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Les Princes de la Protohistoire et l'émergence de l'État

Pascal Ruby

The cultural economy of sacred power

Michael Rowlands

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1«It may seem a roundabout way of centralising government to let one god devour all the rest. It seems roundabout only to those who are still possessed by the idea that the primary function of a king is to govern; to be head of the administration... he is nothing of the kind. He is the repository of the gods, that is the life of the group. He dispenses prosperity to that group and to that group alone» (Hocart 1936, 98-99).

2Sacred power (divine kingship) has been an anthropological obsession for more than a century. Frazer began the Golden Bough with the story of the priest-king in the sacred grove in Nemi. Studying the diffusion of divine kingship founded a certain form of culture history and in order to save history for Anthropology, Evans-Pritchard tried to do away with the whole concept, by arguing that it was nothing more than a reflection of political rivalries in segmentary societies (Evans-Pritchard 1934). More recently, structuralists, such as Adler and de Heusch have tried to reinstate the concept as a symbolic structure, Godelier revived it as the Asiatic Mode of production and Sahlins defined it sociologically as a mimesis in which social life is identified with the life of a king (Adler 1980, de Heusch 1982, Godelier 1975, Sahlins 1985).

3What they share as discussions of sacred power is the equation of the life of the collective with the success of royal ritual. This adopts the familiar idea that kingship is a life-giving force and the body of the king is its conduit; contact or avoidance with which sustains the integrity of the whole. Others, objecting to the lack of specificity of the structuralists, attempted to re-materialise the symbolic. Dirks writing on kingship in South India that «a great king reigns with justice and charity and when he does so prosperity necessarily ensues» can be widely replicated as can instances of his disposal when he fails to deliver the goods (Dirks 1987, 134). Friedman argues that an historical trajectory can be traced in Polynesia from sacred kings to competitive Big Men as a consequence of excessive competition undermining the material bases of sacred power (Friedman 1982). Thomas supports his argument with evidence that food shortages prehistorically led not only to breakdowns in chiefly power in Polynesia but also to the emergence of rival forms of power based on shamanistic and warrior cults (Thomas 1995).

4Thomas argues that it is efficacy of kingship that accounts for its success rather than the logic of its symbolic structure. He takes a materialist stance by refusing a single symbolic logic to all forms of sacred power which suppresses dissent and contestation in particular historical contexts. This also involves refusing a simple to complex evolutionary sequence. The manner in which the British transformed warrior kings in India into bearers of hollow crowns as sacred kings repeats the Polynesian fact that precolonial violence and coercion was transformed by colonialism into the forms of «hollowed-out» sacred power studied by Hocart and others. In a fascinating discussion of sacrificial economies in Melanesia, Kuchler describes how they flourished under colonialism because they enabled an institutionalised mode of resistance to colonial intervention in such matters as the regulation of land ownership and relations of loyalty (Kuchler 1997). Moreover the fact that modernity is a product of these events means that the “entanglements” of sacred power with the colonial state continues to legitimise forms of postcolonial state (cf Rowlands/Warnier 1988).

5A focus on the specific historical dynamics of a particular case also allows us to reconcile symbolic and materialist approaches through their common mediation in material culture. On the one hand cases of “divine kingship” may have been exacerbated by the impact of colonialism but on the other they were rooted in precolonial and prehistoric precedents. Only a genuinely long term approach to change can establish the relative weight of past and present trajectories.

The sacrificial economy

6Anthropological discussions of divine kingship have traditionally focused on the role of the king as sacrificer who in the end became himself a sacrifiand. The function of sacrifice was either to mediate between sacred and profane as the ultimate gift to a supernatural power (Tylor), or as a totemic communal meal (Roberston Smith) or as expiation for sins and as a plea for beneficence (Frazer). Whilst the ethnocentric Christian bias in these formulations has been criticised by Détienne, de Heusch and others, the significance of sacrifice as an offering involving the death and consumption of a victim remains its distinctive characteristic (cf. Valeri 1994).

