Invisible Disenchantments

As an historical and methodological matter, science owes a great deal to supernaturalism. This indebtedness, or what we might call a close structural relationship, becomes evident when we consider the history of the invisible. Postulating the existence of invisible entities or forces that influence or govern causation is not just for spiritualists: it also makes for good science. There are of course some fundamental differences in what is postulated and the requirement of testing, but it’s not hard to see how science and the supernatural work similarly in terms of “invisible” theory. Emile Durkheim was perhaps the first to make this point, which was developed brilliantly by Robin Horton.

I was reminded of all this while recently reading an essay by Sam Gill, Professor of Religious Studies (with a focus on Native Americans) at CU-Boulder. This excerpt was particularly arresting:

One approach used to initiate children into their religious lives was to disenchant them out of their child’s point of view. Children were encouraged to accept a naive realism, to hold the view that the world was at it appeared to them. Among the Hopi of the southwestern United States, such an approach is still used. The children are encouraged to view the masked spirit beings, kachinas, as the spirits themselves. The children never see the personators without masks, or masks that are not being worn. It is integral to the initiation that process that the children witness for the first time the masked figures costumed but without their masks. Recognizing the kachinas as their male relatives, they are sorely disenchanted. Many cry and feel that they can never again trust adults.

The long-term effect of this approach to the initiation of the religious life is striking. To truly appreciate the spiritual world, to see the fuller dimensions of reality, they learn that the world is more than it appears to be. The Hopi and other American tribal cultures use a technique of creating a naive view only to destroy it, utilizing the power of disenchantment that accompanies the loss of naïveté to initiate deeper inquiry and insight. 

This is fascinating. Disenchantment, in the Weberian sense, is usually associated with increasing secularization and advancing scientism. By this process (which has not unfolded in the way sociologists had earlier predicted), the cosmos comes to be seen as inert and mechanical. Ironically, this “seeing” depends on our ability to measure and manipulate the invisible. In the Hopi or Amerindian case, the disenchanting procedure is simply reversed. In the former case, the destruction of naive realism is in the service of science; in the latter case, it’s in the service of supernaturalism.

Gill’s essay, “Religious Forms and Themes,” appears in a collection titled America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (1991, ed. Alvin Josephy). Those who have read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus will probably enjoy this collection of essays by experts in their respective fields. While Mann’s book has better narrative coherence and flow, the Josephy volume is intellectually beefier and geographically more extensive. The latter also contains a chapter on Amerindian languages in which the author (anthropologist and linguist Joel Sherzer at UT-Austin) discusses the intensely metaphorical nature of those languages. Sherzer’s claims are sure to incense my dear friend and metaphor-meister Dominik.


Did you like this? Share it:

21 thoughts on “Invisible Disenchantments

  1. Sabio Lantz


    Are there studies on “the trauma” caused by learning Santa is not real. Though I did not raise my kids with that myth, I was raised that way and instead, it was a fun discovery. And how could that drive a kid into materialism — I get that Christmas super gifting does.

    And also, am I missing something, but why would seeing their uncles were behind the masks be any more spiritualizing than seeing Dad was in the Santa costume.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    And I am sure you’ve read the recent hyper-reactions to the recent report that religious kids are suppose to be less able to separate fact from fiction — a weak study and silly conclusions — but this post is very timely compared with that.

  3. Chris Kavanagh

    I’m with Sabio here. There seems to be a double standard in play when you describe the tradition of Santa as “years of being lied to by their parents” in comparison with the positive spin given to the Hopi tradition. Regardless, the illustration is arresting as you say!

  4. Cris Post author

    You guys are tough critics; the Santa thing was just an aside, but because it has drawn so much justified flak, I’ve removed it.

  5. Sabio Lantz

    But still Cris, the cat is out of the bag (though not on the post any more). You favor the Amerindians in a way you don’t favor the West — the bias is clear.

    Why should we assume that when the Hopi show their kids that their uncles were behind the masks, that they would gain in spirituality (“supernaturalism”) in a way kids who find Santa was a fun-fib too don’t?

    What was your evidence for that claim?

  6. Cris Post author

    My aside about Santa was simply a fleeting thought about disenchantment, nothing more or less. As I have told you countless times before, my use of Amerindian data is methodological and contrastive. It constitutes a primary dataset for my evolutionary research, and also occupies most of my reading time in this phase of the project. So if I use that data often to make methodological points, it really says nothing about “bias” or “favoritism.”

    The Hopi are useful here as an interesting example of different ways that people deal with “naive realism” and the invisible. That (and the structural similarity between science/supernaturalism based on “invisible” theory) is the primary point of this post.

    But I know you’ve got this Amerindian bias/romanticism thing stuck rather obsessively in your head, and nothing I say can apparently change that. The Santa allusion really had nothing to do with the Hopi, and that’s why I removed the paragraph which was out of place and incongruous. Given this fact, I don’t know how to answer your question.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    Here is my simple question:

    “Why do you suspect that the Hopi children’s disillusionment that their earlier childhood stories where not what they seem to be (read: “fiction” — ie, showing it was just their uncles in masks), is “in the service of supernaturalism.”

