Ritual, Imitation and Sacral Connectivity: The example of making a Malanggan

I have recently been reading an early French sociologist named Gabriel Tarde.  There has been a revival of Tarde’s work in recent sociological debates and his ideas have begun to be reconsidered in a number of different areas.  One of those areas concerns ritual.  In this post I intend to consider ritual through a Tardean lens in the hope that some insight can be offered regarding how we can engage with Mormon liturgy.

Karen Sykes provides an enthographic account of the ritual production of a Malanggan: a Barok (one tribe from Papua New Guinea) mortuary sculpture [1].  For Tarde, and Sykes utilises this insight, imitation is foundational to all social relations.  Ideas and material objects are exchanged through imitative relations; in addition, this borrowing is a creative act.  Thus images, ideas or things are never exchanged in some pure economic space but rather exchange is a form of association, one that must be creatively managed.

In terms of rituals, such a view opens up ways of thinking about what we share and create by participating (both in giving and receiving) during such actions.  To be endowed is not to receive a tangible kernel of ‘power’ that we can use to accomplish specific tasks; rather we are given access to certain symbols or tokens that we can creatively organise in divinely significant or redemptive ways.  Moreover, we are given access to certain spaces where we can creatively work with those symbols.  Perhaps an under-utilised feature of the celestial room is the ability to discuss the experiences of the endowment ritual.  By focussing solely upon prayer, as some do, we fail to activate the liturgy through these dialogues.

When making the Malanggan, the Barok resist failure by borrowing techniques from the ancestors or neighbours.  There is no formal process discretely outlined in a sacred text, but rather this is an oral tradition, much like the temple [2].  Yet, this borrowing is necessarily open to the possibility of failure and instability; those who labour with these rituals recognise that they are always working against these fears.  It is interesting that part of the way they guard against this instability is to re-invoke the techniques of construction of the Malanggan through speaking about them and their limitations.  They protect the rituals from collapse by acknowledging that they could fail if their attempt to borrow or imitate is not successfuly enacted.  One way we can therefore work with these symbols in that specific space is to explore their limits in the context of ritual borrowing.

Further, in making the Malanggan, the rituals become a communal act; they are a series of embodied forms and relations that are points of connectivity.  When the Malanggan is made, the labourers use many small pieces of hand-made rope, as if to force the labourers to remember that people are bound together.  In the face of death, we must work to recreate those ties. The labourers must watch each other and their predecessors and enact the ritual in presence of others.  There is a real sense that Mormon rituals also embody this pattern, for example I love that we share the sacrament amongst ourselves.  Each of us becomes implicated in the salvation of the people next to us through that communal covenant.  The ritual patterns of passing the trays down rows, or when we are taught and receive certain symbols in the temple, points of association are created between participants.  If we follow Tarde, the nature of these associations is constitutive of the entities which are associated.  Thus we are changed by our response to this form of community-making practice.  Each of us are the result of many connections and associations, each one part of the composite Subject.  It seems to me that these salvific communities we seek (i.e. Zion) are intended to be both symbolised and emergent from these ritual associations.

In addition, for these people, the Malanggan becomes an after-image: metaphorically and in practice.  The colours are painted with a powedered sea-shell in order that the sun can glisten on these sculptures.  Staring at the Malanggan creates an after-image (reversed colours) on the back of the eyelid, when the eyes are closed.  The image is internalised.  Symbolically the Malanggan is a recreated body of the deceased.  The deceased is internalised through their ritual re-embodiment.  The temple is also a place where we re-embody our deceased ancestors, but also Jesus.

Why is this ritualistic borrowing important?  As I suggested earlier, as we actively imitate the ritual expressions and techniques of those in our community we enter into sacred social relations.  Relations that will define who we are.  Mormon theology, it seems to me, believes that apotheosis is the result of a certain type of relationship (i.e. the Godhead, Marriage, Zion) which is enacted through ritual.  Sykes argues that ‘borrowing is a social act in which the value of social relations must be explicit and discussed as a chain linking people to each other through things and to things’[1].  The Malanggan is an embodiment of a relationship; as are our LDS rituals and ordinances.


1. Karen Sykes, The Value of a Beautiful Memory in The Social after Gabriel Tarde, ed. Matei Candea [London: Routldge, 2010], pp. 62-80.

2. Kathleen Flake, Not to be Riten: The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon in Journal of Ritual Studies, vol. 9(2), (Summer, 1995), pp. 1-21.


