The material of the ritual

In the wake of Marcel Mauss, Pierre Lemonnier approaches the male initiation rites of the Baruya of New Guinea not based on the signifier that can be attached to them, but on the action on the material that they make possible.

Had Marcel Mauss been right again?? After his hypothesis of the gift as the fundamental structure of all human society and his discovery of social shaping through the acquisition of bodily habits, the one we like to designate as the founding father of French ethnology left us in his various writings an irrevocable rule of method which consists of going always from the concrete to the abstract, particularly in the case of religious rituals. According to Mauss, we must focus very carefully on the materiality (a fashionable term for several years) which surrounds the performance of a ritual, that is to say on the gestures, the objects, but also the mechanisms which are engaged during this particular moment to get what is expected. In a word, and to summarize this very innovative position, we must observe each time the ritual as a technique which consists of shaping the bodies, modifying the thoughts, reorganizing the interactions between the participants and the other members of the community.

read the book by Pierre Lemonnier, The ritual of things. Objects, gestures and words of male initiations Baruya (Papua New Guinea) there is no doubt about the strength and profoundly heuristic aspect of this essential Mauss return. It is obvious that objects do something, particularly during the Muka, this great collective initiation ritual of the Baruya of New Guinea, pillar of their social and political order. This ritual of several weeks and more than 110 successive stages has entered the panthon of ethnographic literature for two particularly emblematic moments: the piercing of the nasal septum of young boys and the ingestion of sperm, the principle of life and force, which circulated from years to cadets through the practice of ritual fellatio.

But beyond these two great ritual crystallizations which have given much praise to specialists, this ceremony is above all an immense shaping of the bodies and minds of these young boys aged 8 to 12 who will suddenly learn new taboos from which the rest of their existence will be entirely organized. Everything changes, from behavior to clothing to their relationship to death and danger or even the absolute necessity of helping each other for future men who will soon be warriors. What Lemonnier's perspective brings to these otherwise well-known elements is to understand the different goals of this ritual which constructs for the initiates a new mental universe by paying attention, in the manner of Mauss, to the hundreds of gestures and objects that it is possible to observe, but also trying to understand how these objects play a central role both in the search for a particular effect (such as warming bodies) and as an essential form of non-verbal communication for the various participants in the ritual.

Set the scene

The description spares us nothing of the long unfolding of this Muka which serves to produce strength, vigor and courage while making violence and death palpable for the young initiates, and for the first time.

Facing the mountains of the enemies, the mukai go back down towards the ceremonial house.

It all starts with important preparations which can last several months before the big moment of piercing the nasal septum. It is necessary to obtain feathers and shells, cultivate the gardens to have enough food, make decorated capes and fine basketwork from orchid stems, and above all build the circular building of the men's house (mukaanga) which will become the place of confinement for young initiates. Containment reinforced by the raising of a high palisade with only two entrances. It is only after all this that the treatment of young children can begin with an anointing of ginger, the function of which is to cause a rise in body temperature. They are now forbidden to drink water made solely from sugar cane juice because it would have the opposite effect of cooling them down. Then comes the terror of seguta, this ritual flagellation which takes place at sunrise. The young initiates, dressed in a cape, pass with their godfather running under an alley of warriors who whip them with sticks or palm stems on the middle of the back and on the thighs. This crossing which marks the separation from the mothers inevitably leads the children towards their symbolic death which will be materialized a few hours later by the piercing of their nasal septum thanks to a bone hallmark, that of a great warrior from the time of their ancestors. A killing which, on some occasions, could have led to very real deaths from septicemia even if words of protection are repeated at each piercing (Bone of this man, you must not kill this mukai, p. 142).

Everything is accompanied by grunts, screams, songs, insults and frightening words thrown by the brave warriors to the children to prevent them from divulging what is happening during the ritual, or from telling their mother especially what they suffered, what that they saw: you, you, I will open your stomach and I will throw your intestines and the rest into the water; If you speak, I will kill you! (p. 147). The ceremony ends with a semblance of comfort. The child is coated with clay. He can drink water again. The house is dismantled and the hearth removed. Men can approach women again. And as is often the case, a feast closes the ritual, or rather opens a new cycle of prohibitions that the young initiates must now follow for the rest of their adult lives, in particular behavioral prohibitions and food taboos.

A vast system of transformations

The first 313 pages of the first part of Pierre Lemonnier's book as well as the imposing photographic notebook supposed to help us understand this Muka fail to draw out the extreme refinement of this ceremony. There are several dozen ritualized actions which follow one another, day after day, in a coherent order, sometimes with a certain improvisation. For Lemonnier, this profusion of gestures and objects tells us that the Muka has an essential function which is to materialize the necessary physical rupture between the young Mukai (the one who is beaten) and his mother. It takes an anointing, a sweat, a scourging with nettles to strip away (in the literal sense) the feminine impurities present on the bodies of children and then be able to transform them into true warriors. The Muka is a rebirth, or rather a reconstruction, whose aim is to erase the scandal of the birth of boys from the womb of women. Being confined, wearing a chrysalis cape, are ritual gestures modeled on the process of pregnancy, but without any female intervention.

The mukai become weak after the piercing of their septum and the absorption of salt you s

The Muka, however, is not just a means of reproducing the Baruya hierarchy of the sexes. It also serves to demonstrate the irrevocable equality of men among themselves. While distancing himself from women, the young boy enters into his future conduct as a man by adopting several new behaviors including, in particular, the acceptance of two essential actions for the pursuit of any Baruya social life: helping his co-initiates and working for them. donkeys. The new accomplished warrior-man who was able to courageously resist the pain of whipping and the piercing of his nose is also the one who built an unwavering solidarity during his confinement in the circular house with the other men. From now on he will cooperate in all circumstances. From now on, he will help the old and the sick by building garden fences and pens for the pigs.

Why materiality?

The challenge of this book does not lie only in a precise and circumstantial description of this Muka ceremony, even if Lemonnier's writing is from start to finish chiselled, clinical, and makes his description a model of the genre. It is also about trying to finally take seriously the objects involved in ritual action. This implies not thinking about the object, as anthropology too often does, in terms of the signifier attached to it, but firstly in terms of the action on matter that it makes possible. We must confront the matter of these numerous rsonators involved in a ritual, as Lemonnier calls them, with the aim of understanding the physical and cognitive effects (including memorization) that they produce. Thinking about the objects involved based on their basic physical property and what they allow one to do already makes it possible to show that in many cases, doing is often just doing (p. 404-405). Dressing yourself in a cape that covers your face and prevents your mother from recognizing you among the other initiates is a physical reality. The cape object here is not a substitute for the words spoken by the Baruya warriors in the form of prohibitions or threats. This object, which is required throughout the ritual, allows it to act directly on the boys' bodies. As Lemonnier notes, words and words accompany the unfolding of the ritual, but what takes precedence over these spoken words are the material actions. The objects involved always do something specific in social relations, things that words alone cannot do.

For Lemonnier, wanting to take materiality seriously also means being interested in various basic physical actions. This old anthropological moon professed in its time by Andr Leroi-Gourhan, Andr-Georges Haudricourt or Franois Sigaut, is all the more important to document because it allows us to measure the place of technical change, determine what constitutes an innovation for the Baruya, and better understand the impact, ultimately minimal, of the exchanges and contacts which take place between this population remains on the margins and our modernity.

Lemonnier manages to easily convince us of the importance of this materialist shift. We can only regret, like him, that too few ethnologists still take the trouble to describe systematically and in a comparative manner the ways in which the members of a community act on matter.