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Toward a Ritual Poetics: Dream of the Rood as a Case Study
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Oral-traditional and ritualistic practices rarely fall into mutually exclusive categories. Nevertheless, scholars tend to analyze oral-related Old English verse as if it were purely verbal, and tend not to seek out the potential connections between the once living tradition from which written texts stemmed and relevant ritual scenarios. But ritualization permeates multiple modes of expression. As Stanley Tambiah writes, “Although neither linguistically nor ostensively can we demarcate a bounded domain of ritual (separated off from other domains) in any society, yet every society has named and marked out enactments, performances, and festivities which we can identify as typical or focal examples of ‘ritual’ events” (1981:116). Inattention to ritual on the part of most scholars interested in orality arises partly out of necessity: lacking ethnographic records for the performance of oral tradition in Anglo-Saxon England, we cannot speak with any confidence about the performance contexts or about the poets who composed the majority of the surviving poetic works.1 Nonetheless, many scholars interested in “voices from the past” have been able to trace “the telltale compositional stamp” that oral-related poems bear (Foley 2002:47),2 with that oral-traditional “stamp” legible in the specialized idioms—such as formulaic phraseology, themes, and type-scenes—that recur throughout the Old English corpus.3 I want to suggest that it is also possible to trace ritualistic features, whether linguistic, imagistic, gestural, or acoustic, that enhance and inform the meaning of Old English poems such as Dream of the Rood.4 Just as it is important to learn to hear the oral tradition that resounds in many textualized medieval works, so, I argue, it is important to recognize the ritual features that these poems incorporate. My hypothesis is that ritual features, when integrated within oral-related poems, preserve their association with lived, emergent ritual processes. These features do not necessarily operate as purely allusive signs, but may behave metonymically, just as oral-traditional idioms do.

Scholarship Bridging Old English Poetry and Ritual

What might happen if we allow for the possibility that Old English poems may enact a “ritual poetics” that rhetorically functions in a manner similar to oral poetics, metonymically invoking the whole by means of the part? The leap from oral tradition to ritual is not a huge one, since both rely upon performativity, that is, the process of bringing a poem or rite fully into being via performance, and both use stylized forms of communication in contrast to “everyday” speech and actions.5 Roy Liuzza (2008) has also posited connections between poetry and ritual while questioning the categorical distinctions scholars often make between Anglo-Saxon prayers and charms, the first usually associated with sanctioned Christian practices (including rites) and the second with “Germanic” cultural relics. Using Lea Olsan’s definition of the charm,6 he concludes (318–19):

Instead of a dichotomy, we might imagine a spectrum of practices, with an episcopal consecration (for example) at one end and a ceremony for the relief of elf-shot in horses at the other, and most forms of popular devotion somewhere in the middle. The defining criteria seem to have more to do with the specificity of the occasion and the extrinsic loci of authority than with the intrinsic nature of the performance. . . .

The metrical and prosimetrical charms, due to their quasi-magical character and their incorporation of utterances that conform to the expectations of Old English meter, have long been treated as literary oddities. Liuzza urges us to perceive prayers and charms on a continuum of performative utterances whose aim is to bring to bear in the world the efficacy of divine power.7 Liuzza situates prayers and charms on a ritualistic continuum, from practices authorized by institutions such as the Church or the crown, to those that appear to belong to popular culture.

Karl Reichl offers another model for thinking about the relationship between verbal art and ritual. He draws attention to the problem of inking a dividing line between oral epic and ritual, since “in the performance of epic a number of ritual aspects can be discerned also in traditions where a framework of religious rite and ritual for the epic does not exist” (2003:253...

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