Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals

Simon Coleman, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman describe their ongoing collaboration on the "Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals" project. By exploring the links between space and different kinds of subjectivities, they propose 'cathedral consciousness' as a means to understanding the diverse functions of modern English cathedrals.

MLA citation format:
  Coleman, Simon, Tiina Sepp and Marion Bowman
"Pilgrimage and the City: Studying English Cathedrals"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 27 July 2016. Web. [date of access]  

What are cathedrals for? This is a question that we have been thinking about for a couple of years, as we collaborate on a project called “Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals, Past and Present.” [i] Our research explores English cathedrals as sites of pilgrimage but also as culturally, architecturally and socially significant locations within urban contexts. Three of the cathedrals we’re focusing on are both Anglican and ancient: Canterbury, Durham, and York. One is Roman Catholic and much more recent: Westminster Cathedral—a Victorian building whose construction in London between 1895 and 1903 boosted the public profile of Roman Catholicism in a country where it was still viewed with some suspicion by Protestant evangelicals. [ii] 

Fig. 1 Courtyard leading to entrance of Westminster Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
One answer to our question comes from a distinguished sociologist of secularization, Steve Bruce, who published a book in 1996 called Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. The first chapter of the book includes a kind of sociological eulogy for what Bruce calls “the great Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages,” [iii] which have now given way to a very different kind of faith. By definition, the cult does not dominate space as a cathedral does. It flourishes by catering to the diffuse sovereign consumerism of an individualizing society. 

But what are we to make of Bruce’s argument in relation to our project on cathedrals? Has our question already been answered? Let us juxtapose his view with the writing of another sociologist of contemporary religion, Grace Davie. In a recent piece, entitled “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” she notes that “in the 1970s these iconic buildings were frequently referred to as dinosaurs, large and useless.” [iv] What is striking, however, is that current evidence tells us that the constituencies for cathedrals are now growing rapidly, consisting of both regular and less regular worshippers, as well as “more transient communities of pilgrims and tourists.” Davie suggests that cathedrals appeal to the senses as much as to the intellect: they are “places that pay attention to aesthetics of worship, to music, to art, to liturgy, to worship”. In addition, she notes, they are “places where the individual can find space to reflect” in contexts of relative anonymity, thus avoiding the sometimes overly warm embrace of a parish church; and, finally, “these are places where…the nation… articulates its past.” 

Davie’s claims for the continued salience of cathedrals are backed up by the statistician Peter Brierley’s 2005 English Church Census, which revealed a 21% rise in attendance at Anglican cathedral services between 2000 and 2004. [v] Furthermore, a 2012 report, significantly called ‘Spiritual Capital’, dangles a tempting sociological morsel in front of those who would see cathedrals as centres of Anglican revival, suggesting that “their impact on and significance for English life extends far beyond their role as tourist destinations.” [vi] Indeed, a frankly astonishing 27 per cent of the adult population of England visited an Anglican cathedral at least once in the year before the Report came out. [vii] This number adds up to around 11 million adults, covers the entire demographic spectrum, and includes Christians, non-Christians, and non-believers. What is more, many visitors say that their interest is not just about tourism and heritage, but also about getting in touch with the spiritual, however that is defined. [viii] 

It is under such circumstances that pilgrimage represents a fascinatingly problematic and yet fertile practice in relation to cathedrals. The religious buildings that we are studying are not remote shrines, where much of the pilgrim’s focus might simply be on the arduous and exceptional journey to get there; they are located in urban centres. Nor is pilgrimage necessarily the main rationale of each institution. Indeed, as a practice, it touches on many points of uncertainty for cathedrals and established Christianity in the UK: For instance are cathedrals as opposed to more isolated shrines the best places for pilgrimage? Where does worship end and heritage begin—not just metaphorically but materially—in spaces that house worship, tourism, art, musical performances, and university graduations? How public should a cathedral space be in the context of anonymous, urban spheres of interaction? And is gaining access to a cathedral a commercial or a spiritual transaction? 

Fig. 2 Researchers’ table in the south transept of York Minster in July 2015. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)
One of things we find interesting about juxtapositions of such varied practices is that they are describing a deeply flexible kind of religious sociability and framing, one that—adapting the phenomenologist Alfred Schütz—inhabits the ambiguous social space between Nebenmenschen (contemporaries) and Mitmenschen (consociates), where Nebenmenschen are people “only known as types, that is, distantly, formally, and solely by their roles, whereas Mitmenschen are those known as specific and idiosyncratic individuals.” [ix] Or, as we see in much tourism literature, the presence of unknown others may be vital to one’s experience of place, in positive as well as negative terms; and cathedrals can accommodate both the romantic gaze of the isolated aesthete as well as the collective gaze of the day-tripper. 

Fig. 3 Entrance charges to Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
The kinds of social, semiotic and spatial flexibility that we have been describing touch on, but do not really fit, two of the previously dominant theoretical models of pilgrimage that have been important in anthropology. The ambiguous space between contemporaries and consociates at cathedrals is scarcely covered by the Turnerian notion of communitas: [x] in the latter, identity is stripped away and levelled, as the temporarily formed fellowship of pilgrims pursues broadly common or at least commensurate goals. This notion, useful as it is, does not address the baroque multiplicity of goals and performance frames, let alone agendas, that emerge in cathedral spaces. Similarly, Eade and Sallnow’s notion of contesting the sacred can take us only so far, as it only points to one, predominantly agonistic, dimension of the forms of ritual and cultural articulation that may occur in pilgrimage, wherever the shrine is located, but most certainly in urban conurbations. [xi] We would add here that Ian Reader’s recent book on pilgrimage in the context of the market is extremely helpful in the way that it highlights the role of planning in pilgrimage, but again the central analytical metaphor is not quite flexible enough: it runs the risk of replacing sacrality with a notion of market relations as the ultimate “bottom line” of the organization of pilgrimages. [xii] The cathedrals we look at are not only in some ways deeply incoherent, they are also contexts where no single person knows what is going on in and around the numerous spatial and temporal frames of activity (though head vergers probably come the closest). There is no single bottom line, no single dimension of sociality or ritual. Indeed, as we are increasingly discovering, the rules and assumptions made by one cathedral may be very different from those evident in another. In this respect, at least, English cathedrals recall the medieval world rather than the streamlined rationality of the modern one, even as their staff are attempting to grasp what it means to be religious ‘professionals’ in a world where pilgrimage and tourism management often blend so seamlessly. 

Modalities of Pilgrimage 

So what kinds of pilgrimage-like activity take place in cathedrals? Rather than present an overview or a survey, we are simply going to explore some of the themes we have uncovered by introducing you briefly to two informants, both of whom were interviewed at Canterbury by Tiina in 2014. 

Michael the Methodist: Adjacencies and Translations 

Michael is a middle aged family man whose Methodist home congregation was located around 30 kilometers away from the cathedral. He is well acquainted with Canterbury Cathedral as he goes there four or five times a year. Here’s what he said when Tiina asked him what he thought of the cathedral—what kind of space he thought it was: 

It’s a combination. I think it’s certainly a working church. I have… friends in the diocese office here… and I know the work they do…For me it’s a spiritual place to come. ’Cause this is not my home church….I enjoy the spiritual presence that is here. I’m intrigued by pilgrimages, something in the back of my mind, that maybe in the future we may do more…. I suppose it’s also good as a religious tourist place because it brings people in…who wouldn’t come normally …I don’t see that as an important part for me….I think all faith we have and spirit has to transfer into work. 

Michael sees the cathedral as having many functions that co-exist, some of which he prioritizes over others, and one of the things we would emphasize here is how pilgrimage emerges in dialogue with other activities and spaces with which it is adjacent. Are Michael’s regular visits to the cathedral away from a congregation with a different theological emphasis classifiable as pilgrimages? There’s no simple answer to that question, but we know that the notion of pilgrimage is important to Michael’s conception of himself from what he says here and elsewhere. What’s also striking is Michael’s use of the notion of work as a kind of praxis that unites much of what goes on in the cathedral, but which seems to separates off tourism from more worshipful labours. 

Fig. 4 Tourists in Canterbury Cathedral, London. (Photo: Marion Bowman)
When Tiina asks Michael if he’s drawn to any particular part of the cathedral, he is ready with a response: 
I think there’s this… the little prayer chapel… the Martyrdom chapel. Because as you walk by, it’s quite dark in a sense but alight inside… so it’s quiet and because there’s a sign saying it’s reserved for prayer, people tend to respect that and they don’t come in talking. So for me… I can go there and I can be silent in it. And that’s a place that drew me. 

This expresses a trope that we have often come across so far: the cathedral being capacious enough to house not only large numbers of people, but also spaces of temporary retreat and silence, involving awareness of, but distance from, others, who may be contemporaries or consociates in Schütz’s terms. 

Clearly we see a kind of ‘cathedral consciousness’ emerging in this interview, related to Michael’s separation from everyday life and his home congregation and his journey to a large-scale, multi-dimensional liturgical space. This sense is reinforced as Michael’s interview then ventures away from Canterbury itself, and presents an array of linked cathedral experiences that covers his biography as well as his experience of Britain as place of both indigenous and personal history and powerful landscape. We can only hint at the complexity of what I think he is saying here, as he weaves together walking in the wilderness, Holy Island in the North East of the country, St David’s cathedral in Wales, and finally York Minster—the latter located near to Michael’s birthplace and, as he puts it, “the one that really centres me”. But it is St David’s that contributes to a radical change in his life:

Yes, I was on holiday and something was happening in my life to change and serve and God gave me a message from Matthew 25, about the lambs and the goats … to serve him and I’d been to the cathedral and sat on the cliff top and looking at the most spectacular view you can imagine on a quiet day…and God giving that message. “Think of what I’ve given you, Michael, haven’t you been blessed? I want everyone to have the blessings, and I want you now to be a messenger of these blessings…” And I left my job in London. I sold the house…I don’t look at the architecture that much now or the stained glass windows… I sense that those hundreds of thousands of prayers... and it calms me down and it centres me…. 

Is this describing a pilgrimage? Yes and no—it takes place in and adjacent to the cathedral, on a holiday that turns into a holy-day. Is this a Protestant testimony? Again, yes and no: it is given in an interview but it contains the classic themes of conversion, of biblical text combined with God’s direct voice. And what is the cathedral doing here? It seems to be a medium for a shift in both subjectivity and work; and if so, it is an effective medium because its materiality is not all-encompassing: Michael goes to the cathedral but then sits on the cliff; and, most strikingly, there is the image of stained glass windows being converted, translated, into words, into thousands of prayers. 

Yvonne the Cleric: A Journey Through the Building 

Michael found his inspiration through his negotiated relationship with cathedrals, finding spaces to be on his own as well as engaging in journeys whose power may have come from the fact that it is difficult, and possibly futile, to decide whether they “were” or “were not” pilgrimages. After looking at his responses we then found a very different interview in our Canterbury files. Yvonne is a cleric, a religious professional, a person working with pilgrimage groups who come to Canterbury. In the first part of her interview she talks of the gradual emergence of a set of strategies to organize pilgrims, and then she talks fascinatingly about the experience of leading pilgrims through the cathedral space. Again, we can only hint at some of what she says, but here are some of her reflections on leading a candlelit pilgrimage: 

I try as we go round, I say: if you’ve clearly made Christian profession of faith, you might like to think about this. If you haven’t, you might like to think about something which is I guess [is] less Christian language but may actually end up being the same thing, really. So we start at the back and then we literally journey…. And so…before I took a group round on my own I spent some time thinking: How does the building speak of a Christian journey of faith? How can I use the building in different places to make myself a route? 

As with Michael we see here a link between space and subjectivity, but also the strategies of somebody who, unlike him, cannot dismiss the tourist as not engaging in the proper spiritual labour of praying within the cathedral. The route that Yvonne then describes is not only one that seems meaningful to her—as she remarks elsewhere she allows spirituality to prevail a little over historical detail—but also one that uses each part of the fabric of the building to make a different point: the Nave prompts talk of the almightiness of God, the arches are presented as marking one space from another and so give a sense of being in sacred space, and so on. The shrine of Becket is part of this route but only one part of a wider journey—and one that in the cathedral tour does not stop with him as historical figure but reflects instead on the hope of resurrection. This is an ambulatory ritual designed for people of faith but also those of no faith, but in any case it seems a well-considered attempt to shift from the vagaries of the journey to a precisely directed movement through architectural, historical and theological space at the same time. 

Fig. 5 The north-west transept (also known as the Martyrdom) of Canterbury Cathedral. On the left, the Chapel of Our Lady Martyrdom. On the right, exit to the Undercroft. In the centre, the Altar of the Sword-Point, commemorating St Thomas Becket’s death. (Photo: Tiina Sepp)

One kind of space that these narratives suggest is indeed the classic one of the liminal, as we see how cathedrals provide opportunities for removal from the mundane world: as Michael periodically moves from his home congregation, or as Yvonne takes believer and non-believer alike on candlelit journeys through a cathedral space that has been emptied of other people. But there is also evidence of what one of us, Simon, has elsewhere called laterality: the creative construction of liturgical or at least symbolically charged behavior parallel to but at one remove from official tours and official spaces, [xiii] such as Michael’s use of the Martyrdom chapel, both rooted in the cathedral space and crucially reaching beyond it. Michael draws himself to the side of the actions of others, creating his own frame of ritual practice that again is adjacent to, possibly even echoes, those of others, but is still separated from them. 

Our brief comments and examples have been emphasizing the continued religious salience of cathedrals as places of pilgrimage, but have also been blurring theological and theoretical edges and worrying at sharp boundaries: presenting the city cathedral as urban and liturgical space at one and the same time and the pilgrimage as both strategy and improvisation, both following and straying from well-worn paths. We want to finish with a final blurring of the boundaries, and it relates to our project itself. Where are we as researchers located in the capacious liturgical, bureaucratic, and socially flexible spaces provided by cathedrals? We are of course both observers of cathedral strategy and inevitably part of it. In reporting what we observe to such sophisticated caretakers of sacred buildings, we become research objects and subjects ourselves, providing further means through which cathedrals can identify new spaces of action in the twenty-first century. 


i. For details of the project, go to Researchers on the AHRC-funded project are Dee Dyas (PI), Tiina Sepp (Researcher), John Jenkins (Researcher) (all York University), Marion Bowman (Co-PI, Open-University), and Simon Coleman (Co-PI, University of Toronto). Note that all interviewees’ names are pseudonyms.

ii. Canterbury Cathedral was the leading pilgrimage centre in medieval England and large areas of the building were shaped by and still show the influence of the cult of St Thomas Becket. Durham Cathedral contains the shrines and remains of St Cuthbert and Bede, and Cuthbert holds a unique place as a symbol of the region. York Minster contains the tombs of two archbishop martyr ‘saints’, William FitzHerbert, nephew of King Stephen, who was murdered in 1154; and Richard Scrope, executed for treason in 1405. Westminster Cathedral has the shrine and relics of the seventeenth century English martyr, St John Southworth. 

iii. Steve Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 

iv. For this and other quotes in this paragraph, see Grace Davie, “Thinking Spatially about Religion,” Culture and Religion 13, no. 4(2012): 486. 

vii. Ibid.: 15. 

viii. Mathew Guest, Elizabeth Olson and John Wolffe, “Christianity: Loss of Monopoly,” in Religion and Change in Modern Britain, eds. Linda Woodhead and Rebecca Catto (London, Routledge, 2012), 57-78. 

ix. Michael Carrithers, “Anthropology as a Moral Science of Possibilities,” Current Anthropology 46, no. 3 (2005): 433-456. 

x. Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York, Columbia University Press, 1978). 

xi. John Eade and Michael Sallnow eds, Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage (London: Routledge, 1991). 

xii. Ian Reader, Pilgrimage in the Marketplace (London, Routledge, 2014). 

xiii. Simon Coleman, “Ritual Remains: Studying Contemporary Pilgrimage,” in Michael Lambek and Janice Boddy eds, A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (Oxford, Blackwell, 2014), 294-308; also Simon Coleman, “Pilgrimage as Trope for an Anthropology of Christianity,” Current Anthropology 55, suppl. 10 (2014): 281-291.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)

Agnès Kedzierska Manzon explores how Mande ritual specialists in West Africa, who own and manipulate power-objects called basiw, turn these objects into "gods forever in the process of construction" thanks to blood sacrifices and speech. While doing so, they construct at once these object's agency and their own identities as accomplished, powerful and respected individuals.

MLA citation format:
  Manzon, Agnès Kedzierska
"On Blood and Words: How Certain Objects Become Subjects Among the Mande (West Africa)"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 June 2016. Web. [date of access] 

Among the Mande (Mali, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire) the usage of a wide range of material artifacts manipulated on a regular basis to influence human life and destiny is well established. Such artifacts include, on the one hand, Arabic talismans or amulets (the Mande have been Islamized since the fourteenth century CE), and on the other hand, non-Islamic, primarily plant-based amalgams that are designated in Mande languages as boliw or basiw (singular: boli or basi). They may be of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, horns filled with substances, assemblages of separate elements such as shells, wooden statues, cola nuts, etc. (cf. Bazin 2008, Brett-Smith 1983, Colleyn 2001, 2009, 2010). Portable and pocket-size or stationary and as big as a table, they are entirely coated with many layers of coagulated blood. 

As with similar artifacts used elsewhere in Africa—for example Congolese “nail fetishes” (nkisi nkondi), Baule “spouse figurines” (blolo bian/bla), or Evhe and Fon vodun, to name only a few—they are addressed through sacrifices and with words, asked for protection and for help in difficulties. Their “users” or “masters” (tigiw) seem to conceive of them as a very special category of not entirely sentient yet autonomous entities, endowed with agency. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (Kedzierska-Manzon 2013), they treat these objects as subjects with which one may enter into a genuine partnership. They engage with them in an ambiguous relationship that has an impact on their sexuality and affective life and that is locally conceptualized as an alliance between human and non-human lovers (Kedzierska-Manzon 2015). 

This relationship is instituted and perpetuated through the ritual practice consisting in sacrifices of cola nuts to begin and then poultry as well as, more rarely, cattle or sheep. The sacrifices – locally designated by the term sɔnni: literally, watering – are accompanied, preceded, and followed by speech. Both the words uttered in the direction of basiw, and the sacrificial blood poured onto them, are essential in the process of their construction, defining their identity and their potential for acting. 

Image 1: Continuous construction of the basiw through blood sacrifices. Photo by author. 

The blood constitutes more precisely the basiw’s "flesh", making their appearance amorphous and their surface uneven. This surface which stinks and attracts flies indexes their proper relationships with humans as well as their power. Without being “watered” regularly, they lose this power or worse, may turn what remains of it against their human partners. Why is it so? Drawing on the work of Martin Holbraad (2007, 2011), I would argue that their material aspects matter deeply for an understanding of the way humans think and feel about them. Holbraad shows, more precisely, in his study of Cuban divination rituals that if the Cuban divinities are said to appear as marks on the divination sand – as the displacement of powder in short – then, these divinities must locally be conceived in terms of motions or paths, highly ephemeral and virtual to some extent. They are not seen as stable entities inhabiting some far-away or transcendent locations but rather as potentialities realizing themselves only temporarily. Let’s now return to the basiw. The flow and the coagulation of blood are usually associated among the Mande, as elsewhere, with organic processes such as childbirth but also gestation (cf. Dieterlen and Dettwyler 1988). The fetus’ development in the uterus implies and relies on such a flow, as does the basiw. These artifacts may be seen as “loci of growth" (Ingold 2012) where as mounds or termite nests they are inherently unfinished and open-ended. This is why they must be watered. If one waters them, then, they may grow, as do the plants. The sacrifices are ways of cultivating them. 

The materiality of basiw informs us on the way they and their relation to humans are locally comprehended, in constant transformation. They are things rather than objects, if one were to apply to them the classic Heideggerian dichotomy, and to use the expression coined by David Graeber (2005), “gods in the process of construction”, never fully achieved, always in becoming. Through their continuous production, their partners seek new arrangements, establish new alliances, and perpetuate (social) life. By owning and watering them, their owners inscribe themselves into a larger, supra-regional network of relationships including humans and non-humans, thanks to which they may gain wealth and prestige, have access to secret knowledge and become powerful. Thus, the basiw seem to function as the “loci of growth” in a double sense: they grow physically and, while doing so, they make their masters grow economically and socially, helping them to become respected and fully accomplished personae. 

This mutual process of subjectivation of things and humans involved in the relationship relies, as I have demonstrated in detail in Kedzierska-Manzon 2016, on blood sacrifices, but also, as I will argue now, on the speech uttered within the ritual context. Such a speech situates each basi within the larger network, in respect to other similar artifacts and in relation to their “users” or “masters”, as well as these masters’ masters, apprentices and clients. Through speech, these artifacts are ascribed certain qualities and represented as potent, which in fact empowers them. At the same time, they are assigned to the position of interlocutors for humans, capable of listening, seeing and reacting. In order to provoke them to act on behalf of their allies, the words addressed to them are supposed to please them or even to enchant them while sometimes challenging them. The “enchantment” under question is thought to be achieved mainly thanks to their speech formal characteristics which include particular lexical choices driven by the phonetics as much as by the semantics, syntax parallelism, frequent use of neologisms as well as of the onomatopoeias, a certain a-grammaticality, all of which result in a partial unintelligibility. All of these characteristics, common to the various types of religious languages employed elsewhere (cf. Keane 1997), are supposed to contribute to the emotional destabilization of the addressee which in turn, provokes this addressee to act. Indeed, the basiw, in response to the speech uttered to them, are expected first to provide the elements of an answer to the question asked through the position of the colas nuts and the sacrificial victim on the ground. Then, they are expected to react by accomplishing what they were asked for. 
Image 2: Speaking to the basiw, engaging in dialogue. Photo by author.

In order to make sure that they will engage in action and in dialogue with humans, an adoption of a special way of speaking seems necessary. Together with blood sacrifice, speech participates in the emergence of the ritual landscape – visual, sound, olfactory, etc. – within which these artifacts assume the role of agents. Their perpetual creation from words and blood, linking past to the present, bush to the village, visible to the invisible, and last but not least, humans to their fellow humans, shape the Mande world in which people as well animals, plants, powerful things and some invisible entities dwell. 

