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Ritual and Communication in the Graeco-Roman World

Eftychia Stavrianopoulou


Eftychia Stavrianopoulou

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  • 1 R.A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, 1999, p. 137.

The form which is ritual is surely without
communicational equivalents

1During the last two decades, the field of ritual studies has reached beyond its traditional boundaries in terms of academic disciplines and of the subject areas. The analysis of rituals has become a heuristic tool for the investigation not only of religious behaviour and beliefs, but also for the study of social practices in ancient and modern societies. The results of many ritual studies show that rituals are not static, as had been previously thought by scholars and believed by ritual participants, but rather subject to dynamic changes. These changes can occur accidentally or intentionally; they can lead to the transformation of an entire ritual or the modification of some of its elements; changes in and of rituals can be observed on a diachronic as well as on a synchronic level.

  • 1 For the frame theory see E. Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Ne (...)
  • 2 S.F. Moore, B.G. Myerhoff, “Introduction. Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings”, in S.F. Moore, B.G. (...)
  • 3 R.A. Rappaport, “The Obvious Aspects of Ritual”, in Ecology, Meaning, and Religion, Berkeley, 1979, (...)
  • 4 Tambiah, l.c. (n. 2); Bell, o.c. (n. 2), p. 111-113; R.A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Mak (...)
  • 5 P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, 2002” [1977], p. 106-109, 114-124.

2The concept of ritual dynamics opens up new perspectives and, in a way, bridges the ‘gap’ between an exclusive and an inclusive definition of ritual as purely religious in nature. Rituals are now more to be seen as schematised actions in an interpersonal and social context with clearly delineated beginnings and endings (frame) that marks them as distinct events.1 “‘Schematised’ should be understood here to mean that the action can be described in its sequence, and therefore can be imitated and repeated – a repetitive pattern, construable as a ‘script’” (Burkert). Rituals are performed, i.e. carried out in a stylized way, which aims to attract the attention of the addressees and to focus on the message of the ritual.2 It is through the media of body, language, gestures that the ‘script’ will be interpreted in order to please a public as well as to persuade, foster community or to deal with the sacred.3 Rituals are thus performative and communicative. As a matter of fact, communication through rituals is not just an alternative way of expressing something, but the expression of things that cannot be expressed in any other way.4 Yet this assumption does not explain the manner in which rituals work to generate a social form of consensual meaning.5

3The present volume brings together a collection of articles on rituals in the Graeco-Roman world, with a special focus on their communicative function in the public life of communities. The purpose is to examine the interconnection between ritual as a means of communication and communication as a ritual phenomenon. Thus the volume is concerned with communication as ritual as well as with rituals of communication. Further emphasis is also placed upon the communication of a ritual or of a modification in ritual.

  • 6 J.G. Platvoet, “Das Ritual in pluralistischen Gesellschaften”, in A. Bellinger, D.J. Krieger (eds), (...)

4The initial question has to do with placing ritual communication in the Graeco-Roman world in the context of all communicatory customs of this period. Besides oral and written communication, the one by ritual is to be investigated as a third form. What makes the latter special is precisely the connection of non-verbal symbols with verbal ones and their situative rules, as well as with the written texts integrated in these. The interaction among these elements enables the exchange of messages of all kinds on the one hand,6 and is flexible enough, on the other, to adapt to new communications needs. In other words, analysis of ritual communication testifies to the underlying mentality and its historical changes, being at the same time subject to these same historical changes. Ritual communication is thus to be seen as a part of public life.

5But what exactly was the function of ritual communication in the life of the Greek communities? What are the tasks of public rituals in the relations between community, groups and individuals? How are communicative aspects of ritual or ritualised behaviour defined, behaviour observable in all important actions of the social and political life of the Greeks – at the symposium and the victory celebration, at the public assembly and the diplomatic negotiations, at the commencement of a journey or at a funeral? How is the success of the ritual as a medium of communication guaranteed, or that of the communication through ritual?

  • 7 Cf. Rappaport, o.c. (n. 3); C. Humphrey, J. Laidlaw, The Archetypal Actions of Ritual, Oxford, 1994(...)
  • 8 G. Gebauer, C. Wulf, Mimesis. Kultur – Kunst – Gesellschaft, Reinbeck, 1992; eid., Spiel – Ritual – (...)

6These questions are intended to initiate the discussion of different phenomena, which are subsumed under the label of ‘ritual’. They all have in common primarily that they are a chain of actions, gestures and words following a pattern, which they repeat, thus creating an effect of recognition. Various practices may be in the foreground in this process, the performance may be carried out in a non-intentional manner,7 or it can be the result of conscious planning by means of which the participants produce a consensus on the intended course beforehand. One must reckon with the possibility that only a few of the participants or spectators may have been involved in the planning, while others merely took part, or also experienced (and were intended to experience) the ritual as a special event.8 Put somewhat differently, the study of the efficacy and perception of rituals is dependent upon the context and can be very different from case to case, even if we are investigating the same type of ritual. Efficacy is to be equated here with successful communication, for success (understanding, fulfilment of intention) means that the ‘language’ used in the ritual involved was mastered and accepted by those taking part. This is the point at which the specific impact of rituals on communication in the Graeco-Roman world can be shown.

Ritual as communication: changes in ritual and their impact on communication

  • 9 A. Chaniotis, “Gedenktage der Griechen: Ihre Bedeutung für das Geschichtsbewußtsein griechischer Po (...)

