Thursday, July 2, 2015

[Virtual Museum] Religion and the material culture of luck

The Virtual Museum at the Department of Anthropology, CUHK, offers the public a digital exhibition of ethnographic collections and archaeological artifacts collected by the teachers and students of the Department over the last three decades. Theme of current exhibition is "Religion and the material culture of luck". To view more displayed exhibits, please visit the website of Virtual Museum.


Religion and the material culture of luck 

Anthropologists study the influence of religion on social organization and examine how religion, through the use of symbols and meanings, creates powerful emotion and maintains solidarity among believers. Religion can be regarded as a socio-cultural construct, which provides common values and gives meaning to people's life. Anthropologists are not concerned with the truth of religion; rather, they investigate the role of religion in people's life. 

Luck is perceived as something that is outside human control, which may affect one's life favorably or unfavorably. Luck has often been associated with religious faith. Objects that "receive the blessing of deities" are often believed to have the power to protect believers and bring them good luck. Therefore, many people are willing to make acts of devotion and pay for these kinds of sacred objects. 

Amulets from Tianhou (Mazu) Temple

Blessings of deities are materialized as objects of luck. Lucky charms, amulets and key chains are some of the examples. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, Tianhou (also known as Mazu and Tin Hau) is widely worshipped by fisherfolk who believe that she can ensure their safety. Temples to Tianhou often sell or give out various objects of luck that can protect the believers and bring them fortune. Guanyin is also a popular deity worshipped in China and Southeast Asia. It is believed that Guanyin has mercy over people and will save them from pain. Luck also has a significant role to play in everyday life in contemporary Japan. Many Japanese people purchase engimono (lucky things that are associated with the blessings of deities) or pay visit to shrines and temples at the start of New Year to pray for good fortune. 

"Blessing rice"

Some sacred objects, such as "blessing rice" (literally "rice that brings safety"), have blurred the distinction between their use and symbolic value. This reflects the contradiction between the materiality of common objects used in everyday life and the spiritual value embedded in these things that can be constructed by consecration or circulation.

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