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WSQ: Womens Studies Quarterly 40: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2012) 2012 by Randall Styers.
All rights reserved.
Te modern study of comparative religion emerged as a feld of academic
inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as European
intellectuals began to analyze the mass of new data about ritual and belief
from around the globe arriving in the metropole through circuits of trade,
conquest, and empire. Te founding fgures of this new scholarly enter-
prise listed among their ranks a number of strong, vivid personalities
even some armchair anthropologists constituted minor forces of nature.
One of the more overlooked fgures in this era, but one who proved quite
formidable to her peers, was Lady Frazer, the wife of Sir James George. Sir
James was prominent in British intellectual life through the early decades
of the twentieth century as one of the important systematizers and popu-
larizers of the new world of human religious diversity. While the specifcs
of Frazers theories were challenged even early in his career, up to his death
he was lauded by his peers for an encyclopedic knowledge of ethnographic
data and afable good cheer.
Lady Frazer was another mater. Like many unsung late-Victorian
women, she played a major role in her husbands career, managing impor-
tant aspects of his speaking schedule, regulating much of his contact with
other scholars, even playing an assertive role in supervising the planning
and outfting of various expeditions to collect new ethnographic data (see
Fraser 1990; Talbot 1915). Lady Frazer was preoccupied with ensuring
that the young ethnographers she and her husband supported took with
them the precise sorts of recording equipment that she favored, and she
pressed budding anthropologists to make the pilgrimage to Cambridge
so that she could personally train them to use the equipment exactly as
Mana and Mystication: Magic and Religion at the
Turn of the Twentieth Century
Randall Styers
she preferred.
Tis was no idle preoccupationcontrol of the equipment
meant control over the evidentiary record produced by the equipment,
and control of that evidentiary record was essential, in turn, for confrm-
ing what Lady Frazer considered to be a proper understanding of primitive
Given her strong personality and the trepidation with which she was
commonly greeted, it is litle wonder that Lady Frazer and others like her
during these decades were greeted with regular comments concerning
their personal mana. Te notion of mana came into circulation among
European intellectuals from ethnographic reports concerning beliefs
in impersonal supernatural power among the Melanesians, but the con-
cept quickly made its way into correspondence, toasts, even obituaries, as
a jocular commentary on the power of personality.
Tis essay explores
a basic question: What exactly might we learn about Lady Frazer and
her peersabout the scope of their personal power and how this sense
of potency was conceivedwhen we hear of their mana? In answer, I
hope to show that while the term serves to mystify many crucial aspects
of the operations of social power, this fascination with mana ultimately
reveals important fundamental tendencies among early twentieth century
scholars of comparative religion, and many of those tendencies continue
to shape contemporary understandings of enchantment. Like many of
their peers, these early scholars were fascinatedand perturbedby the
workings of power, particularly when that power appeared to exceed the
orderly bounds of the natural. Te cultural logic of modernity seemed to
require that the potency of religion be channeled into very narrow straits,
but religionin both its licit and illicit formsrarely complied. Scholars
searched for a vocabulary to help them recognize this excessive and perva-
sive potency, and mana materialized as an idiom for comprehending mys-
terious supernatural powers. Yet the early discussions of mana are marked
by an ambiguous reluctance to confront power directly, and that same
ambiguity is refected in our current difculties in accessing the potency
and valence of contemporary enchantment. Mana thus ofered an occa-
sion to acknowledge the confuence of agency, power, and enchantment,
but it also served as a vehicle for further mystifcation.
Since the Enlightenment, one of the principal preoccupations of West-
ern political and social theory has been the production of a distinctive
type of individual subjectivitya moral, political, and economic agent
conforming to the needs of the liberal social order. Tis concern has been
Mana and Mystication 229
manifest in a number of diferent registers, from the diferentiation of pub-
lic and private spheres, to the development of compulsory education, to
the formulation of legal codes outlining a broad host of individual rights
and obligations. Liberal social theory has been a potent ideological tool for
the production of agents suited for the capitalist economy.
In this context, modern social theorists have demonstrated a great
deal of ambivalence with regard to religion. On the one hand, religion
has appeared to be an unavoidably entrenched aspect of human culture,
one that can have useful socializing efects and thatunder the proper
constraintscan serve various socially adaptive functions (producing
industrious workers, assuaging various types of psychological and emo-
tional confict, etc.). On the other hand, though, religion has posed one of
the most visible threats to modern liberalism. Unbridled religious passion
seems to be a prime source of irrationality and intolerance, factionalism
and priestcraf, and even more moderate forms of religious piety challenge
the hegemony of capitalist markets and the national state by demanding
competing loyalties. Modern social and political theorists have pursued a
number of competing strategies in their eforts to harness the power of reli-
gion on behalf of the political and economic order. Many have denounced
religion as an anachronistic and irrational survival; others have worked to
demarcate serviceable boundaries between church, state, and market; still
others have sought to articulate idealized norms for religion that limits its
disruptive potential while fostering its most adaptive features.
One of the common sites for rehearsing these strategies has been the
efort by social theorists to defne the proper bounds for religion, and
debates over enchantment and disenchantment have been a central fea-
ture of these discussions. Since the nineteenth century there has been a
lengthy scholarly tradition across a broad range of academic disciplines
devoted to the task of seeking to defne the nature or essence of religion.
Te modern concept of religion has proved remarkably amorphous, but
the search for its origins or essence seemed crucial to many modern schol-
ars eager to comprehend this phenomenon and to stabilize its position on
the cultural landscape. One of the most common strategies in the efort
to formulate a defnition for religion has been to contrast it to alternative
modes of thoughtmost ofen magic or science.
Tere is voluminous scholarly literature from the late nineteenth and
twentieth centuries on magic, and throughout this literature magic has
commonly been confgured as religions foil, marking either religions out-
230 Randall Styers
ermost boundary or the next adjoining region of the social and conceptual
landscape. With magic atributed primarily to groups on the periphery of
social power (primitives, women, children, the disenfranchised), scholarly
debates concerning magic have provided a rich opportunity for articulat-
ing modern ideals for appropriate modern religious piety (Styers 2004).
Questions of agencythe appropriate scope of individual desire and
autonomyhave featured prominently in modern Western debates con-
cerning the nature of magic and its relation to religion. In rhetoric that
is ofen preoccupied with issues of gender and sexuality, magic has been
blamed for a broad and contradictory assortment of social ills. Te practice
of magic is regularly portrayed as a selfsh and antisocial preoccupation of
those on the fringes of society, with its rebellious practitioners violating
a host of natural and societal laws as they seek to disrupt the orderly fow
of natural causation for pety, materialistic gain. At the same time, the
practice of magic is also portrayed as a potent tool for authoritarian and
charismatic leaders as they seek to bewitch the masses and exert coercive
and reactionary power. Magicians can thus be accused of both anarchy and
With magic positioned as religions foil, debates over magic have
ofered scholars the ready opportunity for articulating an idealizedand
strikingly disenchantednotion of religion. Te major voices in this intel-
lectual tradition have portrayed religion as a humble and interior terrain
in which human agency conforms to the appropriate divine, natural, and
social order. A range of important nineteenth- and twentieth-century
social scientists and philosophersMax Weber, Bronisaw Malinowski,
Gerardus van der Leeuw, and many othersexplain that religion is prop-
erly focused on purely ultimate, or transcendent, or supraempirical
ends and in a properly rational and intellectualized manner. Any efort to
achieve efects in the material world, any fxation on particular objects,
locations, or ritual behavior, is designated magical and superstitious. Reli-
gion, in turn, is confgured as a thoroughly spiritualized and otherworldly
endeavor. And in this logic, as religion is interiorized, it is also rendered
efectually impotent.
Tis dominant scholarly confguration of the relation between magic
and religion produces a number of complementary rhetorical and ideo-
logical efects. On the most immediate level, religions potential for politi-
cal or economic potency is undercut. Magicnot religionis socially
disruptive; magicnot religionseeks practical efects in the material
Mana and Mystication 231
world. Religion is properly private and spiritual, and it conforms quite
seamlessly with the social status quo. At the same time, this confguration
also serves to mask the actual forms of social power that religious insti-
tutions and agents exerciseall that power can be portrayed as alien to
religions rarifed essence.
