The term cult stems from the Latin cultus, to worship. The term is difficult to define, as it is used to denote various actions and situations. In common parlance, cult brings to mind specific groups or sects who hold unorthodox religious beliefs. In anthropology and archaeology, the term cult tends to be conflated with ritual and religion. A study entitled “an archaeology of cult” will invariably discuss religion and ritual, while an anthropological study by the same title is likely to focus on religious and magical rituals.
Colin Renfrew defines the archaeology of cult as the system of patterned actions in response to religious beliefs, noting that these actions are not always clearly separated from other actions of everyday life. Indicators that may point to cult and ritual archaeologically are attention-focusing devices, a boundary zone between this world and the next, the presence of a deity, and evidence of participation and offering.
Thus, Renfrew notes that ritual locations will be places with special and/or natural associations (for example, caves, groves, and mountaintops) or in special buildings set apart for sacred functions (temples). The structure and equipment used will have attention-focusing devices (altars, special benches, hearths, lamps, gongs, vessels, and the like), and the sacred zone is likely to contain many repeated symbols (i.e., redundancy). In terms of boundaries, while rituals may involve public displays, they may also have a hidden aspect. Ruth Whitehouse focuses on this hidden dimension of ritual in her study of Neolithic caves in Italy. The sacred area may often show strong signs of cleanliness and pollutions (pools and basins).
The deity may be reflected in the use of cult images or represented in an abstract manner. Ritual symbols will often relate to the deity and associated myths. These may include animal and abstract symbolism. Rituals generally involve prayer and special gestures. These are rarely attested archaeologically, except in iconography, and it is anthropology that provides information on dances, music, the use of drugs, and so on.
Other rituals may involve the sacrifice of animals and humans, the consumption of food and drinks, and votive offerings. All of these have been attested to both archaeologically and anthropologically. The equipment and offerings may reflect a great investment of wealth and resources, although this is not always the case.
To assist in elucidating the problems involved in such analyses, which range from attribution in cultures without direct ethnographic parallels to being self-referential, archaeologists have traditionally turned to anthropology. Here, studies of cult focus on religious and magical rituals, in particular shamanism and specific aspects of rituals (termed a cult, for example, a fertility cult). Following Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade, such studies focus on the sacred (as opposed to the profane). The sacred is set apart from the normal world and may entail knowledge that is forbidden to everyone but the cult leaders. This knowledge is generally associated with magical forces, spirits and deities, and the distinction is often blurred.
While it is no longer fashionable to classify belief systems, there are a few important key concepts. Animism is the belief in spirits inhabiting mountains, trees, rivers, and so on. Next is totemism, a complex concept that broadly means the symbolic representation of social phenomena by natural phenomena. There are various kinds of totem, for example, individual totems, clan totems, and sacred-site totems. Their significance varies cross-culturally, and some anthropologists (for example, Claude Lévi-Strauss) maintain that there is no such thing as totemism because it is not a single phenomenon. Yet one of the most debated topics in both archaeology and anthropology remains studies of shamanism. Briefly, a shaman is a type of religious expert who mediates between the human and spirit world. In archaeology, there has been plenty of work on shamanistic practices with relation to rock art, for example, the work of David Lewis-Williams and Anne Solomon in South Africa.
Cargo cults, on the other hand, are another widespread phenomenon, which deals with the end of the world. These beliefs are especially found in Melanesia and the Pacific, where people believe that at the dawn of a new age, their ancestors will return with a “cargo” of valuable goods. The story of Captain Cooke has been explained in this manner; his arrival corresponded to the belief of the arrival of a powerful god. Cult studies may also include witchcraft (a malevolent magical practice), sorcery (similar but is learned rather than inherited), sacrificial cults, and various rites of passage.
In dealing with monotheism, cults assume another nature, and attention is devoted to specific aspects of a religion that is deemed a cult. Examples include Ancient Egyptian cults (for example, the cult of Isis) and, in the modern world, certain Christian groups (for example, those following the neo-Catechumenal way; adherents and other sectors of the church deny that this is a cult or sect). Which brings us to “cult” as used in common parlance, an often controversial term. By defining cults as unorthodox, they are immediately placed into the category of “the other.” To noncult members, cults are groups that generally practice mind control, demand total submission, and, most often, take a member’s money. To cult members, a particular cult is generally seen as either the “one true way” and/or a safe haven.
There is no agreement on which particular group is a cult or not (for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses). However, there are three main features of any given cult. The first is the need for a charismatic leader (for example, David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians). Second is a philosophy of “us versus them.” Cults generally demand that members alienate themselves from the outside world. Finally, cults are strictly hierarchical, and leaders employ varying degrees of indoctrination and demands of strict obedience.
Many cults are known to be dangerous and subject members to stress, fatigue, and humiliation. Isolation, peer pressure, and the causing of fear and paranoia are used to control and manipulate subjects. Cults may harm both members and nonmembers; for example, the Aum Shin Rikyo cult masterminded a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
Common misconceptions on cults include that followers must be mentally instable and/or mad. However, while a leader may exhibit signs of mental instability, there is no prerequisite for followers to do likewise. Indeed, followers find a sense of belonging and protection in a particular cult. Very often, a member may feel this is the only way to salvation.
Whichever way one defines cult, what is important is to state at the outset is how the term will be used. While in archaeological and anthropological literature, usage is taken for granted, neither has offered a satisfactory distinction between cult and religion.
- Barnard, A. (2000). Social anthropology: A concise introduction for students. Taunton, MA: Studymates.
- Novella, S., & DeAngelis, P. (2002). Cults. In M. Shermer (Ed.) & P. Linse (Contributing Ed.), The skeptic encyclopedia ofpseudoscience (Vol. 1). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
- Renfrew, C., & Zubrow, E. B. W. (Eds.). (1994). The ancient mind: Elements ofcognitive archaeology.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.