International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

Adolf Ellegard Jensen (1899-1965), a major disciple of the legendary Leo Frobenius (1873-1938), was himself one of the most influential German anthropologists of his time and beyond. His intellectual activity mainly concerned the fields of religion, myth and rite, in particular the sacrifice of the god or his plant, animal and human representatives. After fighting in the First World War, he studied natural sciences and philosophy at university in his hometown of Kiel and then in Bonn, where he obtained his doctorate in 1922. It was one year later that he met Frobenius, whose theses of cultural morphology had a decisive influence on him, pushing him towards the reconstruction of ancient cultural circles (Kulturkreise) and their respective spiritualities. As an ethnologist and a distinguished member of the Institut für Kulturmorphologie (Institute of Cultural Morphology, now the Frobenius Institute), he participated in several ethnographic expeditions to South Africa, South Ethiopia and the Moluccas. It is mainly the materials brought back from these Indonesian islands — in conjunction with other sources, including the work of the Swiss ethnologist Paul Wirz (1892-1955) on the Marind-Anim of New Guinea — that he used to develop original concepts. The most prominent is that of the dema-divinity (inspired by homonymous mythical beings among the Marind-Anim), to refer to founding gods whose dismemberment of the body allows the earth to be fertilized and its fruits to be harvested, within the framework of a vast archaic agricultural configuration, which also leaves traces in pagan antiquity and in Vedic India. Ostracized during the Third Reich because of his marriage to a Jewish woman and his refusal to collaborate with the regime, he was forced, in 1940, to leave his post at the University of Frankfurt to join the Wehrmacht as a private soldier. After the Second World War, he took over the management of both the Frobenius Institute and the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) in Frankfurt. Between 1947 and 1954, he also led the renewal of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde (German Ethnological Society) and undertook new field missions, particularly in Ethiopia. Jensen’s best-known book is Mythos und Kult bei Naturvölkern, from 1951, translated into English in 1963. Highly criticized in the 1960s and widely discredited today for his extrapolations and ethnographic bricolage , Jensen exerted considerable influence on antiquarians who applied his concept of divinity-dema in particular.

Keywords: Cultural anthropology | Diffusionism | 20th century | Germany | Ethiopia | Moluccas | Comparison | Mythology | Religion | Dying God | Cultural circles/Kulturkreise | Agricultural rites | Classical and oriental antiquity | Leo Frobenius

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