Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia
In various parts of East Asia, aquatic mammals are associated with divine power, and serve as objects of devotion. In south and central Vietnam, cetaceans are worshipped as life-saving deities. In some Japanese coastal areas, the spirits of whales are venerated during ritual ceremonies. In China, Cambodia and the Ryukyu Islands, aquatic mammals have all been associated with water deities. These animals continue to carry significant symbolic capital today – if no longer as gods, at least as local “heritage” and symbols of nature conservation, acquiring new meanings in the context of secularisation, (forced) displacement, and environmental degradation. Whales of Power is concerned with the comparative study of human-cetacean relations in maritime East Asia, as expressed in popular worship practices and beliefs. We will examine several of these traditions in different parts of the region, through a combination of historical and ethnographic research. Our main hypothesis is that changes in local worship traditions reflect changes in human-nature relations, which are caused by wider social, economic and environmental developments. Thus, marine mammals and associated worship practices serve as a prism, through which we approach human responses to socio-economic and environmental change in Asian coastal communities. The innovative character of Whales of Power lies in the ways in which it combines state-of-the-art theoretical approaches from different disciplinary backgrounds in order to reach new understandings of the ways in which human-nature-god relations reflect social and environmental changes. It has three important theoretical objectives: 1) apply recent theoretical developments associated with “environmental humanities” to the comparative study of popular religion; 2) reconsider the role of local worship traditions in the Asian Secular Age, examining the new meanings attributed to ritual practices; and 3) establish a new comparative paradigm in Asian studies.