7Rituals fulfil various communicative tasks such as the transmission of norms of behaviour, the demonstration of intentions, the assignment of tasks and roles, the inclusion or exclusion of individuals. In ritual the borders between the past and the present are surmounted, as, for example, the rituals of historical commemoration days in the Greek antiquity demonstrate: the performance of religious rituals at commemorations for people and events, which were collectively experienced, contributed to adapting the contemporary memory to the mythical past.9 The speeches held on these occasions included all living and deceased members of a community by means of the first person plural (‘we’), from the mythical first ancestors to the contemporaries and their descendants. Even though rituals become the guarantors of a continuity overcoming time, they can, on the other hand, evoke the characteristics of their own time. A generation gap is expressed by the references to the ‘customs of the ancestors’ in the rhetoric of rituals, but they also form a bridge between the past, present and future.

8Seen in this way, rituals carry all kinds of messages intended to support the action and speech of those involved, to express these, and, not least, to bring about their desired efficacy. This is accomplished by means of the performance of ritual, in which the ‘message’ is negotiated between actors and spectators. This process of negotiation can be reduced to the readiness or agreement to carry out a certain standardised version of a ritual, or to undertake certain symbolic actions. But it can also lead to new accents being set. Some of the ritual sequences, which already exist, may be put together differently or experience a different emphasis.

  • 10 E.W. Rothenbuhler, Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony, Thousand (...)

9It is possible that new performative elements may be introduced, which have been transferred from a stock of other (secular or religious) ritual contexts, or which may even have been invented for this purpose. It is equally possible that the community, under certain circumstances, articulates a protest against performing certain rituals and refuses them. Dynamic changes of this kind result from the interplay between the particular historical, social and cultural conditions. They represent the result of a (re-)negotiation of the rituals, which was necessary for communicative reasons. If we see “every instance of communication as a synthesis of the ideal and the material, the individual and the collective”,10 then it is understandable that alterations in one or more of these elements would entail the failure of the ritual communication as a consequence.

10Nonetheless, these alterations must be explained, legitimised, ‘understood’; above all, they must integrate in such a fashion that they reflect the general consensus, support the functions of the rituals in stabilising the system, and continue to preserve the appearance of their ‘immutability’. Changes thus affect both the structures of a ritual and the functions, and they influence the experiences of the participants to the same extent. But they simultaneously give us information on the dynamis of the rituals themselves.

11Changes in rituals can be established with the help of the literary, epigraphic and archaeological sources, although testimonials to the interventions themselves are rare. The difficulties in tracing alterations can be of different degree and character, as is shown in the contributions by Frederick G. Naerebout and Joannis Mylonopoulos. In both, the changes in ritual performance and the role of the medium are highlighted. Using a performative element such as dance, or investigating the configuration of ritual spaces, they attempt on the one hand to define methodological questions, and on the other to demonstrate the processes of change per se.

  • 11 See supra n. 8.

12Dance, as Naerebout defines it, is “a specific kind of intentional, performative motor behaviour”. Together with music, it belongs to the non-verbal elements that were transmitted primarily orally and aurally. Dance occurs beside the voice of the ritual actor reciting a text, but also in place of a reading, recitation, song or appeal. Thus, dance is simultaneously a carrier of text, giving the ritual performance a form. However, in contrast to a ritual text, which can be fixed in writing and therefore enables (in theory) identical performances, dance is a priori of an ephemeral nature. This means that every dance performance is not only different, but also that changes and alterations can be a part of the constantly renewed form of a ritual from the start. All the more interesting, then, is the question of the preservation, dissemination and transmission of a ‘tradition’. What processes, what media, permit learning and transmission of non-coded ritual performances? Firstly, by means of mimic processes, which, whether through direct participation or passive observation, enable repetition of a particular performance according to a certain scheme, thus guaranteeing the ‘authenticity’ of the performance and the efficacy of the ritual. By means of mimesis large or small changes can be internalised in such a way that they become a part of the ritual habitus.11 Thereby a common level of communication is created, permitting each of the participants to follow the dromena, regardless of his or her level of education.

13In this regard Mylonopoulos speaks of the ritual mimetic actions as “a communicative medium in Greek religion that has hardly been researched”. The analysis of the medium of the architectural space, using the examples of building activities in the sanctuaries of Demeter in Corinth, Lykosoura and Pergamon, of that of the Kabiroi in Samothrace and that of Artemis in Brauron, has shown that religious action does not signify exclusively active participation, but also encompasses passive participation, i.e. participation by observation or by listening to a message. The integration of theatres or tiered constructions in sanctuaries indicates options of communication in the ritual performance, which exceed the simple observation of the ritual sacrifice at the altar. They also reflect, however, a change in perception of the ritual actions taking place in a sanctuary. Constructions such as the stairways in the sanctuaries of Demeter can be connected to the visual experience of myths in a framework of mimetic representation, and are to be interpreted as a testimonial to altered ritual behaviour. Are we confronted here with an externalisation of mimesis “into a more permanent shape, either verbalised or turned into imagery” (Naerebout)? What is the new role of the medium of architecture in carrying out this ritual communication? Does the increase in performative accents and elements somehow mean that new media and ways of communication with the deities and among the participants had become necessary? What is the connection between the changes in ritual and its spatial setting?

