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The cult of Bwiti and the ritual re-making of space : indexicality at the cosmic zenith


People live in space-time: a space-time constructed by social relations. The social-relational base of space becomes particularly evident where cultural change has upset the environmental and kinship connections which established, and are in turn maintained, by the spatial organization which has hitherto existed. In settings of social disruption, ritual offers a site of semiotic possibility. The heightening of oppositional values at the ritual center achieves a densely layered indexicality, creating a zenith at which spatial and social structures may dialectically transform one another, and then be extended back into the lived order of the cosmos. For the Fang who experienced such disruption, living in the Equatorial Rain Forest of Northern and Central Gabon in the late 1950s, participation in the cult of Bwiti offers a counter-active means of reinvigorating the social relations that undergirded their social and spatial structures. This paper will explore the ways in which Bwiti religious activity, by creating a ritual cosmic zenith, satisfies the desire for a movement through space that has been left wanting by a general colonial malaise and the pressure of various social forces. In ritual spatio-temporal realignment of connections with the ancestors, Fang are able to re-establish the balance of social solidarity in a strongly egalitarian, and increasingly individualistic, social milieu. In doing so, they both incorporate and challenge co-existing perspectives of their lived space, and offer a provocative setting in which to consider the ways that spatial imaginings and re-imaginings may be appropriated in ritual to address social and cultural disruption

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