Maurice Bloch

Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience

Review by Victoria Hart Gaskell, 2008

Bloch, Maurice. Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992.

This book began as a series of four lectures delivered as the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester in 1987. Bloch, a professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, describes the book as an “exploration of [the] irreducible core of the ritual process, and the factors which do in fact determine it.”(1) This core structure is practically universal throughout time and space, in that the great majority of societies “represent human life as occurring within a permanent framework which transcends the natural transformative processes of birth, growth, reproduction, aging, and death.”(3) This structure is mediated through structures of religious ritual, which transform the existence of human beings in time. Bloch refers to this process as the “idiom of rebounding violence”, which is accomplished in a three-stage “dialectical process” and involves a “marked level of violence or conquest”.(4) (Later in the book the terms “consumption” and “eating” are also used.) This process of religious ritual is undertaken so that the participants can become who they are meant to be: adults, or part of a particular group, or ancestors, and the like, and involves the transcendence/mastery/control of the innate unruly transformative energies of the human being and life cycle.

The beginning of this structure/process of religious ritual is the inversion of “normal” life. Life in the ritual is “other”, “otherworldly” or “spiritual” life, and instead of birth and growth as the avenues to success, weakness and death are the avenues, through a ritual death or killing of the participants. Socially and politically they become part of something eternal, permanent, life-transcending, as a clan/descent group or religious community or ancestor spirit life.(4)

Then, because otherwise the “other life” would have no relevance socially or politically to the here-and-now life the participants must continue to lead (as life’s natural processes must still go on), the second part of the ritual involves the return of the participants to life in the here-and-now. Yet the return to this world is very different from the departure from it. When they return the participants do not leave the transcendental behind; indeed it has changed them, so that they are permanently “transcendental”, eternal conquerors of the here-and-now of which formerly they were only a part.(5)

The “vitality” of the here-and-now is changed as well. Vitality is regained in the return, but it is not the everyday vitality innate in every human for everyday life that has been controlled/conquered/consumed by the transcendental; it is “a conquered vitality obtained from outside beings, usually animals, but often plants, other peoples or women. a consumed vitality.” The recovered vitality is controlled and directed by the transcendental aspects of the participants. So the participants can join with the transcendent and permanent, and, not be disconnected from the here-and-now. Bloch sees the contact with the transcendent as the motivation for the violent elimination of ordinary vitality and the subsequent violence of the necessary replacement by a consumed vitality.(5-6) As this process takes place both within the participants individually and within the community of the ritual, the whole process can “be understood as the construction of a form of ‘rebounding violence’ both at the public and experiential level.” (6)

Bloch posits the violence/conquest/consumption as the explanation for the political outcomes of religious action: “First, it needs to be violent, otherwise the subordination of vitality would not be demonstrated. Secondly, this final consumption is directed toward other species. [But sometimes it is] merely a preliminary to expansionist violence against neighbors.”(6) Common political expressions of the symbolism of rebounding violence can be found in reproduction balances and hierarchies, the turning of the second violence outward in military expansion, or the turning of the second violence inward toward those of lower status.(81)

Bloch sees this construct underlying religious rituals as varied as initiation, sacrifice, cosmogony and the state, marriage, millenarianism, and mythmaking, with the latter seen as holding possibilities for intellectual analysis, critique, and rejection/reconstruction of ritual. The book devotes a chapter to each of these, each building on the theme of the book, and illustrating each chapter with a different religious ritual from a different culture in the first five chapters and a summarizing myth in the last.

Prey into Hunter fascinates and provokes thought, and often disquiets in the startling juxtapositions it makes or alludes to. While not an anthropologist, I am a creator of and participant in religious ritual, and was both taught and challenged in those works by Bloch’s wide-ranging analysis and interaction with his conversation partners. There are caveats: I am not sure why, when Bloch seems to feel that the potential for political violence is a negative thing, he is so tentative about that critique that many would see as a necessary part of the creation and practice of religious ritual(105); also, no matter how much Bloch insists on the interchange of roles and their representative function in this construct; it remains the female/femininity that is to be controlled, conquered, and consumed on the one hand and represents the weakness and death of the male on the other, while the male/masculinity unequivocally controls, conquers, consumes, and is transcendent, so that new insights might emerge from a further exploration of this fact; as well, Bloch’s demarcation of communal societies and individualistic societies, given that all his examples are from the communal, raises questions as to how in particular this construct might be observed in a more individualistic culture/ritual; Bloch is also rather high-handed about other, plausible, different interpretations of the data. But these are more in the nature of the desire to pursue the discussion concerning a valuable contribution to our way of thinking about and our actual religious experience, especially in ritual. I highly recommend this book.