Toward Where the Sun Hides: The Rise of Sorcery and Transformations of Mazatec Religious Life

Abse, Edward Montrose, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the complex relationship between social and religious change, presenting a systematic description and analysis of historically recent transformations within a Catholicized tradition of shamanism among the Mazatecs, a Native American people living in the highlands of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Ethnohistorical and ethnographic perspectives are combined to discern the form, content, underlying motivations, interconnectedness and overall trajectory of a range of innovations in Mazatec religious life, as these have taken shape over the course of the past century. I demonstrate that these changes evince a comprehensive reorientation of shamanism to address new and unfamiliar but now fundamental problems faced by the Mazatecs, in the context of their gradual incorporation within both the world economy and the political structures of the Mexican national state.

What the Mazatecs are confronted with at present is a social experience of unprecedented, unbearable ambiguities attendant upon the relative dissolution of their culturally specific, institutionalized forms of authority, association, and exchange. The result is a conflict between two simultaneously operative systems of value: the one more traditional in derivation, but which has effectively lost its social-organizational underpinnings; and the other emergent now from out of the structures of contemporary experience.

To make sense of this situation, I adopt and modify Louis Dumont's structuralist and cross-culturally comparative analysis of "nonmodern" ideologies of holism/hierarchy versus the ideology of '·modern" Western individualism in order to develop a more dynamic model of co-existing, conflicting systems of value within the single cultural context of the Mazatec case. I argue that all the recent changes in religious belief and practice described throughout this —including, for example, the efflorescence of sorcery fears, unprecedented millenarian and apocalytic prophecy, as well as the development of a new "Protestant-style" form of lay religiosity—are intelligible with reference to a paradoxical dialectic emergent from the interpenetration of mutually irreconcilable ideologies, characterized in Dumontian terms, and can be seen as either reflecting or grappling with (in the attempt to solve, circumvent, or otherwise overcome) the predicaments involved in contemporary social life as understood from this perspective.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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