14The interaction observable between ritual action and sacral space can be demonstrated with the example of the architectural design of the banqueting rooms at the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore on the Akrocorinth. Specifically, the changes in the perception of the ritual sacrificial meal on the diachronic level are reflected. Between the late 6th century BC and the 1st century BC a series of construction activities were undertaken, focussing on the lower terrace as the scene of communal feasting. The construction of at least 16 small buildings on the lower terrace, each one with continuous low benches large enough for six to seven people to lie on them, indicates the enormous importance of the communal meal “in the course of the late 6th century BC, displaying an almost institutional character”, as Mylonopoulos points out. In the 5th century BC there are no longer one-room buildings, but buildings with a dining room and auxiliary rooms, where some 200 people could dine. After complete destruction of the banqueting rooms by an earthquake in the final years of the 4th century, the newly constructed buildings were of the same size and remained unchanged until their final destruction in 146 BC. After the founding of the Roman colony, the sanctuary was again put into use, but no indications of communal cult feasting have been found.

15The architectural sequence informs us of changes in the practice of ritual feasting and of the changes in the perception of its message. The sixteen one-room buildings for 6-7 people each display an organisation which structured the relations between those women who participated both in the sacrificial ritual and the subsequent feast, and those who were only permitted to participate in the sacrificial ritual. The ritual formed an inner circle and an outer circle. Sixteen further lines were drawn within the inner circle, corresponding to the banquet rooms (one family per room?). In other words, the building remains reflect the horizontal and the vertical communication as well as the identities which were evoked by the participation in this ritual, and which were confirmed by it as well. The subsequent new construction of banqueting halls, in which around two hundred participants could eat, indicates in turn that these delimitations were abolished and a new cult community was formed. The participation in the ritual, a quasi status symbol, was replaced by a ‘democratic’ mode of participation. The identifying function of the ritual by means of distinction was put aside in favour of a newly defined identifying function.

  • 12 B. Gladigow, “Sequenzierung von Riten und die Ordnung der Rituale”, in: M. Stausberg (ed.), Zoroast (...)

16In the case of ritual alterations, we have to do, then, with communicative adaptations. They originate in the communication among the participants themselves, in that these absorb the particular social and historical context and interpret them symbolically; they also define them. These changes can take various forms. Ritual elements or even ritual sequences may be transferred from ‘outside’, already existing ones may be put together as ‘building blocks’ for a ‘new’ ritual,12 or they may be Supplémented by the addition of new elements. Rituals can even be invented, and yet claim the appearance of tradition for themselves. As Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge rightly determines, “ritual dynamics points at the same time to the ritual’s place and role in the society at a given time, and to the vitality and variability of its meanings in the course of time.”

  • 13 I. Fairweather, ‘“Showing off’. Nostalgia and Heritage in North-Central Namimbia”, Journal of South (...)

17Because of their communicative tasks, rituals represent an important interface in the tense realm of cultural (religious, political, social) practices between tradition and modernity, and they enable the construction of a useful, if somewhat disputed, “practical nostalgia”,13 useful for the individual and the collective actors. The festival of Artemis Laphria in Patrae, as documented by Pausanias, and the description of the burial of Philopoimen in Plutarch are two such examples. The puzzling ritual of the Laphria becomes understandable, as soon as one takes into consideration the various semantic levels with regard to the historical context and to the ideology of the observer (here: Pausanias). Pirenne-Delforge shows that the cult of Artemis Laphria was a ritual invention, which was intended to form the bridge between the past and the present, but also between ‘Greek’ and ‘Graeco-Roman’ identity. The invented sacrifice ritual, the highlight of the festival, is primarily intended to form a communal religious experience for the inhabitants of the Colonia Augusta, one all their own; thus an epichôrios thysia. The epiklesis Laphria was to create a connection with the ancient cult of Artemis in Calydon in Aetolia, while the performance of the sacrificial ritual reflected both the Greek and the Roman religious ideas of the huntress goddess Diana-Artemis: “It was perfectly in accordance with the Roman violent shows and the taste for presumed antiquity.” (Pirenne-Delforge)

18Pausanias says nothing of the ‘tradition’ of the ritual observed by him, and conveys to us its “taste for presumed antiquity” (Pirenne-Delforge). In other words, he invents the ritual of the Laphria a second time for his readers, this time as an authentic and local product of Greek cultic practices. In a similar fashion the heavily emotional burial of Philopoimen in Plutarch may be analysed. The analysis by Peter Kató shows that the Plutarchian description represents an independent version, which was based on contemporary burial practices for persons from the elite classes, as well as on the author’s own political ideas. The textual transformations experienced by the sacrificial ritual of the Laphria or the funerary ritual of Philopoimen at the hands of Pausanias and Plutarch indicate that rituals clearly are not only to be regarded as repositories of tradition, but also as indications of alternative contemporary models. On the other hand, both authors act as inventors or modifiers of rituals. It is they who undertake alterations in the rituals they describe, within the process of communing with their readers. Here the text does not just limit itself to reproducing a ritual, but forms it. The text becomes an extension of the ritual itself, and the authors its agents.

19In addition, the conscious effort on the part of Plutarch to adapt the burial practices to those of his own time emphasises what is meant by the communicative function of ritual. The adaptation was indeed rendered necessary by the changes in ritual practice, for the Polybian version was probably incomprehensible for Plutarch’s public. The funerary ritual may have shown the same ritual sequences at first glance in both Polybios’ and Plutarch’s times, but its performance had changed, as is shown by contemporaneous epigraphical testimonies. And together with these changes the semantics of the ritual had been altered, too. In the political and social life in the communities of Roman Asia Minor, the members of the elite class and the citizens had a direct impact on the message of the funerary rituals, being at the same time influenced by them.