But this modern confguration of religion also serves the agenda of dis-
enchantment. With the proper scope of religion restricted to rationalized,
transcendent, otherworldly concerns, the supernatural is cordoned away
from the actual world of human desires and needs. And in this process,
the containment of the supernatural serves to foster the rational manipula-
tion of the material world by modern science and capitalism. Max Weber
ofered famous sociological diagnoses of this cultural logic, as he explored
the ways in which ascetic Protestantism produced new forms of rational
religious systematization and disenchantment (Weber 1958, 1964). And
the long modern scholarly tradition seeking to defne the relation between
magic and religion demonstrates that the push to disenchant the world
(entzaubergung, or geting the magic out) lef religion with an exceed-
ingly ethereal terrain. Notions of disenchantment always turn on issues
of social powerwhat forms that power should take, who has authority
to exercise it, what its proper bounds might be. Te dominant modern
theories of religion sought to project enchantment securely onto a primi-
tive magical mentality, but that projection was decidedly unstable, as the
moderns proved to be just as captivated by mysterious power as were their
unenlightened neighbors.
Tis brings us back to mana. Te rise of this concept and its broad
popularity through the early decades of the twentieth century provide a
valuable window onto what modern social theorists couldand could
notsay about basic notions of agency, power, and enchantment. Mana
was a site at which these issues intersected, and the scholarly discussion of
mana illuminates both how this confuence could be acknowledged and
how it could be mystifed.
By the late nineteenth century, mana was much in the air. Te notion
had frst come to Europe in the accounts of missionaries and travelers to the
Pacifc (Smith 2004, 125). Particularly in correspondence from the 1870s,
R. H. Codrington, head of the Anglican Melanesian Mission, had ofered
an expansive account of the notion. In his 1878 Hibbert Lectures on the
origin and growth of religion, Max Mller quoted a leter from Codring-
ton concerning mana to intervene in the important ongoing debate about
232 Randall Styers
the origin of religion. While a number of his contemporaries argued that
fetishism was the most primitive stage of religious development, Mller
cited Codrington as establishing that mana, this primitive notion of super-
natural power, was itself more fundamental (Mller 1878, 5354; and see
Smith 2004,138n18).
In 1891 Codrington published an infuential study of Melanesian cul-
ture, featuring mana as a central theme. Codrington there defned mana
as a supernatural power or infuence . . . that works to efect everything
which is beyond the ordinary power of men, outside the common pro-
cesses of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, ataches itself to per-
sons and to things, and is manifested by results which can only be ascribed
to its operation (1891, 11819). As Codrington explained, mana is a
force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of
ways for good and evil, and which it is of greatest advantage to possess
or control; while mana is nonphysical, it is manifest in physical force,
or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses (11819).
Indeed, mana lies at the heart of any human efcacy: all conspicuous suc-
cess is a proof that a man has mana; his infuence depends on the impres-
sion made on the peoples mind that he has it; he becomes a chief by virtue
of it. Hence a mans power, though political or social in its character, is his
mana; the word is naturally used in accordance with the native conception
of the character of all power and infuence as supernatural (120). Tis
notion of the supernatural power of mana, Codrington concluded, serves
as the foundation both for the magical and witchcraf practices among the
Melanesians and for all their religious rites and practices (192).
Te most striking feature of Codringtons formulation of mana is how
thoroughly amorphous and vague his description of the notion appears;
mana would seem to encompass everything and nothing. But despite
or because ofthis feature, mana quickly took hold within the European
scholarly imagination. Te year 1891 also saw the publication of Edward
Tregears dictionary of Pacifc Island languages, which indicated that
the notion of mana was pan-Oceanic and again emphasized the sense of
extraordinary power underlying the concept (supernatural power; divine
authority; having qualities which ordinary persons or things do not pos-
sess) (Tregear 1891, 203). New ethnographic reports appeared during
the following decade identifying comparably amorphous notions of super-
natural power in cultures ranging from the Iroquois, Sioux, and Algonquin
(orenda, wakan, manitou) to Madagascar (hasina) (Maret 1916, 37779).
Mana and Mystication 233
On the basis of this new data, in 1904 two near-simultaneous scholarly
expositions of mana appeared in Europe, one from the French sociolo-
gists Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss and another slightly earlier version
from the British anthropologist Robert Ranulph Maret (Mauss 1972;
Maret 1904).
