Jensen, Adolf E.

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JENSEN, ADOLF E. Adolf Ellegard Jensen (18991965) was a German ethnologist and historian of religions. He was born January 1, 1899, in Kiel. After World War I, Jensen studied mathematics, natural science, and philosophy at the universities of Bonn and Kiel. He received a doctorate in 1922 with a dissertation on the writings on natural philosophy of Ernst Mach (18381916) and Max Plank (18581947).

In the following year, Jensen took a position as research assistant at Leo Frobenius's newly founded Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich. This position proved to be a turning point in Jensen's scientific ambitions, which from then on were directed toward the ethnological perspectives of Frobenius. When the institute was moved to Frankfurt in 1925, Jensen became a recognized lecturer at the university there. His thesis, "Beschneidung und Reifezeremonien bei Naturvölkern" (Circumcision and puberty rites among primitive peoples), was completed in 1933.

After the death of Leo Frobenius in 1938, Jensen was named director of the Institute for Cultural Morphology, which was eventually renamed for its founder. Also in 1938, Jensen succeeded Frobenius as director of the Municipal Ethnological Museum in Frankfurt, where he had served as curator since 1936. In 1946 Jensen received a chair in the University of Frankfurt's newly established department of cultural and ethnological studies. He directed research expeditions to South Africa (19281930), Libya (1932), Ethiopia (19341935, 19501951, and 19541955), and the Moluccan island of Ceram (1937). The works that grew out of these research trips proved decisive in influencing the structure of cultural history and morphology studies in the tradition founded by Frobenius.

In his work Das religiöse Weltbild einer frahen Kultur (1948) Jensen presented an array of complex cultural factors that, although widely dispersed, create the impression of sharing elements common to one central myth. The content of this myth reveals information about human existence as well as about the formation of essential cultural elements. According to this myth complex, which relates the activities of a tribe of dema (ancestral) deities, the body of a murdered deity was, in primeval times, transformed into the first useful plants. The present order of existence, in which man became a reproductive and mortal being, was then established. In this myth and its cultic form of expression, Jensen saw the nucleus of a worldview that was the ancient predecessor of that of the more advanced cultures, in which tubers were planted as a food crop. He maintained that contemporary "primitive" cultures could be viewed as living an earlier phase of human development, a fact that facilitates a reconstruction of the rise of culture.

Often honored for his work, Jensen was a member of various scholarly societies and was an honorary fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. He died at his retirement home in Mammolsheim on May 20, 1965.

Discussion of the dema

The ethnological research of Jensen attracted the attention of the Hungarian classicist, Károly Kerényi, who discovered remarkable similarities between the Indonesian myth of the girl Rabie-Hainuwele and that of the Greek Kore (a name that actually means young girl). In his opinion these similarities lay in the link between death and fertility that existed in both mythological systems. Just as Persephone is taken from her mother Demeter and carried off to Hades, from where she rises again in the form of vegetation on a cyclical basis, Hainuwele, whose name means Coconut Branch, is consigned to the ground during a ritual dance and the parts of her body thus buried are changed into tubers, which became the main food of the Ceramese.

According to Kerényi (19401941), who used the 1939 work of Jensen and H. Niggermeyer, this is an extremely widespread mythological theme, according to which the introduction of death into the world of man, coinciding with the movement from the mythological state to the present, leads to reproductive capability. Just as edible plants spring from the initial murder, so a new life comes about from every death, in the same way as in the lunar cycle the moon always disappears only in order to reappear again.

The myth complex, centered upon the character of the dema (the ancestors of the Marind-Anim of southern New Guinea), would have developed within a cultural context that Jensen calls "lunar," in which there was a more primitive form of the agriculture than the cereal cultivation that took place subsequently. In those societies that engaged in such economic activity, on the other hand, there would be a different idea of life (another paideuma as Frobenius would describe it), based on the Promethean myth of a demiurge who steals the seeds of grain from heaven for mankind.

The work that best illustrates Jensen's philosophy is Mythos und Kult bei Naturvölkern (1951) (Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, 1963), a collection of his most important contributions. A review of this work by a number of scholars was published in Current Anthropology in 1963 and provides a useful evaluation of the contribution of Jensen from both a methodological and ethnological perspective. For his own part, he states that the main assumption of his work is to regard the human being as invariably possessing the same spiritual and emotional capacities within different historical contexts, technical progress having no bearing on religious experience.

Furthermore, Jensen considers that myth and cult are derived from a creative act, and the agent does not address the question of its purpose nor reason logically in terms of cause and effect. In his opinion, man is interested in understanding the world, the place of the human being within it, and at the same time seeks to fit in with the order of reality, as he perceives and describes it. Mythological ideas are not an alternative to scientific explanations, but on the contrary seem to answer questions to which there could be no other response: Why are living beings mortal? Why do they reproduce?

These methodological assumptions, which characterize the opinions of his master Frobenius, are not shared by other writers. For example, Angelo Brelich (1963) criticizes the idea that the original religious behavior could represent the expression of an instinctive idea of the world, to which mankind would be attracted without subsequently remembering its meaning. This was why, according to Jensen, it had no purpose originally and would, over time, be changed into a repetitive way of behaving. In contrast, Brelich insists that religious institutions do have a purpose, even if believers are unaware of it, and that one can identify this by reestablishing the link between the social context and the religious life. In his opinion, Jensen's mistake lies in claiming to appreciate the present meaning of religious life on the basis of a past for which there is no evidence.

