The Mesopotamian Mīs Pȋ Ceremony & Clifford Geertz’s Thick Description

Principles for Studying the Cultural Webs of the Deceased

  • Amy Balogh (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


The work of ethnographer and cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz is characterized by

“Thick Description,” the practice of developing rich understandings of culture via narrowly

defined phenomenon rather than surveys. Thick Description bridges the gap between the

culture under investigation and the ethnographer’s audience by tracing the “symbolic web

of meaning” that a culture spins in order to understand and express its experience. But can

ethnographic method be applied ethically and effectively in the study of the deceased? This

article argues that Thick Description is appropriate for working with ancient cultures because

it connects objects and texts to their larger cultural environment in the absence of living mem-

bers. Here, I present a case study of the ancient Mesopotamian Mīs Pȋ (Washing, Purification

of the Mouth) ceremony, using Thick Description to unpack elements of the ritual in a way

that speaks to the inner-lives of the community for whom the ritual was essential.


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