Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society (review)
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Africa Today 47.3/4 (2000) 193-195



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Guenther, Mathias. 1999. Tricksters and Trancers: Bushman Religion and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 288pp.

This is an important book that turns a critical lens upon how anthropology has long envisioned both the Bushmen of southern Africa and the meaning of structure in disciplinary theory. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of Bushman culture, myth, and religion, Guenther presents an intricate yet lucid analysis of how we understand structure, antistructure, and hunter-gatherer societies in contemporary life. He provides an interesting and novel approach to the question of agency and culture, and demonstrates how studies of Bushman society can help inform contemporary anthropological theory and its epistemological penchant for structure.

Guenther begins with the observation that despite a rich and extensive literature on Bushman society, few scholarly accounts focus specifically upon the nature of myth, ritual, and symbolism in that context. He suggests that what is required is a rethinking of the nature of society, and articulation between society and religion as studied and understood in anthropology. Inverting the anthropological tendency to examine social structure as fixed and static, he attempts to present Bushman culture using an analysis of myth, storytelling, and initiation. Guenther weaves an interesting analysis of how gender and the ambiguity of the world are understood by individuals in that context. He focuses in particular upon myth and ritual, as represented by the trickster and the trance dancer, respectively. These two aspects of Bushman religion help to explain how dynamic and instrumental hunter-gatherer societies are in contemporary and often changing socioeconomic times. Both figures, one a mythical and spiritual being and the other a communal healer and political mediator for the community, operate as flexible, multifarious, and quixotic beings in Bushman society and lore.

Guenther reiterates throughout that the inherent ambiguity evident in Bushman life and belief is not perplexing. The reason he states is this "contrapuntal relationship between religion and society . . . belief can be regarded as an ideology consistent with the mobility, openness, fluidity, flexibility, adaptability, and unpredictability of the forager's life" (p. 246). [End Page 193] As he argues, in a Weberian sense, these ideological components of foraging work shape not only the processes of production, but also the way the people relate to each other socially, and how they give meaning to their life and world (p. 246). As Guenther so adeptly demonstrates, this perspective actually allows us to see how people with a dynamic, adapting ethos are able to change and reconstitute society. Bushman society is not "structureless" per se; rather, in time of political, ecological, or social stress, individuals do not become liminal and without cogent structure. In an interesting critique of classic structural approaches, Guenther highlights the opposite--how when society is most in flux, is when the structure, the means through which a society accepts ambiguity, comes through most clearly and definitively.

Methodologically, Guenther raises some interesting points. How do we study societies and structures of religion when in fact they appear to us as unstructured and loose? How do we understand religion in the context of such societies? His contrast of the experience based understanding of Bushman religion and society highlights how limited previous anthropological approaches to ambiguity can be. These perspectives, Guenther points out, tend to remain biased toward the rational, static structural, top-down models of society, and, as a result, fail to capture or even comprehend the meanings and experiences of society's antistructural tendencies. Yet as Guenther admits, there is, in the search for some consistent patterns, the possibility of finding ambiguity or structures everywhere and, as he puts it, "ambiguity overload" and the impossibility of methodologically finding some consistent, culturally integrating element. In addition, while Guenther's book is an attempt to confront disciplinary assumptions about religion and the meaning of structure in society, his rich ethnography does assume extensive knowledge about Bushman culture and language on the part of the reader. One must be sufficiently knowledgeable about Khoisan language, orthography, and previous literature from which Guenther draws much of his argument in order to...


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