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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

A Denizen of the Recent Past Lurking in the Present: Slenderman as Folklore

By Dr. Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

Ross Downing’s interview with Vivian Asimos is an engaging treatment of her doctoral study of Slenderman within the context of on-line storytelling and virtual communities. She gives important historical context for this tall, faceless monster’s appearance in 2009 and then focuses on reasons why the figure remains popular. With a new movie scheduled for release after the completion of Asimos’ doctoral thesis, the topic is especially relevant to the continued presence in Slenderman as a feature of the Creepy Pasta on-line storytelling community. Tragically, the interest in Slenderman also has been influenced by the 2014 stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by two children in Wisconsin, which culminated in convictions of two girls (one of whom is now appealing her 40-year-sentence) and the resultant negative connotations about this figure. Asimos explains that her work doesn’t directly deal with the violence associated with the figure. Instead, she is more interested in ways that Slenderman phenomena are connected to virtual communities, their use of fantastical spaces and places, and the expression of mythic themes within the gray area between religion and non-religion in contemporary virtual communities.

As a folklorist, I appreciate her methodology and her interpretation of Slenderman. She explores the narrative’s formal and structure, and she looks at the processes of communal storytelling by engaging with those who are creators and consumers of Creepy Pasta. Downing and Asimos’ discussion explores the persistence of mythic and folkloric elements in the narratives and other media representations in ways that are highly resonant with perspectives from folklore research. Common threads, such as the way that monsters are situated in the forest, demonstrate historical antecedents to the Slenderman figure in European folklore, and the continued symbolism and associations of monsters in liminal spaces remains an important topic of research. The connection between creating new forms of narratives from older resources also is an important feature in contemporary scholarship. Although Slenderman is an invented monster, he is patterned after older folk figures, and various folkloric motifs emerge within the storytelling community.  Asimos’ point that the authenticity of Slenderman is situated in the creative expression of these impromptu communities is a fine counterpoint to the shopworn idea that only those tales rooted in historical tradition can be considered authentic. She also offers insightful discussion of the myth and its relation to ritual as on-going processes in contemporary society. Her treatment of the creative and spiritual appeal of Slenderman as a liminal figure who thrives between categories is especially intriguing, and her approaches to myth are resonant with scholarship in folklore and anthropology, notably in the scholarship derived by Arnold Van Gennep, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Victor and Edith Turner, and their progeny.

Above, the trailer for Slender Man, released this summer in the US.  Reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly negative, criticizing both the choice to make the film, given the attempted murder of Payton Leutner, and how poorly written the film is.  A second film based on the stabbing, Terror in the Woods, aired on Lifetime, a television network, on October 17.  Together, they suggest an ongoing interest in perhaps the most famous creepypasta story.

Below, the trailer for HBO’s 2015 documentary about the Slenderman stabbing , Beware the Slenderman, engages the question of the relationship between legends and real-life violence.

I would enjoy reading more of her work, and I would need to gain a wider sense of her use of scholarship in mythology and folklore. While listening to the interview, however, I was hoping to hear some discussion of other genres of folklore, notably some focus on the scholarship on contemporary legends and virtual communities (Blank 2012). Asimos deeply explores themes derived from scholarship on myth, but additional reflections on current perspectives on legends would enhance her insights. Rather than serving only as a mythic figure, Slenderman has more connections to figures from legends told around the world. At the risk of overgeneralizing distinctions between myth and legend, some characteristic patterns distinguish these two genres. Whereas mythic figures inhabit the primordial time-before-time of sacred narratives, legendary figures are denizens of the recent past who may hauntingly continue to lurk in the present. Whereas mythic narratives are generally more connected to highly ritualized practices within well established, even more orthodox, religious bodies, the rituals associated with legends generally are grounded in the types of impromptu and unofficial institutions that may create their own systems of belief. Whereas believers of myth generally regard their stories as containing the sacred and foundational truths of the cosmos, believers of legend tend to be more skeptical. In this respect, some folklorists argue that legends don’t so much assert belief as raise the potential for inquiry into a belief’s veracity and meanings (Oring 2012, 106). Other distinctions between myth and legend  further demonstrate the value of thinking of Slenderman and others denizens of cyberspace in terms of scholarship on legend rather than myth. Notably, the telling (and believing) of legends may actually be outside of the more canonical acceptance of sacred stories and rituals within particular religious institutions. Thus, legends may be outside of the religious orthodoxy that is grounded in mythic thinking, and the creation and diffusion of legends tends to be looser than ways that myths are sustained within living cultural traditions. It is also worth considering how legends may be circulated by those who seek to create their own vernacular religious beliefs and spiritual experiences by stepping away from more institutionalized religious doctrines and practices. Scholarship on ways that these processes occur through the transmission of legend could spark new insights into the processes that Asimos elucidates.

One major element, here, is the place of ostension within the study of legend. This is a process in which storytellers create their own response to the narratives by acting them out (Tucker 2007). They may enact a trip to a haunted site and engage in the ritual behavior that is featured in a legend.  A legend teller may decide to see if drinking a soft drink when one’s mouth is full of Pop Rocks will really create an explosion, and YouTube features videos in which actors test out the content of a legend in their own lives. In the case of Slenderman, ostension is strikingly evident in the actual connections between violent acts and the belief in the figure. Even though the focus of her work is not on the specific tragedy that is connected to the violent enactment of a legendary character’s will, research on ostension in legendry could add to Asimos’s interpretation and provide needed insight into these processes. Notably, she is in agreement with folklorists who critique the simplicity of assuming that texts actively brainwash youth into perpetuating acts of violence. It is clear that scholarship on ostension reveals the importance of human agency in our choices to believe stories and act them out. These processes are central to her wider interest in ritual and narratives, and moving beyond the scholarship on myth into research on other folklore genres and social processes would expand on ways of understanding Slenderman within wider discussions of liminality.

At left, an image Eric Knudsen (“Victor Surge”) created in a Something Awful competition to manipulate photos into terrifying images. Slenderman, a tall, faceless figure with tentacle-like arms who wears a suit, appears on a playground where young children climb up a slide and play in a wooden fort.  The image is stamped with a seal that says “City of Stirling Libraries—Local Stories Collection.”

One final aspect of the Slenderman phenomenon also connects to folklorists’ scholarship on legends. Namely, Slenderman is a media figure who is situated between the individual and wider communities. When we sit at a computer screen and experience these internet figures in cyberspace, we tend to have a kneejerk reaction that places the individual in direct connection to a vague, broad, and highly reified idea of something like an internet community. The experience creates a sense of individual versus society as a point of both tension and connection. Jay Mechling explores how mediating structures provided by families, religious bodies, social and service organizations, and other institutions and organization are configurations that exist between the individual and the broadest institutions, such as a sense of membership in the nation’s imagined community (Mechling 1989, 340). These mediating structures, Mechling argues, are major influences in ways that members of social groups interact with each other. Legendary figures, narratives, folk belief, narratives, and other forms of folklore need to be understood in relation to the vast configuring of social relationships and structures that are part of cultural expression. As the efficacy of these mediating structures erode, individuals lose the influences from the values of a wide range of groups. Here, the idea of a cyberspace community is really an illusion, and the result can be a loosening of constraints for engaging in responsible, thoughtful behavior. Consider, for example, how internet posting and tweeting would be changed if computer-users would consider how the text would be received by family members, co-workers, fellow congregants, civic club leaders, and other cohorts. Looking at Slenderman in relation to the effects – or more pointedly the lack of effects – of an individual’s engagement with more diverse social structures has the potential to enrich our understanding of the place of Slenderman within a cyberworld that is oftentimes far more sinister than it seems. The narratives, beliefs, and the resultant ostension of belief is influenced by limited influence of mediating structures. Outside of the computer world, behavior that is connected to ritual and legend are strongly constrained by real-life influences from a range of social groups. In cyberspace, the influence of these structures is less pronounced, and quest to create new narratives and meaningful rituals is connected to the desire to replace what has been lost. Viewed in this manner, Slenderman’s influences may be a benign figure who serves to recreate social relations, but it is a bit too optimistic to dismiss how he can be complicit with antisocial and destructive behavior.