  8. Cris Post author

    Because they are first encouraged to see the world as it presents only to the senses; in other words, they are encouraged to accept what they see (on the surface) as constituting the real and hence “reality.” This is naive realism, sometimes referred to in philosophy as naive empiricism.

    When the masks come off, this “reality” is exposed as fiction, surface, and play, or something other than the “real.” They are being taught that physical manifestations, as seen with naked empirical eyes, not only deceive but that underlying these appearances are other realities. The world thus becomes onion like, with the outer layer being what is seen or sensed, but underlying that surface there is much greater depth. In the Hopi case, this depth is conceived supernaturally or spiritually.

    When this same process is used in modern western contexts, the lesson about underlying or invisible “realities” is quite different. We are taught (properly so, in my estimation), through chemistry and physics, that the invisible underlying reality is matter and force. This is in the service of science.

    So here we have the same “unmasking” or disenchanting process being used in two quite different ways. The similarity in process or method is probably not an accident — invisible causation was first postulated for spirits or supernature, and later, much more slowly and unevenly, turned towards non-spiritual “nature” or science.

  9. Joe Miller

    I think Taussig’s essay on masks, fetishism, and disenchantment is worth a look..

    Maurice Godelier’s discussion of the Baruya’s initiation rituals in “The Enigma of the Gift” is also a crucial supplement to the conversation

    Terrence Turner’s essay “The Poetics of Play: Ritual Clowns, Masking and Performative Mimesis
    Among the Kayapo” depicts the ludic side of the process of unmasking.

  10. GregJS

    The first question this brings to my mind is, “What do the kachina figures represent to the initiates prior to, and then after, their disenchantment?”

    To me, the Santa reference seemed apt. I honestly can’t remember what my initial belief in Santa consisted of – I just remember greatly enjoying the drama of sitting on his lap at the mall and telling him what I wanted and then putting out a plate of cookies for him on xmas eve. But even to this day, the Santa image/costume does still represent and evoke a kind of jovial, warmhearted, generous spiritedness, and that is a “real” thing to me. Is this at all similar to the Hopi’s learning process?

    But then again, as I recall it, the experience of discovering that “Santa isn’t real” wasn’t so much about “real versus unreal.” The disenchantment was more in the realization that other people had been intentionally withholding something from me – some knowledge – that they had obviously been sharing amongst themselves: they all knew he was only a guy in a costume, but they let me go on thinking otherwise. It was a feeling of being on the outside of what the other members of my family/social group were in on. So, wanting to know what was “real” was really just about wanting to be “in” on whatever my social group was in on, wanting to know what they knew, not wanting to be left on the “outside.” Beyond that, “real versus unreal” was probably still a meaningless distinction to me at that age – too abstract and not very interesting; but what “everyone else” knew and shared amongst themselves versus what I knew and what others shared with (or withheld from) me was of much more immediate concern. But that might just be me. In any case, I assume the emphasis and effect of such disenchantment has a lot to do with how it is handled. It can be done in a mocking, humiliating, “ha ha you stupid sucker” way, or in a more ennobling “you’re older now, so we’re letting you in on more adult knowledge” sort of way, and so on.

    Finally, I wonder: Do full hunter-gatherers engage in this sort of “pedagogical” intentional deception/disenchantment of children (for whatever purpose); or is this the kind of thing that only groups that have ventured away from full hunting-gathering engage in? My sense has been that, among full hunter-gatherers, a belief in unseen forces is simply allowed to seep in gradually – through stories and perhaps through the natural intuitions that all children seem to have – without any specific form of “teaching,” but I really have no clue.

  11. Chris Kavanagh

    Cris, I don’t think you needed to remove the comment as it is a fair comparison and while I do think there is an inherent bias in your perspective regarding hunter gatherers, I realise it is not the result of superficial research or idealistic romanticism. It seems rather to be a genuine informed admiration and that is quite a refreshing perspective to see.

    I know you are probably fed up hearing about Santa but based on the above comments I’d like to add that my own experience of finding out Santa wasn’t real came when, due to insomnia, I had to pretend to be asleep while I listened to my parents fill stocking and set out presents. It didn’t have a very crushing feeling for me though as by that age, can’t remember how old I was now, I had already basically recognised Santa wasn’t real. I didn’t feel betrayed by the adults around me but rather felt a sense of satisfaction at finding something secret out. I wonder if this kind of reaction also occurs in the Hopi case i.e. are all children completely taken in by the masquerade or do some already suspect that it is a charade. It would be hard to find out especially if you only rely on accounts by adults as it may well be that children ‘perform’ as expected regardless of their actual knowledge. Personally, I tend to imagine that hunter gatherers also have their share of would-be scientists or sceptics but I might be projecting…

  12. GregJS

    Thanks, and very good call, Joe. Just based on the abstract, it looks fascinating – right up my alley of interests (i.e., what makes hunter-gatherer life seem to “work” so well). Do I need to be connected with an educational institution to be able to view the full article? (Or looks like I can “purchase” the article, but only for 24 hours??)