20Plutarch’s version points to ritual changes on a diachronic level. More complex is the identification of ritual changes taking place on a synchronic level. The ritual of swearing an oath is a case in point. Irene Berti, in her analysis of this ritual, has been able to show, using the Homeric epics, that not one ritual of swearing existed, but many such rituals or variants. Although some of the ritual elements such as the self-curse, the sacrifice or sacrifice-like procedure and the gesture of touching are recognisably especially important, they are not always represented in the rituals of swearing that have been transmitted to us. Sometimes they are represented, sometimes only a part is there. In this regard, the private or public character of the occasion does not seem to have had any influence upon the enactment of the ritual. Thus, treaties between states were finalised in just the same manner as the engye, namely by shaking hands. Various performances of oath-rituals, on the other hand, were applied within the same context. As Berti establishes, “one element can summarize and include the others: for instance, the slaughtering of the animals can be preceded or followed by the self-curse […] In other cases, the victims do not seem to be touched, or there are no victims at all, but only the gesture of touching, for instance the altar or the earth, or the hands of the other oath-takers.”

21But what do these observations mean with regard to the dynamic processes underpinning a ritual? Are the differences, which have been established in carrying out the oath-rituals modifications of these, or are they rather transformations of the ritual? As Walter Burkert emphasises, the purpose of the oath is to “exclude lies, lies in every form, tricks, twisting words, peculiar additions […] and thus to construct a reliable world of sense.” In order to fulfil this function, the oath was spoken within a ritual event and before witnesses (human as well as divine). This means that any change in the ‘statement’ of what was spoken had to be confirmed by the actions undertaken in the course of the ritual. “Greater than words and imagination, the action, the carrying out of a ritual in connection with everything that one feels and says, is what gives the assurances, appeals and curses their direct and realistic seriousness” (Burkert). This means that form and meaning stand, and must stand, in an interrelationship with each other, if one wants the ritual to be successful. Changes to the performance may trigger changes to the semantics of the ritual and vice versa, i.e. semantic change may entail alterations of the performance. Thus, the presence or absence of one or more elements in the ritual performance may be caused by an adaptation to givens such as the occasion or the participants, without the function of the oath-taking ritual being questioned – at least by the participants.

  • 14 Cf. M. Kitts, Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society, Cambridge, 2005, p. 156 sq.

22Using the example of the oath-rituals, one can observe how the application of emotional elements such as the animal sacrifice or the gesture of touching called forth the communication between participants in the ritual and, not least, its transformation as well.14 This communication took place not only between those present, but also between those present and those not present – divinities, other members of the cult group, and potential traitors. The slaughtered animal or the metal bars sunk into the sea were intended to represent the fate of the one who broke his oath, and to intensify the emotions of the one swearing the oath. This intensification was intentional and was expected in other rituals such as funerals, too. On the other hand, the leges sacrae inform us that the Greek poleis repeatedly attempted to regulate these emotions, in particular in connection with what is probably the most emotionally laden ritual of all, the burial of the dead. But why? Were strong emotions regarded as ‘dangerous’, and if so, how were they controlled?

  • 15 Cf. D. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power, New York, 1988, p. 99-101.

23“Did the Greeks intend the performance of rituals to be an emotional experience of togetherness?” is the question posed by Angelos Chaniotis. The answer is without doubt ‘yes’, not least because of the characteristic community-building effect of ritual, widely cited ever since E. Durkheim. The question is, nevertheless, justified, because emotions, as a constitutive element of ritual efficacy, contribute to the ‘success’ of a ritual.15 Nota bene, the ‘right’ ones do, those emotions that are desired and considered to be appropriate for the particular ritual context. Undesirable emotions, that is those which do not fit in with the ‘ritual stance’ of the participants, can lead to the failure of the efficacy of the ritual, and thus of the experience of togetherness. When the ritual regulation inscriptions deal with the control and norming of emotional conditions, then this is a matter of establishing a particular behaviour: a ‘ritual commitment’ is required of the participants.

  • 16 Cf. J. van Baaren, “A Short Meditation upon the Theme of Ritual”, in J.G. Platvoet (ed.), Analysis (...)

24Rituals are not always seen as being harmonising and unifying, leading to a consensus, and can indeed be applied in a fighting and rivalising way.16 In the context of carrying out ritual identities, political struggles, hierarchies or social positions may be negotiated. These negotiations also run their course in an emotional fashion and can undermine the ritual stance of the participants, thus influencing the performance. Processions are among this kind of public and collective ritual, in the course of which murders, armed uprisings or rapes could occur. The examples of the murder of the Peisistratid Hipparchos during the Panathenaic Procession (514 BC, Thucydides I, 20, 2) or the attack on procession participants in Sardeis by religious fanatics during a procession in honour of Artemis Ephesia (approx. 340-320 BC, I.Ephesos 2) are countered by regulations which detail the form and course of a procession. On the one hand, they confirm the social hierarchy by means of minutely established ordering of participants; on the other, they include the entire free – and often the non-free – population by declaring the day of the procession a ‘holiday’ for all; business must not be conducted, crimes should not be prosecuted, slaves should be released from their chains, the citizens should wear garlands of flowers and be grouped according to their tribes (LSAM 81). Do such regulations aim at forming a common identity alone? Or does this also have to do – as Chaniotis maintains – with regulating the “emotions of the individuals and the manifold tensions in interpersonal relations”? One cannot escape the impression that the aim was to control both the ‘frame’ of the ritual and the ritual stance of the individual participants. That both depend on each other and co-exist, with a fragile harmony between them that had to be preserved, is quite obvious.

