Friday, June 4, 2010

Finding the divine in the bovine

This posting on Savage Minds
commented on the state of ritual theory in anthropology in response to this posting on Open Anthropology about the ritual slaughter of a cow at the World Cup in South Africa:

Animal slaughter is a ritual among local tribal groups to call on ancestors to bless an occasion. Some 2,000 people attended Tuesday’s ceremony, many wearing traditional animal skins.

Maseko said the ceremony was meant to cover all the World Cup’s 10 stadiums, including Johannesburg’s second stadium Ellis Park, where 43 fans died in a stampede at a local derby in 2001, the country’s worst soccer disaster.

“The spirits of those people are hanging over all of the stadiums. We need to cleanse those spirits,” she said.

I confess that I am just too untheoretical to follow precisely what the comments on Open Anthropology were all about. I think not only that ritual is significant in our lives (as I am certain that the Open Anthropology bloggers would agree), but also that anthropological analysis of ritual is insightful and inspiring (as the Savage Mind blogger suggests):

Arnold Van Gennep originally published The Rites of Passage in 1903. He was not the first, or last, anthropologist to note the importance and meaning of ritual (or of particular rituals in particular cultures and societies), but his work brought attention to the structure of rituals, which he claimed could be observed across contexts.

Victor Turner later elaborated upon what he called the ritual process, which begins with "separation" from an individual's former status in a group, "liminality" (which he described as the state of being "betwixt and between"), and "incorporation" into an individual's new status in a group.

For example, in what we call a traditional church wedding, when a bride is walked down the aisle by her father and she is "given" in marriage at the altar, this ritual marks her separation from her unmarried status (and from her father as representative of her natal family and so on). The liminal individuals (bride and groom) exchanges rings and vows. In the end, they are invited to kiss (sealing the deal), then introduced as wife and husband, which marks their incorporation (or reincorporation) into the community. The wedding illustrates completely the ritual process, or rites of passage.

Think baptism, First Communion, weddings, funerals, even pledging in a fraternity or sorority. Or pregnancy and childbirth, for that matter. A structure or process is what Van Gennep and Turner suggested that they all have in common. It is, in fact, what makes rituals "work" for us.

Van Gennep himself suggested that rites of separation, of transition (liminality), and of incorporation will not be "developed to the same extent by all people or in every ceremonial pattern" (11). Also, not all rituals are rites of passage. Exhibiting a late 19th / early 20th century thinker's mania for taxonomies, Van Gennep describes rites of passage as a category, with rites of protection, divination, initiation, and propitiation being others.

Anthropological analysis of ritual offers a tool for understanding activities such as the ritual slaughter of a cow as not senseless. (I leave aside concern about animal rights. My particular ax to grind here is animal rites. Ha ha.) In fact, it turns out that the ritual is overladen with meaning - for example, to mark the start of the World Cup games, to recognize the tragedies of the past and even "separate" them from the present (i.e., to "appease" the spirits, to lay them to rest), to create community, to express a wish for connection, and so on.

I think it might be an important "intervention" of anthropology to introduce the framework of ritual, hopefully enabling us all to recognize the importance and meaning and even necessity of ritual in our lives.

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