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(Guest Editors: Pascale Bonnemère, James Leach and Borut Telban)



Guest editors: Pascale Bonnemère, James Leach and Borut Telban



Pascale Bonnemère1, James Leach1 and Borut Telban2

1: Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS — CREDO, Marseille
2: Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Foreword from the Editors

pages 1-2



Pascale Bonnemère

Aix-Marseille University, CNRS, EHESS — CREDO (UMR 7308), Marseille, France

The Materiality of Relational Transformations: Propositions for Renewed Analyses of Life-cycle Rituals in Melanesia and Australia

pages 3-17

This paper introduces this special issue and analyses Papua New Guinea and Australian initiation and death rituals as moments of relational transformations. Although the general argument is not completely new, it has often remained an undemonstrated statement. The paper hence focuses on the specific ways people make these changes effective and express them in their rituals. It is suggested that an invariant modus operandi is in play in which, for a relation to be transformed, its previous state must first be ritually enacted. Towards the end of the ritual, the new state of the relationship is itself publicly enacted through a manifestation of the form the relation takes after the ritual. The paper suggests that a relationship cannot be transformed in the absence of the persons concerned. The relational components need to be either directly present, such as in initiations, or mediated through objects, such as in death rituals.



Jessica De Largy Healy

CREDO (Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie) (UMR 7308), Marseille, France;
College ofArts, Society & Education, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia;
Département de la recherche et del’enseignement, Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France

‘This Painting Becomes his Body for Life’: Transforming Relations in Yolŋu Initiation and Funeral Rituals

pages 18-33

Among the most striking images produced in north-east Arnhem Land today, are the paintings given to young boys during their first initiation ceremony (dhapi). Skilfully applied on their chest over several hours, while singing and dancing proceeds on the ceremonial grounds nearby, these body paintings act as relational matrixes which locate the initiands within a socio-cosmic web of connections. At the other end of the male ritual life-cycle, the bodies of the deceased undergo a similar process of transfiguration, as they are made to resemble the groups’ most sacred objects, seen to instantiate the powers of specific ancestral beings. In the context of these rituals, the links between clans, places and ancestral beings are expressed by being made visible on and around the body. Pragmatically composed and displayed for all to see, I suggest that Yolŋu ritual images appear as ‘matter(s) of relations’ par excellence, materialising various sets of social relationships. This paper examines the material logics behind this transfiguration process which, by turning people into ancestors, transform the relations between individuals and groups, between humans and non-human beings, and between the living and the spirits of the dead.



Marika Moisseeff

CNRS, Laboratoire d'anthropologie sociale, PSL Research University, F-75005 Paris, France


Setting Free the Son, Setting Free the Widow. Relational Transformation in Arrernte Life-Cycle Rituals (Australia)

pages 34-48

In Australian Aboriginal society, personal identity is an evolving process whose successive mutations derive from a person’s capacity to enter into new relationships. Both initiation rites and funerary practices act to mediate such relational transformations. Drawing on Spencer and Gillen’s material on the Arrernte, this paper establishes a parallel between the procedures put into effect to render a son autonomous from his mother in the course of male initiation, and those undertaken to emancipate a widow from her deceased husband. Both ritual operations introduce a relational distancing within a totality. This totality is composed of two individuals whose antecedent close physical intimacy could thwart these persons’ ability to become an autonomous agent. The rituals make the person capable of entering a new intimate relationship: marriage in the case of a son, and remarriage in the case of a widow.
Both procedures entail the intervention of ritual objects closely connected to an individual’s personal identity: on the one hand, the churinga a man is joined with at the end of his initiation and which allows him to exercise responsibilities in fertility rites, and on the other hand, the decaying, contaminating corpse a husband leaves behind upon his death. 


Eric Venbrux

Centre for Thanatology, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands

How the Tiwi Construct the Deceased’s Postself in Mortuary Ritual

pages 49-62

In this paper I will discuss Tiwi mortuary rites as a transformative, relational process in which the deceased’s postself is created. The deceased’s self is fashioned and manifested after death through a series of ritual practices performed by specific relatives. This approach allows me not only to stress the concern Tiwi people show about being remembered after death but also how this concern defines each participant’s ceremonial role and constitutes one of the mortuary ritual’s major aims. The deceased will be remembered as portrayed in the final rites.



Arve Sørum

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway

Bedamini Male Initiation and Marriage as Transformation Sequences

pages 63-76

This essay focuses on how certain social relations among the Bedamini in Papua New Guinea are given their form through ritual at selected moments of the life cycle when relational transformations occur. Ritualised moments in Bedamini male initiation and symbolic bride capture are described as a dynamic agency that changes the existential conditions of persons in non-ritual reality. At those important ritual moments, the direct presence of the agents is required, while relations between them are mediated by acts, objects and moods. The effect intended is the formation, or reformation, of a relational field. Male initiation and marriage are consecutive parts of a sequence of transformations beyond its constituent moments, as initiation functions as a prerequisite to marriage.



Johanna Whiteley

Independent Scholar

“Feeding the Caregiver”: Internal and External Relations in a Matrilineal Life-cycle Ritual, West Gao

pages 77-93

Due to the rule of matriclan exogamy, a West Gao father belongs to a different matriclan to that of his wife and children. During a feast known as fangamu taego, children present their father with gifts to acknowledge his care. Acting as a pivot within the sequence of life-cycle rituals in West Gao, fangamu taego provides a ritual space in which two opposed modes of relationality are brought together. During the exchanges that constitute the feast, relationships flowing internally to each matriclan are weighed against external relationships forged between matriclans. The relational interplay elaborated during fangamu taego is predicated upon ancestrally mediated relationships of emplacement with regard to a specific territory. This comes into focus during a further set of transactions instigated by the feast involving use rights in land and its organic products. The ‘matter’ of these exchanges participate in two distinct relational modes simultaneously: they both activate pre-existing internal relationships and figure as ‘terms’ in the temporary construction of external relationships. Ultimately, fangamu taego captures an interplay between the relative permanence and impermanence of different relational configurations in the West Gao lived world.


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