Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mellon Seminar Reflection 2: Is there a connection between myth and ritual?


The topic for the second discussion in the mellon seminar was Ritual Theory. The readings were numerous, and it was fascinating for me to spend a week going over the history of the discussion of ritual and myth. I realized even more than I had before how much the question of the relationship of ritual and myth has defined the field of religious studies. I'm not so sure it ought to have, but we are stuck with the fact that it did. If you are looking for a very well-written detailed overview of the history of ritual theory, I recommend the first three chapters of Catherine Bell's book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.

I am not going to go into detail here about the history of ritual theory. What I am going to do is reflect on my own understanding of ritual. It is not an understanding that came out of studying ritual theory, nor trying to negotiate the Myth and Ritual School or the views of Durkheim or Freud. My reflections come straight from my work as an historian who has immersed herself in ancient texts for the last twenty-five years of my life. I have discovered that I tend to be very pragmatic in my approach.

1. Ritual and myth have a symbiotic relationship. There is a connection between the community's ritual and myth, although these connections are not stable. Both ritual and myth shift in their performance and narrative over time and for various reasons, some conscious and some not. It may not be possible to determine whether the ritual or the myth came first in the formation of the movement. For me this is not even the interesting question. The interesting question is how and why the ritual and myth shape and reshape each other in peculiar ways.

2. There is a community of real people involved in the ritual and the myth. The texts I study are about practices and ideas that involved real people in real life situations. The category "intertextuality" is something that was made up so that the problem of real communities and their shape or historical boundaries can be ignored.

3. Ritual and myth are culturally-determined and historically bound. We might be able to find some psychological or cognitive feature in humans that predisposes us to create rituals that involve stages of separation and reintegration, but the quest for 'a universal myth' or 'a universal ur-ritual' behind all myths and rituals is not tenable, at least from the perspective of a historian.

4. There are different types of rituals and myths, and therefore different functions. Rituals and myths of initiation may not have the same function as rituals and myths of matrimony, birth, or purging. While the main function of one ritual might be to foster social cohesion, another might be to relieve personal guilt or anxiety. So a careful mapping must be put into place and universalism avoided.

5. Rituals and myths build and support relationships of power within the community. They provide divine sanction and legitimacy for the dominance of some and the subordination of others.

6. When the ritual and myth of the dominant group does not answer all the questions or is contradictory, supplementary and alternative rituals and myths are developed, sometimes clandestinely. And here lies the origin of the concept of orthodoxy and heresy.

6 comments:

Pastor Bob said...

I would add that change of context can affect ritual and myth too. If any of a variety of things change in the location where the myth and ritual exist (including the location) myth or ritual changes and affects the other or one or both become culturally irrelevant. I suggest that climate, terrain and language and traditions of people in a new location or of people who have moved in and particularly conquered the terrain of the group with the myth and ritual all are examples of this.

Example: how would the use of sheep in myth and ritual in both the Old and New Testaments be affected if used to speak in a culture that has no domesticated animals that are sacrificed or eaten? And what will happen to the myth and ritual of a community that uses sheep in myth and ritual in a century or two if they move to a location where there can be no domesticated animals that can be sacrificed or eaten?

Jared said...

I covered a lot of this ground of narrative and ritual (or for Bell, ritualization) in my dissertation. I think what I said (over too many pages, to be sure) largely coheres with your "pragmatic" approach.

April DeConick said...

Jared,

Maybe we should talk about it?

dev2lyzbpz said...

Thanks April: very practical indeed.

With best wishes,

Boudewijn Koole, Driebergen

dev2lyzbpz said...

Thanks April: very practical indeed.

With best wishes,

Boudewijn Koole, Driebergen

dev2lyzbpz said...

Thanks April: very practical indeed.

With best wishes,

Boudewijn Koole, Driebergen