Tis amorphous notion of impersonal supernatural power quickly
became a central tool for a range of scholars seeking to understand reli-
gion in a comparative frame: mile Durkheim, Jane Harrison, Bronisaw
Malinowski, Nathan Sderblom, and many others. Max Weber explicitly
adapted the notion as the core of his concept charisma (1964, 2). Only
in the 1930s would scholars begin to question both the precise grammati-
cal use of the term in the Oceanic cultures from which it was derived and
its value as a coherent cross-cultural concept (Firth 1940; Keesing 1984;
Smith 2004, 127). But as Jonathan Z. Smith (2004) has recently explored,
the notion has remained a pliable (and prevalent) tool for thinking about
religionand thinking about thinking about religionup to the present
day (see also Wagner 2005). For purposes of this essay, I focus on R. R.
Marets confguration of mana. Maret was extremely infuential in trans-
miting mana to a broad English-speaking audience, and his eforts to use
the concept to uncover the nature of enchanting, supernatural power is
particularly illustrative of the difculties modern social theorists have
encountered in atempting to address issues of religion and social power.
Marets career marks a signifcant era in the development of com-
parative religious scholarship in the English-speaking world. He stands
at the end of the British intellectualist tradition of social theory, bridging
between E. B. Tylor and E. E. Evans-Pritchard in teaching social anthropol-
ogy at Oxford. He was the frst British scholar of comparative religion to
utilize French sociological theory and the last major armchair anthropolo-
gist. In this context, Maret challenged a number of assumptions central to
the late-Victorian study of religion; he critiqued deterministic and reduc-
tionistic theories of religion, the preoccupation with religions origin, the
fundamental notion of evolutionary progress, the individualistic intellec-
tualism of Tylor and Frazer, and Durkheims reductive social morphology.
Most relevant for the consideration of the place of enchantment in
modern understandings of religion, Maret was one of the earliest critics
of the scholarly efort to demarcate a frm distinction between religion and
magic. He launched his career in the late 1890s by challenging E. B. Tylors
234 Randall Styers
theory that animismthe belief in spirits and ghostsis the initial stage
in the development of religion. Tylors theory was intellectualist in a
double sensehe framed religion primarily as a mater of belief, and he
ofered a purely intellectual account of how primitive thinkers could arrive
at that belief. Until Maret, Tylors version of animism had predominated
the anthropological study of primitive religion for thirty years, sufering
only relatively minor challenge.
Maret rejected both Tylors intellectualism and his mode of evolution-
ary theory, pointing instead toward an amorphous emotive and behavioral
stew as the raw material of religion previously unacknowledged in the
search for religions origins (1914, xxxi). Maret asserted that magic and
religion should properly be understood not as successive stages in a path
of cultural evolution, but as comparable subsets of a broader category, one
he loosely dubbed supernaturalism (1900, 11). Magic and religion both
arise from a common plasm of crude beliefs about the awful and occult,
a fundamental emotional sense of supernaturalism or awe (1900; 1914,
xi). As he explained, this zone of human development is largely indeci-
pherable; in ofering surmises concerning human prehistory, he stated, I
am supremely conscious that I am merely feeling my way, merely groping
in the dark (1914, viii, xxiii). In refusing any frm distinction between
religion and magic, Maret was able to frame religion in far less idealized
terms than many of his contemporaries and to place it more fully within its
material and emotional context.
Trough the frst decade of the twentieth century Maret seized upon
mana as his primary metaphor for the undiferentiated and impersonal
preanimistic force feld from which both religion and magic arose. While
the notion of mana had its specifc origins in the Pacifc, he argued, it was
a category of world-wide application for the scientifc study of religion,
one that could serve as a general name for the power atributed to sacred
persons and things (1916, 375, 377). Te early stage of religion should be
understood, Maret asserts, not through conjecture concerning some indi-
vidual primitive philosopher (as in the theories of Tylor and Frazer), but
rather through recourse to more fundamental human emotional states, to
communal feelings and experiences derived from basic emotional and
motor processes (1914, xxxi). As he states in his most famous aphorism,
Savage religion is something not so much thought out as danced out
(xxxi). Magic and religion are thus essentially joined in the amorphous
Mana and Mystication 235
notion of mana, a broad term ofering the bare designation of that posi-
tive emotional value which is the raw material of religion (xxxi; see also
1900, 1015; 1908, 99121).