7Implicit in all these discussions is the idea of the sacrificial gift, its destruction and the fact that something is saved or regenerated as a consequence. This was the basis of the essay by Hubert and Mauss in which they describe sacrifice as a ritualised gift offered to open relations between humans and the gods (Hubert/Mauss 1899). Godelier discussed this aspect in the context of the distinction between Great Men and Big Men in New Guinea where the ritualization of male power is conceived in terms of their control of initiation of boys into becoming men (Godelier 1986). Parry writing on Indian sacrifice, describes Hindu funeral rites as a form of sacrifice (cremating the corpse) which by converting the body through cremation (smoke / odours) into a gift to the gods denies the attack by mortality and decomposition on human vitality (Parry 1994). Bloch in a wider comparison of death rituals extends the argument that all rituals include a core of ideological denial (Bloch 1992). Sacrifice requires an act of killing of a victim (symbolic inversion or denial of which is at the core of all funerary rites, mortuary rituals, circumcision rites etc) and is motivated by denial and the restoration or regeneration of life through re-establishing relations with a permanent, transcendental order.

8The key therefore to understanding sacred power is sacrifice and its mediation through the body and actions of a ritual leader. The justification of militarism, conquest, mass acts of ritual killing in archaic states can also be included in the general scenario of sacrifice, victim hood and a denial of violence in regaining or extending a transcendental order (Valeri 1985). Even in modern western contexts, the notion of war dead as sacrifice is justified in war memorials and remembrance ceremonies as done by and for the nation regardless of the particular intentions of the actors involved (Rowlands 1996).

9However there are significant differences in the particular culture histories of sacred power. Writing on sacrifice in Africa, de Heusch emphasised the difference between African rituals of sacred power and those of biblical, classical and christian origins that, he claimed, had been over generalised in anthropological theory (de Heusch 1985). African sacrifice is not about keeping apart the sacred and the profane and mediating between them. Nor is it about overcoming tragic splits between gods and men (as in the separation of Brahmin and bloodletting kingship in Hindu cosmology or the tricks played between men and Gods in Greek mythology). Ancestors are invited into African social worlds and given their share precisely because they have access to dangerous powers which are needed and yet must be controlled. What can be glossed as a concept of "life force" links the living and the dead in capturing, cajoling and attracting body substances shared by all whose power is deeply ambivalent and capable of benevolent and evil acts.

10By having access to the most powerful ancestors, African rulers achieved a primus inter pares in terms of the power of elders to mediate with the forces that can either preserve or destroy social worlds through illness and death. Yet kingship in Africa is also outside the order of kinship because the installation rituals are usually directed to investing the body of the king, quite literally through ingestion, with the magical powers he needs to defeat the malevolent intentions of others. De Heusch and others have emphasised the pragmatic and grounded nature of African cosmologies. Male violence is not the outcome of vengeful and distant deities looking down on human frailties but is the consequence of real witches, wizards and other persons acting with evil intentions. Life force in this sense is a limited good that has to be contained and preserved against the intentions of others to steal it for their own use. The fact that this is quite materially expressed - i. e. it is children who die, bodies that are possessed, women that cannot conceive, crops that fail etc. - mean not only that the consequences are real but also the cause can be detected through the use of oracles, clairvoyance and witch cleansing cults that can detect and defeat the malefactor. Within the human sphere, kings and chiefs are guarantors of fertility and prosperity both as the image of successful reproduction (numbers of children, crops, fertility of offspring etc) and therefore having the ability to defend ancestrally held substance from the evil intentions of others. But they can only ensure this through the exercise of their own powers of destruction which they use to destroy witches in the midst of the community and external enemies. The deep ambivalence of sacred powers for both good and evil evokes a monstrous aspect against which people protect themselves by prohibitions against contact with the body and actions of rulers. Ancestors do not have these powers nor do other living beings. Hence this peculiar double sided aspect of kingship is peculiar to the king as a living person. One of the principal functions of funerary rituals, for example, is to remove or deactivate the substances in the body of the dead king that could continue to have an effect if not returned to where they came from. Ultimately it is the self-sacrifice of a king that sustains the social order. A kings death cannot be natural since it is an aspect of his capacity to defeat his enemies that eventually he will himself be killed in some nocturnal supernatural battle against witches or rivals. De Heusch has described this as paying the «sacrificial debt» in which the body of a ruler becomes the victim of the forces that both possesses and ultimately consumes him. As victim or agent, it is the body that has the power to do these things and not the actions of the ruler as simply a product of will.

Bodies and Containers

11In English, pots have lips, necks, shoulders, bellies and bottoms and in West Africa pots are often referred to as having heads, wombs, bellies and rectums (Barley 1984, 99). In the Grassfields region of West Cameroon, it is often objects as containers that provide the metaphors to understand more difficult or abstract ideas about procreation, misfortune, illness, anger in speech and blessing. This suggests that like metaphor more generally, understanding takes place in terms of entire domains of experience and not in terms of isolated concepts. Lakoff and Johnson define domains of experience as structured wholes within recurrent human experiences that are usually represented as natural kinds of experience e. g. bodies, physical environments and human nature (Lakoff/Johnson 1980). Concepts are not defined in terms of inherent properties but rather by concrete experiences that can serve as models for organising other experiences that are more difficult to grasp (Lakoff/Johnson 1980, 125).

12Grassfields material culture (also folklore, songs, jokes) is heavily dominated by an iconography of containers. Food is always prepared and served in packages made from plantain leaves, raphia wine is mixed and served from special pots and the sauces used as a condiment to yam or maize base staples, is eaten from a bowl made specially for the purpose. A specially carved wooden bowl is used to mix oil and camwood to make red paste that is smeared as a blessing on people (in particular women) attending succession and marriage rituals. The independence of a household, lineage or clan head is defined by his possession of such a bowl to bless those who attend rituals in his compound. An elder drinks wine from a buffalo-horn or cup and according to Dillon’s account for the Meta «the hereditary buffalo-horn drinking cup of the lineage head was seen as a means of establishing continuity with the dead fathers of the patrilineage and of drawing upon their mystical powers in ritual context» (Dillon 1990, 22-25). The cup is an important part of a ritual curse in which angry, loud speech is used against someone whilst pouring a libation over the hearth stones in an elders compound. When speaking with the cup in hand, the elder can only tell the truth since the breath and saliva of all past elders are literally inscribed in the cup. Friends make business or trading pacts by drinking from such a cup which means they share saliva which, if betrayed, causest an ignominious death from swollen feetor a swollen belly for the culprit. When sons are given permission to set up their own compounds, they are given wine from the father’s cup in cupped hands as a blessing to drink as are daughters when they leave his compound to join that of their husbands. The strong words of the elder used in a curse if directed against his offspring will activate the wine in their stomachs and cause either them or their descendants illness or death. The fact that a Mothers Father or Brother can cause such havoc is a powerful sanction against the treatment of the wife by the future husband and his family.

13Concrete experiences of the body and body substances are expressed in sets of metaphorical statements that associate them with containers in general in order to grasp more abstract ideas of succession, misfortune and healing. But in a sense experiences of the body are no more concrete than any of these other ideas. The human body is itself conceived as a container of powerful substances and a means of attracting external spirits to reside in it. The installation ceremony of a fon (chief / sacred king) literally involves the remodelling of a man’s body into a container for the ritual substances and medicines which he will be given to swallow during his three weeks seclusion. There are striking similarities with descriptions of affliction cults in central Africa which equally emphasise healing as a consequence of the remoulding of a patients’s body. As Devisch puts it: «The patient moves from a state of being tied in, closed up, or emptied out, towards a remoulding of the body’s shell and content, while simultaneously being gradually reinserted in the complex interweave of body, group and world» (Devisch 1993, 38).

14All notables participate in some aspect of a similar transformation of their bodies into containers for medicines to attract spiritual powers. Warnier has documented this in his analysis of the iconography of notables and kings in the Grassfields (Warnier 1993, 312). He quotes the following metaphor to describe a notable in the Grassfields: «A notable (chef de famille) is a vital piggy bank of sorts for the whole descent group: in him is contained the plenitude of blood received since the creation, through a chain of ancestors» (Warnier 1993, 305).

