Culture Magazine

Lost in (Western) Translation

By Cris

There is a sense in which we are all cultural narcissists. By this, I mean that because all of us are acculturated at a particular time and in a particular place, we have a strong tendency to view other times and places through our own cultural lens. These lenses are prismatic and what we see through them distorts.

I was reminded of this effect while reading an article about the “religious” beliefs and practices of a Scandinavian hunter-gatherer society, the Sami. The authors discuss these beliefs and practices using terms and concepts developed primarily in the context of Abrahamic religions. We are told that Sami “Religious practices included a variety of rituals and gestures connected to sacrifices. Offerings expressed veneration of the divine powers and established a relationship with the gods.” We also learn that the Sami worshiped a “sacred wooden idol,” which is considered to be a “deity” and tree carvings are “images of gods.” Elsewhere the authors talk about Sami “holy places.”

Sacrifice, divinity, god, holiness, and deity s0und suspiciously like Western rather than Sami constructs. Although we can trace these ideas back to the many polytheisms that first arose in Mesopotamia and then spread throughout the Mediterranean, they were systematically elaborated by the monotheistic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While it is possible that the Sami did in fact think and talk in these terms, there are several reasons for doubt.

Lost in (Western) Translation

The first comes from what might be considered naive or non-professional chronicling of native traditions. In most cases, our earliest knowledge of indigenous peoples comes from writings produced by explorers, traders, colonizers, and missionaries. They were not trained in ethnographic methods and inevitably recorded what they saw using concepts and language with which they were familiar. Our earliest accounts of indigenous people must be read with this in mind. The second doubt springs from the straightforward difficulties of language. Few of the earliest chroniclers were linguists and much was lost in translation. The third difficulty is the product of contact and diffusion. Ecumenical in their supernatural outlook, many indigenous peoples picked up on new ideas and incorporated them into their beliefs. Early chroniclers were often astonished to hear them talk about things that sounded suspiciously Christian, apparently without realizing that Christian ideas had long been in circulation.

Elsewhere in the article, we are told that Sami “religious beliefs were animistic, centered on animal ceremonialism.” While this seems simple enough, what does “animism” actually mean? I will confess to not having given this much thought until reading Nurit Bird-David’s superb history and analysis of the term. In “Animism Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology” (open access), she locates the origin of “animism” in E.B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) and sketches a genealogy of its deployment since that time.

For Tylor, animism was the attribution of life and personality to plants, animals, weather, and landscapes. He considered it to be a “primitive” trait that originated in dreams and thus was a form of error. Although most of Tylor’s ideas have been abandoned or substantially modified, Bird-David demonstrates that his thoughts on animism have been uncritically accepted and incorporated into the anthropological and historical mainstream. She convincingly shows that animism is an ossified and untroubled category that needs substantial revision.

For Bird-David, the anthropomorphism that characterizes animism is a form of relational epistemology and when viewed this way, it makes considerable sense. Because hunter-gatherers are profoundly and daily affected by plants, animals, weather, and landscapes, putting them into a personal or social relationship — one that is some ways negotiable — is a valid way of understanding and knowing the world.

Having intimate and life altering contact with plants, animals, weather, landscapes, and most importantly other people, hunter-gatherer epistemology does not begin with the individualistic and detached statement “I think, therefore I am.” This Cartesian construct, so deeply embedded (and essentialized) in Western thought, makes little sense to hunter-gatherers who consider relationships to be of paramount importance. Their first principle might thus be stated: “I relate, therefore I am.”

Animism is not, when considered this way, a simplistic or “primitive” way of knowing the world. It is a much richer (and more complex) idea that requires the careful use of concepts which differ from those used to construct the Western world.


Bird-David, Nurit (1999). “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology, 40 DOI: 10.1086/200061

Bergman, I., Ostlund, L., Zackrisson, O., & Liedgren, L. (2008). Varro Muorra: The Landscape Significance of Sami Sacred Wooden Objects and Sacrificial Altars. Ethnohistory, 55 (1), 1-28 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-2007-044

You Might Also Like :

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog

These articles might interest you :

  • Concert Review: Extreme Orchestral Sports

    Concert Review: Extreme Orchestral Sports

    The New York Philharmonic plays Berio and Strauss. by Paul J. Pelkonen Oh what a mountain! The New York Philharmonic played Ein Alpensinfonie this week. Read more

    The 27 May 2018 by   Superconductor
  • Peonies by Mary Oliver

    Peonies Mary Oliver

    This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers and... Read more

    The 27 May 2018 by   Vickilane
  • Memorial Day: Remember Them

    Memorial Day: Remember Them

    "The endless rows of white stones and mausoleums command the heights of former battlefields and sprawl across the rolling course of green, under the cobalt spac... Read more

    The 27 May 2018 by   Ingrafted
  • Cinnamon Cake

    Cinnamon Cake

    Mmmm . . . is there any smell on earth better than the smell of cinnamon anything baking in the oven??? I think not!!! It has to be the most comforting, homey,... Read more

    The 27 May 2018 by   Mariealicerayner
  • "The Law is What Powerful Men Say It Shall Be...."

    "The What Powerful Shall Be...."

    The War of the Roses was a British civil war that lasted approximately from 1455 A.D. to 1485 A.D. between the houses of Lancaster and York ending with the deat... Read more

    The 27 May 2018 by   Jamesswezey
  • Full-Time Firefighter/Paramedic – City of Riverside (OH)

    Full-Time Firefighter/Paramedic City Riverside (OH)

    City of Riverside (OH) Full-Time Firefighter/Paramedic Salary: $49,561.20 – $64,977.12 annually ****To reserve your spot, please sign up!**** City of Riverside... Read more

    The 26 May 2018 by   Firecareers
  • Thoughts of the Week

    1. Meghan Markle's wedding make-up has been released. I don't buy it. They claim to have used foundation, an eyeshadow palette, contour palette, eyeliner,... Read more

    The 26 May 2018 by   Glossqueen