The Concept of "Religion" in Mesoamerican Languages

In: Numen
Lars Kirkhusmo Pharo Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1010 Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway

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The article examines whether the indigenous languages in the cultural region called Mesoamerica comprise words corresponding to the European concept of "religion." In spite of the fact that the highly advanced phonetic (i.e. logosyllabic) writing systems are capable of expressing and recognising abstract representations in the languages, extant pre-Columbian Mesoamerican inscriptions do not contain words which can be rendered as "religion." Attention has therefore been directed to the descriptions of indigenous languages made by Spanish ethnographer-missionaries in the 16th and 18th centuries. Six indigenous lexemes translated as "religion" in colonial dictionaries, are analysed. It is, however, argued that the native terms for "religion" were in reality constructed by the Spanish ethnographer-missionaries in order to promote evangelisation and the conversion of the indigenous people. Nevertheless, it is not ineffective to operate with "religion" as an etic notion when analysing Mesoamerican cultures. A theory is put forward suggesting that a linguistic/philological examination of a given language offers a strategy for defining "religion" as a cultural analytical category according to Max Weber's notion of "ideal type."

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