Personal Symbols

In a study of Sri Lankan Sinhalese ascetic mystics, Gananath Obeyesekere has focused on one symbol of their ascetic condition: matted locks of hair, which are regarded as the lingam (phallus) of the god. In a series of in-depth interviews with several of these women, he discovers how they use this collective religious symbol to resolve personal, emotional problems in their lives (Obeyesekere, 1981). Such symbols—publicly recognized symbols which, however, retain a deep and unique personal significance—he terms "personal symbols." He develops an argument in his book, based on interviews with a number of these ascetic mystics, that such "personal symbols" may express problematic emotions, forbidden wishes, and guilt over them. The public symbols are appropriated by each individual as a kind of collectively provided personal symptom. In a subsequent book (Obeyesekere, 1990), he generalizes this line of thinking, in an analogy with the "dream work" (Freud, 1900/1955), to "the work of culture": the transformation of personal fantasy into collective symbols.

Obeyesekere's term "personal symbol" has gained currency in psychoanalytic anthropology. Earlier Vincent Crapanzano had made some similar points about the female jinn figure, Aisha Qandisha, a Moroccan incubus demon who seduces men in their dreams and compels those who submit to her advances to marry her. A jealous bride, she permits no rivals in the waking lives of those men who have dreamed of her. While each man so trapped by her has his own dreams of her, his own personal conflicts expressed in the dream, she is nonetheless a shared cultural spirit. Crapanzano referred to such culturally provided vessels for personal fantasy as "symbolic-interpretive elements" in terms of which personal conflicts can be "symbolically articulated and resolved."

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