Image 3: With Diakaridia, the hunter, Mande Montains, Mali. Photo courtesy of the author.


Bazin, J., 2008, Des clous dans la Joconde, Toulouse, Anacharsis. 

Brett-Smith, S. 1983, "The Poisonous Child", Res: anthropology and aesthetics, 6, pp. 47–64. 

Colleyn, J.P. 2001, Bamana : the Art of Existence in Mali, (co-ed. Arnoldi, M.J.), New York, Museum for African Art; Zurich, Museum Rietberg ; Gent, Snoek-Ducaju & Zoon.
_____2009, "Images, signes, fétiches : à propos de l’art bamana (Mali)", Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, 195, pp. 733-745. 

_____2010, "Il Feticcio, O Un Oggetto Paradossale / The Fetish, a Paradoxal Object", in : Bargna, Ivan ; Parodi da Passano (ed.), L’Africa delle Meravigle. Arti Africane nelle collezioni italane / The Wonders of Africa. African arts in Italian Collections, Milano, Silvana Editoriale, pp. 133-145. 

Dettwyler, K. 1988, "More than Nutrition: Breastfeeding in Urban Mali", Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 2-2, pp. 172-183. 

Dieterlen, G. 1988 [1951], Essais sur la religion bambara, Bruxelles, Ed. De l’Université de Bruxelles. 

Graeber, D., 2005, "Fetishism as Social Creativity: or, Fetishes as Gods in the process of Construction", Anthropological Theory, 5: 407–438 

Holbraad, M., 2007, "The Powder of Power: Multiplicity and Motion in the Divinatory Cosmology of Cuban Ifa (or Mana again)", in: Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically, London, Routledge, pp. 189-225.
_____2011, “Can the Thing Speak?” Open Anthropology Cooperative Press, Working Papers Series # 7, ISSN 2045-5763. Accessed from on April 2016.

Ingold, T., 2012, “The Shape of the Land”, in: Arnason, A;, Elllison, N., Vergunst, J, & Whitehouse, A., ed., Landscape beyond Land, New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, pp. 197-205. 

Keane, W., 1997, "Religious Language", Annual Review of Anthropology, 26: 47-71. 

Kedzierska-Manzon, A., 2016, "Le sacrifice comme mode de construction: du sang versé sur les fétiches (mandingues)", Archives des Sciences Sociales des Religions, special issue "La forces des objets- matières à expériences", 174, forthcoming.
_____2015,"Corps et objet forts: le ‘fétichisme’ comme ascèse", Corps–revue interdisciplinaire, 12, éd. CNRS, pp. 211-219. 

_____2013, "Humans and Things: Mande 'Fetishes' as Subjects", Anthropological Quarterly, 86 (1), pp. 1115-1152.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Religion and ‘Radiation Culture’: Spirituality in a Post-Chernobyl World

Elena Romashko analyzes how atomic power may be interpreted through the lens of spirituality and mythology as a cultural response. By focusing on the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, she proposes the idea of a ‘radiation culture' where nuclear radiation has evolved from a purely scientific concept, first observed in the controlled environment of the lab, to a culture with its vivid beliefs and folklore.

MLA citation format:
  Romashko, Elena
"Religion and ‘Radiation Culture’: Spirituality in a Post-Chernobyl World"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 1 June 2016. Web. [date of access]  

"Atomic energy, just as scavengers, feeds on decay products." 
V. Birashevich. 

Figure 1. Chernobyl radiation map 1996. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.


This year, 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion. On 26 April 1986, explosions ruptured the reactor at the Chernobyl Power Plant. They released into the environment and set on fire numerous types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium radionuclides. Deemed an ‘accident’, this massive nuclear disaster on the border of the Ukrainian and Belarusian Soviet Republics in 1986 permanently changed the lives of the residents in these areas. Simultaneously, this event changed our conception of nuclear risks and the effects of radiation all around the globe. 

For Belarusian people, the consequences of the explosion were devastating: contamination of about 23% of the territory [1], evacuation and relocation of at least 338,000 people [2], the loss of those who died from high-dose radiation exposure and the struggle of those who are still coping with a range of health issues. 

Figure 2. Checkpoint "Dityatki", entrance to the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2013, the population of the ‘contaminated’ territory numbered 1,142,600 people (12.1% of the entire population of Belarus) [3]. Thus, for 30 years in Belarus, people lived on the contaminated areas with various levels of radioactivity. Occasionally National Geographic would publish a couple of photographs by Gerd Ludwig from the Zone or a group of scientists or government officials would administer scientific tests and collect soil samples and track animal populations. 

So called ‘self-settlers’, people who decided to come back to the Exclusion Zone, attract some international attention with their fatalism and alternative life choices, as shown through the public interest in the recent documentary “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart. In a sense, their lives were consigned to the category of ‘survivors of contamination’. The impact of constant low-dose contamination on the 23% of Belarusian territory is still a matter of discussion and the danger of living in the Zone is practically indisputable and frightening for the public. In contrary to the self-settlers, people living in the rest of contaminated Belarus, do not attract much of the attention, their culture and daily life was seldom in the media spotlight. Their ways of coping with changes caused by the Chernobyl explosion, and the alternate, spiritual dimension of their perceptions of the disaster are virtually unknown and certainly never factored into debates on nuclear risks. 

Conditions of life in post-Chernobyl Belarus may seem to be a local issue, with little connection to the rest of the world. Anthropologist Sarah D. Phillips emphasizes that the Chernobyl disaster has often been depicted through the political realm, whereby Chernobyl was a political failure, a “quintessentially “Soviet” phenomenon” and a result of the insufficiency of the Soviet system of government. She writes: “The world got comfortable with the assumption that the Chernobyl catastrophe was the product of a specific place, time, and flawed system — a terrible exception that could not happen anywhere else” [4]. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the global reach of nuclear accidents with 99 unintentional technological nuclear accidents having occurred worldwide between 1952 and 2009, a number of those related to nuclear weapon testing and use. [5] Media Studies scholar Nicky Falkof calls this problematic abridgment of radiation to the exclusively Soviet space “a cultural attempt to nullify the fear of nuclear power by laying the blame for the tragedy at the feet of the enemy’s failings rather than implicating technology...” [6]. 

Simultaneously, nuclear fallouts and their harmful consequences have made radiation hazards a universally discussed phenomenon. There was the gradual realisation even among civilians that no place on earth is truly safe from radioactive contamination. In the process, radiation has evolved from a purely scientific concept, first observed in the controlled environment of the lab, to a culture with its vivid mythology and folklore. As Dr. Falkof summarises “Chernobyl was both a social and environmental catastrophe and a potent moment of myth, a tragedy that lent itself almost immediately to metaphor. Stuck in a half-life of its own between Cold War politicking, environmental crisis, technological failure, human calamity and science fiction nightmare, Chernobyl has recurred repeatedly in different forms in global cultural memory...” [7]. 

I will focus on one aspect of this radiation culture and demonstrate, how atomic power and radiation may be interpreted through the lens of spirituality. In doing so, I hope to highlight the people who live in post-Chernobyl Belarus and their interpretations of the disaster and coping strategies. 

How to Research an Invisible War? 

In the book “Voices from Chernobyl”, Svetlana Alexievich, recent winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, brings together oral history of the disaster through interviews with surviving ‘liquidators’ [i] their loved ones and family members of their deceased colleagues. To visualize the post-Chernobyl situation in the preface to the book, the translator Keith Gessen compares the Chernobyl explosion with the tragedy of September 11, 2001 in New York City. She claims that both these events have become signs of national grief, but evoked different public attitudes and senses of time [8]. 