  • 17 A collection and evaluation of these texts can be found in J. Engels, Funerum sepulcrorumque magnif (...)

25It is equally obvious that the ritual stance depends on the context. The borderline between ‘permissible’ and ‘impermissible’ emotions is adapted again and again to the existing political and social facts. The performance of funerary rituals is a characteristic example of this. Ancient Greece, starting with Solon, produced a series of normative interventions with regard to burials.17 In these, among other things, the ‘behaviour’ of those taking part in a burial was discussed and regulated: which persons from the family circle were permitted to attend the actual interment, when may one weep for the dead person and when not, who may participate in the ekphora, and in which sequence. Plato, Leges, 959c-960a, notes that “to make regulations about whether one should weep for the dead or not would be unsuitable”, but he also points out the significance of a “good, well-ordered” funeral.

  • 18 E. Goffmann, Interaction Ritual. Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, New York, 1967, p. 85-90

26In the regulations for funerary rituals the intention is the same as in texts dealing with the ‘correct’ procedure for a cult act (e.g. processions), namely the control of the behaviour of those participating, more exactly, the avoidance of any wrong behaviour which could not only endanger the funerary ritual, but the entire community. Behaviour designates what is characteristically expressed by means of attitude, clothing, and handling and serves to express to others that one is prepared to follow the given rules and ignore any other possibilities.18 Thus, loud weeping over the dead at home was considered permissible emotional behaviour, while loud wailing outside the house, whether during the funeral procession or at the grave, was considered an emotionally uncontrollable, hysterical behaviour and was seen as a disorderly ritual stance.

27Emotions thus contain the danger of overturning the order which ritual is supposed to create or confirm. For this reason, emotions must be subject to the particular social function of the ritual (in this case, the funerary rituals), and their expression is not to endanger the performance of the ritual and, consequently, its success, in any way. The demonstration of emotions during the performance of funerary rituals was indeed the subject of close observation and criticism, as Manolis Skountakis reveals in his paper. Using the example of the consolatory work of Plutarch, Consolatio ad uxorem, the hyperbole (extravagant display) of the emotions in funerary rituals is discussed. Plutarch denounces the ways in which people perform burials and the mourning customs of his day, because of the expressions of immoderate grief. What Plutarch criticises is not the ritual itself, but rather the unacceptable way the ritual is performed. The ritual attitude of the participants is, in his opinion, not only excessive, but is put on in a downright theatrical manner.

28The concentration of Plutarch’s criticism on this point itself hints at a change in the funerary rituals. The enrichment of the ritual performance with emotional elements, which according to tradition were to be suppressed, led to the theatricality of the ritual. The funerary ritual was no longer dedicated to the deceased; rather it offered a stage for self-representation of relatives and other participants, and for their social and political desires and needs. The inscriptions document this change with regard to the funerals of the elite, with Plutarch’s description of the funeral for Philopoimen delivering further testimonial to this. Kató was able to demonstrate that this scene, so full of emotions, indeed uncontrolled emotions on the part of the inhabitants of Megalopolis, was modelled on the similar public funerals for important persons in the Greek cities of the Empire. Whether Plutarch unconsciously fell victim to his own criticism, or distinguished between private and public funerary rituals, may be safely left aside here; his literary adaptation shows that in his time public funerary rituals played a large role in the hierarchisa-tion of society and its constant confirmation.

  • 19 F. Staal, “The Meaninglessness of Ritual”, Numen 26 (1975), p. 2-22; contra A. Michaels, “«Le ritue (...)
  • 20 Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 54.

29Rituals, however, can also burden a community under certain circumstances; they are misunderstood or even refused; they become dispensable, and then their continuation depends on the (not undisputed) efforts of individuals who see themselves as preservers of tradition. This public discourse on the preservation or re-introduction of rituals can be examined with the help of popular decisions, as far as these have been preserved. Stefan Hotz distinguishes between already neglected traditional rituals and those, which were threatened with neglect. Because the inscriptional testimony dates from the Roman Imperial Period, the reasons for interrupting the rituals generally have to do with the financial position of the Greek cities of the time. Members of the local elite undertook the developed initiatives, but they had first to be negotiated. The reference to the past and to tradition -particularly in the course of the Second Sophistic –, but also to personal piety forms the motive of the initiators. Where the documents permit a closer examination of the chances of success, one can observe how temporary these attempts at restitution were. Again, rituals can be established as an important interface between tradition and the present, since all initiatives for the preservation of ‘ancestral customs’ were aimed at this and the preservation was used as an argument. The fact that some rituals were no longer attractive, were neglected or abolished reveals above all the fragility of the rituals, when the tie between the ritual and its specific context was broken. Rituals may be subject to change as long as they are given a certain communicative function. If this interaction no longer takes place, then rituals are indeed “meaningless”,19 or, better said, “they do not function at all”.20

Communication as ritual

  • 21 E.R. Leach, s.v. “Ritual”, International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 13 (1968), p. 520-526(...)
  • 22 For the transmission model see C.E. Shannon, W. Weaver, A Mathematical Model of Communication, Urba (...)
  • 23 Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 123.