References

Blank, Trevor, ed. 2012. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction. Logan: Utah State University Press.

_________ and Lynne McNeil ed. 2018. Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Mechling, Jay.  1989. “Mediating Structures and the Significance of UniversityFolk.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, ed. Elliot Oring, 339-49. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989.

Oring, Elliott. 2012. “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth.” In Just Folklore: Analysis, Interpretation, Critique, 104-52. Los Angeles: Cantilever Press.

Tucker, Elizabeth. 2007. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 15 November 2016

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Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tea bags, exercise machines and more!

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Podcasts

Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

A Denizen of the Recent Past Lurking in the Present: Slenderman as Folklore

By Dr. Gregory Hansen, Arkansas State University

Ross Downing’s interview with Vivian Asimos is an engaging treatment of her doctoral study of Slenderman within the context of on-line storytelling and virtual communities. She gives important historical context for this tall, faceless monster’s appearance in 2009 and then focuses on reasons why the figure remains popular. With a new movie scheduled for release after the completion of Asimos’ doctoral thesis, the topic is especially relevant to the continued presence in Slenderman as a feature of the Creepy Pasta on-line storytelling community. Tragically, the interest in Slenderman also has been influenced by the 2014 stabbing of a 12-year-old girl by two children in Wisconsin, which culminated in convictions of two girls (one of whom is now appealing her 40-year-sentence) and the resultant negative connotations about this figure. Asimos explains that her work doesn’t directly deal with the violence associated with the figure. Instead, she is more interested in ways that Slenderman phenomena are connected to virtual communities, their use of fantastical spaces and places, and the expression of mythic themes within the gray area between religion and non-religion in contemporary virtual communities.

As a folklorist, I appreciate her methodology and her interpretation of Slenderman. She explores the narrative’s formal and structure, and she looks at the processes of communal storytelling by engaging with those who are creators and consumers of Creepy Pasta. Downing and Asimos’ discussion explores the persistence of mythic and folkloric elements in the narratives and other media representations in ways that are highly resonant with perspectives from folklore research. Common threads, such as the way that monsters are situated in the forest, demonstrate historical antecedents to the Slenderman figure in European folklore, and the continued symbolism and associations of monsters in liminal spaces remains an important topic of research. The connection between creating new forms of narratives from older resources also is an important feature in contemporary scholarship. Although Slenderman is an invented monster, he is patterned after older folk figures, and various folkloric motifs emerge within the storytelling community.  Asimos’ point that the authenticity of Slenderman is situated in the creative expression of these impromptu communities is a fine counterpoint to the shopworn idea that only those tales rooted in historical tradition can be considered authentic. She also offers insightful discussion of the myth and its relation to ritual as on-going processes in contemporary society. Her treatment of the creative and spiritual appeal of Slenderman as a liminal figure who thrives between categories is especially intriguing, and her approaches to myth are resonant with scholarship in folklore and anthropology, notably in the scholarship derived by Arnold Van Gennep, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Victor and Edith Turner, and their progeny.

Above, the trailer for Slender Man, released this summer in the US.  Reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly negative, criticizing both the choice to make the film, given the attempted murder of Payton Leutner, and how poorly written the film is.  A second film based on the stabbing, Terror in the Woods, aired on Lifetime, a television network, on October 17.  Together, they suggest an ongoing interest in perhaps the most famous creepypasta story.

