Aquatic Powers: Divine Animals of the Asia-Pacific

International Conference "Aquatic Powers: Divine Animals of the Asia-Pacific"

University of Oslo

From the Himalayan glaciers to the expanses of the Indian and Pacific oceans, Asia is intersected and connected by waterways. Riverine and maritime trade networks have long enabled cultural and economic exchange between different parts of the Asian continent and the larger Pacific region. Countless human and non-human animals depend upon the Himalayas and the plains and deltas of rivers like the Mekong, Yangtze, and Ganges for survival. Myriad others live along continental and island coasts and depend upon the sea. Asia-Pacific societies and ecologies are shaped by the glaciers, rivers, lakes, deltas, seas, and oceans that connect them. To many people, these waters are sacred—as are the creatures that inhabit and protect them.

Three whale statues
Three sacred whales (Cá Ông) at a temple in southern Vietnam. Photo: Aike Rots

The sacred waterways of continental Asia and the maritime Asia-Pacific region are home to a variety of divine animals. People worship albatrosses, catfish, cranes, crocodiles, dolphins, dragons, dugongs, nagas, octopuses, orcas, rays, sharks, squid, turtles, whales, and other animals. These animals are divine messengers, incarnations of ancestral spirits, and the embodiments of gods. They are divine agents who affect human lives and are central to numerous Asian and Pacific cosmologies and ritual traditions. But they are also threatened: by habitat loss, climate change, overfishing, river dams, and pollution. What happens to more-than-human spiritual ecologies when divine animals die out? What new meanings do these sacred creatures acquire in a time of mass extinction, ecological breakdown, disenchantment, and religious transformations?

For this conference, we have invited scholars working on one or more Asian and/or Pacific traditions to share their research on divine aquatic animals. They are historians, scholars of religion, anthropologists, geographers, environmental scientists, and artists. The conference will have an interdisciplinary, exploratory, and small-scale character.

Researchers and students based in Oslo can attend the conference without presenting a paper, but registration is mandatory. If you wish to attend, please fill out the following registration form by May 11, 2022:

Selected conference participants will be asked to contribute a chapter to a book on this topic in the autumn of 2022. The volume will be published by a leading academic press, and edited by Lindsey DeWitt, Florence Durney, and Aike Rots. The conference and edited volume are part of the project Whales of Power: Aquatic Mammals, Devotional Practices, and Environmental Change in Maritime East Asia. This project is funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 803211 (ERC Starting Grant 2018).



June 1 (Wed)
13:30–14:00     Arrival and Coffee 

14:00–14:15    Welcome 

14:15–15:45    Panel 1: Ritual Innovation and Change (I)        
    Chair: Lindsey DeWitt Prat
    Susan M. DARLINGTON (Deep Springs College): Long Life for a River: Water, Spirituality, and Environmentalism in Northern Thailand 
    Marius PALZ (University of Oslo): The Okinawa Dugong: A Messenger in Past and Present
    Aike P. ROTS (University of Oslo): Creatures of the Bodhisattva: Comparing Whale Worship in Japan and Vietnam

15:45–16:00    Break

16:00–17:30    Panel 2: Environmental Degradation and Community Identity
    Chair: Florence Durney
    Yvonne TAN (Independent Researcher): Remembering and Rethinking the Water Nagas and End of Paradise
DARMANTO (Czech Academy of Sciences): Crocodile, Social Order, and Environmental Transformation on Siberut Island (Indonesia) 
    Piyawit MOONKHAM (Washington State University)*: ‘Nagascape’: An Observation of Local Myth, Communal Space, and Cultural Landscape in the Chiang Saen Basin, Thailand

17:30–20:00    Welcome Reception

June 2 (Thu)        
9:00–10:30    Panel 3: Nature Conservation and Species Diversity
    Chair: Marius Palz    
    Victoria C. RAMENZONI (Rutgers University): The Sarong of the Sailfish: Endenese Cosmologies about the Maritime World and the Legend of the King of the Ocean
VŨ Long (Center for Biodiversity Conservation and Endangered Species) and Ellen HINES (San Francisco State University): Whale Temples Hold Critical Knowledge About Marine Mammal Diversity in Central Vietnam
    Fynn HOLM (Harvard University): Three Thousand Ebisu: Dolphin Worship and Hunts in Northeastern Japan

