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Ritual and Communication in the Graeco-Roman World

Eftychia Stavrianopoulou

Ritual between Ethology and Post-modern Aspects: Philological-historical Notes1

Walter Burkert

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  • 1 Translation by Douglas Fear. Lecture delivered on the occasion of the opening of the Collaborative (...)

1I suppose we have to start with definition and a little theory, but I do not wish to remain there. I simply need to make clear what, in my opinion, is the matter at hand: I understand ritual to be a schematised action functioning as a message, as information in an interpersonal and social context. ‘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’; ‘message’ should be taken to mean that a ritual action is to be perceived, it is demonstrative, often exaggeratedly pointed, to a greater degree than that directly intended for or effected by an action per se.

2Here is a simple example. Man must drink; to this end he generally uses a container, which therefore must be filled first. When, as I was recently able to observe at a wedding in a temple in Japan, a festively dressed maiden quite carefully pours liquid out of a pitcher into a cup, three times, alternately for the bride and groom, and these latter then equally carefully and pointedly drink, each twice, from this cup, then that is a ritual, a schematised action meant as a message. I have mentioned this example because it shows how rituals are recognisable independently of any language: I know absolutely no Japanese, but I do believe that I have understood the ceremony to some extent. The ritual displays arrangement in its equal pairing and placement of the two partners – the fact that the thing poured out and drunk was rice wine, sake, of which innumerable barrels are stored round about as an offering to the gods of the temple, is simply an additional element, I might say: local colour.

3Ritual as a message is a type of language, a means of social interaction. From here we may approach several pathways of theory and question, particularly if we remember that for decades now, ever since Julian Huxley and Konrad Lorenz, we have been speaking of ritual among animals, with reason; the sense is that of communication by action in a social context. In man, then, language and ritual stand beside each other. Are rituals something from a pre-linguistic world? Were they present before human language was invented or developed? In what way, if any, have they been superseded by human language, or if not, why not? Is there some sort of continuity, an evolution from the one to the other? Or are these parallel, analogous developments and phenomena which but appear to have something in common? Doubtless there are human rituals that are created afresh, freshly invented, freshly regulated. On the other hand, as far as a ‘message’ is contained in ritual, there exists not only evolution, but, as is well-known, revolutions, explosions, quantum jumps in communication, in the transfer of information in our world, beginning with the good old telephone and telegraph in the 19th century, through the ‘wireless’ telegraph, to our net-worked computers and mobile phones with e-mail, SMS, UMTS and whatever future abbreviations may bombard us. In contrast are the immutable limitation and slowness of the rituals, as a rule limited to a manageable, face-to-face group, indeed, reduced to the corporeal. Mass actions of a theatrical nature, such as those at the Olympic Games or techno-led street parades, already have modern technical means of communication as an unconditional prerequisite.

4But, as already mentioned, my view tends backward rather than forward, and I would now like to theorize less and to offer more specific examples. I will discuss three groups of traditional ritual, oath-rituals, hierarchy-rituals and death-rituals, taking the questions of age and evidence into consideration, and the question of their roots and functions; the question, too, of whether and to what extent they have fallen out of our current social culture, or perhaps are still present, or at least leave a noticeable gap if they do disappear.

5First, I would call to mind a complex in which ritual has an effect beside the spoken language – acts, indeed, as a complement to language per se. This is the practice of administering and taking oaths, something quite obviously archaic: Meineid, ‘perjury’, is an ancient Germanic concept. The word does not accommodate itself at all well in the frivolous modern society. But oath and perjury are still of central importance in the legal systems of modern states, with the most serious sanctions being threatened, even though the news media may recently have registered such only in connection with a spot on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. I prefer to quote John Locke, from his Letter on Toleration of 1689:

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.

6Thus, oath and belief in a divinity are directly connected, and, as the foundation of society, not even a philosopher of the Enlightenment can do without them. Already in ancient times it was taken for granted that everyone had to have a god, his own god, in order to take and administer oath. As an atheist, he would not have been able to swear an oath. Oaths were a necessity of life at all levels, in the economy and in legal proceedings, in private and public life, within the city or the tribe and for international intercourse.

7No contract, no pact, no legal act without an oath – this was the area where morals, law and religion necessarily met.

8The oath is a linguistic phenomenon, owing its existence to the inadequacy of language. The weakness of the word is the possibility, indeed probability, of the lie. Cheating and trickery have always been part and parcel of social intercourse. In Latin the phrase verba dare, literally ‘to give words’, means more or less ‘to cheat’. The word sensus, ‘sense’ itself, in contrast to ‘word’, verbum, owes its career to a formula of swearing: “what I feel that I say” shall be valid, quod me sentio dicere, as opposed to simple words, which one can throw about, use to say things different from what one means.

9Lies and trickery are probably part of our equipment for survival. Recently, psychologists have even wondered whether the discovery of lying in child-hood, at the age of approximately three or so, does not actually represent a decisive step in the development of intelligence, a step that would finally distinguish man from the chimpanzee. Quite a bit of pedagogical work is needed to suppress lying in children when it does finally make its appearance. Of course, those chimpanzees to whom a sort of language was taught did attempt very soon to lie to their keepers. It would seem reasonable, then, to assume that language and lies have gone hand in hand since the beginnings of civilisation. Among the types of traditional tale, those dealing with lies, trickery and cheating take pride of place in many cultures. And yet cooperation and exchange in human society are based on trust. Only when the behaviour of one’s fellow man is at least partially predictable, when there is a set of values and rules in common, can positive interactions take place.

10The purpose of the oath taken by responsible partners has always been just this: to exclude lies, lies in every form, tricks, twisting words, peculiar additions – “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, to fulfil the obligation without alteration, removal or false intent. We try to create clarity and thus to construct a reliable world of sense; true and false must be kept separated, just as right and wrong, friend and enemy. Language does not suffice to do this; language cannot stabilise itself with itself. If you add to a statement the coda that it is true and the contrary is false, this is nothing more than a rhetorical figure; the logical content is null, a critical opponent remains unconvinced. One must attempt to overstep the bounds of the closed semantic universe of the language.

11Two strategies have been developed to this end that often go hand in hand: the use of witnesses, which guarantees a common mental world, and ritual events, which make complex and therefore noticeable marks, or symbols, which accompany the procedure as ‘unbreakable seals’. All-knowing witnesses are visible and invisible beings; the ritual symbols are supposed to radiate a cryptic causality, which can also appear as a power of punishment for the witnesses. Both the witnesses and the ritual, in any case, possess an air of utter seriousness.

12The introduction of super-empirical witnesses is a linguistic game that does not transmit information, but attempts to impress by means of an extended context. This has been called ‘szenische Ergänzung’ by Gerhard Baudy. International treaties as early as the Bronze Age rely on the eternal phenom-ena of the natural environment, the sun and the heavens, the clouds, the earth, the rivers. Hittite treaties and contracts quite routinely call upon ‘the mountains, the rivers, the springs, the great sea, Heaven and Earth, the winds and the clouds’: “let them be witness to this treaty and for the oath.” The Sun God, who ‘sees all’, has a special rank. Homer has the Trojans sacrifice one sheep for the Sun and one for the Earth at the great ceremony of swearing that is to end the war. This recognised linguistic game goes even further: gods belong to the ceremony of oath taking. It would probably be going too far to say that gods were invented for oath taking. But John Locke himself still holds to the indivisible connection of religion and oath. Gods are powerful; if they are angered, one may expect merciless punishment. But special demons are also called upon to watch over the oath and to punish perjury. For the Greeks these were the Erinyes, the embodiment of the curse upon oneself, which accompanies the swearing of an oath. The German formula tends to mention the positive matter, as does the English: “so wahr mir Gott helfe”, ‘so help me God’. But that means, of course, that if the oath is not kept, then God will not help me, in other words the curse of the self remains implicit.

13Yet this is not enough either. The super-empiric and invisible, all those witnesses so far above mere mortals, whether gods, demons or avenging powers, do, after all, have to be anchored in reality. 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. The formulaic oaths may include phantasmagora, but the sense of reality is not lost at all.

14Ritual places one’s own body in a linguistically formed environment. According to Herodotus, the Arabs cut their hands and smear the blood on holy stones. Irreversibility is demonstrated above all by killing in sacrifice. Thus, in Alalah in Syria a sheep is slaughtered when there is a transfer of property, accompanied by the formula “Thus shall I die if I take back what I have given to you.” Sheep are also slaughtered in the ceremony of swearing in the Iliad; while Agamemnon cuts their throats, the participants pour wine out of their cups onto the earth and pray: “Whosoever first commits a sacrilege against this oath, his brain shall flow to the ground like this wine, the same to them and their children, and their women shall be forced by other men.” Blood flowing to the ground, wine flowing, brains flowing – all are connected. In an Assyrian contract of the 8th century BC it is written: “If Mati’ilu contravenes this contract, then just as the head of this lamb is torn off it and its knucklebones are laid in its mouth, ... thus too (shall) the head of Mati’ilu be torn off.” When carrying out the Soldiers’ Oath, the Hittites pour out wine, much as do the opponents in Homer, and say: “This is not wine, this is your blood.” The Fetiales, who carried out the ritual of alliance for the Romans, said: “If (the Roman people) contravene this treaty through bad intention and falsehood, then thou, O Jupiter, there and then do strike the Roman people as I do strike this pig today, and you shall strike all the the more, the more you are able to do so”; and at this point the Fetialis then killed the animal with a stone. “When the Molossians swear an oath, they provide cattle and jugs filled with wine; then they cut the cow into small pieces and utter the curse, that the one breaking the oath shall be thus chopped up; they pour out the jugs and say, thus shall the blood of the one breaking the oath be spilled.”

15Here we have, then, a type of symbolism that is quite easy to understand; but the symbols are made as realistic as possible: wine and blood, jerking animals that are dying. Direct touch is often very important. One must take the innards of the sacrificial animal in one’s hand – in Mesopotamia as in Greece; one must dip one’s own weapons in the blood, or at least a ring which one then holds in one’s hand during the ceremony of swearing – thus the early Germanic tribes. A speciality of Greek oaths consisted of cutting off the genitalia of the sacrificial animal and placing them upon the ground, so that the one swearing the oath would step on them with his foot. This occurred together with the curse that perjury would entail the end of fertility and thus of the whole family. Biological survival was at stake. At the Areopagos in Athens, the law court responsible for cases of intended killing of human beings – Orestes was the famous mythical example – the priests slaughtered a boar, a ram and a steer and the accused then stepped on the cut-off genitals and recited the oath that threatened his house and all of his descendants with destruction.

16Another way of making clear the threat of destruction was to burn effigies of wax or tar with the corresponding curses. As the wax melts, so the malefactor shall dissolve into nothing. This is known both in the Middle East and in Archaic Greece. A less spectacular ritual act was throwing something away. Achilles swears that he will no longer take part in the battle, “by the wooden staff which he carries in his hand; this shall never turn green and grow leaves again – and with that he throws it to the ground. In the Roman oath per Iovem lapidem, ‘by Jupiter the stone’ which gives one the impression of a very old tradition, the one swearing the oath grips a stone and says the common formula: “If I keep the oath, good shall happen to me; if I plan anything different or do anything different, all others shall be safe ... But I alone shall fall, as this stone now falls” – and with this he throws the stone to the ground. Per Iovem lapidem – that sounds as if the divinity were identified with the stone and vice versa.

17Utter irreversibility is demonstrated by having iron bars sunk in the sea. Thus the Ionians and Athenians sealed their alliance against the Persians in 478 BC; earlier, the Phocaeans had used the same ritual symbol when they gave up their city in the face of the advancing Persians and emigrated to Marseilles. This kind of action can metamorphose into pure magic: Jeremiah writes down all the evils that are to strike Babylon on a piece of parchment and gives his servant Seraiah the task of bringing this to Babylon, reading it out, tying the parchment to a stone and throwing it into the Euphrates. “Thus shall Babylon sink and shall not rise.”

18Oaths are simultaneously a primitive and a sophisticated thing. The rituals of swearing have been called ‘pre-deistic’ and one has spoken of primitive mentalities – a stone seems to be identified with the sky god Jupiter, for instance. Yet oaths are at the same time always strategies applied by clever people who know how to use language, although every attempt at securing and strengthening is followed, as soon as not, by attempts to circumvent and deceive. Homer already says that Autolykos, Odysseus’ grandfather, was famed far and wide “for the art of thievery and swearing” (Od. XIX, 395 sq.). There are some pretty tales of how well he used these talents. Autolykos was not alone. “To cheat by oath” is, for Herodotus, the very core of the market economy (I, 153). Yet one must assume that the rightful use of oaths statistically outweighed the criminal.

19There were religious reformers who tried to limit or forbid the use of oaths. Jesus forbade swearing oaths most decisively; this is quite clear in the Sermon on the Mount: “But let your communication be, Yea Yea; Nay Nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matthew 5, 34-37). There is hardly any other of Jesus’ commandments, which has been so flagrantly ignored by the official Church. The oath was quite simply a necessity. As a rule the Bible was taken for swearing upon.

20The use of written documents could have rendered oaths superfluous as such. The ancient Mesopotamians already knew the ‘oath of the tablet’, yet held on to the ‘God of the Oath’. The ceremonies of swearing of the ancient Romans were spoken according to ‘wax tablets’ for exactness, and yet they sometimes took a stone to kill the sacrificial animal, rather than a knife. Written culture keeps to the tools of the Stone Age. Even today an oath can be admitted as evidence in front of a court – the remnant of the ritual consisting to some extent of swearing upon, i.e. touching, the Bible. Perjury is a legally defined crime.

21In addition there is the swearing-in of soldiers and officials. This also has the function of an initiation ritual. I have read that in Israel the swearing-in of the recruits, for a time, took place before the cliff fortress of Masada in torchlight: an impressive case of ‘scenic Supplémentation’ as a means of influencing the young generation. In this place one experiences the historical memory of the heroic deed of despair carried out by the defenders of Masada in AD 72, framed by the landscape, the night, the torches, all of which have always been elements of mystery rituals. The will to life, the will to defend are to grow out of the horror. This has been given up, apparently, in that Masada has been left to the tourists, that is, one can give the paying guest a shivery experience, while instead of ritually formed fighters, for new wars one now needs the highly technical attack troops who can launch smart missiles within minutes, and CNN will provide suitable images.

22The ritual practice associated with swearing oaths can be seen as a per-fectly rational attempt to perform an act of cultural and moral imprinting in order to Supplément language, to create a common world of true meanings and to secure it by evoking the animal fear of death, especially in the ceremonies of killing. The unbearable lightness of language is unacceptable, it must be abolished. The oaths particularly emphasise and further the belief in invisible higher beings, in that they simultaneously create practical symbols of extreme reality. All these are inventions, certainly, whose purpose is obvious and not quite arbitrary; they have been created in such a way that they ‘fit into the landscape’. A. Zahavi’s book, The Handicap Principle. A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle (1997), allows us to recognise another biological parameter. The apparently paradoxical cases of the manifest risk of self-damage in the animal world are described, from the jumps of the gazelle to the peacock’s display of feathers, and are interpreted as signs of strength. Only the extravagant and indelible symbol can impress, because it is not easy to fake; it has to be distinguishable from a mere bluff. What is the use of communication without reliability? Here, at least, an analogy exists to the oath rituals in which one spills one’s own blood. We, for our part, live in a world in which we can hardly differentiate between the actual and the virtual, as has often been noted. There are no facts, only interpretations, we can read; and as scholars of the humanities, we may indeed sympathize with such an attitude. We are looking for documents instead of oaths, or finally for the forgery-proof electronic signature. Do we need suicidal attacks to bring us home unalterable, hard reality?

23Let us glance at a different area, where the ancient roots of ritual behav-iour are far more visible, indeed, in my opinion undeniable: rituals of hierarchy and subordination, of the formation of hierarchies, including all forms of respect and honour, but also, naturally, all forms of impressing, threatening, making contemptible; aggressive tension and the calming release of tension.

24There can be no doubt that this goes far back in human prehistory. A highly developed sense of authority and complex ranking has been discerned in all primate societies. The intellectual capabilities of apes and monkeys, in particular of the anthropoid apes, have exceeded the expectations of observers and are documented in numerous observations and experiments. A good many of these abilities serve, however, only to carry out those social games which have to do with ranking within the group, and which go on incessantly. Are we really different in this respect? Ranking means a labile stability, it renders fighting within the group superfluous; scolding, expressing unfriendly sounds towards someone can, on the other hand, certainly indicate a ‘pecking order’, as it is among animals. Frans de Waal has written a book on the Politics of Chimpanzees’, on the basis of many years’ observations made in zoos. There are many surprising items. Not only do chimpanzees know each other personally, and are quite aware of who exactly is higher or lower in rank, but they can also apply long-term strategies, forming ‘alliances’ through favours, in order to gain advantages and to rise in rank; the fall of the alpha animal is already in the works when one animal does not show the usual reverence in looking and posture when passing by.

25It might also be worth considering that we humans spontaneously, and apparently quite generally, think of ‘rank’ as a vertical dimension, ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, instead of in a horizontal sequence or in circles about a median, both of which are equally logical. Even though the most successful primates these days move along asphalted streets, they still play their games of higher and lower rank, ‘at the bottom’ or ‘at the top’, not without an eye on ‘higher’ ideals.

26These fantasies are quite concretely anchored in corporeality. Investiga-tions have been made into the ‘attention structure’ within a group of primates and it has been established that the attention of the lower ranking is always directed toward those who are higher in the scale of things than they themselves. Thus, the higher ranking are kept in view out of the corner of one eye; “those in the darkness cannot be seen.” Heartbeat and pulse rates change when the boss enters the office. Personal cleverness generally means, of course, that the reactions are hidden rather than open; but we cannot escape the system. We are prisoners in a net of collective ritual interactions.

27There is a whole series of behavioural characteristics and symbols, which express and confirm rank. The simplest means of having one’s way by putting on a show or display is to appear ‘big’. This is the reason for hair ‘standing on end’: nature has provided this means, even though it is one’s own anxiety or fear that is at the bottom of it. Konrad Lorenz has shown how, even though we have no mane to stand on end, the ‘shiver’ of awe and the ‘shiver’ of fear have a remarkable connection – the musculature responsible runs along the backbone. In order to impress through size, people have invented crests on helmets, top hats, and military epaulets instead of manes; these all increase the size of the silhouette. Of course, a display can also trigger aggression. In order to stop aggression there are contrary behaviours, where it is important to appear small and low-ranking – the Latin word humilis, which is the source of English humility, actually means ‘belonging to the ground’. I have been told that those serving in East Asian mealtime ceremonies, generally women, may not carry their heads higher than those assembled for dining; as these practically sit on the ground, those serving must be humiles to an extreme degree, nearly crawling in order to move.

28Every meeting entails the unavoidable question of ranking. There are two opposing and firmly programmed behavioural patterns, aggressive desire to impress, and mutual subordination; both have developed special forms in customs of class and gender. As civilised, democratic citizens we long since opted for the non-aggressive tactic of subordination; take off your hat, bow, indeed kiss the lady’s hand; this kissing of the hand as a sign of subordination still survives in some parts of Europe, especially in the area of the former Austrian Empire; but the Catholic Church, too, still practises this greeting. It unites bowing with direct bodily contact. The latter is in theory; it is avoided in actuality by kissing one’s own fingers, or simply using the German formula ‘Küß(3 die Hand’. In the symbolic behavioural world there is a whole series of substitutions; the greeting (common in South Germany and Austria) of ‘Servus’, the Latin word for ‘servant’, has long since become the opposite of what it originally was – now it is a sign of rather casual familiarity.

29Earlier rulers took these things more seriously. Assyrian reliefs show how emissaries subordinate themselves to the King by not only kneeling on the ground, but touching their heads to it as well. In Akkadian this was called “wiping the nose”; one wonders whether there was bit of verbal irony with regard to the ceremony in this expression. But those in authority saw the matter more seriously. As successor to the Assyrian and Babylonian kings, the Persian Great King also insisted on emissaries throwing themselves to the ground in this manner and touching it with their foreheads. The later sultans expected the same. The Greeks called this proskynesis’. For them this was a dishonourable thing for a man to do. One emissary dropped his ring in order to have an excuse for the proskynesis. But it was Alexander, a Greek, called the Great, who required just this sign of honour, as had his predecessors, the Persian kings. As a consequence there was some unpleasant uproar at his court. The Greeks misunderstood the ritual as a way of honouring divinities, although they themselves did not generally fall to the ground in front of their own gods. I discovered a better explanation in the film Gorillas in the Mist, in which Diane Fossey (or rather, the actress playing the part) explains how one can prevent an impending attack by an irritated silverback gorilla: kneel down, lay your head on the ground and at all costs do not look at the gorilla. Perhaps this is some comfort to the one forced to do the proskynesis: no god, a gorilla. The European monarchs later did not require more of their subjects than going down on one knee to show humility and to honour the monarch. My mother, in Munich in 1910, still had to learn to curtsy for the times when the popular Prince Regent drove through the streets in his coach. In Japan I noticed that the Japanese are constantly bowing. They are living in the fourteenth regnal year of the current emperor, after all. The Swiss do not bow; they have had no monarchs for centuries.

30An important detail, not only for gorillas, is where one directs one’s gaze. Recognising a fixed stare as a danger signal is ancient and widespread ‘knowl-edge’ in the animal kingdom. The staring eye is an ‘evil eye’, triggering an innate alarm system and the corresponding behaviour. For German fraternity students of the more recent past, staring could be a reason to duel. To lower one’s eyes is a sign of subordination, and can be interpreted of course as a reflection of a bad conscience and guilt; to look each other ‘in the eye’, on the other hand, is an expression of undiluted equality; it can be learnt.

31Once the forms of subordination in war, in the midst of slaughter and conscious murder, were dramatic and strict. The vanquished, indeed their emissaries too, had to present themselves to the victors with torn clothing, half-naked, bowed down, with loosened hair, weeping; in this condition they threw themselves at the victors’ feet. Ancient historians, in particular Caesar, are fond of describing such scenes. Weeping is ‘childish’ behaviour; animals, too, are in general programmed in such a way that they do not attack chil– dren. For this reason adults also regress to demonstrative weeping. This does not exclude further demonstrative actions as an expression of inferiority; rather, this includes them. In the victory parade at Moscow in 1945, the German prisoners of war were manipulated in such a way that they had diarrhoea, so that they could be driven through the streets as a stinking mass of misery.

32Archaic patterns of behaviour occur most particularly in extreme situations. The Greeks described the special behaviour of the ones imploring protection (hiketes), by which means a warrior attempted to obtain pardon. One had to come closer to the opponent than the weapons’ reach, and attempt to touch him, especially the hollow of the knee. I was astonished to find just this in a modern press photo from the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. It shows kneeling prisoners carrying out exactly this gesture on impressively erect soldiers in the pose of victors. This is a downright uncanny correspondence to ancient depictions, for instance the mythical scene of Dolon kneeling before Odysseus and Diomedes in the Trojan War. “Moments later they were shot”, said the caption to the picture in Time magazine. Dolon, too, dies. The ritual can go wrong; the acceptance of the message contained in the symbol can be refused. All the more astonishing how schematic types of behaviour appear in different civilisations and over three thousand years’ distance. They must have been practised for extremely long periods of time. Ritual action is rooted in very old programmes of behaviour and can regress to the primitive.

33A brief mention should be made of the area in which subordination rituals have developed in a special manner, as it were running empty: in religion, where the basis is ‘reverence’. We are familiar today with how believers in Islam touch the earth with their foreheads. Correspondences exist also in the Roman Catholic Church, where the priest throws himself flat on the ground. It is no accident that the word rituale comes from the Roman church. It is usual in church to kneel to pray; only the Protestants have to some extent emancipated themselves from this. Sinking the head, lowering the eyes is still quite generally a part of pious posture. I do not wish to say anything more here about the ancient question of the origins of religion; I would only like to point out that, in its expression of subordination and reverence, the schema– tised behaviour called ritual connects the religious and non-religious spheres. It is the given, programmed ritual which gives that sphere of the higher, invisible, otherworldly a certain, quite determined structure – just that content of the all-powerful, almighty. The demonstrative element that accrues to ritual is also impossible to overlook in the area of piety; one does it for a divinity, but also to show others that one does it and how. Symeon on his column, around AD 420, bowed before God, touching his toes by doing so – 1244 times, we are told. Peter Brown comments: “The true horror of this story lies not in the exertions of the saint, but in the layman who stood there counting” (Making of Late Antiquity 14, Theodoretus PG 82, 1481A). Horrible, but typical that somebody stood there and counted.