Carl A. Schmitz (1963) notes that Jensen is a Platonist and his work cannot be assessed with positivist argument because he suggests understanding some original religious ideas as implicitly contained in myth. Schmitz does not, however, share Jensen's view that the relation of tubers, the killing of the dema and the cereals, and the theft undertaken by a hero to the harming of a divine goddess would belong to different historical phases and occurred one after another. Furthermore, in his view, reasoning of this kind implies a materialist idea of religion, contrary to the thinking of Jensen himself.

Other criticisms were put forward by Ugo Bianchi (1971, p. 87), who emphasized that Jensen mistakenly made the dema the exclusive motif of a particular culture, linking it also with headhunting and ritual cannibalism, which were related to other cultural phenomena as well. Besides, according to Bianchi, his emphasis on the specific nature of the essential character of a culturethe contents of which were only accessible from withinled him to a kind of irrationalism. Vittorio Lanternari (1963) also identifies irrationalist themes in Jensen.

In a work published in 1968, however, Ileana Chirassi agreed with Jensen and contrasted the great agricultural myths of Bronze Age society, based around polytheistic gods such as Tammuz, Osiris, and Baal, with the myths of the dema known from the tuber planters, dating back to the late Paleolithic period (southern Asia), myths which can also be traced back in figures of Greek religion.

The work of Jonathan Z. Smith (1976) is central to discussion on the dema. He compares the Hainuwele myth to the Babylonian festival of Akitu, celebrated in order to reestablish proper political and cosmological order. In his opinion, the two religious complexes are similar in structure, because they are used in order to change a difficult and paradoxical situation. The Ceramese, colonized by the Dutch, got to know all about the possessions and strange goods of the Europeans, and they understood that relations were not based upon reciprocity. They lived in a cargo situation, developed in many parts of Oceania in the aftermath of colonization. In order to reverse this situation and restore reciprocity, they reverted to an ancient mythological theme, in which mythical beings were killed and hitherto unknown foods were produced by them, eaten, and thus assimilated within their culture. The same happens with Hainuwele, who excretes precious objects such as plates and Chinese gongs. In this myth the girl is killed and her body, from which come many precious objects like the European goods, is eaten as tubers, in the hope of transforming the goods into food that can be assimilated into the culture using the symbolism of ingestion. According to Smith (1976, p. 19) we should see in these religious motifs an attemptalbeit inadequateto reach an understanding of (and change) a context or model that contradicts the previous historical situation.

Dario Sabbatucci (1986) once again goes through the theoretical explanation of Jensen in order to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of his conclusions. In particular, he claims that the discoverer of the dema interpreted foreign cultural phenomena on the basis of assumptions similar to institutions of the modern Western world. After all, the dema would thus have no existence per se, it would simply represent a restatement of the dying god of Frazer, and there would be no proof that it predated the latter nor that cereal cultivation derived from tuber cultivation (1986, pp. 322323).

Ileana Chirassi (2001) has compared the mythical events of various Mediterranean deities as interpreted in the light of the Frazerian pattern of the dying and rising god, comparable to dema. From this comparison, based upon an accurate analysis of the various contexts, the conclusion is reachedas Chirassi writes, recalling Sabbatuccithat these events are diverse: the god may die or depart, but is not always linked to vegetation or dismembered, nor does he always rise again. Such details open debate concerning the category of the dying god, even to the extent of speculating on deconstructing it completely.

See Also

Agriculture; Ecology and Religion, overview article; Food; Frobenius, Leo; Myth, overview article; Vegetation.


"Book Review: Myth and Cult Among Primitive Peoples " in Current Anthropology 6 no. 2 (1963): 199215, includes reviews of Jensen's work by Angelo Brelich, Ugo Bianchi, Carl A. Schmitz, Ake Hultkrantz, Vittorio Lanternari, Paul Leser, Egon Schaden, and others.

Bianchi, Ugo. "La storia delle religioni. Introduzione metodologica e storica." In Storia delle religioni, edited by Giuseppe Castellani, vol. 1, pp. 3171. Turin, Italy. 1971.

Chirassi, Ileana. Elementi di culture precereali nei miti e riti greci. Rome, 1968.

Chirassi, Ileana. "Postfazione." In Quando un dio muore: Morti e assenze divine nelle antiche tradizioni mediterranee, edited by P. Xella, pp. 199207. Verona, Italy, 2001.

Jung, Carl Gustav and Kerényi, Karoly. Einführung in das Wesen der Mythologie. Amsterdam and Leipzig, 1940.

Jensen, Adolf E. Im Lande des Gada. Stuttgart, Germany, 1936.

Jensen, Adolf E. Die drei Ströme; Zage aus dem geistigen und religiösen Leben der Wemale. Leipzig, 1948.

Jensen, Adolf E. Das religiöse Weltbild einer frühen Kultur. Stuttgart, Germany, 1948.

Jensen, Adolf E. Mythos und Kult bei Naturvölkern. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1951. Translated as Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples (1969; 2nd ed., Chicago).

Jensen, Adolf E. Altvö1ker Süd-Äthiopiens. Stuttgart, Germany, 1959.

Sabbatucci, Dario. Il dema. Mistica agraria e demistificazione. Rome, 1986.

Schmitz, Carl A. "Die Problematik der mythologema 'Hainuwele' und 'Prometheus.'" Anthropos 55 (1960): 215238.

Schmitz, Carl A. "Adolf Ellegard Jensen." Paideuma 11 (1965): 17.

Smith, Jonathan Z. "A Pearl of Great Price and a Cargo of Yams: a Study in Situational Incongruity." History of Religions 16, no. 1 (1976): 119. Reprinted in Imagining Religion. Chicago, 1982. See pages 90101.

Otto Zerries (1987)

Alessandra Ciattini (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis