The birth of the word: Language, force, and Mapuche ritual authority

Magnus Course


This paper seeks to employ rural Mapuche ideas about language to cast new light on the nature of agency and authority in lowland South America and elsewhere. Through ethnographic analysis, I demonstrate the need to account for the roles of priest, chief, and shaman—all present in the Mapuche ngillatun fertility ritual—from the perspective of their differential modes of relating through language. For language, as understood by rural Mapuche, emerges not solely from the intentions of individual speakers, but equally from the force—newen—constitutive of all being. Priests, chiefs, and shamans all seek to align themselves through speech to this force which instantiates itself through them. Such an observation forms the basis of a critique of both Clastres’ understanding of the relationship between chiefs and language, and of the recent post-humanist rejection of the so-called “linguistic turn.”

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