Maret asserts that the essence of rudimentary religion is to be sought
principally in the primitive diferentiation between the sacred and the
profane. Religion develops within a distinctive sphere of human experi-
ence, a wonder-world, from which the workaday world is parted by a suf-
fciently well-marked frontier (1914, xxvii). Tis sacred sphere is marked
by an emotive awareness of the extraordinary, an instinctive emotional
and physical response to the unexpected or the uncanny.
Maret acknowledges that the notion of the supernatural is a mod-
ern concept (Te savage has no word for nature. He does not abstractly
distinguish between an order of uniform happenings and a higher order of
miraculous happenings) (1908, 109). Still, he argues, primitive culture is
structured around the practical and concrete manipulation of this latent
diferentiation, and even among primitives we can fnd the germs of our
formal antithesis between the natural and the supernatural (10910).
Supernaturalism consists of two basic aspects, tabu (which represents its
predominantly negative features) and mana (which represents its positive
aspect, something transcending the ordinary world, something wonder-
ful and awful) (xxviii).
Maret acknowledges that the diference between the ordinary and
the extraordinary, the work-a-day and the wonderful is a diference, if you
will, of degree rather than of kind. Te sphere of the miraculous is, subjec-
tively, just the sphere of a startled experience, and clearly there are end-
less degrees in the intensity of felt surprise; though society tends to fx
hard-and-fast limits within which surprise is, so to speak, expected of one
(1907, 8687). In this light, then, the notion of mana takes shape when a
socially conditioned sense of mysterious or surprising power emerges in
distinction to the ordinary, with the core of the notion frst coalescing in
relation to the feats of human magicians and then gradually expanding to
cover wonder-working animals, natural powers, and spirits through pro-
cesses of anthropomorphism (8788). As Maret explains, Tere exists,
deep-engrained in the rudimentary thought of the world, a conception of
a specifc aspect common to all sorts of things and living beings, under
which they appear at once as needing insulation and as endowed with an
energy of high, since extraordinary, potential (1908, 115). Mana thus
designates a mode of extraordinary power or energy.
236 Randall Styers
Marets view of this amorphous magico-religious realm difered
sharply from his contemporaries such as Frazer who sought to demarcate
clearly between magic (operating through a mechanistic exercise of the
magicians will) and religion (functioning through a submissive recourse
to spirits and deities). Maret rejects this diferentiation and argues that
mana is at work equally within the rites of magic and the rites of religion;
both are aimed to augment and direct the deployment of mana (1904, 62).
Maret insists that while mana involves the projection of the individ-
ual will, this act should always be understood as essentially social. Te
workings of mana must be viewed as an inter-personal, inter-subjective
transaction, an afair between wills (71). Tis community includes both
operator and victim, and as supernatural powers are gradually objectifed
and personifed into external divine agents, spirits and gods also come to
participate. Te most fundamental expectations concerning what consti-
tutes the wondrous or surprisingand therefore the supernaturalare
shaped by culture (1907, 8687), and mana must thus be understood
through recourse to social psychology (1904, 51, 61, 70). In this connec-
tion, Maret also points out that mana denotes the divine right of the
aristocratic class to wield authority and to enforce religious prohibitions;
the sanction behind the taboo being the mana of the governing class
(1929, 770). But while Maret acknowledges that mana can be understood
only by recourse to its social environment, the notion of the social that he
invokes is one with almost no meaningful content. Other than these per-
functory gestures toward social context, he never ofers any further expla-
nation of how the power diferentials that shape the operations of mana
emerge or what the implications of those power relations might be for our
understanding of religion.
Maret argues that scholarly recognition of the centrality of mana to
the human religious imagination serves a number of important functions.
