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OverviewHistorical And Linguistic Origins

Most historical accounts trace the word fetish to the Portuguese term feitiço and its creoloziation as fetisso. Although a transliteration of the Portuguese term dominated discussion of the religious and economic practices of non-European peoples with whom merchants traded and against whom colonial powers waged wars of domination in the modern era, most of the Romance languages and English (by virtue of its residual Anglo-Norman elements) contain numerous related terms that predate this contact. These words share a Latin root meaning fabrication (facticium), and they are thus anchored in a historical tradition of suspicious theorizing about the human production of artifacts and artificiality. The root of fetish is to be found in words indicating enchantment or sorcery (Faé, faerie, and faee in Anglo-Norman; fechiceria in Portuguese and hechicero in Spanish). It is also contained in words meaning form or vessel, including that which contains spirit (faetel in Anglo-Norman, feitio in Portuguese). The same root is found in the Anglo-Norman and Middle English terms for plating or gilt, especially with gold (faet in this sense appears in the Anglo-Saxon saga, Beowulf). And, related to this, it is the root of those terms meaning to artificially enrich, as when an animal is fatted (faeted) in preparation for sacrifice.

If some dimension of fabrication was recognized in diverse economic and religious contexts and eras, fetish-worship was nonetheless a particularly modern accusation. As Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) observed of all magic, accusations of fetish-worship tend to be directed at religious or cultural others. Thus Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as Protestants and Catholics, traded accusations of fetish-worship and sorcery in the culturally contested space of the Iberian Peninsula, just as Portugal was about to embark on its imperial project along the Guinea Coast. It was there, in Africa, argues William Pietz (1985), that the multiplicity of meanings evoked by the term feitiço became the basis of a universalizing term, one that was not indigenous to any particular language but which seemed to travel fluidly among all. It circulated not only in the travelogues of Portuguese merchants, but also in the Dutch-and German-language reports of colonial chaplains and adventurers, wherein it was variously written as fytys, füttise, and fytysi. Apparently, the word had also entered African (especially Akan-Ashanti) vocabularies by the 1660s. Wilhelm Johann Müller's Description of the Fetu Country, 1662–1669 (1673) not only provided native translations for what he identified as fetishes and fetish-worship, but also references the local use of the Portuguese terms fitiso and fitisero as well as a Dutch form of the word. Müller himself theorized that residents of Fetu used the term fitisiken to refer to their "idol-worship," because they generally rendered foreign words in a diminutive form, following the Dutch pattern. His own definition of fitiso included a belief in the sacred quality of natural objects, a deity demanding sacrifice, a hereditary spirit associated with the family or lineage imagined as protector, the enforcer of law, and the instrument of an oath.

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