Home > Uncategorized > Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen “Chaosmology. Shamanism and Personhood among the Bugkalot”

Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen “Chaosmology. Shamanism and Personhood among the Bugkalot”

Mikkelsen, Henrik Hvenegaard 2016. Chaosmology. Shamanism and Personhood among the Bugkalot. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 189-205.


Though the cosmology indeed appears radically fragmented and incoherent, this does not imply that the Bugkalot do not hold any cosmological theories. In fact, they willingly present an abundance of theories; only these theories change over time. I will refer to this as a particular form of shamanic engagement. Rather than stating that the theoretical practice of the Bugkalot is incoherent, I venture to suggest that their theories reflect a world that is itself subjected to perpetual change. In fact, whereas Willerslev argues that shamanism “is not about an abiding question of belief (or non-belief)” and is thereby “not metaphysically significant” (2013: 52), I will advance the argument that the exact opposite is the case for the Bugkalot: Shamanism operates explicitly with a metaphysical template that may be termed chaosmology. (191)


In this article, however, I do not intent to depict the “order of chaos.” Rather, I take my cue from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who define chaos “by the infinite speed with which every form taking shape in it vanishes” (1994: 118). Thereby, chaos draws out “all possible forms, which spring up only to disappear immediately, without consistency or reference, without consequence” (118). What makes this approach to chaos particularly relevant in relation to Bugkalot cosmology is that it suggests an oppositional pair not between chaos and order but between chaos and stability. (191)


The homology between the person and cosmology at large can thereby be pictured through the image of stability, which is achieved by means of human engagements on various cosmic levels. While this stability stands out most clearly in the relation between the transmutability of the wilderness and the order of the village, chaos and stability are dynamics that operate across a swarm of areas within Bugkalot cosmology. Such chaos is epitomized by the image of the shape-shifting spirit, be’tang. The Bugkalot see spirits as infantile—and similarly the human child is seen as spiritlike. These analogies between spirits and children were made by my informants when referring to the seemingly nonsensical action of spirits and children alike. (192)


While aspects of humans are chaotic and though particular areas of the world are areas of chaos, the term “chaos” in this context does not imply a fundamental lack of order. Rather, certain domains of the cosmos are governed by forces that seem fundamentally unpredictable to humans. Thus, alteration, paradox, and inconsistency take up an important role within the Bugkalot cosmos. (193)


Terms reminiscent of ethereal, intangible states—for instance fog and smoke—permeated the various accounts provided by my informants when they discussed the dispositions of the young men in the village who tended to end up in drunken brawls. And while the hardening of the body is a positively valued process that happens throughout a man’s life (see also R. Rosaldo 1986: 314), the youth were still “soft,” that is, unstable and inconsistent. This softness and elusiveness was in fact also the key property of the spirit, the be’tang. (194)


The chaos in Bugkalot cosmology can thereby be traced beyond the spirit and the wilderness where the spirits are said to dwell. The wilderness, gongot, is also an aspect of the person. It is out of this state of unstable translucence that the adult male evolves. (195)


As transformative beings through and through, the spirits always, ultimately, revealed their nature as shape-shifters. In fact, this was so predictable and anticipated that shape-shifting in relation to spirits assumed a form of disordered order, a bridge between order and chaos. My informants frequently stressed this character of the spirit both to me and when talking among themselves. For instance, during a conversation with my host, Wagsal, about whether I should escort a shaman to look up a particular spirit in the forest, he warned me: “The only thing you can be sure of is that the be’tangis never what it seems to be. You think it will do you good but you do not see its true nature.” Through such statements it was made clear that the shape-shifting unpredictability of spirits made them “others” (Descola 1992: 111), that is, agencies fundamentally different from men. (197)


