserts the importance of the gifts human beings give in ritual sacrifices to the gods.

  C'est par le semblable qu'on nourrit le semblable et la victime est la
  nourriture des dieux. Aussi le sacrifice a-t-il ete rapidement
  considere comme la condition meme de l'existence divine. C'est lui qui
  fournit la matiere immortelle dont vivent les dieux. Ainsi, non
  seulment c'est dans le sacrifice que quelques dieux prennent
  naissance, mais encore c'est par le sacrifice que tous entretiennent
  leur existence. Il a donc fini par apparaitre comme leur essence, leur
  origine, leur createur (Hubert & Mauss 1888: 130). (1)

The collaborators incorporate into their argument the proposition that the relationship between gods and humans is both contractual in nature and mutually beneficial. If the value of the gifts (food and drink) that the gods receive may appear somewhat paltry in comparison to the value of the gifts (health, fertility, and life) that human beings receive, both prestations are nevertheless equally essential to both partners. Recently Lygia Sigaud (2002: 337-8) has drawn attention to the fact that Mauss's ideas on what has come to be known as the 'theory' of gift-giving developed over a number of years and it would appear that he was introduced to Boas's material on the Kwakiutl by Durkheim some time before 1905, the year he taught a course at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes on the family among the populations of the Northwest Coast. Mauss's ideas about the hierarchical nature of gift-giving are likely to have been influenced by the Northwest Coast data and incorporated into his thinking about exchange over the next two decades, and this may account for the fact that a quarter of a century after his joint paper, in the even more influential 'Essai sur le don', he posited a very different opinion, one that depreciated the value of the human prestations, and by corollary diminished the standing of human beings in relation to the divine. His view that 'ces dieux qui donnent et rendent son la pour donner une grande chose a la place d'une petite' (Mauss 1950: 169) (2) makes clear, I think, that Mauss by that time had come to regard the gifts given by divinity as immeasurably higher in value than those given by human beings, and in so doing was implicitly crediting gods with a superiority unattainable by mere humanity. Since a principal theme of his paper is that the act of giving elevates the status of the giver over that of the receiver and that this relationship remains unequal until--and if--the latter reciprocates with a gift of the same value, superiority must reside unequivocally--and perpetually--with the divine. This notion is expounded with emphatic force on page 269, where he discusses it in the particular ethnographic circumstances of the potlatch. 'Entre chefs et vassaux, entre vassaux et tenants, par ces dons, c'est la hierarchie qui s'etablit. Donner, c'est manifester sa superiorite, etre plus, plus haut, magister; accepter sans rendre ou sans rendre plus, c'est se subordonner, devenir client et serviteur, devenir petit, choir plus bas (minister)'. (3)

Ethnographic evidence, in the form of oral narratives, from the island of Timor in eastern Indonesia indicates to the contrary, however, and my intention in this article is to lend empirical support for Mauss's (and Hubert's) original proposition and offer substantive corroboration for their contention that, at least occasionally, divinity needs human intervention for its very existence. In attempting to refute Mauss's revised thesis, I shall argue that in regarding their gods it is by no means invariably the case that human beings necessarily concede to them a status of perpetual superordination. …

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