  1. Next year’s EMSA/BASR meeting is on ritual…

  2. Interesting post.

    BTW it’s interesing how the extra // in the end of the URL makes that the Flake-link won’t work, at least not in my browser.

  3. Aaron R. says:

    Niklas, its fixed. Thanks for that.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Aaron, thank you for this post. I have nothing to add, but will be thinking about some of the thing you mention which I have never considered before.

  5. The problem of “Rituals” (IMO), is the fine line between Religious rituals ( seeking God’s help or worshiping him), and Magical rituals ( thinking these rituals give you power over Nature).

  6. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks Mark. I too have found Tarde’s thinking and a few of the recent anthropological studies using his ideas immensly valuable.

    Bob, I think the problem of rituals does not really apply to this particular reading, primarily because Tarde is primarily focussed upon how imitative social relations are created and maintained. Therefore what is important here is how these rituals (might) accomplish the forms of association that they intend to.

  7. Bob, what exactly is the problem? And why the scare quotes?

    Appreciate the thoughts, Aaron.

  8. #6: Yes you are right, this is more of good old boys rituial than religious or magic. (I am up my Trobriand Islands and the Kula Ring).
    #7: I did not know ” marks scared people. What should I have used? You might want to look at the *OCD Project* on *TV*, to see how scarey *rituals* can be.

  9. “Perhaps an under-utilised feature of the celestial room is the ability to discuss the experiences of the endowment ritual. By focussing solely upon prayer, as some do, we fail to activate the liturgy through these dialogues.”

    Amen, Aaron R. In a way, I think we are so socialized NOT to talk about our ritual, that even in appropriate settings, we are still slightly uncomfortable doing so. I wish we did this more.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    ” that apotheosis is the result of a certain type of relationship ”

    How would you distinguish this from the reverse: that certain relationships are only made possible by individual realization of certain principles?

    I wish we talked more about our rituals, and not only in the Celestial Room. Problem with the Temple is, I’m always there alone. Nobody to talk to but God. For the most part, I like it that way. ~

  11. Bob, you still haven’t answered the question. Also, what is your division between religion and magic?

  12. #11: All people are scared by the unknown world they find themselves born into. We try to control this world in three ways: Religion ( God’s protection), Magic ( control by self powers or supersictions, Harry Potter stuff), or Science (control by logic or reason).

  13. Mike M. says:

    Nice post Aaron R. I’ve been thinking about related ideas after recently reading Steadman and Palmer’s book “The Supernatural and Natural Selection(sorry I don’t know how to put in an amazon link), though not in the way you put it. Thanks.

    Are there any LDS rituals for which it could be argued that sacred bonds are not reinforced in any way via the ritual? Nothing stood out to me. Even the most solitary type of ritual, like, say consecrating oil, is generally for use in a setting that could be argued to indirectly improve social bonds. (Unless you’re BH Roberts and give yourself the blessing.)

  14. Aaron R. says:

    Thomas your question is a good one. I should note that my reference here is influenced by Ostler’s view of divinity. As noted above, the covenants (and their attendent principles) are simulatenous with the relationship. Living honestly is the relationship. The relation, or association, is who we are. I do not see how we can possess a principle ‘individually’, we can only do or be what our associations or connections allow or facilitate us to do or be.

    I agree we should speak our rituals more, though the recent policy on this suggests that we should avoid even veiled allusions to the temple outside of the building. Thus what we can say about it is being limited even further.

    Mike, I cannot think of an example, simply because in Mormonism, like you mention, there is also the person who performs the ordinance and the person who receives the ordinance. However, even if there were ordinances that we could perform on our own, as long as there was an imitative element (i.e. we followed someone else’s practice) the bonds are still present.

  15. #13: I agree Mormon rituals usually reinforce group bonds, but are not always limited to that. Baptism brings you into the group, but also offers the washing away of your sins. Ordinations bonds you to the Priesthood groups, but also mades you a Deacon or Elder.

  16. Mike M. says:

    Bob 15. Good point. I agree.

    Though I suspect that only the “believer” would say that the ritual has this aspect. An outsider who does not believe in the supernatural and not-explicitly-reinforcing-bonds aspects of the ritual could argue that such aspects are ultimately/implicitly about reinforcing group bonds. Nobody observes another’s remission of sins; you only observe the ritual act. So a person’s baptism signals, among other things, that that person will continue to act in cohesion with the group ideals, that a person will act as if her sins were remitted, etc.