Younger brother and fishing hook on Timor: reassessing Mauss on hierarchy and divinity


Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y. 11794-4364, USA.


Marcel Mauss, in two of his most influential papers, proposed conflicting perspectives on the status relationship between gods and human beings. In an earlier study (1888), written in collaboration with Henri Hubert, he contended that the gifts given in ritual sacrifice by human beings to divinity are important, even necessary, for the existence of their gods. Hence the status relationship between the divine and human contains some degree of parity. In his later paper, ‘Essai sur le don’, however, Mauss emphasized the superiority of divinity, so much so that human beings were now decisively relegated to a condition of subordination. This article argues in support of Mauss's (and Hubert's) original thesis by adducing as evidence a set of five oral narratives from Timor that suggest human beings may in certain circumstances gain a measure of superiority over the divine, and demonstrates that in each narrative the agents by which this superiority is accomplished are the younger brother and a fishing hook or equivalent artefact which intrude from the quotidian world into the realm of spirit. Its findings suggest that recent propositions arguing for the interactive influence of material artefacts on human values are tenable and that the role of narrative as a medium of communication be reaffirmed as a prime forum for religious reflexivity.