Gessen vividly describes the tragedy of September 11, where mass media showed how within minutes victims died under the debris of the collapsing twin towers. There were only a few survivors. The opposite dynamic accompanied Chernobyl since radiation is an invisible killer that works over time. Only one plant worker died immediately and fewer than 30 died in the next few weeks. The tragedy was surrounded by silence in media and denial from the authorities. However, tens of thousands of people received extremely high doses of radiation afterward, and 29 years later people continue living in the areas with abnormal radiation levels that affect their health and everyday life in various ways [ii]. [9] 

This comparison shows how difficult it is to research the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, as it seems impossible (whether for medical doctors or folklorists) to separate what was a direct consequence of the disaster from what formed during the same time frame or could be related to this specific region. Sometimes this methodological problem becomes an absurdity when medical doctors blame higher mortality or higher cancer rates on “other major confounding factors” due to “elevated rates of smoking or alcohol consumption, that may occur in persons who know they were exposed to radiation” [10], psycho-somatic harm or even a tendency to over-diagnose the population from the contaminated areas. Ethnolinguists and ethnographers working in the post-Chernobyl situation in Belarus face similar difficulties as doctors. The former are trying to distinguish between new cultural and ‘folk’ phenomena (rituals, tales, practices or beliefs) that appeared in a situation of long lasting crisis, and the older ones that predated the explosion. Researchers seek answers in the daily lives of people who do not perceive themselves as victims, or have simply forgotten about the hazards emitting from their houses, water, food and everyday objects. 

It seems that the key to understanding post-Chernobyl life is in refusing to analyze the Chernobyl disaster as a tragedy of minutes because it is in principle a different type of disaster, dissimilar to natural calamities or terrorist attacks. Chernobyl is more like an invisible war, where the actual battles are far away from the people. They continue living their everyday life in the changed surroundings for so long that they do not notice the war. 

People who write about Chernobyl as well as those who live in the contaminated territories are stuck between the opposing poles of oblivion and ‘radiophobia’. Researchers have to collect the evidence from people with very different attitudes to the disaster. While the majority firmly negates any influence of Chernobyl on their lives or beliefs, there are people who show increased fear of radiation and awareness in the origin of local foods and contamination of the regions. It became quite common to blame radiation for health conditions and diseases whose origin or reason cannot be explained by official medicine. This gap in scientific knowledge about the influence of radiation exposure on the human body and reticence of the Soviet and current media about the general magnitude and consequences of the disaster, and threatening images of the sci-fi take on radiation danger caused the anxiety and fear which are often called ‘radiophobia’ or ‘syndrome of radiophobia’. This was introduced in 1987 as a “possibly greater threat, than radiation exposure itself.” [11] 

Radiophobia became a controversial term: on the one hand, it aimed to describe the situation of stress and explained a number of psycho-somatic disorders. On the other hand, it became a powerful governmental tool to avoid expensive medical assistance and reduce benefit payments. 

Medical anthropologist and leading specialist in post-Chernobyl health care system, Adriana Petryna, mentions a statement issued by the Soviet Health Ministry, that “directed medical examiners in the Zone of Exclusion to "classify workers who have received a maximum dose as having "vegetovascular dystonia," that is, a kind of panic disorder, and a novel psychosocial disorder called "radiophobia" (or the fear of the biological influence of radiation). These categories were used to filter out the majority of disability claims.” [12] 

Discussion about which medical conditions could be regarded a consequence of the Chernobyl explosion indicated one more public attitude to the disaster. Some people, it was thought, see their participation in the clean-up operations after the explosion or suffering from the health conditions, often linked with the Chernobyl influence, as a ground to claim financial compensation, social benefits, public respect and attention from the state. 

“The indeterminacy of scientific knowledge about the afflictions people face and about the nature of nuclear catastrophe materializes here as both a curse and a source of leverage” – states Petryna, based on her research conducted in Ukraine in the 90s - “ambiguities related to the interpretation of radiation-related injury, together with their inextricable relations to the social and political uncertainties generated by Soviet interventions and current political-economic vulnerability, make the scope of the afflicted population in Ukraine and its claims to injury at once plausible, ironic, and catastrophic”. [13] 

All these categories of people occasionally resort to the religious elements, parallels or sources to elaborate or to push forward their views. The religious component can be expressed in a number of ways: through the promulgation of the religious icons of Chernobyl by Chernobyl NGOs, apocalyptic narratives by locals to describe the scope of the Chernobyl disaster, and attempts to depict Chernobyl as an apocalyptic omen or fear of radiation as an unbeatable demonic power. 

Radiation, when seen as an invisible, deceptive enemy with transcendental or godlike abilities and qualities often provokes overwhelming dread. Therefore, objective scientific thinking has not always been the most prevalent or popular way to comprehend the essence and consequences of post-Chernobyl radiation. 

I am convinced that the mainstream attempt to depict the post-Chernobyl situation in exclusively political and scientific terms does not indicate the lack of a religious dimension in dealing with the effects of radiation. On the contrary, it reveals a lack of methodological tools, a tendency to underestimate the religious factor and complexity of data collection due to the intimacy of spiritual beliefs. My decision to conduct my research mostly in 2015 in the urban settings of Belarus was connected with my interest in interviewing a wider range of people. My interviews in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, made accessible to me people who always lived in the relatively ‘clean’ area far from radiation capital and those who moved to Minsk for the better environment, availability of medical help and higher living standards. Moreover, the urban population is more exposed to information about radiation threats and new emerging groups searching for healthier lifestyles, for instance, eco-living, vegan and locally sourced foods, etc. 

In the beginning of my fieldwork, I encountered a mostly sceptical attitude to my search for the religious elements in the perceptions of Chernobyl. The majority of my interviewees started with the agreement that there isn’t or wasn’t a religious dimension to Chernobyl. Scientists from “The Institute of Radiation Safety” BELRAD [iii] clearly stated that people never mention any religious aspects of the disaster and, even in remote places, have a very “scientific view” of radiation and its impact. People were convinced that the impact of the Chernobyl explosion on their daily nourishment is insignificant. Instead, they were more concerned with avoiding genetically modified foods and much more scared of unintentional purchases of genetically modified products than of ones containing an abnormal level of radiation. 

I started to see post-Chernobyl radiation as an integral, implicit part of people’s lives and environment and noticed how difficult it was for them to immediately articulate what they thought about it. However, after a few months, I heard ideas that seemed religious, even though interviewees often would not deem them as religious due to the legacy of Soviet propaganda of scientific atheism and the common perception of ‘religion’ as official Church teaching. People would rather describe them as superstitious, or locate in the sphere of traditional or folk beliefs. I will highlight some of the ideas about location, time, local history, flora and fauna, in brief, a new cosmology and ecology of Chernobyl. I hope to show that these religious ideas appealed to long-playing utopian and apocalyptic allusions and became incessant leitmotifs in artistic perceptions of Chernobyl, Russian Orthodox iconography, people’s narratives and vernacular belief. 

A Cuture of Radiation: From the ‘Peaceful Atom’ to ‘Radiophobia’

During a trip to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, claimed to be free of radiation contamination, I interview Alexander and Iryna, both engineers who were much more excited to talk about Soviet industrial plans and perspectives, than about Chernobyl consequences to their current daily life. They think that Chernobyl did not influence their lives as much as others; they were in Moscow when the disaster happened and their daughter was not yet born. When I ask Iryna in general about the Soviet electrification program as a precursor to nuclear plants she looks surprised and tries to find her old history schoolbooks. “Electrification?” she says, “Yes, electrification was important. We were raised on the phrase of Lenin, that ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’ [iv] [14]. They explained to us that the new communist regime will survive only if it will be self-sufficient, and electrification and independent industry was key to it. Hydroelectric power stations were not producing enough, so, I suppose, they started to expand the atomic industry. However, I don’t think I ever heard about the Chernobyl power plant before the disaster, I don’t even think that I knew its name before.” [15] 

Figure 3. The cover of the magazine “We Build” (1929). Source.

Figure 4. Soviet poster “Electrification and Counterrevolution” (1921). Source. “Bolshevik propaganda argued that electricity would defeat capitalism, religion, hierarchy and exploitation. In the 1923 poster “Electrification and Counter-revolution” an enormous hand holds up one of Lenin’s lamps, and a group of stereotypical counterrevolutionaries representing the evils of the class system try to extinguish its light.” [16]

“They were telling us that there was no electricity before Lenin. You know, we all called the light bulb ‘Ilyich’s lamp’.” Alexander tells me sarcastically. [v] [17] “I grew up in western Belarus, so we did not actually have much propaganda for the benefits of nuclear energy. As far as I know, there were no faculties to study atomic science in Belarus, we did not know much about it before Chernobyl. My best friend, the godfather of my daughter, was a liquidator. He could not stay here after all of that, he immigrated to Israel.” His wife adds to this story: “The wife of this friend was a doctor, so she understood the risks and she was Jewish – so they had a chance to leave. Then for the first time I realized that in the Soviet system we are restrained to one place, no matter how educated and professional we are, we cannot leave to the safer place. I was scared and kept on thinking: “Why she can leave and save her child from this, and I cannot”. I would do everything to save my child, but I felt imprisoned. I started to reassure myself that I haven’t even been pregnant yet when Chernobyl happened, so I hoped that my child will not suffer from the related health issues; doctors were saying that the child will adapt to the new environment it is born to.” 

Figure 5. Iryna and Alexander in 1986. Photo from their family album.

They both look very optimistic now; memories about the disaster do not make them look gloomy. Perhaps, it is because Chernobyl helped them to realize a lot about the country they live in and their plans for life and future of their child. From their stories it is clear that the process of industrialization and electrification were very influential on people’s minds. Iryna remembers ‘funny names’ which contained the abbreviated word ‘electrification’ in them [vi], however, she admits that was “before her time”. As a former chemical engineer married to Alexander, a former electro-chemist, she is excited to tell me about the image of Soviet scientist. She says that in the 1960s it became popular to admire physicists [vii]. “Did you watch a movie ‘Nine Days in One Year’? It was made in the 60s, I liked it a lot. It is about atomic physicists. Those scientists, they are shown as heroes of that time – they are the most brave, the most honest and noble men. They show how they risk and harm their health, consciously, to ‘subdue the atom’. For sure it was popularization. They wanted a positive, public view of the atomic industry”. [18] 
Figure 6. Coat of Arms Pripyat. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 7. Pripyat Panorama, 2011. By Bkv7601 (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Both Alexander and Iryna can barely remember the Soviet slogan “A peaceful atom to every household”, but recall a number of Soviet agitation posters with a depiction of a “peaceful atom”, which characterized Soviet radioeuphoria. In this spirit, in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus, a new town Pripyat was built in 1970, to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which was finished only in 1977. 

It is peculiar that nowadays besides the name ‘ghost city’, people know very little about Pripyat. After the Chernobyl explosion inhabitants were evacuated and Pripyat became abandoned. Journalist Sergey Geruk brings up interesting aspects about Pripyat in his article for the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster: “The average age of inhabitants was 27 years, there was no cemetery, as almost no one died.” There was no church as religion was considered a vestige needed exclusively for old and disabled people. In the “last full day of human life” [19] in Pripyat, 16 wedding ceremonies took place, every year about one thousand infants were born and according to newspapers, there were more than half a thousand pregnant women among evacuees from the area [20]. 

While being populated, Pripyat with its planning and perspectives had been a truly utopian place for the new generation of Soviet people. Young workers there were secured with dwelling space and a good infrastructure, they relied on science and the Soviet ideology much more than on tradition or religion. 

Figure 8. Soviet poster, 1980 artist V.V. Syrianinov. Source. Soviet symbols of sickle and hammer in the core of an atom with the headline: “Praise to the Soviet science!” and a poem “Shine as a guiding star, a living union of science and labor!”

The Soviet trust in, and admiration for, science was later blamed for the Chernobyl disaster in church circles [viii]. One of the Orthodox Churches in Kiev has a chapel-memorial for the victims of Chernobyl, which is supplemented with the verse: 

Let the poets praise Einstein and Nobel, 
Put Marie Curie to your bed side; 
Black storks fly from Chernobyl, 
Black storks with white blood… [ix] 

This text has little to do with Biblical images or teaching [x]. It openly blames the desire to glorify scientists and it demonstrates, in horrifying symbolic imagery, the consequences of the idolatry of science. In its apocalyptic spirit it depicts black storks as a symbol of Chernobyl with people leaving their land with ‘white blood’, which seems to be an allusion for leukemia, as it is sometimes referred to as ‘white blood disease’ in Russian and was a common result of radiation. 

Figure 9. Chernobyl monument in Kiev. Source.
Storks are symbolic for the Eastern Slavic region. People treat them with reverence and it is considered a great honor and a sign of luck when a stork makes a nest on your property. According to the folk legend a stork is human in its core, but was turned to the shape of a bird [21]. Therefore, a stork became a common image for the suffering folk in the memorial and in artworks dedicated to Chernobyl – one of the Chernobyl monuments in Kiev depicts storks that fall dead trapped into the orbit of an atom and one of a few Belarusian feature films about Chernobyl with religious elements is called “Black stork”. 

Notably, the theme of the idolatry of science, atheism or communism often appears in my interviews as a reason for the punishment of Chernobyl. Idols and misdeeds get compared with the Chernobyl disaster or radiation. “The neglect of the life of the soul, the race for material welfare, ardour for pseudo-religious teachings based on human passions [xi],” – all of that can cause “spiritual Chernobyl” – according to the speech of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church [22]. 

Radiation is invisible, tasteless and odorless [23], it does not have boundaries – it penetrates and possesses human bodies, as well as objects and places. Radionuclides can have an extremely long lifespan and can harm multiple generations of people directly through their food and environments, as well as indirectly by various inherited genetic mutations. From these qualities alone radiation can be easily correlated with supernatural forces, such as demonic powers or even divine providence. Sin and evil are common comparisons for radiation as it tends to take away everything one values—land, health and loved ones. On the other hand, its power can also be viewed as beneficial as when generating energy for human consumption or used in measured doses for medicinal purposes. 

The Flexibility of ‘Radiation’ and the Formation of New Spiritualities 

As mentioned above, radiation’s qualities allow it to be interpreted as both divine and evil. Therefore, there is a big difference in interpretation, depending on the agenda of the narrator. New technologies allowed the power of the split atom to be used not only to destroy but also to heal. Cancer is one of the most common diseases in Chernobyl, which people blame on the radiation. Medical anthropologist Sarah Phillips claims with the reference to the Shcherbak’s work from 1996, that “In Ukraine, long-term low-dose radiation exposure is blamed for a great number of illnesses and deleterious health conditions. Cancer is the most obvious of these, especially thyroid cancer, whose incidence has increased at least ten-fold since the Chernobyl accident” [24]. 

