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Magic and Religion in the Works of Ernesto De Martino. Syncretism of Paganism and Catholicism in Religious Practices of Southern Italy


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Borjan, Etami. (2012). Magic and Religion in the Works of Ernesto De Martino. Syncretism of Paganism and Catholicism in Religious Practices of Southern Italy. Etnološka tribina, 42(35). pp. 113-134. ISSN 0351-1944

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One of the most prominent Italian anthropologists Ernesto De Martino became known internationally owing primarily to his study of the “magical” phenomena in southern Italy such as mourning rituals, trance, possession, and tarantism. The aim of this article is to give an overview of De Martino’s ideas and to contextualize his assertions in a wider context that goes beyond the borders of Italian cultural anthropology. The originality of his thought and his relativistic perspective places him in the same line with post-modern and post-colonial anthropologists. De Martino’s “critical ethnocentrism” was aimed at deconstructing the Eurocentric hierarchy of judging non-European societies. Firm rejection of the wellestablished ethnocentric assumptions was the result of De Martino’s awareness of historically and culturally determined use of values and criteria of judgment. Rather than simply rejecting Western values within the context of the anthropological discipline, De Martino stood for a more critical use, including questioning the respective symbolic structures and confronting them with different cultural categories. The act of shedding the light over historical and cultural background, in which categories and values are embedded, enables the anthropologist to cope with the limits of his own system. Throughout his scientific carrier De Martino was fascinated by the irrational. In his concept of culture, magic was endowed a very important existential function. He wrote extensively on magic and popular religion. His first book, Il mondo magico (Magic World, 1948), was De Martino’s first attempt to deal with the irrational in the wider context of world ethnology. Unlike his later works, De Martino’s assumptions on magic in this study were based on fieldwork accounts of other international ethnologists and the thoughts of respectable philosophers such as Croce, Hegel, Heidegger, and Kant. Popular religion in southern Italy is the central topic of three subsequent volumes: Morte e pianto rituale (Death and Mourning Rituals, 1958), Sud e magia (South and Magic, 1959), and La terra del rimorso: contributo a una storia religiosa del Sud (The Land of Remorse: a Study of Southern Italian Tarantism, 1961). The key concept present in all his writings is the so called “crisis of the presence”; that is the possibility to maintain or preserve the self in the face of everyday changes. In pre-industrial societies, everyday hardships and natural circumstances rendered life very difficult and the individual was in constant threat of losing his or her “presence” – his ability to act in the present. When the “presence” is jeopardized, magic is used to consolidate it. In pre-industrial societies, magic as an imaginary symbolical system, was the only permissible cultural institution allowed in such situations. Ernesto De Martino’s work on magic, popular culture, pagan practices and rituals has been extremely important for the development of modern anthropology. Although, most of his fieldwork was related to magical phenomena in southern Italy, his general assumptions on magic and religion make his work universal.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: magic, religion, trans, tarantism, crisis of the presence, Ernesto De Martino, critical ethnocentrism
Subjects: Ethnology and cultural anthropology
Italian Studies
Departments: Department of Italian Language and Literature
Date Deposited: 13 Jul 2017 11:26
Last Modified: 13 Jul 2017 11:26

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