34The modern style of democratic equality tends to make most of these ceremonial behaviours disappear, and one would hardly wish them back. There are probably no more families in which the wife and children drop to their knees in front of a dominant father, as still occurred in the family of my grandfather. State visits with a review of armed soldiers have an antiquated flavour about them. On the other hand, embracing and kissing, which is a very old, chimpanzee-type of behaviour, has become ubiquitous, indeed exaggeratedly so, a sign of peace and joy. Bodily expressions of this kind are not possible in electronic communication. In e-mails and SMS messages the rituals of greeting in the form of salutations and conclusions tend to disap– pear; there is no room for them. Programmed hierarchies, complicated access codes take their place. Yet one observes not only the Pope, but the most modern managers and diplomats searching for the ‘face to face’. They have to travel, they have to meet for ‘working dinners’ – note the corporeal aspect. It is not enough after all to sit in front of a computer or to pull out one’s mobile phone. One wants more than just the credit for one’s hard-earned money in the computer. So new and quite corporeal rituals occur in accordance with tourism arranged in classes.

35Let us cast a glance at yet a third area, which does not lend itself as much to parody, and where ritual still seems to us to be essential: dealing with death and the dead. Multicultural as we are, we know that here the uniformity of world society breaks down, that there are multifarious and very different customs. There still exist Parsees today, followers of Zarathustra, who leave corpses in the Towers of Silence for the vultures. For us, in general, there is only the choice between cremation and burial; cremation, quite usual elsewhere, was introduced into Europe in the 19th century as an anti-Christian form of rationality; now crematoriums are at our disposal everywhere. Some 19th-century rationalists, impressed by chemistry, wanted bodies to be dissolved in sulphuric acid. These, too, were basically variants of the reaction to the fundamentals of existing ritual tradition. At any rate, one does not like to imagine a fully automatic, computer-guided disposal system taking the place of ritual burial, even though we are rather unclear about just exactly where and when the dignity of man ceases to be of concern.

36The ritual of death is, in any case, ancient and distinctively human. In the debate on whether chimpanzees could lay claim to human rights, an anthropologist has said that this could only be if they bury their dead. Chimpanzees, of course, do not do this. On the other hand, rituals of burial have been established as far back as the so-called Neanderthals, where ochre seems to have been used, probably in order to make the dead look more alive, and where flowers seem to have been laid in the grave. These are absolutely the oldest human rituals that we can establish; the finds are all the more astonishing because geneticists have now established that Neanderthal did not belong to our ancestral lineage, but was a different species that existed beside Homo sapiens. How it can happen that two species existing at the same time could practise identical or similar rituals, namely burial rituals, is a problem worth thinking about. Especially remarkable, and indeed moving, is this use of flowers. This seems to lead directly to our modern practice of placing flowers on a grave. But in our newspapers one often reads that donations to some humanitarian organisation are desired, instead of flowers. Rational usefulness is to triumph over the ‘meaninglessness of ritual’. But flowers remain, the moving and pathetic gesture of breaking them, the display of beauty and impermanence against the ghastly presence and the irretrievable past. Did the Neanderthal feel this way, and act accordingly?

37An immediately noticeable behaviour in the presence of death is weeping. I assume that this is universal among human beings. It is a quite characteristic physical behaviour. It is specifically human, a physiological process that we can only partially master. There are more culturally determined forms of training to suppress weeping. “Men don’t cry”, I said to an uncle at the death of my grandmother, around 65 years ago, upon seeing the various aunts crying. This physiologically autonomous and spontaneous reaction becomes a social thing at funerals, it is transferred from the individual to the collective, becoming in a way controllable in this fashion. "Do we weep from the entrance to the cemetery on, or not until we reach the grave?" This question, asked by a guest at a funeral who came from out of town, shows this desire to adapt in the ritual of bereavement. The controllability was quite extensive in antiquity, as we know from the existence of hired ‘wailing women’. For this apparently collective expression of feeling is also communicative at the same time, a symbol that is perceived and that is intended to be perceived. It is seen, too, as a testimonial of respect, as a way of honouring; there are societies where the duration and intensity of mourning on the part of neighbours, friends and intimates are registered most exactly. Naturally, at the next opportunity this must be precisely reciprocated.