It is not easy to comprehend the irony that radiation that causes cancer, became nowadays one of the main means in cancer treatment therapy. This ambiguity of radiation allows people to see it as both curse and deliverance, as expressed in the Russian folk wisdom “klin klinom vyshybajut' (‘To drive out one wedge with another’ or to destroy the results of an action by the means an action caused beforehand) [xii]. 

This is not the only ambiguous issue related to the consequence estimation of the Chernobyl accident. 

Recently, based on biological research conducted in nature reserves around Chernobyl, a number of people started to support the view that as destructive as radiation seems to be to all life forms the human impact on nature is far more destructive. 

Robert J. Baker, Professor of Biology at Texas Tech University, summarizes that sentiment in the following way: “the research team I worked with determined that there were in fact ecological benefits to the accident [Chernobyl explosion]” [25]. 

Among the scholars confirming such a point of view Robert J. Backer lists, besides his own team, other independent groups and individuals such as Ron Chesser's team at Texas Tech; J.T. Smith's program at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Dorchester, UK; and Steve Mihok of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission [26]. 

One of the most recent examples is the research in the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve within the Exclusion Zone, conducted by a number of international scholars lead by Tatiana Deryabina and published in October 2015 in the journal “Current Biology” [27]. 

This paper shows that populations of large mammals in the Chernobyl exclusion zone was not reduced in comparison to other national parks in Belarus. Despite the fact, that this article was used as an example to confirm that the actual negative influence of radiation is less that it is commonly perceived, a Biology Professor Timothy Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, underlines, that “This study does not address the issue of whether radiation has effects on reproduction, survival, longevity, or general health of the animals surveyed” [28]. 

A journalist and author Mary Mycio, one of the supporters of the more positive view on the ecological consequences of the accident, compares the renewal of nature in Chernobyl to its renewal with the demilitarized zones in her book “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl”

She shares her perception of the depopulated land through Biblical allusions. Her description of the Exclusion Zone and similar areas abandoned after the political and/or technological collapse gain connotations of the redeemed paradise and proximity to the original perfection of the world. She writes: “Like the flaming sword that God installed east of Eden to prevent man from reentering after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, land mines and machine guns kept people out of the DMZ [demilitarised zone], making it welcoming for wildlife” [29]. 

Through such works, the ideal of a non-human world and nature “re-verted to savagery” [30] becomes part of a possible explanation of divine providence and intention. This explanation can obtain overtones of millenarism, if complemented with the idea of ‘the perfection of the beginning’ [31] 

It is peculiar that Mycio keeps on comparing nature in the Zone with its historical conditions and mentions that this land became home for Drevlians, a tribe of Early East Slavs, in the 12th century when 80% of Polesia was covered by forest [32]. This reminiscence of the tribe also exists on the memorial plate under a bell in the Church of Prophet Elijah, the only working church in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. 

This plate reads: “The knell of sorrow. Pause and bow down! In front of you is Drevlian’s land in the woe of nuclear catastrophe. In respect to the folk, who lived here and were scattered as sand the whole world over. Oh, God! Help us sinful people to overcome this grief [xiii]. ” Surprisingly, this church text does not refer to Christian times or Christian people. The term Drevlians is much more common for addressing the first Slavic tribes of this area before they were converted to Christianity. In tune with this text is the Chernobyl Memorials at the Church of the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem and the Church of the Saint Nikolas the Wonderworker “In memory of the victims of Chernobyl” in Kiev which are represented by burial mounds. On this territory, graves are a visual sign that symbolically divide pre-Christian pagan and Christian cultures. With the conversion to Christianity the tradition of burial mounds slowly disappeared and graves reached the ground level. Hence, the presence of the burial mound seems to be a reference to the pre-Christian times. 

This turning back to the time of the ‘first people’ in the land of Chernobyl and a longing for virgin forests hints not only towards the “perfection of the beginning”, but also to the eschatological pattern described by Mircea Eliade as “cosmic fatigue, a universal exhaustion” [33]. In one of the interviews from the rural areas suffering from the post-Chernobyl radiation, collected by Belarusian ethnolinguist A.M. Boganeva, an elderly lady described Chernobyl as one of the apocalyptic signs – “There will be no Flood, because the land is suffering. There will be a river of fire coming from the heavens. It has been said long ago: ‘What is black verity [xv]? This is indeed Chernobyl. It has been said, that a bloodless war will start with the black verity. So it began. Elderly will live out their days, and the young ones will live a shortened lifetime. So, this is this way now [xiv].’” [34] 

The other interviewee says: “Long ago people use to know much more. Maybe from their parents… The whole Earth will be entangled with the wires and people will fall ill… What do you think Chernobyl is? There is a nuclear power station there, but before there was none… Nowadays the whole world is entangled by wires. When we lived and as kids were going to school, we did not have electric lights… Before, for sure, people were healthier and they were better. They were believers, but the current generation is like that – brother goes against brother and sister against sister. Nowadays there is no heart, all stayed like stones…. I think, that, in my opinion, people became sinful. They did not acknowledge God, they rejected God. And God keeps his patience, but one day from a stroke the whole Earth will burn down. There will be new people, as the Scripture says. New people will lead a new life. But try to tell this nowadays to our young ones, they do not believe and do not listen [xvi].” [35] 

Earlier in this paper, I mentioned a speech by the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church) where he compared the nuclear explosion to a “spiritual Chernobyl”. The anecdotal evidence gathered by Boganeva above seems to be in tune with the Patriarch’s comparison wherein the un-natural world is created by technological dependence, together with the decay of moral values---a view that unites official and folk religious opinions. 

Conclusion: The Value of Radiation to Mythological Thinking 

The extraordinary qualities of radiation together with its power to both heal and annihilate makes its religious and mythological connotations unavoidable. The enormous amount of suffering after the Chernobyl accident demands a spiritually transcendent explanation which neither science nor factual history can provide. Nuclear risk estimation is an overwhelming task even for highly qualified scientists, and alien and difficult for the common population to comprehend. Thus, mythological thinking is a useful tool in this undertaking. Mythology is cyclic and it gives hope even in unjust and destroyed worlds. Religious examples inspire people to endure sufferings and to resist despair. 

From the examples we have seen so far, I have tried to show that there are different attitudes to radioactive contamination in post-Chernobyl Belarus which cause different spiritual allusions to the Chernobyl accident. Among them are apocalyptic visions and fear of the demonic power of radiation, as well as "nostalgia for origins" and hopes for the renewal of the world through the exclusion of human influence from the contaminated territories and flourishing of 'wild' nature in the Zone. 

The post-Chernobyl situation is not limited to the contaminated areas. Due to mass media and popular culture, religious perceptions about such events are emerging all around the globe. The beliefs people share to describe their understanding of the post-Chernobyl world reflect perpetual fears and hopes regarding ambiguous phenomena, such as technological development, social control through societal and medical systems or institutions, nuclear energy and forced resettlement. Due to the combination of all these issues and a specific situation of on-going ecological and social crisis, which cannot be fixed no matter what investments and efforts are applied, the need for, and value of, post-Chernobyl research is extremely high. 


[i] Liquidators is a colloquial term for the civil and military personnel summoned to minimize the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. They are also called ‘recovery operation workers’, ‘emergency clean-up workers’ and ‘bio robots’. 

[ii] There were long-term effects of the Twin Towers collapse especially for the responders like firefighters but these were different in nature from radiation. 

[iii] “The institute of radiating safety “BELRAD” was created in 1990 as independent not state organization. It provides radiation monitoring of the inhabitants and foods of Chernobyl zone, scientific researches and develops measures on maintenance of radiation safety and organizes implementation of the results in practice. 