10:30–10:45    Break

10:45–12:15    Panel 4: Fishing Industry and Trade
    Chair: Florence Durney
    Evan NICOLL-JOHNSON (University of Alberta): The Eel who Became a God: Animals of the Yangtze River in Early Medieval Chinese Narratives
    WAKAMATSU Fumitaka (Kyoto University)*: Imagined Commodity: Nationalism, Fetishism and Whale Meat in Japan
    Suneel KUMAR (University of Georgia): Transforming Ecological Knots: Palo, Khawaja Khizer and the Ethical Relations During the Times of Environmental Crisis in the Indus Delta of Pakistan

12:15–13:00    Lunch

13:00–14:30    Panel 5: Materiality and Representation
    Chair: Nguyễn Anh Tuấn
    Alexandra DALFERRO (Cornell University): Nagas in Knots: Silk Patterns as Conduits and Connections to Unseen Worlds 
    Veronica WALKER VADILLO (University of Helsinki): The Snake, the Crocodile, and the King: Nautical Technology and Supernatural Potencies in Angkor
ĐOÀN Thị Mỹ Hương (Vietnam National Institute of Culture and Art Studies): The Turtle Symbol in Vietnamese Culture

14:30–14:45    Break

14:45–16:15    Panel 6: Indigenous Ethics and Natural Resource Management
    Chair: Aike P. Rots
    Brendan A. GALIPEAU (National Tsing Hua University)*: Salmon Ancestors and Climate Change in Indigenous Taiwan
    Sonja ÅMAN (University of Oslo): Solidarity and Self-Determination in Indigenous Whaling Politics
    Barbara AMBROS (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)*: Refraining from Killing and Releasing Aquatic Life in the Edo Period

16:15–16:30    Break

16:30–18:00    Panel 7: Boundaries and Contact Zones
    Chair: Lindsey DeWitt Prat
    Quoc-Thanh NGUYEN (Lyon Institute of East Asian Studies)*: Whale and Crocodile Worship: Maritime Cults, Southeast Asia, and Cultural Syncretism in Troubled Times?
    Florence DURNEY (University of Oslo): Ocean Bordering: Hunting, Belief and Multispecies Interdependency in Nusa Tenggara Timor
    Fabio RAMBELLI (University of California, Santa Barbara)*: The Ichthyosphere and the Sacred: Maritime Animals and Japanese Religions

19:00–22:00    Conference Dinner

June 3 (Fri)        
9:00–10:30    Panel 8: Aesthetics and National Heritage
    Chair: Sonja Åman
    Yuske TANINAKA (Independent Artist/Researcher): Geo-Body of Whale / Alternative Oceans
    NGUYỄN Thị Hiền (Vietnam National University): Images of the Sacred Dragons, Turtles and Claws in the Folk Consciousness of the Việt People
    NGUYỄN Anh Tuấn (University of Oslo): Mass Tourism and Stranded Whale Gods: The Invention of Tradition and the Search for Cultural Identity in Central Vietnam

10:30–10:45    Break

10:45–12:15    Panel 9: Ritual Innovation and Change (II)
    Chair: Aike P. Rots
    Andrew Alan JOHNSON (University of California-Berkeley): The Fish King and the Black Naga
    Erling Hagen AGØY (University of Oslo): “Thousands of Flood-Dragons and Clam-Monsters Came Forth”: Divine Animals as the Causes of Climate Events in Late Imperial China
    Kathryn DYT (Institute of Historical Research, University of London)*: Crocodiles and Dragons: Liminal Aquatic Beings in Vietnam During the Nguyen Dynasty

12:15–13:00    Lunch

13:00–15:00    Panel 10: Fluid Identities
    Chair: Florence Durney
    Lindsey DEWITT PRAT (Ghent University): Meandering with the Water Goddess in Japan: Dragon to Snake, River to Sea, Mountain to Island, and More
    Darcie DEANGELO (University of Oklahoma): Bucketed Women & Fainting Giantesses: Everyday Ecological Transformations and Gendered Sorrows in Cambodian Stories 
    Ika NURHAYANI (University of Brawijaya)*: Ecolinguistics: Indonesian Folklores on Divine Marine Animals
Mark TEEUWEN (University of Oslo): Crocodiles in Early Imperial Mythohistory? The Riddle of the Ancient Wani

15:00–15:15    Break
15:15–16:30    Final Discussion and Publication Plans

Optional: Pizza and Drinks (self-funded)

* = Participation via Zoom

Published Aug. 7, 2021 10:36 PM - Last modified May 3, 2022 3:47 PM