Victor Turner, 1920-1983

When Victor Turner died on 19 December at the age of 63 (see Times obituary by Ronald Frankenberg, 2 January 1984), anthropology lost one of its most creative thinkers.  In his generation he is also the one who will have had the deepest influence on major fields of scholarship which rarely draw on Africanist sources – medieval and renaissance studies and theology.  Turner’s work is astonishingly rich, in many apparently different directions.  Yet through it all a dominant set of interests drove him from on vast project to the next.

It is important to record that he was an unrivalled ethnographer.  After the war when he graduated from University College London in anthropology, he joined the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and started fieldwork in Zambia.  Between 1957 and 1968 he published four major studies on the Ndembu, hunters and cultivators of manioc in a forgotten corner of British Colonial Africa.  Starting with their social and economic organisation, he moved on to their rituals and their own interpretation of their religion.  No one else has produced a fuller account of the life and work of an African civilisation.  From this large corpus four ideas emerge.  One, the coding of rituals and social meanings together; one, the therapeutic power over mind and body of a highly coded ritual system; one, the need for a dynamic analysis of what he called social drama.  This is a movement that sweeps private and public conflicts towards a well-determined cultural climax, then to be solved by public ritual.  The fourth important idea is that of liminality, the experience of living beyond the reach of society, permanently or temporarily outside its constraints.  These four ideas he goes on exploring until he has exhausted the Ndembu material.  In the next stage he turns on to ourselves.

In 1966, The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure, liminality is the conceptual tool for exploring Western religious behaviour.  Liminal periods are deliberately created in festivals, when time is stopped, distinctions blurred and order turned upside down.  Liminality is a joyous time of communal sympathy.  In 1975 he turns again to Ndembu religion (Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Religion), recognising something there that is intractable to the social analysis that has hitherto served so well.  Some new discipline that might be called 'ethnophilosophy’ or ‘ethnotheology’ is needed to do justice to metalinguistic knowledge.  Men and women of religion in many civilisations have tried to go beyond the limits of thought.  The issue is how to say something valid about mystical experience.  To satisfy his own developing enquiry he now plunges into a new subject, the place of liminality in Christian religious traditions.  The result of an ambitious and again wholly original study was published in 1978, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, written by Edith Turner.  At first the pilgrim, who becomes voluntarily liminal, escapes the constraints of his normal life.  Gradually, as the long journey goes on, he is increasingly hemmed in by sacred symbols.  By the time that he leaves the shrine, his life has been purified from the constricting secular structures and has received the imprint of a religious paradigm.  This very important book is the culmination of Victor Turner’s own long apprenticeship to religious ideas which he first learnt from the Ndembu and which he finally made fully articulate in his own language.

Pilgrimage and festival were his two strong later interests.  How lucky he was to have written so fully on both.  The particular blessing was to have followed an integrating train of thought all of his life and to have held to it joyfully.  For all the hard work and serious thought, a joyous personality is the memory that Victor Turner leaves behind him.


This obituary first appeared as: Douglas, Mary. 1984. 'Obituary'. RAIN 61, 11. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

DOUGLAS, MARY. 1984. 'Obituary'. RAIN 61, 11. (available on-line: