Leo Frobenius bigraphy, stories - Archaeologists

Leo Frobenius : biography

29 June 1873 - 9 August 1938

Leo Viktor Frobenius (29 June 1873 – 9 August 1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist and a major figure in German ethnography.


He was born in Berlin as the son of a Prussian officer and died in Biganzolo, Lago Maggiore, Piedmont, Italy. He undertook his first expedition to Africa in 1904 to the Kasai district in Congo, formulating the African Atlantis theory during his travels. Until 1918 he travelled in the western and central Sudan, and in northern and northeastern Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich. In 1932 he became honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1935 director of the municipal ethnographic museum.

In 1897/1898 Frobenius defined several "culture areas" (Kulturkreise), cultures showing similar traits that have been spread by diffusion or invasion. With his term paideuma, Frobenius wanted to describe a gestalt, a manner of creating meaning (Sinnstiftung), that was typical of certain economic structures. Thus, the Frankfurt cultural morphologists tried to reconstruct "the" world-view of hunters, early planters, and megalith-builders or sacred kings. This concept of culture as a living organism was continued by his most devoted disciple, Adolf Ellegard Jensen, who applied it to his ethnological studies. It also later influenced the theories of Oswald Spengler.Leon Surette, , McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 1994, p. 63.

Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of about 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, which are currently at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honour in 1946.

His writings with Douglas Fox were a channel through which some African traditional storytelling and epic entered European literature. This applies in particular to Gassire's lute, an epic from West Africa which Frobenius had encountered in Mali. Ezra Pound corresponded with Frobenius from the 1920s, initially on economic topics. The story made its way into Pound's Cantos through this connection.

In the 1930s, Frobenius claimed that he had found proof of the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis."Leo Frobenius", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1960 edition

Due to his studies in African history, Frobenius is a figure of renown in many African countries even today. In particular, he influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude, who once claimed that Frobenius had "given Africa back its dignity and identity." Aimé Césaire also quoted Frobenius as praising African people as being "civilized to the marrow of their bones", as opposed to the degrading vision encouraged by colonial propaganda.

On the other hand, Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 Nobel Lecture, criticized Frobenius for his "schizophrenic" view of Yoruba art versus the people who made it. Quoting Frobenius's statement that "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness," Soyinka calls such sentiments "a direct invitation to a free-for-all race for dispossession, justified on the grounds of the keeper's unworthiness."

Otto Rank relied on Frobenius' reports of the Fanany burial in South Africa to develop his idea of macrocosm and microcosm in Art and Artist.

“Certainly the idea of the womb as an animal has been widespread among different races of all ages, and it 'furnishes an explanation of (for instance) the second burial custom discovered by Frobenius along with the Fanany burial in South Africa. This consisted in placing the dead king's body in an artificially emptied hull's skin in such a manner that the appearance of life was achieved. This bull-rite was undoubtedly connected with the moon-cult (compare our "mooncalf," even today) and belongs therefore to the above-mentioned maternal culture-stage, at which the rebirth idea also made use of maternal animal symbols, the larger mammals being chosen. Yet we must not overlook the fact that this "mother's womb symbolism" denotes more than the mere repetition of a person's own birth: it stands for the overcoming of human mortality by assimilation to the moon's immortality. This sewing-up of the dead in the animal skin has its mythical counterpart in the swallowing of the living by a dangerous animal, out of which he escapes by a miracle. Following an ancient microcosmic symbolism, Anaximander compared the mother's womb with the shark. This conception we meet later in its religious form as the Jonah myth, and it also appears in a cosmological adaptation in the whale myths collected in Oceania by Frobenius. Hence, also, the frequent suggestion that the seat of the soul after death (macrocosmic underworld) is in the belly of an animal (fish, dragon). The fact that in these traditions the animals are always those dangerous to man indicates that the animal womb is regarded not only as the scene of a potential rebirth but also as that of a dreaded mortality, and it is this which led to all the cosmic assimilations to the immortal stars."

Living octopus

Living octopus

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