Focus Group 'Ritual'

The focus group 'ritual' provides a venue for investigating the role of the senses in religious ritual, and then in turn, the ways in which the sensual aspects of religious ritual come into play in the course of inter- and intra-religious encounter, adaption, and resistance.

Ritual, within the context of religious studies, may be described as the formalized engagement of the body with the divine, and the effort, through formalized bodily acts and the use of material objects and constructions of space, to engage the divine1 with the material world and human interaction with that world. More concretely expressed, by ‘formalized engagement of the body with the divine’ and ‘formalized bodily acts’ we refer to bodily behaviors or alterations of the body, such as fasting, or eating specific foods in a particular way or space, wearing of particular clothing or other ways of altering appearance whether permanently or temporarily, i.e. scarring or painting the body, making noise/music, moving in a particular way, for example in dance, drama, or simply from one space to another, which serve ostensibly to capture the attention of the divine, whether for praise or petition. Coupled with the involvement of the human body, ritual regularly also involves the use of other physical objects or non-human animals, for example, in sacrifice – incense, animal sacrifice, gifting of food, etc. and the creation of space that is designated sacred, or at least instrumental in evoking the divine in some way. Creating sacred space, which in turn is linked with ritual, may be accomplished by the construction of a building for worship, i.e. a temple, church, synagogue, mosque, etc. or an altar outside of a man- made structure, or by human movement, for example through dance, or a procession, which in turn, because of the meaning granted that movement and accompanying actions, marks the space as holy, or at least significant in the appeal to the divine. So, a procession around a city or a field as part of an intercession for protection against war or for good crops, may or may not designate the city perimeters or the field as holy, but the space is nonetheless significant within the ritual, because the movement around these spaces are understood to be essential for the efficacy of the ritual and divine intervention. Very often, though not always, calendrical time dictates when a set of actions in a given place may be considered sacred or effective.

Basing one’s inquiries regarding ritual on such a description, it is easy to see how ritual, the senses, and religion would intersect, which will be one aspect of the year-long exploration of this focus group. Yet the above paragraph is indeed, merely a descriptive definition, without addressing the function or meaning of rituals. Theories regarding this topic are legion.2 It is not the intent of the focus group to impose a priori a single theoretical stance regarding the function of ritual, however, already from the above description, it is clear that the performative aspect of ritual and the relationship which a number of scholars have posited regarding the link between play, theater, and (religious) ritual, on the one hand, and the embodied nature of religious ritual are taken as a starting point.3 Part of the task of the focus group will be exploring in greater detail the meaning of religious ritual as they engage the sensory experience of humans. The other, is to understand how both of these may be used in analysis of religious encounter.

Religious encounter has been a central concern for the study of certain types of religious ritual, for example, pilgrimage. Victor and Edith Turner’s concept of communitas has be utilized, contested and refined as a lens for examining shared religious practices, particularly shared holy sites and pilgrimage to them.4 Yet rituals exist outside the sphere of religion; civic ceremonies, sports, family contexts, coming of age, personalized customary acts between two individuals, or even within the realm of individual, private behavior. These in turn have long informed scholars’ understanding of the nature and meaning of ritual, religious or otherwise. Furthermore, the boundary between religious ritual and other kinds of ritual are often blurredVery often, it is precisely in these borderlines between normally secular play and ritual, or political and religious ritual, or daily customs, hospitality and ritual eating which address most directly the intersection of religious encounter, ritual, and sensory experience. Football (Soccer in American parlance) has, in recent years, has been used both as a tool for religious rapprochement and in the creation and reinforcement of religious boundaries, especially in regards to Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Thus entertainment, politics, and religion become enmeshed in ‘ritual like’ behavior. The drama, moros y christianos, a religio-political drama became in the Americas, simultaneously a religious ritual, a tool for imparting religious and political ideology, and, eventually, a tool of indigenous resistance against European colonizers and their descendants.5 Again, what is religious ritual as distinct from other types become difficult to disentangle. Patricia Seed has examined ceremonies of possession in the context of early modern expansion. The rituals she describes, on the one hand were very much about demarcating newly gained political territory, yet on the other, they expressed religious affiliation and dominance.6 Similarly medieval and modern attempts to control religious ‘noise’ integral to a given religious community’s ritual life becomes simultaneously religious and political, while engaging or limiting sensory experiences connected to religious practice.7

Clothing and eating may seem to be part of daily social life without being obviously religious, yet in the context of specific religious taboos or requirements, for example for a holy person or religious leader to dress in a particular way, activities of consumption and adornment may be imbued with religious significance. Food prohibitions and sumptuary laws have long been recognized as points of religious demarcation. These intersect with ritual, when, for example a Christian joined a non-Christian funeral and partakes of the funeral meal, a portion of which may have been offered to other Roman gods, or Jews were forced to dress in a particular way during holy week and then subjected to ritualized violence.

Thus, for the purposes of this discussion group, we propose to focus on the following themes:

[1] By ‘divine’ we mean any force, whether good, evil, or neutral, understood to be in some way beyond the physical, lived reality, yet at the same time possessing both power and will/intelligence to, if persuaded, to intervene in the physical world.
[2] For a nice overview, see: Catherine Bell, Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions (Oxford University Press, 1997)
[3] For religion, ritual and performance, see for example: Religion, Theater and Performance: Acts of Faith, Ed. Lance Gharavi (Routledge, 2012); Eli Rozik, The Roots of Theater: Rethinking Ritual and Other Theories of Origin (University of Iowa Press, 2007); Matt Tomlinson, Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance (Oxford University Press, 2004); Laurence Sullivan, “Sound and Senses: toward a hermeneutics of performance,” History of Religions 26/1 (1986)1-33; Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play (Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982); Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture, trans. R.F.C. Hull ( Routledge & K. Paul, 1949) ; for embodiment and ritual see, for example: Ritual, Performance and the Senses, ed. Michael Bull, Jon Mitchell (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015); Mateo Josep Lluis Dieste, Health and Ritual in Morocco: Conceptions of the Body and Healing Practices, (Brill, 2012); David Morgan, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Seeing (University of California Press, 2012); Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, (Zone Books, 2011); Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 1992)
[4]Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries, ed.Diongili Albera and Maria Couroucli (Indiana University Press, 2012); Muslims and Others in Sacred Space, ed. Margaret Cormack (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Frank Korom, “Caste Politics, Ritual, Performance, and Local Religion in a Bengali Village: A Reassessment of Liminality and Communitas,” Acta Ethnographica Hungarica 47/3–4 (2002): 397–449; Selva Raj, “Transgressing Boundaries, Transcending Turner: The Pilgrimage Tradition at the Shrine of St. John de Britto,” Journal of Ritual Studies 16/1 (2002): 4–18; Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, Ed. John Eade and Michael Sallnow (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Victor Turner, “Death and the Dead in the Pilgrimage Process,” in Blazing the Trail Marks the Way in the Exploration of Symbols, ed. Edith Turner (Tuscon, University of Arizona Press1992), 29–47; Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); V. Turner The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969).
[5] Max Harris, Aztecs, Moors and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain (University of Texas, 2000)
[6] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World 1492-1640 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[7] Olivia Remie Constable “RegulatingReligious Noise: The Council of Vienne, the Mosque Call and Muslim Pilgrimage in the Late Medieval Mediterranean World,” Medieval Encounters ,16 (2010) 64-95; C. M. Woodgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England (Yale University Press, 2007) 69-74;Alain Corbin, Village bells: sound and meaning in the nineteenth-century French countryside, transl. Maurice Thom (Columbia University Press, 1998).