Below, the trailer for HBO’s 2015 documentary about the Slenderman stabbing , Beware the Slenderman, engages the question of the relationship between legends and real-life violence.

I would enjoy reading more of her work, and I would need to gain a wider sense of her use of scholarship in mythology and folklore. While listening to the interview, however, I was hoping to hear some discussion of other genres of folklore, notably some focus on the scholarship on contemporary legends and virtual communities (Blank 2012). Asimos deeply explores themes derived from scholarship on myth, but additional reflections on current perspectives on legends would enhance her insights. Rather than serving only as a mythic figure, Slenderman has more connections to figures from legends told around the world. At the risk of overgeneralizing distinctions between myth and legend, some characteristic patterns distinguish these two genres. Whereas mythic figures inhabit the primordial time-before-time of sacred narratives, legendary figures are denizens of the recent past who may hauntingly continue to lurk in the present. Whereas mythic narratives are generally more connected to highly ritualized practices within well established, even more orthodox, religious bodies, the rituals associated with legends generally are grounded in the types of impromptu and unofficial institutions that may create their own systems of belief. Whereas believers of myth generally regard their stories as containing the sacred and foundational truths of the cosmos, believers of legend tend to be more skeptical. In this respect, some folklorists argue that legends don’t so much assert belief as raise the potential for inquiry into a belief’s veracity and meanings (Oring 2012, 106). Other distinctions between myth and legend  further demonstrate the value of thinking of Slenderman and others denizens of cyberspace in terms of scholarship on legend rather than myth. Notably, the telling (and believing) of legends may actually be outside of the more canonical acceptance of sacred stories and rituals within particular religious institutions. Thus, legends may be outside of the religious orthodoxy that is grounded in mythic thinking, and the creation and diffusion of legends tends to be looser than ways that myths are sustained within living cultural traditions. It is also worth considering how legends may be circulated by those who seek to create their own vernacular religious beliefs and spiritual experiences by stepping away from more institutionalized religious doctrines and practices. Scholarship on ways that these processes occur through the transmission of legend could spark new insights into the processes that Asimos elucidates.

One major element, here, is the place of ostension within the study of legend. This is a process in which storytellers create their own response to the narratives by acting them out (Tucker 2007). They may enact a trip to a haunted site and engage in the ritual behavior that is featured in a legend.  A legend teller may decide to see if drinking a soft drink when one’s mouth is full of Pop Rocks will really create an explosion, and YouTube features videos in which actors test out the content of a legend in their own lives. In the case of Slenderman, ostension is strikingly evident in the actual connections between violent acts and the belief in the figure. Even though the focus of her work is not on the specific tragedy that is connected to the violent enactment of a legendary character’s will, research on ostension in legendry could add to Asimos’s interpretation and provide needed insight into these processes. Notably, she is in agreement with folklorists who critique the simplicity of assuming that texts actively brainwash youth into perpetuating acts of violence. It is clear that scholarship on ostension reveals the importance of human agency in our choices to believe stories and act them out. These processes are central to her wider interest in ritual and narratives, and moving beyond the scholarship on myth into research on other folklore genres and social processes would expand on ways of understanding Slenderman within wider discussions of liminality.

At left, an image Eric Knudsen (“Victor Surge”) created in a Something Awful competition to manipulate photos into terrifying images. Slenderman, a tall, faceless figure with tentacle-like arms who wears a suit, appears on a playground where young children climb up a slide and play in a wooden fort.  The image is stamped with a seal that says “City of Stirling Libraries—Local Stories Collection.”

