The Fire of the Jaguar

By Terence S. Turner

Foreword by David Graeber

Not since Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” has the publication of an anthropological analysis been as eagerly awaited as this book, Terence S. Turner’s The Fire of the Jaguar. His reanalysis of the famous myth from the Kayapo people of Brazil was anticipated as an exemplar of a new, dynamic, materialist, action-oriented structuralism, one very different from the kind made famous by Claude Lévi-Strauss. But the study never fully materialized. Now, with this volume, it has arrived, bringing with it powerful new insights that challenge the way we think about structuralism, its legacy, and the reasons we have moved away from it.

In these chapters, Turner carries out one of the richest and most sustained analysis of a single myth ever conducted. Turner places the “Fire of the Jaguar” myth in the full context of Kayapo society and culture and shows how it became both an origin tale and model for the work of socialization, which is the primary form of productive labor in Kayapo society. A posthumous tribute to Turner’s theoretical erudition, ethnographic rigor, and respect for Amazonian indigenous lifeworlds, this book brings this fascinating Kayapo myth alive for new generations of anthropologists. Accompanied with some of Turner’s related pieces on Kayapo cosmology, this book is at once a richly literary work and an illuminating meditation on the process of creativity itself.


Turner cover

“The fire of the jaguar reminds us why structuralism took the world by storm in its day, and why it is still relevant for today’s anthropology. Turner’s analysis of the famous Kayapo myth of the origin of cooking fire is brilliant, not least because it takes seriously ‘the sophistication and power of indigenous thought.'”

— Sherry B. Ortner, author of Not Hollywood: Independent film at the twilight of the American dream

“The fire of the jaguar has acquired over time the same mythical quality as its topic. I first heard a rumor of its existence 45 years ago, but ended up doubting that it would ever appear; yet here it is, and worth waiting for. In this masterly analysis of the Kayapó myth of the origin of fire, Terry Turner gives a new meaning to an old anthropological obsession, the myth as social charter; not as a prescriptive code, however, rather as a template structuring the dialectical relationship between institutions and dynamic processes situated in time and space. An intriguing challenge to Les mythologiques, sure to foster an exciting debate.”

— Philippe Descola, author of Beyond nature and culture

“The fire of the jaguar provides an in-depth journey into the writings of one of the greatest ethnographic theorists of recent decades. This highly anticipated, posthumous collection of Terry Turner’s outstanding essays is grounded in decades of fieldwork among the Northern Kayapó people of Central Brazil and will be eagerly received among anthropologists and other scholars concerned with understanding myth, ritual, and social organization as dynamic, generative processes of social reproduction, world-making, and historical transformation. The fire of the jaguar deserves a close reading by anyone wishing to understand how the tiniest of ethnographic details, powerful and innovative social theory, and uncompromising political activism can be fused into a seamless whole in the life and works of a single scholar.”

— Jonathan D. Hill, author of Made-from-bone: Trickster myths, music, and history from the Amazon

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The Fire of the Jaguar
Editor’s Introduction: Or why myth matters, by Jane Fajans

Foreword: At long last, by David Graeber

Part One: The fire of the jaguar: The Kayapo myth of the origin of cooking fire

Chapter One: General problems and methodological issues

Chapter Two: The myth

Chapter Three: The social setting

Chapter Four: Cultural associations of the symbolic elements in the myth

Chapter Five: The structure of the myth

Chapter Six: The macaw and jaguar episodes

Chapter Seven: The final pair of episodes

Chapter Eight: Conclusions

Part Two: Later articles

Beauty and the beast: The fearful symmetry of the jaguar and other natural beings in Kayapo ritual and myth (the 2011 R. R. Marett Lecture)

Cosmology, objectification, and animism in indigenous Amazonia

The crisis of late structuralism

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