Academic journal article Ethnology

Tradition, Power, and Allegory: Constructions of the Past in Two Danish Religious Movements

Academic journal article Ethnology

Tradition, Power, and Allegory: Constructions of the Past in Two Danish Religious Movements

Article excerpt

The nineteenth century was a time of radical change for the little island of Mors in northwestern Denmark. Among the most dramatic was a wave of religious awakening that divided the island's population into two energetic religious movements. Each of these movements proposed a distinctive vision for the island's future. One foresaw a land of industrious free farmers, united by a common faith and a common rural culture, embracing and celebrating the divine gift of earthly life. The other envisioned a series of ascetic holy communities, divorced from worldly society, devoted to preaching and living by the word of God. Each movement also offered a different view of the past. For one, the past was a cultural resource, a key to the Danish spirit that linked the farmers of the present day to the heroes of Viking antiquity. For the other, the past exemplified the sin and corruption that poisoned worldly society. For both, the construction of the past was inextricably linked to the construction of the present and the future. This article discusses the construction of tradition in these two religious movements.

Anthropologists have studied tradition extensively over the past decade, focusing on the role of power relationships in shaping understandings of the past. Such an approach provides a persuasive model for the construction of tradition in one of these groups. For the other, however, a focus on power leaves a great deal unexplained. I will argue that for this group, tradition functioned less as a political instrument than as an allegory, a narrative through which the strains of community life became bearable and meaningful for people. Increased attention to issues of identity and meaning creation enhance our understanding of the richness and complexity of tradition.


Anthropologists have looked primarily to power to explain how traditions are constructed.(2) Most writers have focused on the use of the past as a means of aggrandizement in asymmetrical political relationships. The past may be an instrument of domination or of resistance, a way either of legitimating or subverting established cultural systems. The particular characteristics of any particular tradition can be tied to the political interests of the actors who promote it. Dominant groups support their positions by denigrating the pasts of subordinate groups; a colonial elite, for example, may portray traditional indigenous culture as barbaric or childish, and thus in need of colonial rule (e.g., Tonkin et al. 1989; Woost 1993; Ardener 1989).

Subordinate groups, by contrast, may offer alternative versions of the past that subvert or actively resist the authority of the elite. In some cases, these versions offer a more positive picture of traditional indigenous society, thereby disputing the legitimacy of colonial rulers (e.g., Trevor-Roper 1984; Scott 1985; Woost 1993; Guss 1993). Others adopt the elite's negative stereotypes of indigenous culture, but paint themselves as the proper salvation from primitivism (see Bauer 1992; Thomas 1992; Gewertz and Errington 1994). Traditions may even be created as part of the process of creating political entities; the construction of a traditional Greek culture by folklorists, for example, was essential to the success of modern Greek nationalism (Herzfeld 1982; see also Wilson 1976; Trevor-Roper 1984; Lofgren 1989). In all these analyses explanations of tradition focus on its role in the pursuit and maintenance of power by individuals and groups.

The focus on power relationships has revolutionized the study of tradition, revealing a tremendous dynamism behind a supposedly static construction. It also fits well with emerging theories of practice, which focus on actors creating culture in situations of power asymmetry (Ortner 1994b). At the same time, though, this focus has tended to neglect other factors that also influence the construction of tradition. Anthropologists have said little about the place of such concerns as meaning and identity in the construction of the past; insofar as such issues have been treated, writers have looked mainly at their significance in political struggles (e. …

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