15Statues of chiefs he argues emphasise broad, prominent chests and the head, usually shown open mouthed as if uttering a strong statement. The emphasis on breath/speech as a powerful act is matched by the fact that the body of a fon may be represented as a container or with containers in his hands or at his feet. Given the emphasis in the cosmology on the containment of semen and life essence, Warnier argues that the visual metaphors of sexuality for both partners objectify a concern with containment, mixing and the exchange of transformable or transformed substances. The idea that semen feeds the foetus in pregnancy whilst milk feeds it after birth and that the powers of the two substances should not mix is supported by the fact that womens milk is seen as a powerful antidote to male violence. A drop of a woman’s milk will calm the most powerful and violent masquerades. A woman’s cult called anlu is aroused when the exploitation of women by men occurs (offenses such as selling farmland, rape or sexual assault) and its most powerful polluting act is to smear vaginal secretions on buildings in the compounds of the accused men, which, if not cleansed, would result in their illness and bad death.

16The partible nature of persons and bodies is not peculiar to Africa and has been widely described as an antidote to modernist concern with the unity of the self (cf. Strathern 1988). It is also not peculiar to sci-fi stories that the body can be experienced as literally possessed by other substances and beings that “take over” and direct a persons actions. The issue is quite correctly seen by Miller and others (e. g. Miller 1985) as a questioning of the nature of matter and its reproduction. If matter is active and possessed then the distinctions between organic and inorganic, active and passive is questioned, at least cosmologically, in these systems of thought. The eternal return to the notion of fetish in African religious thought in the European imagination is a gloss on this perception that objects and persons do not appear to follow the animate / inanimate distinction and share certain properties in common. The most important of these is references to an image, whether performed or materialised, which metaphorically alludes to containment. It refers to houses and palaces, fences and ditches and body orificices and boundaries, to containers and figures holding liquids and substances, to the names of lineages and clans that hold blood, semen, saliva and breath in descent from a common origin, and to ownership of land, sacred places and shrines.

17Following Lakoff and Johnson, a field of metaphors acts to model experience in general through concrete and graspable aspects of the material world and its practices. Without doubt, material metaphors play a significant role in objectifying unconsciously held associations. Pots, bodies, houses, caves and shrines allow a certain coherence to be established in the often ambiguous notions of procreation and violence that are basic to all forms of sacrificial economy.

Iron, gender and power

18It is here that we encounter the real difficulty with symbolist and structuralist accounts of sacred kingship in Africa. What this cosmology questions is the separation of symbolic from material practice. There is no concern here with the separation of ideas from material practice nor are there any attempts to “bolt on” the practical realities of production, trade and consumption onto the ideological sphere.

19For instance, the relationship of ironworking and power has been widely reported in precolonial Africa. The association of the spread of Bantu-speaking peoples with the diffusion of ironworking has tended to be explained ecologically although the most consistent relationship is with power. Traditions linking iron and political power are especially widespread in an area over 2000 km from the Atlantic coast through the Congo Basin to the Western Rift Valley. Burials from the Inter-lacustrine kingdoms of the 17th and 18th centuries have been found with hammers used as headrests for the corpse and with anvils lying on the body. Installation ceremonies of these kings involved “striking the anvil” in transforming the person into a sacred king replicating the transformation of bloom into iron. Yet there is no implication that a king was a smith. In much of West Africa, there was strict avoidance of kings or chiefs and the ambivalence of the symbolic power of smiths. For de Heusch, it is the sharing of common origins that leads to the attribution of chiefly power with iron-working whilst both MacGaffey and Vansina relate iron and sacred power to a cosmology shared in Central and the forest regions of West Africa (MacGaffey 1977; Vansina 1990).

20Throughout much of the prehistory of subsaharan Africa, the making of iron has been not only a male activity but also in certain regions, in particular central Africa, seen to derive from the same source of legitimation as the sacred power of kings. In West Africa on the other hand, the power of iron-smelting was often associated with ambivalence and avoidance by chiefs and kings. Moreover the act of smelting iron has been associated with sexual intercourse and procreation. In Southern Africa, the furnace is frequently found decorated as female with breasts, scarification, and genitalia. The extraction of the bloom through the gate at the front of the furnace is explicitly associated with childbirth. The insertion and vigorous pumping of the bellows is commonly associated with the male role in sexual intercourse (Collett 1993). Brelsford description of ironworking in former N. Rhodesia, explains the widely found prohibition on smiths having sexual intercourse with their own wives before smelting iron as due to the fact that «the furnace is regarded as the smelters wife and if he sleeps with his real wife, he is committing adultery. The danger comes from the jealous feelings that will be aroused. Adultery generally is believed to lead to the death of any resulting child because the semen of two men has been mixed in the woman’s womb. The furnace is believed to be pregnant with the bloom and if the smith has slept with his wife, then the smelt will be still-born» (Brelsford 1949).