30The communicative aspect of ritual is essential and indeed part of the definition of ritual.21 Seen in this way, ritual is not only a suitable medium for enabling communication or transmitting a message, but represents a kind of ‘language’. Communicare is to be understood as both ‘to communicate’ and ‘to participate, take part in, do something communally, unify’. From this starting point, “a ritual conception of communication” has been postulated as an alternative to the usual transportation or transmission conception.22 “The transportation conception of communication emphasizes information and the effectivity of communication across space; the ritual view emphasizes meaning and the maintenance of society in time.”23 This criticism is thus aimed at the conventional view of communication as the simple transmission of information, which concentrates primarily on the results of communication, rather than the interactions and the processual character of communication per se.

31Seeing communication as a transmission of information, data or signals with established significations evokes the model of action and reaction, or of being influential as opposed to having no influence. However, if one sees communication as a ritual, then the emphasis is more on the performance than the process as such, on participation rather than use, on the meaning rather than the result; in a ritual, one is not just a listener, but also a creator.

32Creativity manifests itself in the case of free associations and their contribution to the construction of the meaning of ritual. Henk S. Versnel analyzes the different mechanisms, which activate the “near unlimited and endlessly productive potential of free association or analogy” by interpreting examples from the individual and collective ritual practice; one of them concerns the festival of Thesmophoria. Seemingly the behaviour of the married women participating in the festival violated the cultural norms and values and evoked associations that became part of the ritual complex: The liberation of the prisoners and the suspension of the court sessions reflected the a-normal situation during the festival; the simulated temporary return of the married women to the premarital status of the virgin (“bees”) neutralized what was intolerable according to the family codes. To perceive a ritual in such a specific way is in itself a convention resulting from a previous communication, which had occurred again on the occasion of a ritual performance. Thus, the detection of associations provoked by ritual permit us an insight not only in the construction of a ritual, but also in the creation of its message(s).

33The concept of communication offshoot as ritual can be observed by means of those inscriptions, which are called leges sacrae in research on the ancient world. The umbrella category of the leges sacrae may only be partially justified, but the subsumed testimonials do document communication with regard to sacral matters. Ivana and Andrej Petrović discuss the metrical sacral regulations, and Eftychia Stavrianopoulou analyses regulations of existing rituals or the introduction of new ones as resolved upon by a group of persons such as the popular assembly. Both contributions analyse the levels of communication embedded in these inscriptions and the factors guaranteeing these communications. Metrical sacred regulations appear in numerous contexts and may contain an oracular response. The oracular sacred regulations demonstrate directness in the communication between the deity and the community. The community asks the divinity a question or for advice, and the deity answers. The answer in the form of a metrical oracle is one of the characteristics, which define the authenticity of the communication and the legitimacy of the subsequent action. The second characteristic of these oracular sacred regulations is that they are not only unrelated to one particular situation, but also consisted of general instructions concerning the relationships with divinities, such as the importance of purity. In this way, they not only communicate to the reader a few specific regulations concerning the religious life of the community, but, through their form and their set of contextual characteristics, they also express the ritual conception of communication between the community and the deity, between the members of the community, and between the reader, the deity, and the community.

34This last point becomes apparent when one analyses the non-oracular metrical sacred regulations. In this Gattungskreuzung the divinity does not speak through an oracle to the reader or to the community, but the elements of the oracular regulations (metrical form, gnomic statements, demands for purity) were adopted in order to make this impression or, better said, to guarantee communication on all the levels mentioned previously. Here, a transfer of the ritual form of communication from the oracular to the non-oracular regulations has taken place?

35In the non-metrical leges sacrae, too, communicative processes are documented, in which a series of transformations of ritual were negotiated. They point to a series of actions, which take place on several levels and in which no clear-cut border between active agents or senders and passive spectators or receivers can be recognised. The facets of this communicative process can be analysed if one sees the entire thing as a ‘game’ whose rules must be defined. In this way, those factors are determined which permit changes in ritual to be seen as suitable and acceptable: who is responsible for the changes, what means are used to effect change, and how are changes in ritual legitimised? The observation that these negotiations are carried out in a performative manner is fundamental. At a particular place (the popular assembly) and at a particular time the communication about a particular proposal took place; the roles of agent and spectator were continually negotiated in the course of the event. The whole event was successful, or rather effective, when the results of the negotiation were seen and felt by all participants to be communal. The typical formula of enactment, ἒδοεν τ δήμῳ, thus symbolises communication that has been created by the ritual of proposal, and has been successful.

36The decrees among the leges sacrae show us how ordinary communication conducted on a daily level can lead to the symbolic and real constitution and construction of a new order, which is normally considered to be part of the efficacy of rituals. That rituals were also used for communication in asymmetol– rical or hierarchical relations is nothing new; one need only consider, for example, the communication between divinities and humans. The possibilities opened up by this ritual communication are, however, interesting; in particular the adaptations needed for the construction or confirmation of such relations. The relation between king (ruler) and subjects is one such asymmetrical relation.

37Annika B. Kuhn investigates those processes of communication triggered by the cult of the ruler, in this case Demetrius Poliorcetes. The equation of Macedonian kings with divine beings led to a reinterpretation and inversion of rituals belonging to the mode of communication between mortals and deities. One of them is the ritual of the theoxenia: quartering Demetrius in the Parthenon was intended to symbolise the assimilation of the king with the goddess Athena. In the Parthenon Athena is supposed to have received him as a guest and entertained him correspondingly. In this manner the accom-modation was placed within a special ritual context, namely that of traditional hospitality in general and that of the ritual of the theoxenia in particular. Theoxenia is a term signifying the entertainment of divine guests in a mortal house. In the case of Demetrius the ritual has been inverted, for the goddess is now host for a mortal. A ritual, then, is being used to establish direct communication with a wider public. By means of the conscious inversion of the ritual the persons addressed are drawn to the message – Demetrius is supposed to be the equal of gods –, rather than the message being brought to the people.

38The same observation can be made of the example of the Athenian theoria to Demetrius. The designation of the Athenian emissaries as theoroi, and, not least, the enquiry in the form of an oracular consultation of Demetrius were intended to place Demetrius in a particular context: he takes on the role of Pythia and in this fashion becomes a medium of divine will. The ritual of the theoria and the consultation of the oracle is thus altered, on the one hand making the person of Demetrius the main attraction, and on the other placing the communication between king and subjects on another level.

39Described in this way, communication through ritual appears to be a useful means of solving difficult problems such as dealing with asymmetrical relations. However, the further course of Demetrius’ life shows that the communication was not successful after all. The three events – the tearing of the peplos during the Panathenaic Festival, the growth of hemlock around the altars of the Soteres, and finally the interruption of the procession during the Dionysiac Festival because of an unusual cold spell – were interpreted by Plutarch as a sign of divine disapproval of the change in ritual for Demetrius, initiated by the Athenians, and simultaneously as a divine refusal to communicate further with mortals. The communication between Demetrius and the Athenians characterised by the adaptation of already existing rituals and their traditions, failed precisely because of the use of these rituals. In other words, the ‘ritual way of communicating’ can fail, since rituals represent flexible forms of communication and their use always entails the danger of creating the very problems they attempt to solve. Thus, the dynamic process connected with the cult of the ruler provoked a contrary process, which can be seen in the divine intervention and subsequent deviations and failed rituals.

  • 24 Platvoet, l.c. (n. 6), p. 177-178.

40Another example of a hierarchical relation can be found in the political life in the smaller Egyptian cities during the High Roman Empire. Thomas Kruse investigates the ritualised communication between the populace and the magistrates, which took place in the context of festive gatherings or public meetings. Through the medium of acclamations the demos was able to express its approval or its criticism of the administrative practices of the magistrates – which was recorded in writing – and also to present its petitions. This ritual, however, also allowed the hierarchy to be renegotiated and emphasised. The acclamations thus offered a stage for face-to-face interaction, in the course of which both parties were alternately agents and actors. The aim was to obligate the other party and make one’s own party heard by the other party. The ritual of praise served as the ‘language’, functioning at the same time as a kind of (meta-) medium, onto which direct and indirect messages were projected.24

  • 25 For the polycontextual nature of rituals see N.D. munn, “Symbolism in a Ritual Context”, in J.J. Ho (...)

41The individual contributions are able to demonstrate the polycontextuality of the rituals, that is, their characteristic of simultaneously referring to different contexts and addressing different levels of interaction: those directly participating, but also the political and social system in which they live, are addressed and involved in the context of a ritual, or by the ritual itself.25 The special suitability of ritual for legal, religious, artistic, political, economic, intimate and familiar communication derives from the fact that it operates as a flexible interface. It is subject to changes and alterations and causes them, too. It guarantees tradition and the current order by absorbing prior actions related to them and enabling new orders to appear traditional.

42The present volume originated in the context of the project ‘Ritual and Communication in the Urban Communities of Ancient Greece’ of the Collaborative Research Centre 619 on Dynamics of Ritual. With the exception of the contributions by Walter Burkert and Henk S. Versnel, the papers in this volume derive from discussions within the circle of those working on the project, and friends associated with it. The contributions have been organised into four thematic groups, but — as the introduction has perhaps shown – this grouping is arbitrary, for all of the papers touch upon more than one of the focal themes. Nevertheless, each contribution is involved in a kind of dialogue with the preceding one and the following one. The contributions by Burkert and Versnel, which act as a sort of frame for the others, originate from two public lectures presented on the occasion of the opening of the first and second phase respectively, of the Collaborative Research Centre. But these two papers represent the frame of this book in a further aspect, too, for both point out subject areas, which are yet to be investigated. I am indebted to both of them for permission to publish their contributions.

43The resulting volume has been a collective effort from start to finish. In addition to the primary contributors, I want to express my gratitude to those whose generous assistance has proven invaluable and in many cases decisive. First among these come Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Angelos Chaniotis: Vinciane for her generous support, her patience and for accepting this volume for publication in this series; Angelos for his encouragement, advice and criticism at every juncture. Special thanks go to Axel Michaels, speaker of the mentioned Collaborative Research Centre, for his advice and unfailing encouragement. Douglas Fear and Benedict Beckeld took on the burden of language revision and translation and accomplished these with patience. Hearty thanks are due to them for this. Thanks also go to John E. Lendon and Elisabeth Meier (both University of Virginia) for their critical comments on some of the papers. Joannis Mylonopoulos is to be thanked for proposing the Ninion-tablet as a suitable illustration of the dust jacket. The permission to reproduce the tablet has been generously granted by the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens Nikolaos Kaltsas. The present volume was made possible by the generous funding by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Council).


