Over on social media the other day, I came across the following tweet, posted at NPR’s site.
These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life pic.twitter.com/VBM7t4MZYr
— J… (@TheReal_JDavis) March 2, 2017
My comment, used above as this post’s opening pic, wasn’t completely sarcastic.
Instead, the video and, more importantly, the effort to make sense of it (i.e., are the turkeys engaged in a weird ritual!?), seem to be suitable examples of how we use categories like religion or ritual: to make sense of the unknown when it seems to suggest analogues to that which is known.
Sure, there’s all sorts of scholarship already done on this, e.g., studying how European explorers (aka colonialists) first tried to make sense of the peoples and customs they were confronting for the first time. But you really don’t have to look much further than a tweet about turkeys, and the accompanying commentary — “These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life” — to see it in action.
The curious thing is, of course, that perfectly mundane explanations can shed sufficient light on such actions, such as in the NPR story, linked above, where a biologist suggests it’s “most likely … predator inspection behavior“– which we see across species. In fact, a friend on Facebook then posted this video in the comments, showing that this is, perhaps, not such unique behavior after all.
By extension, might our attribution of complex meanings, symbolic associations, and unseen intentions to those mysterious actions we label “ritual” or “religion” be off base as well? Frits Staal’s classic essay comes to mind, in fact…
So the next time you see a story on how, say, cave paintings or burial techniques prove that ancient people were religious (or maybe that chimps are too?), maybe you should think of those turkeys and how interpreting this or that as religious, or as a ritual, tells you far more about us than them — shedding light on our attempt to make sense out of something that strikes us as, well, just a little crazy.