38Other forms of honouring the dead have become foreign to us: aggressive outbreaks, fighting games, sports, agones. The Roman gladiatorial fights were originally funeral games, although later the entertainment aspect took over. There were human sacrifices in connection with funeral rites in the Orient, but also among the Greeks. The Greek athletic competitions also originated in funeral games – as they are depicted, for example, in Homer’s Iliad. Later, for instance the Olympic Games, they are still tied to sacrifice and altar. Karl Meuli has discussed these connections between death customs and agones particularly intensively. Of course, we shudder when Hitler’s Olympic Games of 1936 made such connections again, where a ‘Langemarck Hall’ in memory of those who fell in 1914 was part of the Berlin Olympic Stadium. By the way, the carrying of the Olympic flame is a ritual that was invented at the time, and has continued to be practised since.

39To remain with the topic of the dead: something that we regard as absolutely necessary for a funeral, too, is food. It is the only kind of festive meal to which one may come with no personal invitation, for by participating one testifies to one’s own personal participation. Those who are truly sad will feel that the comfortable cheerfulness, which tends to spread under these circumstances is something of an irritation; but it is rather difficult to sit and fast or to exclude oneself. Again it is remarkable how the bodily things are used to overcome the spiritual difficulties. And the sense of the ceremony can be understood and formulated as: life goes on. What greater assurance of the will to live than eating?

40The problem existing here was already reflected in Homer’s poetry, in the last song of the Iliad. Achilles is still caught up in the deepest depression, even after the extravagant funeral games for Patroklos; he sits in his tent and refuses to eat, with the mistreated and decomposing corpse of the arch-enemy Hector in the background; and beside him stands the table, full of food, great joints of meat – he touches nothing. Then old Priamos, Hector’s father, comes, and he manages to persuade Achilles to release his son’s corpse to be buried – and Achilles invites the guest to eat, the true expression of reconciliation. Achilles himself then tells a mythical story, the story of Niobe, whose children had all been killed by the gods; she sat among the corpses for nine days, but even this had an end with their burial, and Niobe then ‘remembered food’, she ate, and she continued to live. The story could be put in a different, harder way, as in the tragedy by Aischylos, Niobe: Niobe, in her speechless bereavement, turns to stone, and thus she sits to this day on Mount Sipylos, a stone on which moisture drips, a weeping stone. The usual ritual leads away from this petrification, and guarantees further life; this is why the funeral meal is so important.

41We like to speak of the mystery of death, as though thinking about it could help us. In philosophical contemplation of existence one can see the knowledge of death as the fundamental knowledge for being human, for the human consciousness of the self; then one can indeed ask, when did it develop; it is there, in any case, in the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian literature. There are various religions with various messages intended to overcome death, or claiming to render it unimportant in some way. This is not a matter for these pages. But in every culture there are suggestions for rituals that help, traditions of ritual. Such a ritual does not require a special, personal ‘belief, which is why one cannot conclude anything about belief from ritual, although historians of religion are fond of doing this. Ritual is used and needed as a tracery, formation, stylisation of that which is necessary, in order to overcome individual aimlessness and depression. One participates; one lets it happen. What is perceived to be an unburdening, or a pressure, as sensible or senseless, is doubtless an individual matter. Social action here possesses a supra-individual form. In dealing with death, ritual remains a necessity.

42I have tried to throw light on ritual using old examples, which entails moving back and forth from ancient things to all kinds of modern ones, from evident functions to meaninglessness, from dying out to new starts. I believe I can maintain that far more questions remain than answers supported by theory. In other words: this remains an area of research.


1 Translation by Douglas Fear. Lecture delivered on the occasion of the opening of the Collaborative Research Center 619 Dynamics of Ritual on October 21, 2002 (cf Forum Ritualdynamik 2, 2003: I have maintained the original phrasing of the lecture with some modifications. For further details and documentation, see: W. Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, Berkeley 1979; id., Creation of the Sacred. Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, Cambridge, Mass. 1996.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 2006

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