First, the concept calls atention to the commonality between religion and
magic. Mana marks simply an amorphous notion of the miraculous, and
this very generality compels theorists to recognize the magico-religious
as a unity in diference, the unity consisting in wonder-working power
and the diference in the social or anti-social use to which it is put by the
rival systems (1916, 379). Only as society comes to judge particular rites
benefcial or disruptive does a provisional diferentiation between religion
and magic begin to take shape. Second, when mana is conjoined with the
notion of tabu, the concept provides a minimum defnition of the magico-
Mana and Mystication 237
religious by comprehensively designating the realm of the extraordi-
nary (379; see also 1909). Tird, far beter than other concepts such as
spirit, mana usefully underscores the transmissible nature of the magico-
religious or the sacred, the passing on of sacredness between one person
and another, one thing and another, or a person and a thing in either direc-
tion (379). Tis notion of the sacred as mobile, he explains, is a promi-
nent feature of primitive belief, particularly since primitive thought is
prone both to form uncritical associations and to fall prey to emotional
excitement. Finally, Maret explains, the notion of mana foregrounds the
importance of ritual within the magico-religious realm: Te ideas of
mana and of ritualistic control go very closely together, the former being
litle else than a projection of the later into the world of objects (379).
A number of interrelated and overlapping conceptsanimatism, preani-
mism, dynamism, numinism, the mana-taboo formulaall point toward
a phase of the religious life in which the need of coming to terms with the
mysteries that beset life at once from within and without is satisfed mainly
by ritual action, running ahead of articulate and reasoned doctrine, but
none the less [sic] powerfully moving (1929, 771).
Maret saw the preanimistic stage of religious development as char-
acterized by emotion and instinctive motor response, a magico-religious
stew best accounted for by recourse to this amorphous notion of mana.
Tis view of the supernatural was widely accepted in the early years of the
twentieth century by other prominent theorists, including Sidney Hart-
land, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, and K. T. Preuss. Marets French
contemporaries Hubert and Mauss echoed his conclusion that mana con-
stitutes the rudimentary data of both magic and religion. But while reli-
gion is a secondary concern for Hubert and Mauss in their Esquisse dune
thorie gnrale de la magie, and while they remain commited to formu-
lating a clear demarcation between religion and magic, Maret works to
stress the commonality between religion and magic as they emerge from
this single wellspring, and he thus places religion much closer to the heart
of his discussions of mana (1914, xxx).
Two aspects of Marets confguration of mana emerge as particularly
relevant to this consideration of the confuence of agency, power, and
enchantment. First, as discussed above, numerous theorists in the social
scientifc traditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have worked
diligently to insulate religion from questions of power. But in contrast,
Marets account of mana serves to foreground issues of personal potency
238 Randall Styers
in the operations of religion. Like Hubert and Mauss, he marks the terrain
of religion as a landscape of diferential power (see Mauss 1972, 2832,
40, 12021, 13839). As Maret states in discussing another cognate of
mana, orenda, everybody and everything would seem to have orenda in
some degree, the world being regarded as a sort of batle-ground where
unequal forces are matched against each other, and the strongest obtains
his desire (1916, 377).
In the rudimentary stage of religion, Maret explains, the deployment
of mana is understood by the savage as a projection of will, a psychic
force, a manifestation of personal agency (1904, 50). Mana is a display of
psychic energy, almost ... what we would call will-power (1907, 86).
Mana is an adjective as well as a noun, expressing a possession which is
likewise a permanent quality (1908, 112). While mana may reside in
either human beings and objects, for a man to have mana and to be great
are convertible terms (1916, 376). So, Maret explains, in various Polyne-
sian dialects mana and its cognate terms supply an exhaustive psychologi-
cal vocabulary encompassing desires, wishes, feelings, thoughts, beliefs,
conscience, and soul; mana thus in certain contexts almost amounts to
what we term personality (37677).
Tis formulation of mana thematizes power and power diferentials
as central to the operations of religion. Tis is a realm, in Marets words,
of a conditionality and relativity of will-power (1904, 54). Te use of
mana is the very type of a spiritual projectile, an exertion of will-power
(54, 56). As he states, Te inwardness of such mana or magical power we
have seen reason to regard as derived by the magician from a more or less
intuitive perception of his projective act of will as the force which occultly
transmutes his pretense into ulterior reality. ... Te essence of his super-
normal power lie[s] in precisely this. ... All manifestations of the super-
natural are likely to appear as in some sense manifestations of power, and
as in some sense personally controlled (59). While supernatural power
can sometimes assume an impersonal form (such as luck), it tends pre-
dominantly to denote psychic energy or will-power (1907, 86).
