The French word bricolage can be translated as "patchup" or "do it yourself " in English. This term has been used as a metaphor to designate the combining of a variety of religious practices and representations found in certain oral societies and, in a different form, in the most modern societies.
The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, in The Savage Mind (1966), was the first to use the term bricolage. From a structuralist perspective, bricolage is understood as a metaphor for mythic thought. On the practical level, bricolage takes objects that have been used before and reorganizes them within a new perspective. For example, one would take spare parts from old automobiles to construct a new one. Similarly, on a theoretical level mythic thought takes bits and pieces that have perhaps already been elaborated in previous myths and puts them together to form a new narrative. Lévi-Strauss asserts that mythic images, like the materials of a bricoleur (a person who does bricolage), have a dual characteristic: They have already been used and they can be used again. According to structuralist theory, mythic bricolage is not arbitrary: By necessity it takes into account the heterogeneous nature of the preformed elements it uses. This is why the number of rearrangements of mythic elements is limited. Also, mythic bricolage is not the product of individual caprice; it is guided by general structures of the human mind of which individuals are not aware.
Cuban Santería and Haitian Vodun (Voodoo), which are found in the United States today due to Caribbean immigration, are good examples of this first type of bricolage found in oral societies. Slaves who had been taken to Cuba and Haiti associated West African divinities with Catholic saints. But the links among European and African belief systems were not formed randomly. An African god and a Catholic saint were identified with one another when they possessed a common characteristic. For example, in Santería, Ogun corresponds to St. Peter because the first is the African god of iron, while the second, who guards the gates of paradise in the Catholic tradition, always carries metallic keys in Catholic iconography. In Vodun, the same African divinity is often identified with St. James the Elder, a warrior spirit much like Ogun.
The term bricolage is used today to describe certain religious behaviors that are characteristic of the most modern societies. Just as in oral societies, in the modern West one can observe the phenomenon of the combination of preexistent religious elements that have been abstracted from the belief systems in which they were previously embedded. But contemporary religious bricolage is nevertheless very different from the mythic bricolage described by Claude Lévi-Strauss. First, contemporary religious bricolage rests on the free choice of individuals. In a context of a great diversity of religious beliefs and practices, individuals choose among these according to their personal inclinations. Religious bricoleurs no longer accept institutional dogmas. Furthermore, they do not submit to the demands of coherence that guided mythic thought according to structuralist theory. Individuals borrow elements from heterogeneous traditions without attempting a logical synthesis. Contemporary religious bricolage is an individual juxtaposition of religious elements that are not organized within a structure. Finally, bricoleurs neglect the religious stability of tradition. In constructing their own religion, they aim for personal achievement. Therefore they can at any moment abandon certain beliefs or practices in favor of others they consider more efficacious, and this without excluding the possibility of returning to their previous position if they feel the need. Therefore it is only with difficulty that modern religious bricoleurs tie into a historical continuity shared by a community of believers, because their beliefs have no institutional base and vary in the short term.
The New Age is a characteristic example of this second type of bricolage. New Agers patch together elements of Western and Eastern religious traditions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islamic Sufism, to which they add astrological or parapsychological beliefs as well as other elements that issue, notably, from Native American religions. New Agers seek neither to systematically organize this ensemble of beliefs, nor to maintain it over time, nor to organize collectively. Within the range of available religious resources, New Agers choose those elements that will best serve their corporal and psychic development. This ensemble of individual beliefs can evolve over time as a function of the needs of the person concerned. These asystematic and unstable individual religious combinations of New Agers thus typify the religious bricolage found in modern societies.
Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. Religion and Memory. 1999.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. 1966.
McCarthy Brown, Karen. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestessin Brooklyn. 1991.
York, Michael. "New Age and the Late Twentieth Century." Journal of Contemporary Religion 12, no. 3 (1997): 401–419.