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Dossier : Serments et paroles efficaces

Dossier : Serments et paroles efficaces


Clifford Ando et Christopher A. Faraone

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1The stability of religious, legal and social orders depends to a very great extent on the permanence and on-going efficacy of human speech. Therein lies a great problem, because speech acts are among the most evanescent of human creations. (We set aside the question of their truth content!). Indeed, already in antiquity, spoken language served as an exemplar of fallibility and impermanence. Augustine, for example, lamented that expectations regarding human speech regularly misled people in their understanding of Scriptural narrative: «And when they hear, “God said, Let X be made, and X was made”, they think of words that begin and end, sounding in time and passing away» (Augustine, Conf. 12.27.37).

2Ancient societies responded to this crucial deficiency by seeking to render language or, rather, select speech acts absolutely stable and dependable. In September 2011, the Center for the Study of Ancient Religions at the University of Chicago hosted a two-day international conference on «Serments, vœux et construction rituelle des actes de parole efficaces». The meeting had as its aim a two-fold inquiry into the genres of speech acts — oaths, vows, testimony and curses — that were objects for such ontological elevation, on the one hand, and on the other, into the metacommunicative processes of ritualization and formalization that created the epistemic and social conditions for that elevation. We sought to explore the specific ways these attempts were made in different cultural and historic contexts, the logics that guided them (whether implicit or explicit, emic or etic), the extent to which they were — or could be — successful (as when the credence of speakers and audiences produced the credibility of speakers’speech), as well as the narratives, whether mythic or historic, that underscored their crucial importance.

3This volume publishes select papers from that conference. Bruce Lincoln’s essay provides an historiographic, theoretical and comparative overview of our subject, focusing on oaths as acts that demark the emergence of new social orders and attempt to render them enduring. Irene Polinskaya turn to the performative contexts and verbal formulae by which the truth content of testimony was secured, by establishing gods as their guarantors. Marcello Carastro’s should be read alongside Polinskaya’s. Carastro cautions against a scholarly tendency to reduce oaths to their verbal components. By contrast, he observes both the metonymic use of the language of ritual to stand for oath-swearing, as well as the apparently universal correlation between the divinity to which one swore oaths in civic contexts and the presence in the city of a sanctuary to that god. Both patterns underline the importance of gestural and material aspects of ancient practice.

4Carastro then turns to the association ancient commentators made between oath-swearing and binding. His paper closes with an exciting study of the oath in the Cyrenean foundation decree, a text studied closely in earlier publications by both Christopher Faraone and Claude Calame. In his paper for this volume, Calame offers a similarly exciting study of select Homeric hymns. He detects in them traces of the prayer. What is more, he suggests that the translation of oral prayer into textualized hymn effects a second act of stabilization through translation/elevation, namely, that the textualization of the prayer acts to preserve qua offering the memory of the musico-ritual context of its performance.

5Two papers, those by Christopher Faraone and David Martinez, consider moments of real or apparent linguistic or performative insufficiency. Martinez seeks to explain an interpretive crux, namely, the vow of abstinence taken by Achilleus: he situates it within a rich panorama of Near Eastern comparanda in which vows of abstinence are acts of self-imprecation: in essence, vows to harm oneself — and to magnify that self-harm across time — until one completes a promised act. Faraone’s paper turns to moments in which the language of cursing at the end of oaths is supplemented by ritual acts or imprecations that embrace communities beyond the participants — in other words, moments when language alone and purely bilateral exchange was felt somehow insufficient to warrant the magnitude of the undertaking. With the paper by Thomas Habinek, we turn to the late Roman Republic. Habinek reads Cicero’s Philippics as concerned with the shoring up of cultural patrimony, as well as with broader questions of political legitimacy and social order. In Habinek’s view, Cicero argues by describing himself and the Republicans as masters of ritualized protocols — of language, politics and religion — while denouncing Antonius in corresponding terms as inept or corrupt in the practice of republicanism. By this means, the particular anxieties focused on the oath are generalized, such that the stability of language becomes symptomatic of the stability of social order more generally, and the capacity of new actors to sustain particular ritualized orders serves as an index for the capacity of cultural and social reproduction. It is thus a thoroughly fitting ending for the proceedings.

  • 1 For a complete list, see

6The symposium «Serments, vœux et construction rituelle des actes de parole efficaces» served as the fifth meeting of the Atelier Chicago-Paris sur les religions anciennes and was hosted by at the University of Chicago Center in Paris. We are grateful to the Director of the Center, Alan Kolata, and his staff — especially Sébastien Greppo — for their hospitality and financial support. The Center for the Study of Ancient Religions has been generously supported by Martha Roth, Dean of the Humanities at the University of Chicago, and Jack Emmert. We should also say that the conversation at the conference was greatly improved by many other participants, including A. Dubourdieu, A. Gartziou-Tatti, V. Huet, M. Bettini, S. Crippa, M. Lowrie, J. Redfield, H. Reyes and A. Taddei. We would also like to thank our past and present colleagues on the managing board of the Atelier — Nicole Belayche, Claude Calame, Bruce Lincoln, François Lissarague, James Redfield and John Scheid — for their camaraderie and help over the last five years in producing an excellent series of six conferences in Paris1.


1 For a complete list, see


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© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2012

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