    I found Jerome Lewis’ PhD dissertation online and have started in. I figure it might cover some of the same ground as the article. Is he someone with whom you’re particularly familiar?

  13. GregJS

    Thanks! I feel like I hit the jackpot with this blog! I typed “Calvin Martin” into your search box yesterday and several posts came up, each one of which I enjoyed. I think I see what you are saying about CLM: maybe he is generalizing a bit too much from his experiences with, was it the Yupik? But still, the way he connected quantum physics to the kinds of animal-into-human-into-animal transformations that are so common in hunter-gatherer stories was the first time I felt like I was “getting” what those stories might be about – that they weren’t just nonsense. I’m grateful to him for that.

    Well, I’m going to have to pace myself here or I’ll never get away from this computer screen…

  14. Joe Miller

    I’ve read a lot of his stuff. His dissertation is a standalone document with the exception of the chapter on gender and ekila. The article I posted is (by the author’s admission) a far more through analysis of the concept in question. You’ll also want to give these a look:,d.aWw&cad=rja

    Here’s a few more articles on the topic of animism that I think everyone here will enjoy:,d.aWw,d.aWw

  15. GregJS

    Thanks again, Joe. This stuff looks great. Now I just need to clone myself a few times so I can plow through it…

    But seriously, all these dissertations/articles and this blog as a whole starts to give me the impression that a lot of work is being done on these less tangible aspects of hunter-gatherer culture. I’m curious if this so, or if it’s a relatively small group, but people on this blog are either part of that small group or are just especially tuned into it.

  16. GregJS


    Now that I’ve read it, thanks yet again for recommending the ekila article. And thanks again Cris for sending it to me. I enjoyed it – and it did speak very directly to my question about hunter-gatherer versus other pedagogical styles. Lewis really emphasizes how learning among the Mbendjele is driven by the individual, at his/her own pace and level of curiosity/interest. Adults seem to trust implicitly in the younger group members’ motivation to learn and to embrace the various aspects of their culture’s Way and do not see them as “lesser” or “defective” in any way – i.e., having a defective level of understanding – and therefore needing to have adult understanding imposed upon them according to an adult-determined timetable (or via shaming, threat, or other forms of coercion). This fits the general hunter-gatherer model as I’ve come to understand it so far. It’s good to see such a well-developed, specific example of this general concept.

    Beyond that, the article was fascinating in all sorts of other ways as well – like the way ekila helps to perpetuate an egalitarian (men and women are equal, older and younger are equal, more and less skilled are equal) and communitarian (we have interdependent roles and must share with each other) ethos.

  17. Dominik Lukes

    Great discussion about Santa, here. I was recently shocked when a colleague said her 9-year old still believed in Santa (in the UK running against my Czech sensibilities). But things are more complicated. I was looking at some research on metacognition that seemed to suggest that children’s apparent naivety about certain properties of the world (such as belief in monsters or faulty reasoning about physical space) is much less straightforward. Instead, the children may react as if something was true while at the same time knowing (and reacting in other contexts) as if it wasn’t. Some years ago, I gave a paper on the indeterminacy of framing and one of my examples was the multiplicity of representations of the Czech ‘ježíšek’ (Baby Jesus) who leaves presents under Czech x-mas trees (, slide 12). As you can see people’s images of him are very indeterminate ranging from a baby to light to (for one of my friends) a bearded old man. So I wander how this ritual enchantment and disenchantment actually takes place cognitively in the individuals. Sure, the children may cry but how much of it is real veil lifting and how much collective performance?

    But as far as being incensed by what people say about metaphor? Me? Well, yes. But this time I did it in a blog post:


  18. Cris Post author

    It’s good to see, or hear, or read you Dominik! I looked all over the webz for Sherzer’s chapter in another format because I wanted to send it to you, but could not find it. I just read the post over at your blog, and will say that I was skeptical about some of the things that Sherzer said about metaphor. My skepticism stemmed from things you have previously said, or written, as the metaphorical case may be.

    In your critical blog post, you found most of Sherzer’s “generalizing” claims that aroused my suspicion. But there are other parts of that chapter that go beyond these kinds of generalized or “easy” claims, and which discuss specifics of Mexica culture, language, and usage which were really interesting.

    For instance, the Mexica (aka “Aztecs”) used double metaphors as nouns. They also trained their clerical class in the usage of metaphor, strongly encouraged the use of metaphor, conducted all spoken ritual in metaphor, and tested their students by having them decipher or give interpretations of metaphors.

    This made for some fascinating reading, at least on my mostly ignorant part. I really wish I could get you Sherzer’s chapter, or the book. I can get the (used) book quite cheaply on Amazon in the US and would be happy to send it to you. In return, perhaps you could give us a review?

  19. Dominik Lukes

    Hi Cris, thanks for the offer. I found the book used on UK Amazon for the price of a sandwich so I should be able to report bank in a week or so.

    I have no doubt that there are many interesting observations to be made. In particular, teaching of metaphor in folk theoretical context is very intriguing.

Leave a Reply