The Island of Crossed Destinies : human and other-than-human perspectives in Afro-Cuban divination
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This thesis focuses on the significance and articulation of divinatory practices in Cuba a place where a number of different religious traditions (mainly of African and European origins) have come to coexist. Reflecting on the particularities of my ethnography, I concentrate on three such traditions: Ocha/Ifá, Palo Monte and Espiritismo. However, rather than engaging with them as different ‘traditions’ or assuming their syncretic character, I attempt to explore the way in which they constitute distinct but related perspectives on human destiny or, as my friends and informants put it, on people’s ‘path’ (camino) perspectives, that is, which continuously constitute and recalibrate each other. Echoing the work of authors such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, I try to illustrate the nature of these perspectives by bringing to the fore the ways in which different divinatory practices instantiate and embody the efficacy or ‘point of view’ of different ‘other-than-human’ beings be they deities or the dead. Thus, while in the case of Ocha/Ifá and its oracles, I concentrate on the relation between ‘humans’ and the orichas (deities), my discussion of divinatory practices within Palo Monte and Espiritismo places the emphasis on the relation between ‘humans’ and various kinds of the dead (muertos). Treating these relations as an exchange of perspectives between ‘humans’ and ‘other-than-human’ entities, I argue for the need to focus on ‘ontology’ and the indigenous understanding of these entities’ ‘nature’ in order to avoid both ‘reductionist’ and ‘constructivist’ renderings of divination; in other words, to avoid the theoretical limits of ‘syncretic’ or ‘purist’ readings of the (Afro-)Cuban spirit world and its efficacy. This emphasis on ‘ontology’ leads me to construe divination as ‘perspectivism’ and to treat it as both a theoretical strategy and an ethnographic challenge.