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Spillius, E.B. (1988). Religion, Morality and the Person, by M. Fortes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 368 pages, hb £27.50, pb £9.95. Free Associations, 1(13):148-149.

(1988). Free Associations, 1(13):148-149

Religion, Morality and the Person, by M. Fortes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 368 pages, hb £27.50, pb £9.95

Review by:
Elizabeth Bott Spillius

Professor Meyer Fortes, who died in 1982, was a leading exponent of the structural-functionalist school of social anthropology initiated by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and adhered to by many British social anthropologists until the 1960s. He was much respected, not least for his extremely meticulous and exhaustive study of the Tallensi of northern Ghana. The present book is a posthumous collection, edited by Professor Jack Goody, often of Fortes's papers on religion, family structure, and the person among the Tallensi.

Fortes was originally trained as a psychologist. Although he shared the British anthropologist's distaste for the reduction of social facts to the level of individual psychology, he was interested in what might be called the unconscious components of social structure, especially family structure, and its relation to religious practices. This interest shows itself particularly clearly in two of the essays in this collection, one called ‘Custom and conscience’, the other called ‘The first born’. Fortes says he is trying to show how insight or hypothesis derived from psychoanalytic theory may reveal significance and show up connections in the conventional anthropological data of custom and social organization that would not otherwise emerge.

Specifically he examines the ancestor cult of the Tallensi, concluding that the ancestors are externalized representations of conscience in which fathers, through dying, relinquish their temporal powers to their first-born sons in return for assuming spiritual omnipotence. He addresses the question of why the ancestors' power is primarily persecutory without, to my mind, achieving a very satisfactory answer. Similarly he raises the question of why the Tallensi, unlike the matrilin-eal Ashanti, do not have witchcraft beliefs; he attributes the Tallensi refusal to attribute magical powers to destructive human wishes to the integrity of individual identity owing to the incorporation by the individual of the cohesive Tallensi family structure. I do not find this answer wholly satisfying, as it seems to rest on a circular argument.

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