This article explores the importance of elements in the natural world, and in particular plants, among people of different religious affiliations in West Africa. Plants play a central role in African folk religions, which in turn are closely associated with health practices and influence natural resource management decisions. Despite the vast literature documenting the ritual use of plants, the cultural importance of plants in this context has not been systematically evaluated. Our goal was to see if the importance of plants was reflected in people’s conceptions of world religions (i.e. Christianity, Islam) and folk religions (i.e. Vodoun and Bwiti) in Benin (West Africa) and Gabon (Central Africa).
When we conducted a cultural domain analysis (CDA) with 96 people, we found that regardless of the religious affiliation of the informants, plants and other elements of the natural world were more present in people’s notions of folk religions than in folk religions. . We conclude by reflecting on the possibilities and limitations of the data presented here as a starting point for exploring the question of key cultural species.
Researchers have tended to label the unknown or incomprehensible in other cultures as religious or mystical (Bowie 2008). In the early history of anthropology, these epithets often had a pejorative connotation. The paradigm shift brought about by functionalism in anthropology has had fundamental repercussions for various fields of research (Gould 1966). In the case of ethnobotany, for example, plants that were once considered “primitive” (Chevalier 1937: 94) and with “simple uses of verbosity” (Burkill 1985: xiii) are now recognized for their importance in health practices. (Coks and Moller 2002; Janzen and Green 2003; Mafimisebi and Oguntade 2010; Quiroz et al. 2016; van Andel and Ruysschaert 2011), as well as the crucial role they play in management decisions regarding the use of natural resources and conservation of biodiversity (Msuya and Kindeghesho 2009; Quiroz and van Andel 2015). While the term has been a recurring theme in ethnobotany records over the past century, “religion” appears to lack a unified definition in the field. Probably due to the elusive term, which lacks an approximate translation into non-Western languages (Bowie 2008), terms such as “medical-magical”, “magical-religious”, “sacred”, “(spi) ritual”, ” Supernatural “,” Mystical “and” magic “appear to be part of the domain of religion in the considerable number of publications addressing the use of plants in contexts involving supernatural agents (Albuquerque et al. 2007; Cavender and Albán 2009; de Souza 2006 ; Mafimisebi and Oguntade 2010; Robson et al. 1982; Sharma et al. 2012; van Andel et al. 2012; Voeks 1993, 1997).
Agency is one of the central concepts in studies addressing the relationships between humans and nature (Moran 2006). It is understood as the ability of an entity to act in the world. Agents can be human, non-human, physical or non-physical. While human agents are recognized for their primacy in the co-evolutionary process leading to environmental change (Bandura 2006), questions have been raised about the actual action exerted by non-human and non-physical entities (Nash 2005). This view is supported by the fact that (1) non-physical agents such as spirits and gods simply cannot physically act directly and (2) non-human agents (e.g., animals, plants and objects) lack the essential attributes that characterize the agency. These are the intentionality, foresight and self-reflection of the action and its consequences (Bandura 2006; Nash 2005). What is known about non-human and non-physical agents, however, is that their action is carried out through human agents (Robinson 2011), as evidenced, for example, by the wealth of archaeological documentation on the material correlates of animism (Brown and Walker 2008). In our work, we have recognized non-human and non-physical entities from their action as the underlying forces through which humans manage plants in the context of traditional religious practices.