On Prayer

On Prayer: Text and Commentary

Marcel Mauss
Translated by Susan Leslie
Edited and with an Introduction by W.S.F. Pickering
Concluding Remarks by Howard Morphy
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    On Prayer
    Book Description:

    Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) never completed his Doctoral thesis on prayer. Yet his scarcely mentioned introduction (Books I and II) of 176 pages and privately printed in 1909, can be seen as some of his most important work. His argument that much of prayer is a social act will be of great interest to anthropologists, sociologists and theologians.

    Here, the first English translation to be published, is preceded by a general introduction by W.S.F.Pickering and finally a specific commentary on Mauss's use of ethnographic material.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-475-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Frontispiece
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Presentation, Notes and Referencing
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction to an Unfinished Work
    (pp. 1-16)
    W.S.F. Pickering

    It is a remarkable fact that prayer as a subject on its own has scarcely been studied by anthropologists, let alone by sociologists. Mauss’s work on the subject makes him one of the few scholars with anthropological interests who have tackled it.¹ In this, as in other ways, he stands out as a pioneer.

    Marcel Mauss, born in 1872, was the nephew of Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). As the founder in France of sociology as a university discipline in the late nineteenth century, Durkheim’s later influence spread far and wide. Both men were born in Epinal in Lorraine and both...

  7. Marcel Mauss:: On Prayer
    • Book I
      • Chapter 1 General Introduction
        (pp. 21-26)

        Of all religious phenomena, there are few which, even when considered merely from the outside, give such an immediate impression of life, richness and complexity as does the phenomenon of prayer. Prayer has a marvellous history. Coming from the depths, it has gradually raised itself to the heights of religious life. Infinitely supple, it has taken the most varied forms, by turns adoring and coercive, humble and threatening, dry and full of imagery, immutable and variable, mechanical and mental. It has filled the most varied roles: here it is a brusque demand, there an order, elsewhere a contract, an act...

      • Chapter 2
        (pp. 27-48)

        The paucity of scientific literature on a subject of such primordial importance is truly remarkable. Scholars, such as anthropologists and philologists who founded the science of religions, virtually never raised the problem.¹⁵ For various reasons, it lay beyond the scope of their studies. The authors of the philological school, from Kuhn¹⁶ and Max Müller¹⁷ to V. Henry and Usener, asked no more of philology than it could give them. They made an objective analysis of the names of the gods and, either through those names or otherwise, of the myths that describe the gods. They sought to determine the meaning...

      • Chapter 3 Initial Definition
        (pp. 49-58)

        Thus the first task is to find a provisional definition of prayer. The aim is to discover an external but objective sign by which the phenomena of prayer may be recognized. For it must be clearly understood that our only object is to systematize such facts. When we say ‘prayer’ we are not implying that somewhere there exists a social entity which deserves this name and on which we could immediately speculate. An institution is not an indivisible unity, distinct from the facts that manifest it: it is merely their system. There is no such thing as ‘religion’, only particular...

    • Book II: The Nature of Elementary Oral Rites
      • Chapter 1 The History of the Question and Delineation of the Subject
        (pp. 61-68)

        Now that we have established a definition of the oral religious rite, and in particular of prayer, we can enter into a discussion of the one problem which was posed in this first study:that of the origins of prayer. It will also oblige us to address the more general problem of the origin of belief in religious formulae in societies of a primitive structure.

        If, as has been observed, there is a paucity of scientific literature about prayer in general, that concerning the special question we have in mind is even more meagre. It is difficult to cite even a...

      • Chapter 2 Do Prayers Exist in Australia?
        (pp. 69-82)

        When we pose the question in this form, we encounter two contradictory positions. According to some, not only does prayer exist in Australia but it already has the form of supplication or invocation, an appeal addressed to a powerful and independent divinity, just as is found in the most advanced religions.¹₆₇ According to others, on the contrary, the Australians know of nothing that might be called by the name of prayer.¹₆₈Let us examine in turn the documents on which each of these assertions is based.

        Among the reports relied upon by those who believe they have found prayers, in the...

      • Chapter 3 The Formulae of the Intichiuma
        (pp. 83-96)

        We have, in fact, yet to describe and analyse a considerable number of oral rites of an obviously religious nature which are, no less obviously, addressed to beings considered as sacred. A terminology steeped in theology would doubtless refuse to call them by the name of prayer; for they are neither the expression of an individual state of soul nor that of a belief or desire. On the contrary, just to transcribe them will be enough to show that they deserve this title, as long as it is broadly interpreted. And the very abundance of data will demonstrate the importance...

    • Notes
      (pp. 97-136)
  8. Mauss’s Review of Segond’s Book on Prayer
    (pp. 137-138)
    M. M.

    As M.Segond’s essay takes a serious view of our work, we should not disregard it. However, he makes no contribution to the theory of prayer as a religious and social phenomenon. The less said the better about the very long chapter entitled, Collective and Ritual Prayer. Besides appearing to be a digression, appended in the form of an additional note, it fails to meet the demands of criticism. In order to treat such a vast subject, it is not enough to have read a certain number of text-books on the history of religions and theAnnée sociologique. The conclusion of...

  9. Some Concluding Anthropological Reflections
    (pp. 139-154)
    Howard Morphy

    Mauss’s unfinished work on prayer–an attempted dissertation that stayed with him much of his life – provokes and puzzles the reader’s imagination. Mauss may have lacked a little in self-discipline as his uncle Durkheim suggested, he may also have been at times overburdened by the tasks that Durkheim set him (see Introduction). However, other factors were also at play. The research on prayer can be seen to exist at the point of two paradigm shifts, and times of paradigm change are always periods of uncertainty as well as of conviction. The works of Durkheim and others associated with theAnnée...

  10. Index
    (pp. 155-158)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 159-162)