[iv] This motto was turned by the fans of black humor to the popular post-Chernobyl joke – “Communism is Soviet power plus the radiation of the whole country”. 

[v] 'Ilyich’s lamp' after the patronymic of Lenin. 

[vi] The proximity of the Communist dream is reflected in a number of names which signify the direct connection between electrification and Communism for Soviet people. A Decree of separation of State from Church in 1918 caused the so called onomastic boom in the USSR and gave birth to a number of new names based on abbreviations and neologisms. Not only traditional names were replaced, the system of naming changed. Instead of biblical names and names of saints and martyrs which were chosen according to the church calendar, people created new names to celebrate their new beliefs and new heroes. The most well-known became names composed from the names of political and ideological leaders such as Vladlen (Vladimir Lenin) or Mels (Marx – Engels – Lenin Stalin). Nevertheless industrial hopes of the common people were celebrated as well – Elektrik, Elektrina, Elektron, Elektrofikacia, Elektromir and Edison came into being. However, abbreviated names such as Lorieks (Lenin – October Revolution – Industrialization – Electrification – Collectivization – Socialism) and Elina (Electrification – Industrialization) show the key steps to communism and both have “electrification” as an integral part. See Ivashko, V. A. Кak vybirajut imena, Minsk, Vyshjejshaja shkola, 1980. 

[vii] V. A. Ivashko analyzes names given to Soviet kids in 1967 and admits the special popularity of naming them after physicists. See Ivashko, V. A. Кak vybirajut imena, Minsk, Vyshjejshaja shkola, 1980., p.121. 

[viii] By under ‘church circles’ I mean the believers who are influenced by church literature and culture but are not ordinated or involved in the church administration. 

[ix] ‘Slavte, poeti, Ejnshtejna і Nobelja, Postavte Marіju Kjurі uzgolov'ju, Chornі leleki letjat' iz Chornobilja, Chornі leleki z bіloju krovіju…’ (ukr. ‘Славте, поети, Ейнштейна і Нобеля, Поставте Марію Кюрі узголов'ю, Чорні лелеки летять iз Чорнобиля, Чорні лелеки з білою кровію…’) 

[x] Maybe it is the reason why it was supplemented with an additional plate with the text “For those who gave their lives for my life”, which has a very different message. 

[xi] “ Но может случиться и духовный Чернобыль. Полное безразличие к жизни души, погоня за исключительно материальными благами, увлечение псевдодуховными учениями, покоящимися на человеческих страстях, — вот очаги множественного поражения в современном мире. ” (Translation from Russian is mine, E.R.) 

[xii] “Клин клином вышибают” (Translation from Russian is mine, E.R.) 

[xiii] “Дзвін скорботи. Зупинися і схили голову, перед тобою Древлянська земля із смутком ядерної катастрофи. Перед народом, який жив тут віками і як пісок розсипався по всьому світу. Боже, допоможи нам грішним здолати цю біду.” (Translation from Ukrainian is mine, E.R.) 


[1] "Posledstvija Chernobyl'skoj Katastrofy Dlja Belarusi." Departament Po Likvidacii Posledstvij Katastrofy Na Chernobyl'skoj AJeS MChS Respubliki Belarus' Web. 12 Feb. 2016.  

[2] Bashilov, A.V. Belarus’ i Chernobyl’: 27 let spustja = Belarus and Chernobyl: 27 years later. Minsk: Institut radiologii, 2013, p. 4. 

[3] "27 Let Nazad Proizoshla Katastrofa Na Chernobyl’skoj AJeS." TUT.BY. 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.  

[4] Phillips, Sarah Drue. “Chernobyl Forever”. Somatosphere. 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.  

[5] Sovacool, Benjamin K. 2010. “A critical evaluation of nuclear power and renewable electricity in Asia”. Journal of Contemporary Asia. 40 (3): 369-400. 

[6] Falkof, Nicky. "Heroes with a Half Life: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and American Repression of Radiophobia after Chernobyl." The Journal of Popular Culture 46.5 (2013): 931-49. Print, p. 938. 

[7] Ibid, p. 931. 

[8] Aleksievich, Svetlana, and Keith Gessen. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. 1st ed. New York: Picador, 2006, p. vii. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Bennett, Burton, Michael Repacholi, and Zhanat Carr. Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes: Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group "Health". Geneva: World Health Organization, 2006, p. 99. 

[11] Ilyin, L.A., and Pavlovskij O.A. "Radiological Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident in the Soviet Union and Measures Taken to Mitigate Their Impact." IAEA Bulletin Vol. 29.4 (1987): 17-24. IAEA. Web. 11 Apr. 2016, p. 24.

[12] Petryna, Adriana. "Biological Citizenship: The Science and Politics of Chernobyl-Exposed Populations." Osiris 2nd ser. 19 (2004): 250-65. JSTOR. Web. 29 Jan. 2009, p. 259.  

[13] Ibid, p. 262. 

[14] Snopkov, A.E. Ėnergetika Rossii V Plakate =: Russian Energetics Through Poster Art, 2012. Web. 29 March. 2016.  

[15] From my interview with Iryna (born in 1963, chemical engineer, currently jobless). 

[16] Laursen, Eric. "Lenin’s Lamps." Wonders Marvels. Feb. 2013. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.  

[17] From my interview with Alexander (born 1964, PhD in electro-chemistry, currently works in private business). 

[18] From my interview with Iryna. 

[19] Mycio, Mary. Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry, 2005. Print. p. 3. 

[20] Abramov, V. " Zhenshhinam iz Pripjati zapreshhali rozhat =: It was forbidden for women from Pripyat to give birth" Novosti Ukrainy. 21 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. 

[21] Boganeva, Alena M. Belaruskaâ "narodnaâ Bibliâ" Ŭ Sučasnyh Zapisah. Minsk: Belaruski Dzâržaŭny Ŭniversitèt Kul'tury i Mastactvaŭ, 2010. Print, p. 39; 48. 

[22] Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. "Chtoby Ne Sluchilsya Duxovnyj Chernobyl." 27 Sept. 2009. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.  

[23] Phillips, Sarah Drue. "Half-Lives and Healthy Bodies: Discourses on Contaminated Food and Healing in Postchernobyl Ukraine." Food and Foodways 10.1-2 (2002): 27-53, p. 4. 

[24] Ibid, p. 5. 

[25] Robert J. Baker, “Surprise Ending”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, No. January/February (2006): 60. 

[26] Baker, Robert J., and Jeffrey K. Wickliffe. "Wildlife and Chernobyl: The Scientific Evidence for Minimal Impacts." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 14 Apr. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.  

[28] GrrlScientist. "What Happened to Wildlife When Chernobyl Drove Humans Out? It Thrived." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.  

[29] Mycio, Mary. Wormwood Forest. p.128. 

[30] Ibid. 

[31] Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print. 

[32] Mycio, Mary. Wormwood Forest, p. 46. 

[33] Eliade, Mircea. The Quest; History and Meaning in Religion. Chicago: Univerity of Chicago, 1969. Print, p. 105. 

[34] The interview was written down in 2011 by A.M. Boganeva, during the Belarusian Academy of Science ethnolinguistic expedition to the village Mokhau, Gomel region from Matrona Afanasenka (born in 1933, 3 grades of education, Russian orthodox). 

[35] The interview was written down in 2002 by A.M. Boganeva, during the Belarusian Academy of Science ethnolinguistic expedition to the isolated homestead Draki (close to the village Katy), Grodno region from Valiancina Kazakevich (born in 1925, 2 grades of education, Russian orthodox).