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The Dynamics of Material Text Practices and the Somatics of Sacred Scripture (2/2)

Panel Chairs: Isabel Laack, Katharina Wilkens | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

The semantic interpretation of religious texts is a central endeavour of religious studies, shaped by Bible studies, philologies and the comparative concept of sacred scripture. The fact that people in many traditions relate to religious texts in material, sensory and somatic ways is only gradually coming into academic focus. The panel seeks to overcome judgmental divisions in the discourse of religious experts and in academic thinking such as literate vs. oral cultures, reading vs. seeing/feeling, text vs. image, “intellectual” text interpretation vs. “superstitious” text practices and religion vs. magic. In order to develop this field of study we use the perspectives of material/visual religion and aesthetics of religion. Analysing material from diverse regions and epochs, theoretical questions of efficacy, literacy and somatics of material text practices are discussed. The panel explores the worlds of sensory phenomena in text practices and considers the dynamic constellation of religion, sensation and materiality.

Isabel Laack

Sensing Sacred Reality in Aztec Divination Codices

The ancient Aztecs (Mexico, 13th-16th century) used a system of written visual communication combining elements both of “writing” and of “art”, producing something between our categories of “text” and “image.” Analysing the material text practices around divination codices such as the Codex Borbonicus, the paper seeks to explore how the Aztecs used this visual medium to communicate their knowledge about the workings of sacred reality perceived as the materially present and sensorially experienced essences of all things. According to my interpretative thesis, the divination codices depicted rather than represented aspects of this sacred reality, thus showing an approach to visuality and writing that has fundamental consequences for the processes of “reading” and interpreting these “texts”.

James W. Watts

Ritualizing Possession of Iconic Books

Drawing on recent comparative studies of material scriptures and iconic texts (Myrvold 2010; Watts 2013), I will survey ritual practices of “possessing” sacred texts. For many people, having a scripture or other iconic book in one’s possession provides prestige and spiritual merit. Devotees without the resources to become scholars or expert readers can nevertheless ritualize a scripture iconically. They therefore ritualize their possession of books by collecting, carrying, displaying, and even ingesting them, among many other practices. Many owners of scriptures feel particularly impelled to protect them from pollution and desecration. Particularly rare or distinctive texts may get treated as relics on analogy with bodily relics. Iconic books convey social legitimacy to their owners, whether they are individuals, a community, a tradition or an institution. By claiming a scripture as their own, communities and individuals assert the right to determine its meaning and on that basis to judge each other’s orthodoxy. Carrying them on one’s person and in portraits claims association with inspired authority and shows one’s learning, piety, and orthodoxy. The stereotypical images of certain books of scripture have therefore come to represent entire religious traditions as much as any other symbols.

S. Brent Plate


S. Brent Plate will respond to the issues raised in this double panel.


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A  B  C  D 
E  F  G  H 
I  J  K  L 
M  N  O  P 
Q  R  S  T 
U      V      W     XYZ 


Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)