Fetishism and curiosity

A fetish (from Latin ‘facticius,’ ‘artificial’ and ‘facere,’ ‘to make’) is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a man-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic (intracultural) attribution of inherent value or powers to an object. Initially, the Portuguese developed the concept of fetishism to refer to the objects used in religious cults by West African natives.

The concept was popularized in Europe circa 1757, when French scholar Charles de Brosses used it in comparing West African religion to the magical aspects of ancient Egyptian religion. Later, French philosopher Auguste Comte employed the concept in his theory of the evolution of religion, wherein he posited fetishism as the earliest (most primitive) stage, followed by polytheism and monotheism.

That said, ethnography and anthropology would nonetheless classify some artifacts of monotheistic religions as fetishes. For example, the Holy Cross and the consecrated host or tokens of communion found in some forms of Christianity (a monotheistic religion), are regarded as examples of fetishism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Tylor and McLennan, historians of religion, held that the concept of fetishism fostered a shift of attention away from the relationship between people and God, to focus instead on a relationship between people and material objects, and that this, in turn, allowed for the establishment of false models of causality for natural events. This they saw as a central problem historically and sociologically.

In 1927, Sigmund Freud published his essay on ‘Fetishism,’ in which he writes that the meaning and purpose of the fetish turns out, through analysis, to always be the same: ‘the fetish is a substitute for the penis…for a particular and quite special penis that had been extremely important in early childhood but had later been lost.’ In refusing to see his mother’s lack of penis, the boy disavows what he sees, resulting in both a belief and a non-belief in the woman’s phallus. This compromise (produced by the conflict between perception and the counter-wish) results in a substitute (the fetish). ‘It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it.’

Theoretically, fetishism is present in all religions, but the use of the concept in the study of religion derives from studies of traditional West African religious beliefs, as well as from Voodoo, which in turn derives from those beliefs. Blood is often included as a particularly powerful fetish or ingredient in fetishes. In addition to blood, other objects and substances, such as bones, fur, claws, feathers, gemstones and crystals, water from certain places, certain types of plants and wood are common fetishes in the traditions of cultures worldwide. Fetishes were commonly used in Native American religion and practices. The bear represented the shaman, the buffalo was the provider, the mountain lion was the warrior, and the wolf was the pathfinder.

The 19th century saw the introduction of two theories of fetishism outside what was typically considered religion. The first was Karl Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, in which objects are imagined to dictate the social activities that produce them. The second was Alfred Binet’s term sexual fetishism, the sexual attachment to an object in place of a person.

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