Symbolism and medieval religious thought

Authored by: David d’Avray

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:


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An old but good introduction to Social Anthropology suggests that symbolism is an, if not the, distinguishing feature of religion (which is not here marked off sharply from magic). On the other hand, we have scientific thought, which tends to mean no more and no less than it seems to say. Apart from knowledge for its own sake, its goals are ‘instrumental’: it tries to bring about the results it explicitly specifies. Magic and religion work differently. Their real meaning is not what they literally say. Words and actions, and rituals combining the two, stand for things which the anthropological observer may not immediately appreciate: say, abstractions such as ‘social solidarity’ which the people of a traditional society cannot express in any other way. Expression may be an end in itself, or at least a crucial concomitant of the instrumental function of magical or religious activity. Thus Beattie writes that ‘the chief difference between what we call practical, common-sense techniques for doing things, and ritual or “magico-religious” ways of doing them lies basically in the presence or absence of an institutionalized symbolic element in what is done … [A] distinction between these two kinds of activities … rests simply on the presence or absence in what is done of a symbolic element … I have intentionally not distinguished between magic and religion; both imply ritual, symbolic ideas and activities rather than practical, “scientific” ones’. Yet Beattie goes on to observe that ‘[m]ost modern students of religion would hold, as against Durkheim, that religious belief and practice are more than merely a system of social and moral symbolism’ (Beattie 1970: 202, 203, 212, 221).

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