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  • Ritual Scenes in the Iliad:Rote, Hallowed, or Encrypted as Ancient Art?
  • Margo Kitts (bio)

To analyze ritual scenes in the Iliad, one first must contend with the myriad scenes scholars have deemed ritualistic. These include not only prayer, supplication, sacrifice, and oath-making,1 but also gift exchanges and hospitality,2 speechmaking and taunting,3 grieving and funeral ceremonies,4 and dressings and armings.5 Indeed, the whole performance of the Iliad has been described as a ritualized feature of Totenkult (Seaford 1994; Derderian 2001) or, less comprehensively, a performance of Todesdichtung permeated with themes of lament, lament itself being identified as a micro-ritual with discernible performance features (Tsagalis 2004). Expressly or not, Homerists have attuned their ears to rituals in the poem ever since Parry and Lord discovered the performance-contexts for bards in the Balkans (for example, Lord 1960:13-29). By analogy with those performances, the Iliad represents an artifact of an extensive tradition of ritual performance: the ritual performed was the poem.

Although ritual is basic to oral-traditional performance and to many features of Homeric life, one cannot presume that ritual scenes simply reflect lived traditions outside of the poem. Given the likely evolution of the poems, the claim is just too broad. Whose rituals? Which side of the Mediterranean? Which generation of poets? Further, as Katherine Derderian notes of the poem's funeral rituals, they must be at least in part fictionalized (2001:9). We can be reasonably sure that funeral rituals did not occur in hexameter, for instance, or not wholly so. In this essay I ponder to what extent ritual scenes in the poem might reflect actual ritual traditions, by examining those scenes in the light of ritual performance theory. I will argue that ritual scenes are composed with unique constraints that reflect the crystallization of especially ancient ritual traditions. Thus, they reflect compositional pressures beyond those of other kinds of typical scenes.

Scenes of commensal and oath sacrifice are convenient for this investigation because they are highly formalized. Sacrifice scenes will be treated as a subgenre of typical scenes with unique performance features and genealogies. The focus, however, is not on the cultural differences between these two sacrificial traditions,6 but on the extent to which their respective typical scenes manifest the features we can discern in ritual performances at large.

How to Identify a Ritual

To begin we must consider what features identify rituals per se. For the last four decades scholars have viewed rituals typically in terms of communication and performance theory,7 focusing not on enacted myth8 but on the typical features that shape and distinguish ritual communication. Such features usually are non-instrumental (Rappaport 1999:51), superfluous to practical aim, and irreducible to technical motivations (Whitehouse 2004:3). They might include, for example, exaggerated gestures, marked tempos, ceremonial implements, or speech acts in heightened registers or arcane dialects. This is not to say that higher order awarenesses or different affects may not emerge for participants in a ritual (Rappaport 1999:72; Whitehouse 2004:105-36), but merely that, from goose mating dances to a Latin mass, ritual is a distinct order of communication.

Identifying features depend on the theorist. Stanley Tambiah identified four principal features: formality, stereotypy, condensation, and redundancy (1981:119). Maurice Bloch observed degrees of formality, patterning, repetition and rhythm (1989:21). Roy Rappaport discerned ritual encoding by someone other than the performers, formality, degree of invariance, and metaperformative qualities, by which he meant the way that a ritual's performance establishes the conventions it enacts (1999:32-50). Valerio Valeri recognized ritual patterns as behaving like poetry: they communicate form over syntax, equivalence over difference, and on a paradigmatic rather than syntagmatic axis (1985:343). Even the evolutionary anthropologists, such as Alcorta and Sosis, have observed in ritual a deep structural grammar, which they claim has an ontogenetic basis (2005:332). Synthesizing all this for a short essay, we can compress these features into four: patterning, rhythm, condensation, and formality. These features overlap but have the advantage of being traceable in the poem.

Patterning in Sacrifice Scenes

Patterning is probably the most basic feature of rituals and characterized by predictability and...

Additional Information

ISSN
1542-4308
Print ISSN
0883-5365
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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