"Making sense of unintelligible messages: Co-construction of meaning in Santería rituals," 2007. Text and Talk journal special issue: "Ritual Unintelligibility." 27(4).
A high level of unintelligibility in ritual utterances would seem to inhibit their meaningfulness to participants, but I argue that the opposite is the case when deities called the oricha speak to humans in Santería ceremonies. My analysis of how an oricha’s message to a ritual participant is delivered, interpreted, and received illustrates how the oricha’s ambiguous and semantically opaque utterances are rendered into a specific message that reveals a secret and ‘proves’ the divine origin of the message. I also argue that the oricha’s tropic use of particular esoteric registers do not actually make the message particularly unintelligible, despite a widespread metapragmatic characterization of their ‘Lucumí’ speech as semantically opaque and in need of ‘translation.’ Rather, the markers of unintelligibility deployed by the oricha function to highlight the message’s urgency and importance and to trigger a participation framework in which the metapragmatic frame of ‘unintelligibility’ and the meaning of the message are co-constructed by speaker and audience. That is, the oricha’s speech is rendered unintelligible at the same time that it is interpreted into a meaningful, even pointed message.
Kristina Wirtz, Department of Anthropology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008
Updated July 5, 2007