While the term gongotunder most circumstances refers to a treacherous and unpredictable part of the wilderness, it may also signify, more broadly, a certain chaotic disposition. Though this disposition is epitomized by the be’tangwho live in the forest, gongot is also an aspect of magic, called ayog, which one can access through the help of spirits. The men who make use of ayogand who have a direct shamanic engagement with spirits are known under the title ayog’en. What sets an ayog’en apart from ordinary men is not that the ayog’enhas insights into some corpus of esoteric knowledge; nor does he harness some unique capacity that enables him to maintain a contact to spirits. Since it is believed that many people—men and women—can easily get access to spirits, the ayog’en differentiates himself from such people by admitting that he is in contact with spirits and by openly making use of magic. For this reason, an ayog’enis marked as qualitatively different from other people. In other words, gongot is a perpetual presence in the life of an ayog’en, an “embodied otherness” (Csordas in Elisha 2008), which makes the ayog’en an agent of unknown potentialities. My informants seemed apprehensive around them, and rather than being part of a religious elite with special privileges the ayog’en were largely considered marginal characters in the Bugkalot communities. (198)


Throughout my fieldwork I looked up Tó-paw and the other two ayog’en in the area in order to learn about the “Bugkalot cosmology”: ancient myths, traditional beliefs, et cetera. The conversations often left me dispirited. Assuming that one had provided me with a reliable depiction of how the Bugkalot cosmology was constituted—how the worlds of spirits and human intersected—I was repeatedly presented with radically different and contradicting notions by the others. Furthermore, when returning to one of the men to discuss the views presented to me by other ayog’en, he would be entirely willing to change his initial account: questions such as where the spirits lived, how you communicated with spirits, how you protected yourself from them, how you became an ayog’en, whether a woman could become an ayog’en, et cetera, were answered in a multitude of ways—and each time with an adamant sincerity. This, however, was a part of Bugkalot storytelling that they shared with the rest of my informants. As I will unfold in the second half of this article, talking about spirits—and the cosmos at large—is a way that establishes a momentary stability within a domain of the world that is otherwise marked by flux, by placing chaos within a narrative frame. (199)


Such stories are based on the form of knowledge called peneewa, which is knowledge unambiguously anchored in personal experience. Under normal circumstances this is regarded as the most reliable forms of knowledge (cf. Wagner 2012: 57). That is, a story achieved a higher degree of truthfulness over time if a person had “seen it with his own eyes” (R. Rosaldo 1980: 38). Yet, when this form of knowledge was obtained in relation to gongot—that is, if it involved certain areas of the wilderness or included encounters with spirits—the truthfulness assumed a paradoxical temporary character. (201)


The stories, when listened to successively, conjured up images of a forest inhabited by potentially harmful spirit-creatures that constantly change their outward form. And rather than respecting the confinements of the person, the spirits trespass all boundaries by penetrating into the very minds of people, for instance in dreams. This radical unpredictability and enigmatic behavior is what, ultimately, sets the be’tangapart from humans. For instance, the men often indicated during the stories that they could not see what took place in the spirit’s mind (nem-nem). Never revealing their true motives, the spirits are seen as creatures of “false behavior” (nagiat non be-tág). (201)


Through storytelling, Bugkalot men seek to momentarily establish an order of their own within chaos. The association between stabilizing—or “fixing” (in the sense of holding something steady)—and the “cut” appears in the writings of Marilyn Strathern (1996: 522) as she proposes that fixing could be imagined as “stopping a flow” by “cutting into an expanse.” In the Bugkalot context this “expanse” is the cosmos itself. The cut is thereby a “totalizing act” (Rio 2005: 411), that is, an instance whereby form is applied to chaos. (201)


[…] while cosmological order is eternal (and thereby atemporal), cosmogonies are contingent and processual. In the Bugkalot case, we find a conflation of the two, that is, a “chaosmology.” In order to understand how, for instance, children and spirits are cosmologically classified we must imagine a contingent form that is closely tied to the topographic landscape and, temporally, to the maturation of the person. (202)

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