Victor Turner’s Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death (Summary)

Victor Turner’s Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death is an analysis of his field work among the Ndembu (Northwestern Zambia).  He provides a definition and description of Isoma, a ritual performed around the occurrence of female reproductive issues, for example Turner says Isoma is a “manifestation of a shade that causes a woman to bear a dead child or brings death on a series of infants” (Turner 17). These issues are believed by the Ndembu to be caused by the sufferer forgetting their matrilineal lineage, as Turner explains the aims if Isoma rites are “to remove the effects of…misfortune or illness due to the displeasure of ancestral shades or a breach of taboo” (Turner 19).

            When Turner speaks of a “union of ecology and intellect” (Turner 27), it is in reference to the musoli tree, which “makes animals appear” due to its fallen fruit. This tree is used in Isoma ritual to “make children appear” (27). My understanding of what Turner is saying is that Knowledge is influenced by and intertwined with environment, the result being a materialized idea. Both human intellect and environment and ecology influence the result of a materialized idea (Turner 27).  Musoli, as a symbol, represents the union of ecology and intellect, because it shows the Ndembu have interpreted a medicine for their environment as making something appear and intellectually use it with that knowledge as a base.


            As for whether this union of ecology and intellect has any effect on the effectiveness of the ritual, I believe it does. I see the ritual system of the Ndembu to be extremely complex (I had to reread several times, and still unsure I fully comprehend the meaning). I illustrate this complexity with a quote from Turner, where it is illustrated the interconnectedness and complexity, of the ritual process:

Liminality, Marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems, and works of art.  These cultural forms provide men with a set of templates or models which are, at one level, periodical reclassifications of reality and man’s relationship to society, nature, and culture (Bowie 156).

The meaning of the ritual symbols used by the Ndembu would be significantly different if they were in a different environment. I envision a change in the ritual system as traveling down a fuse; affecting every part of the ecosystem.


            Fiona Bowie provides an interesting distinction I would like to comment on, between intellectualists, and symbolists. Intellectualists subscribe to Turners ideas, and view religions primary function as a way to explain the universe. Symbolists follow Durkheim, who heralds that religion reflects society (Bowie 143). To put both views together (an intellectual symbolist) would say that religion is an intermix of both ideas, which can be shown explicitly in the Isoma ritual. For example, Isoma reflects the importance of matrilineal descent to the Ndembu, although they are politically patriarchal.

            The Isoma ritual is symbolically complex, I have not been able to grasp it’s full meaning from this article alone (something to keep in mind for future research, when I am not taking a full unit load). The symbols of a society can provide insight into not only their explanations of the universe, but their reflections on their own society.

Bowie, Fiona. The Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006. Print.

Turner, Victor W. “Planes of Classification on a Ritual of Life and Death.” The Ritual Process: Structure    and Anti-structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977. N. pag. Print.

Published by Nikki M

Applied Anthropologist and Digital Dance Specialist

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