23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The origin of the fetish” (1987)

“The Problem of the Fetish, II” delves deeper into the historical and theological emergence of the fetish. Scholars popularized the idea of the fetish in the long nineteenth century. Sociology, anthropology, and psychology engaged in debates about the explanation of the history and nature of religion by examining the theory of the fetish. Pietz looks beyond these debates to better understand the origin of the fetish. Pietz traces the terms “facticius” to Christian theologians like Tertullian and Augustine to show how the fetish and idol are conceived of as different material objects that work in different ways. The basic components of the fetish as a magical and superstitious object were not present in the medieval notions of the “feiticaria” in Christian law. The idea of the fetish emerged out of the cross-cultural mercantile interaction between Europeans and West Africans in the fifteenth century and later. Portuguese explorers first used the term “feitico,” instead of idolo, to describe the religious practices and objects of the people of Guinea. According to these explorers and merchants, “The central idea of the fetish concerned the error of worshiping material objects,” particularly the idea that “any personal or social value could be attributed to material objects whose only ‘natural’ values were instrumental and commercial.” The idea of the fetish originated in a particular place and time.

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