21The point is not that there is a direct functional relationship between smelting iron and female fecundity but that both are rooted in the same cosmological idea of the causes of fertility and the conditions of failure and success. Violence, quarrels and the spilling of blood are dangerous. Iron production is explicitly expected to be non-violent process. In the Grassfields, smiths workshops were protected from actions leading to the spilling of blood. In the past, only men who had shown themselves to be fertile i. e. had a child, were allowed into the workshop. No menstruating women were allowed to enter. If the smith should wound himself he had to run out of the workshop before any blood could be spilt. Iron production generally stands at the intersection of two lines of thought; one associates it with fertility and procreation and the other with violence and the ambiguity of power i. e. the ability to kill. The substance they have in common is blood; both as ancestrally transmitted substance and as the polluting substance of wounds, wars and death. Sacrifice is the mediator between these categories since it spills the blood of the victim and yet does so in order to renew and regenerate the life force of the group. It is fundamental to the practice of sacred power precisely because it resolves the contradictions between destruction and regeneration or death and life force by converting a state of impotence into feelings of omnipotence and mastery.

22A remarkably similar cosmology deploys a series of complementary opposition between the visible and the invisible, life and death, day and night, village and forest. It is generally divided between a visible world of real appearances and events and an invisible world that animates and explains it. The other world is unseen cause as opposed to visible effect. It is not remote or distant but simply the inverse of the real. Chiefs, diviners, witches, earth priests are all, in some way, able to move across the boundaries between these worlds and influence the actions of spirits and occult forces who inhabit the invisible world. To do this is powerful and is the source of power and it is the hidden origin of material things and people. Knowledge of the invisible world and the ability to visit it or see into it or affect it, imposes moral and aesthetic order upon the medley of experience in the visible world which is otherwise obscured by it. Nobody of course can “see” any of this crossing of boundaries by the powerful actually happening. Efficacy is judged by results: the ability to protect a community ritually from death and disease, famine and sterility. In other words sacred power is the outcome or the representation in peoples actions of the proven ability to transform the invisible into the visible world of real effects.

Surplus value and sacred power

23In his study of Polynesian political economy, Firth many years ago reformulated the notion of surplus labour described by Marx as the defining characteristic of modern economies into a form of exploitation which he termed «work of the Gods» (Firth 1939). With great percipience, Firth realised that labour was not valued the same not only between different societies and historical periods but also within particular societies. Marx’s original definition of surplus labour in Capital vol. 1 was a straightforward reading of the exploitation of labour through extending the working day or its productivity through technological innovation. True to his view of history, Marx was explicit that surplus value only referred to capitalism where free labour could be bought and sold. Marx claimed that Aristotle writing on work and labour in the Ancient World failed to grasp that classical antiquity rested on the exploitation of slave labour since for him slaves were like animals and not free, and therefore did not constitute a form of labour.

24The implication that there may be many absolutely different types of labour and value attached to them would now be seen as a defining characteristic of precapitalist political economies. However Firth’s original point was that the product of work was not necessarily seen as the result of human material labour alone. Malinowski’s famous discussion of work and labour in the Trobriands equally demonstrated that «work of the gods» was involved in any productive effort and the “gift” of the gods had to be repaid by the living who benefitted from it. Anthropologists have long struggled to gain recognition for this point against the rationality of neoclassical economics that would see the hidden hand of the market operating regardless of what people might think (Evans-Pritchard 1937). If the value of a product is believed to be due to the work of both humans and “gods” then the value attached to them in exchange and forms of accumulation will reflect this dynamic.

25Applied to Marx’s recognition of the relativity of labour forms and their value, the fact that, for example, women carry out the majority of agricultural work in the Grassfields would not only metaphorically be compatible with their role in procreative work in general but also subordinate the direct labour in value terms to the work of male elders who ritually objectify themselves as the implements of ancestral labour. On the other hand the labour of uninitiated children and unmarried men and women is of less value than either married men and women. Comparison shows the link between the distribution of male labour forms and their elaboration in craft, political and ritual activities with centres of political power in the Grassfields of the later 19th century. Since the separation of persons and things is by no means as clearcut in Grassfields cosmology as the Western idea would assume, the exchange of values takes forms that did not necessarily take into account such a distinction.

