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The Journal of Religion

502
for women or challenged the norm of male cultural and political leadership,
Rastafari may not have gained half the ground it now trods.
While Edmonds does much to convince the reader of Webers continued
relevance, his undertheorized account of Rastafarianism impedes a richer ex-
ploration of its entrenchment. Rastafari not only rewards prior acquaintance
with dread concepts and history but also punishes the nonspecialist. Ed-
monds frequently leaves Rasta terms untranslated and assumes a thoroughgo-
ing familiarity with Jamaican culture. Confusion inevitably ensues; Edmonds
writes of Kumina ceremonies on page 60 yet buries the denition of Ku-
mina in a footnote for a citation on page 100. Ultimately, Rastafari may prove
more valuable for theologians and sociologists of religion than for anthropol-
ogists, historians, or ethnomusicologists. It is a measure of Edmondss contri-
bution to the neo-Weberian literature that despite a text too often marred by
typographical errors, unedited redundancies, and missed opportunities, Ras-
tafari still merits a qualied recommendation.
ELIZABETH PE

REZ, Chicago, Illinois.


YELLE, ROBERT A. Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural
Language in Hindu Tantra. Religion in History, Society, and Culture. New
York: Routledge, 2003. xv187 pp. $75.00 (cloth).
Mantras, the often seemingly unintelligible sequences of syllables that play an
essential role in the practice of many South Asian religious traditions, are one
of the more widely recognized features of these traditions in the modern West-
ern world, as is exemplied by the proliferation of mantras in material mani-
festations of pop culture. Despite their ubiquity, mantras remain a poorly un-
derstood feature of South Asian religious practice, particularly in the context
of the tantric traditions that are largely responsible for their contemporary
dissemination. It is this lacuna in understanding that Robert Yelle addresses
in his short but ambitious monograph, which starts from the relatively spe-
cialized issue of the mantra and expands to address theoretical issues of inter-
est across multiple academic disciplines.
One of the difculties mantras present to their interpreters is that they typ-
ically contain little semantic content and often consist only of strings of sylla-
bles that have no obvious meaning. Thus they were often rejected as mean-
ingless. Yelle rejects this claim and argues that mantras represent a
sophisticated form of discourse that is pragmatic, composed with a distinct aim.
In order to make his case, he begins with a survey of the structural features
of mantras, which exhibit numerous poetic elements. He argues that such po-
etic devices, including palindromes, are employed in an effort to bridge the
gap between language and reality and convert the mantras into a natural lan-
guage, one that directly reects and can even inuence reality (p. 23).
Yelle is interested in explaining the motivational force of ritual utterances,
and he argues, convincingly, that the poetic structure of these utterances is
deployed in order to create an illusion of correspondence between language
and reality and, hence, of the possibility that the former might affect the latter.
He makes this case in the context of Tantric mantras by showing howin their
very structure as well as in the ways in which they are intoned and linked to
yogic exercisesmantras replicate the threefold cosmic processes of creation,
stabilization, and dissolution, which are central features of the cosmologies
Book Reviews
503
that underlie these traditions. Here he makes excellent use of Michael Silver-
steins concept of the indexical icon, which has a pragmatic function, describ-
ing not only relations among signiers, but also the relation between signier
and signied. Especially in effective ritual, words may point to worlds beyond
themselves (p. 73).
Yelle seeks to dispel the view that signs are conventional, with merely arbi-
trary relation to their referents. He criticizes J. L. Austins theory of perfor-
mative utterance, which has been employed in previous attempts to theorize
about mantras, on the basis of Austins view that the performative impact of
such utterances derives from convention alone. Performative utterances, such
as marriage vows, often exhibit poetic elements, which, Yelle argues, collec-
tively accumulate to relatively motivate or augment the force of ritual as an
indexical icon of its prospective goal (p. 89). Yelle here rightly points out the
limitations of Austins work with respect to mantras, and his rhetorical ap-
proach seems useful here because the poetic elements of mantras, which are
prominently employed in magical practices that explicitly aim to inuence
reality, appear to contribute to the illusion of their efcacy.
When Yelle turns his attention to other forms of discourse, his analysis be-
comes somewhat less convincing. In chapter 5, he argues that a rhetorical
approach is necessary with two additional genres of religious discourse, the
canon, or list, and taxonomy. He criticizes J. Z. Smiths observation that some
lists appear arbitrary and suggests that the study of the poetic structure of such
lists might be fruitful, without providing an example. Yelle then turns to tax-
onomies, where he seems to wafe on the issue of whether these are natural
or cultural constructs.
Yelle concludes with a call for a semiotic approach in the discipline of reli-
gious studies. While he makes this case successfully only in the limited arena
of magical utterances, his call is provocative and worthy of serious consider-
ation. He argues that words themselves are the idols of postmodern societies
and that it is necessary to apply a semiotic critique to contemporary cultural
phenomena. This is a conclusion that he foreshadowed earlier in the book
when he compared mantra recitation to contemporary marketing practices.
Being embedded in a technical study of an esoteric subject, Yelles critique
may not gain the wider attention it deserves. It is to be hoped that he will
continue his work in this area and publish a general book on semiotic criticism
more accessible to scholars from multiple disciplines.
DAVID B. GRAY, Rice University.
BAILEY, MICHAEL D. Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late
Middle Ages. Magic in History. University Park: Pennsylvania State University
Press, 2003. xii200 pp. $65.00 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).
In this valuable, accurate, and engaging volume, Michael Bailey investigates
the prehistory of the early modern concept of witchcraft through the writings
of Johannes Nider, a Dominican whose fundamental treatisesin particular,
the seminal Formicariusare still remarkably understudied (p. 6). Although,
as Bailey underscores, Nider was never aware of consciously developing or
constructing the idea of witchcraft (p. 8), his Formicarius is heavily present
in Heinrich Kramers subsequent and groundbreaking Malleus malecarum (p.
3). These two treatises in fact respond to two deeply different ideologies. How-