A fetish (derived from the French fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese feitiço; and this in turn from Latin facticius, “artificial” and facere, “to make”) is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others. It refers to cult objects of the so-called savage peoples, it may already be found in sixteenth-century accounts of the Portuguese voyages to West Africa. The term was apparently used in the trade zones of the coast of Africa, and then identified with African religion by European travelers. For them, the fetissos were the gods of the Africans, and the fetisseiros, their priests. This word, in turn, comes from the Latin “facticius,” meaning artificial. As a noun, the word has also assumed the meaning of “witchcraft” and sorcery. Hence, it is a word with which Europeans originally indicated the indigenous cults of Guinea.
Fetishism is worship of an inanimate object for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit or special magical powers. Fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object.
The “fetish” is the very object of adoration: not just the representation or image of a divinity, but a material object or natural event that is worshiped as a divinity itself. Both the terms fetish and fetishism were explicitly rejected as anthropological concepts from the late nineteenth century.
The concept was coined by Charles de Brosses in 1757, while comparing West African religion to the magical aspects of Ancient Egyptian religion. In de Brosses’ theory of the evolution of religion, he proposed that fetishism is the earliest (most primitive) stage, followed by the stages of polytheism and monotheism and totemism to account for fetishism.
Essentially, fetishism is attributing some kind of inherent value or powers to an object. For example, the person who sees magical or divine significance in a material object is mistakenly ascribing inherent value to some object which does not possess that value (hence Marx’s commodity fetishism: belief that objects control us, i.e. influence our actions, when it is really the other way around)
Auguste Comte employed the concept in his theory of the evolution of religion, wherein he posited fetishism as the earliest (most primitive) stage, followed by polytheism and monotheism. However, ethnography and anthropology would classify some artifacts of monotheistic religions as fetishes. For example, the Holy Cross and the consecrated host or tokens of communion found in some forms of Christianity (a monotheistic religion), are here regarded as examples of fetishism.
Tylor and McLennan held that the concept of fetishism fostered a shift of attention away from the relationship between people and God, to focus instead on a relationship between people and material objects, and that this, in turn, allowed for the establishment of false models of causality for natural events. This they saw as a central problem historically and sociologically.
Theoretically, fetishism is present in all religions, but its use in the study of religion is derived from studies of traditional West African religious beliefs, as well as Voodoo, which is derived from those beliefs.
Blood is often considered a particularly powerful fetish or ingredient in fetishes. In some parts of Africa, the hair of white people was also considered powerful. In addition to blood, other objects and substances, such as bones, fur, claws, feathers, water from certain places, certain types of plants, and wood are common fetishes in the traditions of cultures worldwide.
Identifying the worship of things as the first step of religion, it was finally possible to integrate the criticism of religion to a general theory of progress, which would see the Enlightenment as the last, logical end of human achievement: in modern Europe, humanity had finally managed to relate to things in scientific terms, as objects of natural law, or in economic terms, as commodities with a market value, separate from any religious prejudices and fears. Religion, science, and economy would be finally separated, in what Bruno Latour (2010) has called a process of “purification” separating their religious beliefs from material things altogether. The “purification” of religion from science, people from things, was also a geopolitical process of separation of modern Europe from fetishist Africa.
According to Pietz, “the problem of fetish” could be defined around four fundamental questions: personification, territoriality, historicity, and reification. So-called “fetishes” are intensely personal objects : they add to the person, for example in form of amulets that “seal” the body. The life and the value of the fetish, however, cannot be solely understood as an extension of the personhood of humans—as in theories of the “distributed person” : they are also a result of the fetish’s territoriality and historicity. On the one hand, the “untranscended” materiality of the fetish, which is not just a symbol or icon of a divinity but a ‘self-contained entity’ with an active force, introduces the question of the position of the object in space and time, as a “territorialized” object. On the other hand, Pietz notes that “the fetish is always a meaningful fixation of a singular event; it is above all a ‘historical’ object, the enduring material form and force of an unrepeatable event”. What was interpreted as caprice or arbitrary choice by the European critical theory of fetishism is, in fact, the recognition of the singular values generated by events, which cannot be explained by the list of elements that make a part of the situation before they happen.