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Medusa’s Hair

An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience

The great pilgrimage center of southeastern Sri Lanka, Kataragama, has become in recent years the spiritual home of a new class of Hindu-Buddhist religious devotees. These ecstatic priests and priestesses invariably display long locks of matted hair, and they express their devotion to the gods through fire walking, tongue-piercing, hanging on hooks, and trance-induced prophesying.

The increasing popularity of these ecstatics poses a challenge not only to orthodox Sinhala Buddhism (the official religion of Sri Lanka) but also, as Gananath Obeyesekere shows, to the traditional anthropological and psychoanalytic theories of symbolism. Focusing initially on one symbol, matted hair, Obeyesekere demonstrates that the conventional distinction between personal and cultural symbols is inadequate and naive. His detailed case studies of ecstatics show that there is always a reciprocity between the personal-psychological dimension of the symbol and its public, culturally sanctioned role. Medusa’s Hair thus makes an important theoretical contribution both to the anthropology of individual experience and to the psychoanalytic understanding of culture. In its analyses of the symbolism of guilt, the adaptational and integrative significance of belief in spirits, and a host of related issues concerning possession states and religiosity, this book marks a provocative advance in psychological anthropology.

232 pages | 9 halftones | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 1981

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Sociology: General Sociology

Table of Contents

Part One
Private and Public Symbols
The Problem
Female Ascetics and Matted Hair
Three Female Ascetic-Ecstatics
Case 1: Karunavati Maniyo
Case 2: Nandavati Maniyo
Case 3: Manci Nona
The Meaning of Hair
The Yogi and the Monk: Siva and the Buddha: Matted Hair and Shaven Head
Social Institutions and the Unconscious
Matted Hair and Shaven Head: Two Kinds of Pscyhological Symbolism
Conventionalization of Personal Symbols
Part Two
The Dark Night of the Soul: Illustration and Psychocultural Exegesis
Case 4: Pemavati Vitarana
Juliet’s Dilemma: Buddhist Asceticism or Hindu Devotionalism
Case 5: Juliet Nona
The Symbolization of Guilt
The Symbolic Integration of Personality
Part Three
Interpersonal Interaction and Personal Symbols
Case 6: Munasinha Beauty Silva
Myth Models
Communication and Estrangement
Networks of Meaning
Ghosts, Demons, and Deep Motivation
Part Four
Descent into the Grave
Case 7: Sirima Hettiaracci
Subjective Imagery: An Interpretation of Sirima’s Case History
Tryst with the Black Prince: Incubus and Fire Walker
A Hook Hanger at Kataragama
Case 8: Tuan Sahid Abdin
Comment on Abdin’s Ritual Activities
Abdin’s Descent into the Grave
A Ritual for Kali
Abdin’s Tongue: An Interpretation
Fantasy and Symbolism in the Integration of Personality with Culture
Fantasy, Personal Symbols, and Subjective Imagery: A Metapsychological Excursus
Part Five
Subjective Imagery and the Invention of Culture
Culture and the Unconscious: The Case of Contemporary Iconography
The Model for the Myth
Epilogue: The End of the Beginning

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