One final aspect of the Slenderman phenomenon also connects to folklorists’ scholarship on legends. Namely, Slenderman is a media figure who is situated between the individual and wider communities. When we sit at a computer screen and experience these internet figures in cyberspace, we tend to have a kneejerk reaction that places the individual in direct connection to a vague, broad, and highly reified idea of something like an internet community. The experience creates a sense of individual versus society as a point of both tension and connection. Jay Mechling explores how mediating structures provided by families, religious bodies, social and service organizations, and other institutions and organization are configurations that exist between the individual and the broadest institutions, such as a sense of membership in the nation’s imagined community (Mechling 1989, 340). These mediating structures, Mechling argues, are major influences in ways that members of social groups interact with each other. Legendary figures, narratives, folk belief, narratives, and other forms of folklore need to be understood in relation to the vast configuring of social relationships and structures that are part of cultural expression. As the efficacy of these mediating structures erode, individuals lose the influences from the values of a wide range of groups. Here, the idea of a cyberspace community is really an illusion, and the result can be a loosening of constraints for engaging in responsible, thoughtful behavior. Consider, for example, how internet posting and tweeting would be changed if computer-users would consider how the text would be received by family members, co-workers, fellow congregants, civic club leaders, and other cohorts. Looking at Slenderman in relation to the effects – or more pointedly the lack of effects – of an individual’s engagement with more diverse social structures has the potential to enrich our understanding of the place of Slenderman within a cyberworld that is oftentimes far more sinister than it seems. The narratives, beliefs, and the resultant ostension of belief is influenced by limited influence of mediating structures. Outside of the computer world, behavior that is connected to ritual and legend are strongly constrained by real-life influences from a range of social groups. In cyberspace, the influence of these structures is less pronounced, and quest to create new narratives and meaningful rituals is connected to the desire to replace what has been lost. Viewed in this manner, Slenderman’s influences may be a benign figure who serves to recreate social relations, but it is a bit too optimistic to dismiss how he can be complicit with antisocial and destructive behavior.

References

Blank, Trevor, ed. 2012. Folk Culture in the Digital Age: The Emergent Dynamics of Human Interaction. Logan: Utah State University Press.

_________ and Lynne McNeil ed. 2018. Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Mechling, Jay.  1989. “Mediating Structures and the Significance of UniversityFolk.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, ed. Elliot Oring, 339-49. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1989.

Oring, Elliott. 2012. “Legendry and the Rhetoric of Truth.” In Just Folklore: Analysis, Interpretation, Critique, 104-52. Los Angeles: Cantilever Press.

Tucker, Elizabeth. 2007. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 15 November 2016

Dear subscriber,

Do you have a call for papers, an event announcement, a job vacancy, grant or award you would like others to distribute?

How about having your notification posted with the Religious Studies Project’s weekly Opportunities Digest? It’s easy, just send them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com, which is now back in order!

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Thank you!

You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Conference: Fourth Annual Conference of the British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

More information

Conference: Negotiations of Belonging

October 4–6, 2017

Narva, Estonia

Deadline: May 2, 2017

More information

Conference: Folklore from the Cradle to the Grave

March 31–April 2, 2017

Edinburgh, UK

Deadline: January 5, 2017

More information

Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: December 9, 2016

More information

Journal: International Journal of Latin-American Religions

Inaugural issue

Deadline: March 15, 2017

More information

Events

Seminar: Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe

November 3, 2016, 5.00 – 6.30 p.m.

University College Cork, Ireland

More information

Seminar: An exploration of religious voices and identities in higher education

November 28, 2016

University of Manchester, UK

More information

Symposium: The Scientific Study of Nonreligious Belief

December 1–2, 2016

University College London, UK

More information

Jobs and funding

Assistant Professor: Early Christianity

Virginia Tech, USA

Deadline: January 1, 2017

More information

Teaching Fellow: Biblical Studies

University of St Andrews, UK

Deadline: December 9, 2016

More information

Tenure Track Position: World Religions and World Mythologies

Oakton Community College, USA

Deadline: December 11, 2016

More information

Indexer: Index Buddhicus

Brill

Deadline: November 30, 2016

More information

Grant: Shohet Scholars

International Catacomb Society

Deadline: January 15, 2017

More information

Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tea bags, exercise machines and more!

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!