With mana thus confgured as the transmissible and projective exercise
of the will, Maret adopts a metaphor that would become common among
his scholarly peers to illustrate the movement of this currency. Mana, he
explains, is a form of energy, energy of high, since extraordinary, potential
best captured as voltage or as a contagion, or such a force as electricity
(1908, 114, 119; 1916, 376). In Marets account, primitive religion con-
Mana and Mystication 239
sists of the practical mechanisms for ataining and deploying mana. Tus,
as he states, all trafckings with the unseen and occult, whether licit or
illicit, involve mana; and, just as electrical energy may be exploited alike
in the public service and with criminal intent, so mana lends itself to the
manipulation of the expert, be his motive moral or the reverse (1916,
377). Te deployment of this voltage can either electrify or electrocute
according to the will of the operator (1929, 771).
I highlight Marets stress on the exertion of will inherent in mana pri-
marily because, in his foregrounding of the role of personal power and
agency in relation to religion, he difers markedly from so many of his
peers. His notion of mana explicitly thematizes religion as a terrain of dif-
ferential human poweran insight that would seem to go without say-
ing, but one that many modern theorists have worked diligently not to say.
Maret shifs the focus of the analysis of religion away from interior mat-
ters of cognition and belief into the realms of afect and behavior. As the
philosopher D. Z. Phillips (1986) has argued, this shif anticipated Ludwig
Witgensteins refocusing of scholarly atention onto the context and use
of religious symbols and behavior. Te language of mana provided Maret
and his peers with a benign idiom in which they could acknowledge the
role of human agency in relation to the religious realm.
Yet this leads to the second signifcant aspect of Marets confguration
of mana. Again like Witgensteins approach to religion, Marets amor-
phous invocation of mana aforded him few substantive resources for ana-
lyzing the power relations of this terrain. Instead, mana serves to mystify
those power relations by cloaking religious potency in an aura of primeval
inevitability. Mana is a domain of mysterious, enchanting power, but it
remains potent as mana only so long as it remains a mystery.
As Maret states this theme, ambiguity ... lies sleeping in mana (1908,
121). It is of the very essence of mana that it should be indefnite and mys-
terious in its efects; only an act or entity that is normally abnormal in its
efects can display supernatural power (1907, 91). Tis is the reason that
women, strangers, even divine chiefs are seen as flled with mana (9397).
Mana serves to designate something lying more or less beyond the reach
of the sensessomething verging on what we are wont to describe as the
immaterial or unseen (1908, 103). Any efort to account for mana leads
to its dissipation. And this bind would appear to include not only the nave
practitioner, but also the modern scholar.
Hubert and Mauss ofered a similarly amorphous account of mana in
240 Randall Styers
their General Teory of Magic: It involves the notion of automatic ef-
cacy. At the same time as being a material substance which can be local-
ized, it is also spiritual. It works at a distance and also through a direct
connexion, if not by contact. It is mobile and fuid without having to stir
itself. It is impersonal and at the same time clothed in personal forms. It is
divisible yet whole (Mauss 1972, 144).
In response to this paradoxical and vague confguration of mana, the
anthropologist Claude Lvi-Strauss came to conclude that notions of the
mana type are pure symbols, foating signifers or zero phonemes, rep-
resenting simply an indeterminate value of signifcation, in itself devoid
of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all ( [1950]
1987, 55, 6364,72n18). On the basis of his reading of Mausss amor-
phous account of mana and Mausss futile eforts to account for mana
through recourse to such factors as sentiments, volitions, and beliefs that
were themselves epiphenomena, or else mysteries (Lvi-Strauss [1950]
1987, 56), Lvi-Stauss reached his famous conclusion on the concept: So
we can see that in one case, at least, the notion of mana does present those
characteristics of a secret power, a mysterious force, which Durkheim and
Mauss atributed to it: for such is the role it plays in their own system.
Mana really is mana there. But at the same time, one wonders whether
their theory of mana is anything other than a device for imputing proper-
ties to indigenous thought which are implied by the very peculiar place
that the idea of mana is called on to occupy in their own thinking (57).
Lvi-Strausss assessment of the scholarly use of mana as a tool for mys-
tifcation is both damning and particularly relevant for the consideration
of religion, agency, and enchantmentwhile these scholarly formulations
are of questionable value in helping us understand the cultures from which
mana was derived, they surely illuminate the interests of the modern schol-
ars who deploy the notion so freely. Maret foregrounds the implications
of mana for the analysis of religion even more strongly than Hubert and
Mauss. And the incoherence and mystifcation inherent in the term is even
more pronounced in Marets overt insistence on its essential and funda-
mental mystery. Both in the work of Hubert and Mauss and that of Maret,
the invocation of mana serves to place the power operating within magic
and religion beyond any conceptual clarity.
