Towards an inductive Anthropology of Religion and Ontology

An ethno (pre-)historical approach.

Paper to be read at the Second Annual Conference of the 'Society for the Anthropology of Religon (SofAR), Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 3-6 1997

By Nold Egenter

Conventional approaches to phenomena of religion are rarely aware

The introduction of the paper shortly hints to O. F. Bollnow's 'anthropology of space' (1963) which traces an evolution of human space perception from originally environmental conditions to increasingly wider spatial concepts, finally to modern universal perception of space. Do we retroproject evolved space concepts on early history?

In its first part the paper then gives a short description of religion in Ancient Egypt in its bilevelled structure (predynastic - dynastic) as described by Kees (1956; local, district- and state-cults). The focus is on the territorial context of cults and physically represented deities, further on aspects of political and cultic legitimation (temporal depth criterion). Thus, the Egyptian cult system shows clearly its strong constitutional characteristics.

Similar constitutional traits can be shown in sources related to Mesopotamian city cultures from earliest times (Uruk, Ishtar), later in Babylonian myths (Winckler 1906).

On the basis of these insights, the Ancient Testament - temporally and spatially located in the same cultural area - is discussed in regard to its constitutional criteria. It shows a very similar bilevelled structure. There is a high culture element modeled according to the Egyptian state with monumental temple (exodus-phase: tent, later monumental temple built and instituted by kings Saul, David, Salomon) and abstracted concept of deity (Jahwe) representative for the whole (intended) state. And there is a primary element rooted in 'prehistoric' Hebraic culture. Both are combined to a continuous unity in books 2-5 on one hand and book 1 on the other (temporal depth criterion). The essential components of the first book are clearly related to migrating cattlebreeder cultures of the Egyptian-Assyrian 'corridor', represented by Moise's father-in-law Jetro who lives in the Sinaic region. Moise uses the 'primitive' elements (Eternally burning thornbush, Elohim, Jetro's genealogy and verbal tradition of early Hebraic settlement foundation, so called 'creation', to legitimize his constitution and himself as a state-founder (temporal depth criterion).

The second part will show that this constitutional trait of religion is also an essential element in the Roman empire from its beginnings, shifting gradually from domestic agrarian cults to increasing importance of imperial cults focussed on the emperors figures. In its declining phase oriental religions increasingly gain influence (temporal depth criterion). After being synthesised with the Hebraic constitutional system (Nicaea 325) the relatively recent and popular messianic tradition is declared Roman state religion (391) and remains politically valid until the deposition of the last Westroman emperor Romulus Augustulus (476).

The Middle Ages now can be essentially understood as a consolidation process. In competition with the 'worldly' power of the Franks (struggle of investiture), post-Roman Rome develops a 'spiritual' constitution of the ancient Near Eastern type, using essentially Neoplatonism, later Aristotelism as its theoretical base. The focus has now shifted from state foundation (Moise) to 'creation' as described in the first book and the spatial 'elasticity' of the term 'creation of the world' follows spatial extensions in the age of discoveries. Thus, the 'Nicaean synthesis' autonomously and gradually develops into a global pseudo-territorial constitution of the Ancient Near Eastern type with post-Roman Rome as its centre.

The third part will discuss these results in wider frameworks. A parallel to Asian cultures (China, Japan) will be outlined. Particularly Japanese religion shows clearly this bilevelled structure. Buddhism was essentially imported to support the 'dynastic' territorial claim on the whole Japanese archipelago. The primary 'pre-dynastic' level can be clearly shown in Japanese myths of the 8th century. And - due to relatively autonomous developments in Japanese history - local cults with physically represented deities related to particular territories are still vital in Japanese village cultures (Egenter 1980, 1982, 1994).

Finally a fourth part shortly discusses the methodological aspects of this approach as the 'ethno-(pre-)historical method or as 'structural history' (Wernhart 1981).

The conclusion then suggests to pair the term 'anthropology of religion' with the Eurocentrically neutral term 'ontology' (world-view) for all pre- and para-scholastic domains of research, to avoid the conventional (retro-)projections of Eurocentric scholastic methods and terms ('belief') and its unscientific and inappropriate value system ('high' religion, 'primitive' religion).

Anyone familiar with the history of Euromediterranean religions will realise that this reconstruction of the territorial and constitutional basics of 'religion' explains many hereto irrational traits of religious systems, e.g. why they are dominantly structured as politically powerful institutions 'ruling' over the territories controlled by them through diffusion of particular cults and 'beliefs'.


Bollnow 1963, Mensch und Raum. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart

Egenter: see Internet: (Complete Bibliography, Books on Architectural Anthropology)

Kees, H. 1956, Der Gštterglaube im alten Aegypten, Berlin

Wernhart, K.R. 1981: Kulturgeschichte und Ethnohistorie als Strukturgeschichte In: W. Schmied-Kowarzik und J. Stagl: Grundfragen der Ethnologie. BeitrŠge zur gegenwŠrtigen Theorien-Diskussion, Berlin

Winckler H. 1906 Die babylonische Weltschšpfung. In: der alte Orient und die Bibel, Leipzig

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