1 For the frame theory see E. Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience, New York, 1974; D. Handelman, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events, New York-London, 19982 [1990], especially the new preface, and id., “Re-Framing Ritual”, in J. Kreinath et al, The Dynamics of Changing Rituals, New York, 2004 (Toronto Studies in Religion, 20), p. 9-20.

2 S.F. Moore, B.G. Myerhoff, “Introduction. Secular Ritual: Forms and Meanings”, in S.F. Moore, B.G. Myerhoff (eds), Secular Ritual, Amsterdam, 1975, p. 7-8; On performance theories see S.j. Tambiah, “A Performative Approach to Ritual”, in Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), p. 113-169; V. Turner, From Ritual to Theatre, New York, 1982; C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, Oxford/New York/Toronto, 1992, p. 37-46; R. Schechner, Performance Theory, London, 1998; id., Performance Studies: An Introduction, London-New York, 2002; S. Goldhill, “Programme Notes”, in S. Goldhill, R. Osborne, Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy, Cambridge, 1999, p. 1-29; E. Fischer-Lichte, “Performance, Inszenierung, Ritual. Zur Klärung kulturwissenschaftlicher Schlüsselbegriffe”, in J. Martschukat, S. Patzold (eds), Geschichtswis-senschaft und “performative turn”. Ritual, Inszenierung unci Performanz vom Mittelalter bis zur Neuzeit, Köln et al., 2003, p. 47-52.

3 R.A. Rappaport, “The Obvious Aspects of Ritual”, in Ecology, Meaning, and Religion, Berkeley, 1979, 173-221; Schechner, o.c. (n. 2: 2002), p. 38.

4 Tambiah, l.c. (n. 2); Bell, o.c. (n. 2), p. 111-113; R.A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, 1999, p. 174.

5 P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, 2002” [1977], p. 106-109, 114-124.

6 J.G. Platvoet, “Das Ritual in pluralistischen Gesellschaften”, in A. Bellinger, D.J. Krieger (eds), Ritualtheorien, Opladen/Wiesbaden, 1998, p. 185 (= “Ritual in Plural and Pluralist Societies: Instruments for Analysis”, in J.G. Platvoet, K. van der Toorn (eds), Pluralism and Identity. Studies in Ritual Behaviour, Leiden, 1995).

7 Cf. Rappaport, o.c. (n. 3); C. Humphrey, J. Laidlaw, The Archetypal Actions of Ritual, Oxford, 1994, p. 88-110.

8 G. Gebauer, C. Wulf, Mimesis. Kultur – Kunst – Gesellschaft, Reinbeck, 1992; eid., Spiel – Ritual – Geste: Mimetisches Handeln in der sozialen Welt, Reinbeck, 1998.

9 A. Chaniotis, “Gedenktage der Griechen: Ihre Bedeutung für das Geschichtsbewußtsein griechischer Poleis”, in J. Assmann (ed.), Das Fest unci das Heilige. Religïose Kontrapunkte zur Alltagswelt, Gütersloh, 1991, p. 123-145.

10 E.W. Rothenbuhler, Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony, Thousand Oaks, 1998.

11 See supra n. 8.

12 B. Gladigow, “Sequenzierung von Riten und die Ordnung der Rituale”, in: M. Stausberg (ed.), Zoroastrian Rituals in Context, Leiden/Boston, 2004 (Studies in the History of Religions, 102), p. 57-76.

13 I. Fairweather, ‘“Showing off’. Nostalgia and Heritage in North-Central Namimbia”, Journal of Southern African Studies 29, 1 (2003), p. 279-296.

14 Cf. M. Kitts, Sanctified Violence in Homeric Society, Cambridge, 2005, p. 156 sq.

15 Cf. D. Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power, New York, 1988, p. 99-101.

16 Cf. J. van Baaren, “A Short Meditation upon the Theme of Ritual”, in J.G. Platvoet (ed.), Analysis and Interpretation of Rites; Essays to D.J. Hoens, The Hague, 1983, p. 189; M. Bloch, From Blessings to Violence, Cambridge 1985; Bell, o.c. (n. 2), p. 210.

17 A collection and evaluation of these texts can be found in J. Engels, Funerum sepulcrorumque magnificentia. Begrdbnis- und Grabluxusgesetze in der griechisb-rdmischen Welt, Stuttgart, 1998, with the previous bibliography.

18 E. Goffmann, Interaction Ritual. Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, New York, 1967, p. 85-90

19 F. Staal, “The Meaninglessness of Ritual”, Numen 26 (1975), p. 2-22; contra A. Michaels, “«Le rituel pour le rituel?» oder Wie sinnlos sind Rituale?”, in C. Carduff, J. Pfaff-Czarnecka (eds), Rituale heute, Berlin, 1999, p. 23-48.

20 Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 54.

21 E.R. Leach, s.v. “Ritual”, International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences 13 (1968), p. 520-526; Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 53 sq.

22 For the transmission model see C.E. Shannon, W. Weaver, A Mathematical Model of Communication, Urbana, 1949. Contra J. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston, 1988; Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 123-127.

23 Rothenbuhler, o.c. (n. 10), p. 123.

24 Platvoet, l.c. (n. 6), p. 177-178.

25 For the polycontextual nature of rituals see N.D. munn, “Symbolism in a Ritual Context”, in J.J. Honigmann (ed), Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Chicago, 1973, p. 579-612.

Notes de fin

1 R.A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge, 1999, p. 137.

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