The Presence of “Magical Thinking” within the case studies of The Maori Cannibals & Cantonese Funerals
Since the day you were born, you have been taught lessons that will help you get through everyday life. There have been the lessons of sharing, to always help others, and of course, to always be kind to your fellow man. Now, why is it that if you were to see someone use a dirty dinner plate, or drink someone else’s half empty glass of water, you deem that person disgusting? Is it in fact due to the lessons you’ve been taught, or does it stem from something different, such as “magical thinking?” Magical thinking can be found in the case studies, “Funeral Specialists in Cantonese Society: Pollution, Performance, and Social Hierarchy” by James L. Watson, and “Maori Cannibalism: An Interpretation” by Ross Bowden. This paper will examine the findings of these examples. “Magic” can be loosely summed up as a cognitive intuition or belief in the existence of imperceptible forces or essences that transcend the usual boundary between the mental/symbolic and physical/material realities, in a way that (1) diverges from the received wisdom from the technocratic elite, (2) serves important functions, and (3) follows the principles of similarity and contagion. The two main ideas of magical thinking are defined as, the Law of Similarity in which, replicas of disgusting objects are treated as disgusting, and the Law of Contagion in which, contact with a host of negative things, including unknown strangers, malicious others, their possessions or bodily residues, death and physical “corruption” of any kind, is felt to be physically endangering and/or morally debasing to the self. In the case study by James L. Watson, we can find numerous examples of magical thinking. Much like major civilizations, a funeral is held when a member of a Cantonese village passes away. However, the men who deal with the deceased are looked at in a different manner than other members of the village. Before a funeral is held, these men, called ng jong lo enter the village to begin their duties. It should be noted here that the men literally have to enter the village, due to the fact they live on the outskirts as they are believed to be tainted. Doors and windows were clapped shut as they walked through the narrow lanes, mothers scrambled to remove children from their paths, no one spoke with them, and – most noticeably – heads were turned to avoid their glance. As briefly mentioned, in these villages the men who deal with death are treated as social outcasts, due to the fact that they earn their living handling the deceased. Villagers believe that such people are permanently contaminated by constant exposure to the corrupting influences of death. Accordingly, any form of social exchange with them (physical, verbal or visual) is to be avoided lest the pollution of death be transmitted to the unwary. This example of the Law of Contagion shows that these villagers believe that any form of interaction with these men, will affect their lives in a negative and permanent way. In these villages, men are not the only ones that are thought to be tainted. The villagers perceive the currency that is used to pay these men as contaminated, however the specialists who accept the payment, view it as a source of income. To the villagers the money is a powerful embodiment of pollution; to the specialists it represents payment for services rendered. Villagers view this money to be so tainted, that it is withdrawn from a bank as new notes, on the day of the funeral and is always transported in a separate pocket so it cannot be confused with other currency. The acceptance of contaminated cash is one reason why funeral specialists are perceived as a dangerous category of people. The rice that these specialists buy to sustain themselves is also viewed as being tainted. The villagers believe that, those who live from death must eat from death. Women in these villages are...
Cited: Bowden, Ross. “Maori Cannibalism: An Interpretation.” Oceania 55, no. 2 (1984): 81-99.
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