26This was particularly the case in the trade in slaves. The central chiefdoms (map) were the centres of the supply of slaves to European traders on the coast during the 17th to early 19th centuries. For one of the major chiefdoms, Brain judged that «the backbone of the 19th century Bangwa economy was the slave trade» (Brain 1972, 15). At the high point of Grassfields involvement in the slave trade, it has been estimated that an annual sale of 15000 individuals fed the supply to the coast. Not all finally arrived in the New World since some would be kept along the route for labour or to be incorporated into new households. Since the sale of slaves was the principal means of acquiring European trade goods including cloth, guns, gunpowder, salt, beads, porcelain etc. the majority were finally fed into the Atlantic trade.

27It has now been shown that very few of the annual cull were captives but most were sold out by their own kin groups (Warmer 1989). Lineages and clans regularly sold out members who for various reasons were deemed less valuable than the European goods gained in exchange. Many of the victims were socially defined miscreants, women who had been unable to bear children, and young unmarried males or were the result of kidnapping women and children from rival groups. The marriage systems were also open to systematic abuse by senior notables who could claim daughters from inferior households and then sell them out (cf. Brain 1972, 178-179). The debates over the annual rate of export and the origins of the slaves sold are complex but the overall impression remains that it was persons of no value that were being disposed of, at least to those with the power to control the trade in slaves. The European goods gained in exchange were not "status items" or luxuries for elite consumption. The colours of cloth and beads, the use of guns and gunpowder in rituals, in particular funeral rites, the use of brass rings in bride payments all indicate that they were things with personal attributes that supplied the ritual system and constituted effectively “gifts to the Gods”.

28How persons can become things and things become persons is perfectly illustrated in the circulation of bodies and objects in the slave trade. Bodies as containers of ancestral substance and medicines increase in value with the centralisation of sacred power stimulated by the access to European trade and other bodies are emptied and refashioned as objects to be sold out for gain. The bodies of notables and kings become the repository of the semen, blood, saliva and breath of the whole chiefdom in which all must compete to gain a share through gifts of daughters as wives to be made pregnant. In a study of the largest kingdom in the Grassfields at the end of the 19th century, Tardits has shown that competition between patricians and lineages had resulted in the abortion of all independent descent groups into a single royal clan such that the King’s semen had literally impregnated the whole kingdom.

29In the prehistory of Grassfields polities, slaves, marriage partners, notables, fons and witches are part of the same equation in Bourdieu’s sense of symbolic power. Bodies evacuated of life essence become slaves, bodies with the accumulated ancestral power are notables and fons, those with substances of ambiguous power may practice sorcery. The materials, medicines, foods and body substances associated with each of these states are animated by them and seen to extensions of bodily practices. There seems little doubt that the conditions of “political centralization” in the Grassfields of the 19th century depended on embodied forms of sacred power embedded in a sacrificial economy given new impetus through access to the European demand for bodies as commodities.


30The quote from Hocart at the head of this paper is a familiar argument for the primacy of cultural economy in understanding the logic of precapitalist societies. Malinowski’s famous explanation of magic falls into the same mould of demonstrating that there is more than one rational explanation for why some Trobriand gardens would produce mounds of yams and others not. Explaining what is common and what is different in the comparison of human social experience can be satisfying but there is the risk of exoticism. Much of the debate about the nature of sacred power and divine kingship is rooted in similar Western / non Western ideas of cultural difference and exoticism which are now no longer very useful. Simply bolting together an exotic symbolist account with a pragmatic Western materialism produces little of any analytic use. Wherever they are applied, base and superstructure models reproduce idealist / materialist debates without resolving anything.

31Instead an approach that dissolves the difference, that does not allow economics to turn its back on ritual culture (and vice versa) and does not reproduce Western / non Western categories, produces a more sustained analysis of a particular case. The flourishing of sacrifical economies in the present, reflected in tourism, travel, consumption and fashion, suggest that we are not just dealing with archaic questions of value and equivalence, but also an engagement with loss and absence and revitalisation that can open more than one avenue to the invisible.


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