Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger (1966) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Chapter 10: Understanding the Lele Pangolin Cult

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Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)

Douglas opens her final chapter by rejecting the notion of there being cultures where the sacred and the unclean are confused, but acknowledging that unclean things do sometimes get made sacred. According to the author, we need to enquire into how this comes about.

Douglas refines the issue by pointing out that not any normally unclean thing can be used for good in ritual. Thus in Ancient Israel it was only sacrificial blood that was used in Temple ritual. Examples from African religions show that normal rules regarding pollution were broken in ritual. We need to ask why. [1]

Answers are to be found on the one hand in 'the nature of dirt' [p 161] and on the other in 'the nature of metaphysical problems' [p 161].


Dirt arising as the discarded residue when order is created - whether it is order in ideas or order in the real world - goes through two phases. At first, it retains part of its prior identity and is regarded as being dangerous, as being a threat to the order from which it is excluded. But it gradually gets broken down till all identity is lost: thus corpses eventually become dust.

In its final formless stage, dirt can symbolise creative potential. Eliade had attributed this symbolism to water and also to darkness and the New Year. [2]

However, the power of dirt arises in its first phase, when its threat to order 'represent[s] the powers inhering in the cosmos'. [p 162] Ritual can access that power.


Douglas now switches abruptly to the question of purity. The search for this can lead us into paradox, for in real life purity involves rejection and hostility to change. It is in our natures to seek clarity of thought. But when we have clear cut concepts, we must either accept that some realities escape them or else blind ourselves to their inadequacies.

The quest for purity is a paradoxical quest to force our experience into non-contradictory categories of thought: when we attempt it, we end up with contradiction.

The quest for sexual purity illustrates the point. Keeping the sexes apart denies sexuality and leads literally to barrenness. It gives rise to contradiction as well, as seen in the dilemmas and hypocrisies that various societies get themselves into. Thus in c17th Spain high born girls were expected simultaneously to maintain their family honour by chastity and their personal honour by generosity to their lover.

Dirt-affirming and Dirt-rejecting Philosophies

Douglas quotes William James at considerable length from his discussion of the place of evil in religion: the passage includes his remark about dirt being matter out of place. The anthropologist sees James as suggesting that we compare 'dirt-affirming with dirt-rejecting philosophies'. [p 165] She claims that primitive cultures favour dirt affirmation. In their ordering of their world, these cultures exclude various phenomena and types of behaviour, but in their rituals they seek to access the power residing in what is excluded from their ordering of things.

Douglas sees religions with dirt-affirming rituals as corresponding to what James calls 'more complete religion'. She quotes him again, with a passage ending in the notable: 'The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.' [3]

Douglas finds that in practice it would be extremely difficult to distinguish between optimistic and pessimistic religions, the more so, the more evidence is available on a particular religion. This is because 'People do not necessarily listen to their teachers.' [p 167] Believers in a religion that is theoretically pessimistic may in practice be optimistic and reject dirt.

The Lele

Douglas now attempts to apply the James distinction between optimistic and pessimistic religions to the Lele. [4] This Central African people is very aware of pollution in both ritual and everyday life, as shown by its attitude to food: animal categorisation reflects their cosmology and much of their ordering of society.

Thus animals that are ambiguous according to the Lele scheme of animal categories are regarded as inedible for some social groups. So flying squirrels, eluding clear categorisation either as animals or as birds, are found to be inedible for women and edible for men only in dire necessity, though edible for children.

The main Lele categories may be understood as 'two concentric circles' [p 168], an inner circle of humans and an outer one of wild animals. Animals living in association with humans, domesticated animals such as chickens and parasitic ones such as rats, are seen as part of human society. These are inedible for all or some sorts of people.

All this makes the Lele look like dirt-rejecting optimists. But it turns out that in certain cult rituals initiates eat animals that are normally inedible.

Lele Mediations

Douglas explains that for the Lele there are three kinds of mediations between the human world and the wild. Firstly, Lele men as hunters and diviners bring the women and children on the one hand meat from edible wild animals and on the other medicines from the spirits of the wild. Secondly, some humans wickedly transfer their allegiance to the wild by becoming sorcerers and frustrating the work of hunters and diviners.

The third kind of mediation relates to fertility. Normal human childbirth is painful and produces one baby. Having twins means transcending human limitations and achieving an animal level of fertility. This makes the parents of twins anomalous and the power inherent in that can be used in fertility ritual.

The Pangolin Cult

But Douglas is actually interested in an altogether different kind of fertility power, involving not anomalous people but an anomalous animal, the pangolin or scaly anteater. This is a creature that evades Lele animal categorisation in several ways. It has scales like a fish, but climbs trees; it looks something like a lizard, but is actually a mammal; unlike other small mammals, it produces offspring singly and when threatened rolls itself into a ball rather than running away. Although the creature is normally regarded as totally inedible, members of a Lele pangolin cult celebrate rituals in which they eat it, so as to access the fertility inherent in its anomalous nature and be able to pass that fertility on to their people.

Douglas finds parallels between the Lele pangolin cult and on the one hand shamanism as described by Eliade and on the other hand the Christian understanding of Christ as a 'voluntary victim' [p 170] on behalf of humanity.

The anthropologist now refers to her point in the first chapter that the study of pollution requires a broader definition of religion than as 'belief in spiritual beings' [p 170]. We humans feel impelled to unify our experience of the world by overcoming in 'acts of atonement' [p 170] the contradictions we have created with our categories of understanding. The Lele pangolin cult has to be seen in this light.

This cult does not make Lele culture in general dirt-affirming. Thus this people refuses to accommodate deaths that occur before old age, believing them to be unnatural, the evil work of sorcerers. It is a belief that gives rise among the Lele to anti-sorcery cults which periodically take over from the traditional religious forms.

Ordinary People's Religious Concerns

In pursuing her demonstration of how difficult it is to assess whether a culture is dirt-denying and optimistic or dirt-affirming and pessimistic, Douglas now makes the following point about the Lele:

'These people are much more concerned with what their religion can deliver in the way of fertility, cures and hunting success than in perfecting man and achieving religious union in the fullest sense.' [p 173]

After a couple of pages in which Douglas seems more or less to repeat points just previously made and which we shall skip, she reformulates the above sentiment in more general terms:

'By and large primitive religions and the ordinary layman's acceptance of more elaborate religious philosophies coincide: they are less concerned with philosophy and more interested in the material benefits which ritual and moral conformity can bring.' [p 175]

Three Religious Defences

Douglas now points to three ways in which religions defend their claims that their rituals can assure the material advantages referred to.

The first is to put the blame for non-delivery of benefits on enemies: on demons from outside the community or on sorcerers and witches from within. This encourages believers to see ritual as being about providing material benefits, but at the same time amounts to admitting that ritual is actually ineffective in that respect. Religions adopting this approach tend towards James's healthy-minded pluralism. [5]

The second way in which religions protect themselves against the failure of ritual is by making it difficult to perform correctly. The criteria can be magical or moral: getting the details of performance exactly right or else being in the proper frame of mind.

In the third way, religions preach two contradictory approaches to life. They tell believers that prosperity will be assured by piety: living morally and attending to the prescribed rituals. But they also teach detachment from this life and its material satisfactions.

Ritualising Death

Douglas tentatively offers the idea of primitive religions advancing in breadth and depth as a result of trying to hedge against non-delivery of material benefits. In particular, they might be expected to ritualise the paradox that life and death are ultimately part of the same process.

Douglas finds an example in the mourning ritual of the Central African Nyakyusa people. The Nyakyusa normally associate dirt with madness, but mourners have rubbish swept on them: in order to retain their sanity, it is said. Douglas's interpretation amounts to saying that to accept dirt in this situation is to accept death, where failure to do so would lead to insanity.

For a second example Douglas returns to the Dinka ritual she discussed at some length in Chapter 4. In order to make sure that the spirit of their aged Spearmaster passes to his successor, he accepts to be put to death by being buried alive. Douglas's interpretation is that by accepting death voluntarily the Spearmaster is telling the Dinka something about 'the nature of life'. [p 179]

Douglas finds something in common between the Nyakyusa and Dinka rituals, something that the Lele pangolin cult shares, on account of the pangolin going voluntarily to its death, as the Lele cult initiates see it:

'When someone embraces freely the symbols of death, or death itself, then it is consistent with everything that we have seen so far, that a great release of power for good should be expected to follow.


1 Douglas's Argument

Douglas's line of argument is particularly difficult to follow at this point.     [Back to Article]

2 Eliade

Douglas is referring to Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion. The same sort of material appears in The Sacred and the Profane, which is summarised and discussed on this site. [Back to Article]

3 James

Douglas is referring to William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, and quoting from Lectures 6 - 7, The Sick Soul. The work is summarised and discussed elsewhere on this site. [Back to Article]

4 The Lele

The Lele, a people of the then Belgian Congo, were the subject of Douglas's anthropological fieldwork for her doctoral thesis and later of her first book, The Lele of the Kasai [1963]. [Back to Article]

5 Healthy-minded Pluralism

Pluralism here refers to the co-existence in the world of principles of good and evil. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2006

Links to Other Chapters:
Purity and Dangerch 1ch 2 |  3 |  ch 4ch 5 |  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 |  ch 10

Extended Comments Pages:
Ndembu Doctor (ch 4)Zande Poison Oracle (ch 5)