Yet Lvi-Strauss moves too quickly in labeling mana a zero phoneme.

Maret explicitly invokes the concept as a conceptual tool to destabilize
any frm diferentiation between religion and magic and to thematize reli-
Mana and Mystication 241
gious ritual as a mechanism for deploying social power. In that gesture he
places questions of agency and social power at the center of the scholarly
formulation of religion. Religion is not, for him, a private and spiritualized
mater of belief, but instead an active terrain of confict and diferential
power. Ritual is not merely aimed at refecting distant symbolic truths, but
at accomplishing tangible human ends.
But even in the very gesture with which he identifes religion as a site
of power, Maret forecloses any meaningful assessment of that power.
Te fundamental mystery that is installed as the defning feature of mana
clouds any substantive assessment of the mechanisms through which it
operates. Tis seems to be a consequence of any model that would locate
the core of religion in the zone of sentiment or afect (a move that became
quite common among scholars of religion in the mid-twentieth century).
But it demonstrates once again the deep level at which modern theorizing
about religion has faltered at the question of power. Unlike so many other
modern theorists of religion, Maret explicitly acknowledges religion as a
site of power, and yet even with that insight, he frames that site in a way
that precludes any meaningful analysis.
Te potency of mana to mystify is particularly apparent with regard to
issues of agency, since agency is so near the concepts core. Mana marks
supernaturalism both as deeply consequential and as deeply impenetra-
blea phenomenon that functions only because it can mystify. Te con-
cept is deployed in a manner that seems aimed structurally to foreclose
meaningful assessments of agency. Mana might appear to serve the inter-
ests of disenchanting, rational analysis, but it quickly becomes a vehicle for
more mystifcation.
Commending the mana of Lady Frazer and her peers at the turn of the
twentieth century was a jovial means of signaling the force of personal-
ity, the potency of interpersonal charisma. But whatever other objectives
might be served by such comments, this rather trivial compliment also
functioned to naturalize a diferential of personal power and to mystify the
concrete mechanismssocial, psychological, and economicthrough
which such personal power took shape and was maintained, a mystifca-
tion that seems inevitably to serve the social status quo. Many modern
intellectuals were preoccupied with the workings of power, but they could
also be quite content to leave the operations of that power shrouded in
mysterymystifcation and reenchantment were never far at bay.
242 Randall Styers
Te rise and prominence of scholarly discussions of mana amply illus-
trates how deeply ambivalent those moderns could be about the opera-
tions of power. And nowhere was that ambivalence more acute than in
relation to religion. Even in liberal modernity, religion is surely a central
site of social power, but both in theory and in practice, that power is ofen
disclaimed and occluded by rhetorics of transcendence, mystery, and awe.
In light of this long legacy of scholarly ambivalence in even acknowledg-
ing the social potency of religion, it is litle wonder that we have so few
resources available to help us access the potency and valence of enchant-
ment in the contemporary world.
Randall Styers is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Caro-
lina at Chapel Hill. Styerss research and teaching focus on religion in modern Western
culture, including critical approaches to the study of religion, religion and gender,
religion in American law and politics, and critical social theory. He is the author of
Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford University
Press, 2004).
1. See records of the Diamond Jenness Expeditions to New Guinea and the
Canadian Arctic (190920) in the Oxford University Archives, particularly
correspondence from Jenness to R. R. Maret dated June 28, 1911, and cor-
respondence from Mrs. J. G. Frazer to Jenness dated July 23, 1911, and Sep-
tember 20, 1911.
2. See, for example, Maret 1918, concerning A. E. Haddons mana in becoming
the new chair of the Folklore Society, or Marets leter to Ernest A. Hoo-
ten of the Harvard Peabody Museum dated November 20, 1931, concerning
Mrs. Hootens mana.
3. On various recent critiques of Lvi-Strausss theorization of mana, see Smith
2004, particularly 12734 and 140n30. See also in this regard Boyer 1990
and Godelier 1999.
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