Original Research

The materiality or ‘thingness’ of words and their effects: Some examples from the Book of Proverbs

Hendrik Viviers
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 41, No 1 | a2100 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v41i1.2100 | © 2020 Hendrik (Hennie) Viviers | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 April 2020 | Published: 08 September 2020

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Hendrik Viviers, Department of Religion Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

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Words are more than vehicles for semantic meaning; they can also be regarded as ‘things’ with an ‘agency’ of their own. This happens when they are seen (iconic to legitimise) or heard (performative to inspire). According to S. Brent Plate, a key researcher on materiality (see reference list) ‘words are bodies, full of power’. Words, along with many ‘things’ (fetish, ritual, book, nature, place, etc.) mediate between the material known and the immaterial unknown; they make the invisible visible or experienceable. Birgit Meyer , the pioneer of the so-called material turn in the study of religion, says, words ‘effect the transcendental’ for the initiated. Not inherently potent but through ascribed or endowed meanings they in turn affect their creators. The so-called material turn in the study of religion has rediscovered that matter or ‘things’ really ‘matters.’ Words as powerful ‘things’ or agents are also attested to in Proverbs. When wisdom words are externalised (e.g. through ornaments, Pr 1:8–9), they legitimise their users; when they are internalised (in the heart or mind, Pr 2), they persuade almost like ‘powerful personae’ to follow the wise lifestyle; and when they are personified (Pr 8), they become the ‘mediatrix’ to the thought-world of wisdom, and its ultimate source, Yahweh.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: The material turn in the study of religion (anthropology) emphasises the appreciation of materiality or ‘things’. It questions an exclusive mentalistic or inward approach in cognate disciplines, such as Religious Science, Theology and Old Testament and New Testament textual studies. It also stimulates a dialogue with other humaniora such as philosophy, psychology, literary studies, media studies and art history.


materiality; ‘thing’; words; wisdom; order; visible; invisible; mediate


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