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Article

Paul Post

Ritual studies is not a school, nor is it a theory or a method; it is a multi- or interdisciplinary platform for the academic, critical, and systematic study of ritual, or in the words of the founding father of ritual studies, Ronald Grimes: it is a field. The platform of ritual studies, which emerged in the mid-1970s, initially combined the fields of religious studies, anthropology, liturgical studies, and theater studies. The emergence of ritual studies as a field of research of its own fits seamlessly into a broader development in academia that took place in three phases. The first phase took place during the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, when academic disciplines came into being and formed distinct profiles. The study of ritual plays a prominent role in (comparative) religious studies (Eliade, Otto, Van der Leeuw), in philosophy (ritual and symbol, Ricoeur), in anthropology and sociology (Durkheim, Turner), in psychology (Jung), and in cultural history (Huizinga). There was at this time remarkably little interest in ritual among theologians. It was not until the influence of the Liturgical Movement that a change occurred. The second phase took place during the long decade of the 1960s, which saw the start of a fruitful interdisciplinary phase. Rituals were thought to offer an effective entrance into a culture, allowing one to penetrate it deeply. The liturgical renewal project also took place after Vaticanum II, and it was in this setting that the term “ritual studies” was first used by the American Academy of Religion in 1977. The beginning of the 21st century saw the start of a new phase, during which different disciplines have been connected and integrated into large, multidisciplinary thematic clusters. In this context, the field of ritual studies features in a broad range of studies, including cultural memory studies, media and communication studies, death studies, leisure studies, material religion studies, migration studies, and many others.

Article

As “cultic citizens,” women participated in state festivals at Athens alongside men and celebrated their own rituals apart from them, at shrines within the house and in cults outside the house in the company of other women. Their association with fertility made them indispensable performers of rites connected with the agricultural year. Women also served as priestesses, as dedicators, and as euergetai (benefactors). At home, their rituals accompanied nuptial preparations, the laying out of the dead, and the departure of soldiers for war. Female religious activity was considered so critical to the welfare of the community that it was sanctioned by law and financed by the polis. Religion further allowed women’s widespread movement throughout the city as they left their homes to participate in processions and festivals, visit shrines, sanctuaries, and cemeteries. By performing rituals on behalf of the city, Athenian women distinguished themselves from female foreigners and slaves as rightful citizens of the polis. Women-only festivals further offered opportunities to build and strengthen female social networks, to act autonomously, and perhaps even to subvert social norms. Domestic rituals accomplished by women in turn helped to mark the life stages and strengthen familial identity. The difficulties of reconstructing the ancient Greek religious system are well known, even for the period for which there is the most evidence, classical Athens. Even more challenging is the task of recovering the religious activities of women within this structure, given that men served as the primary religious agents within both the polis and household. The prevailing view that the polis mediated all religious activity, including domestic, encompassed by the concept of “polis religion,” has further obscured our understanding women’s ritual activities. Influenced by feminist and social-network theories, recent research has argued for a more nuanced model of religious activity that takes into account the varieties of individual religious experience, particularly those of members of marginal groups, such as slaves and women. It dismantles the traditional binary model of public and private by showing how polis and household were intricately interconnected and interdependent at all levels. These new approaches allow us to consider the ways in which women’s ritual activities intersected with and reinforced polis ideology, allowing women a significant presence and agency in the civic sphere, despite their exclusion from politics, commerce, and certain public spaces. It can also help us understand their engagement with noncivic celebrations and domestic ritual.

Article

Dharma protectors are a critical and indispensable aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, but the full theological, psychological, political, and literary significance of this special class of deity and their cults is still relatively poorly understood and understudied in Western scholarship. Dharma protectors, who in their typically distinctively wrathful appearances embody and transmute negative emotion and terrifying existential realities, constitute a kind of spiritual or daemonic sangha that in their most immediate function is meant to act as an apotropic ward against any and all threats to the human Buddhist community. Further, these beings are often invoked and employed as something like “familiar” or servitor spirits for a range of purposes by Buddhist religious specialists. While there are hundreds if not thousands of different protector deities in the shifting, kaleidoscopic “polytheon” of Tibetan Buddhism, there are a relative few main deities around which Tibetans have historically and continually produced a large body of art, ritual, and narrative literature. The most soteriologically and cosmologically significant protector deities, and consequently often the most popular, are usually figures directly borrowed from Indian Buddhism, such as Mahākāla, a wrathful Buddhist form of the Hindu god Śiva, or they are adaptations of Indian deities, such as the great goddess Śrī Devī and the astrological demon Rāhula. These more “Indian” deities tend to be regarded in Tibetan Buddhism as fully enlightened and are distinguished from native Tibetan deities who are more typically seen as unenlightened or more recently enlightened protectors. The Tibetan mythology of these deities usually takes the form of a conversion narrative, describing how they were born and the events leading up to their becoming (under often quite violent circumstances) guardians of the Buddhist teachings. These Tibetan Buddhist myths, which have largely been neglected by Western scholars, imitate the structures and themes of Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist Jātaka, Purāṇic, Māravijaya, and Avadāna literary genres, but also often transvalue and subvert them. Thus the “biographies” of these protector deities represent the dark tantric inversions of normative Buddhist hagiography.

Article

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III

Greek magic is the discourse of magic within the ancient Greek world. Greek magic includes a range of practices, from malevolent curses to benevolent protections, from divinatory practices to alchemical procedures, but what is labelled magic depends on who is doing the labelling and the circumstances in which the label is applied. The discourse of magic pertains to non-normative ritualized activity, in which the deviation from the norm is most often marked in terms of the perceived efficacy of the act, the familiarity of the performance within the cultural tradition, the ends for which the act is performed, or the social location of the performer. Magic is thus a construct of subjective labelling, rather than an objectively existing category. Rituals whose efficacy is perceived as extraordinary (in either a positive or negative sense) or that are performed in unfamiliar ways, for questionable ends, or by performers whose status is out of the ordinary might be labelled (by others or by oneself) as magic in antiquity.

Article

At its founding, the United States did not have a long history nor an official state religion to draw from to construct a national identity, so Americans turned to the creation of sacred geographies built around nature and, as time passed, the founding myths of the republic. These natural and human-built sacred places now span the United States and correspond to a civil religion that appeals to tourists. The United States even has sacred documents like the Declaration of Independence that tourists view with reverence. Sacred tourist destinations are often overtly constructed and they imbue a nation with identity, elicit something akin to religious awe, and create a place wherein public rituals and modern pilgrimages are enacted. They also underscore the diverse nature of sacred tourism in America. Religion and tourism both exist in space and use space to construct meaning. The motivations of those religious adherents who travel to sacred places are buttressed by an undercurrent of belief. Tourists, on the other hand, are not always believers, and they have diverse rationales for traveling to sacred places: some are on a quest for genuine spiritual engagement, others are seeking authenticity to offset the manufactured nature of modernity, and still others simply have an attraction to the cultural lore connected to a place. Tourists to religious sites thus arrive at a place that has been specifically designated sacred and therefore set apart, but while the place may be fixed geographically, its meanings commonly are not. Classifying a space brings it into existence as place, and this classification is regularly driven by the forces of commodification linked to tourism; it is also often contested between religious adherents and less spiritually inclined tourists and at times even within different tourist constituencies. Since human intervention is a precondition in any construction of place, sacred tourist destinations are based on mutually reinforcing relationships, and the tourists and pilgrims that seek sacred sites each play significant roles in creating, maintaining, or contesting a place’s identity. “Religious-based tourism,” “tourism to sacred places,” and “religious or spiritual tourism” each carry different connotations. While religious and spiritual tourism indicate tours undertaken solely or mainly for faith-based reasons, “religious-based tourism” acknowledges that tourists are not homogenous; those tourists whose main aim is recreational can still be religious adherents, nonreligious tourists are still usually visiting a sacred place because of its purported numinous qualities, and those whose primary goal is religious can still evince behavior typically associated with tourism. “Tourism to sacred places” or “sacred tourism” allows the flexibility to include hallowed places that are either formally religious or not. Indeed, sites of secular pilgrimage continue to proliferate wherein “pilgrim” is used indistinguishably from “tourist” because of the mixture of secular and sacred at the site itself as well as the diverse motivations of the people who journey there. A spatial examination of tourism to sacred sites must thus consider the spatial dynamics of the motivations and actions of people within a commodified and contested place that draws tourists, pilgrims, and the many who are both.

Article

Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status. During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.

Article

Paul B. Donnelly

The English word “pilgrimage” has been used to translate the Tibetan nekor or nejel, which means to circumambulate or to meet a sacred place, respectively. “Tibet” here refers not only to the modern Tibetan Autonomous Region but also to what has been called “Ethnographic Tibet.” This area includes the three provinces of Utsang, Kham, and Amdo, but also regions outside the modern political borders of China, such as Ladakh, Zangskar, Bhutan, Dolpo, and Mustang. The people across these regions share a common written language, largely similar social institutions and values, and a shared sense of historical connection. Though lesser known in the West than the doctrinal and meditative traditions of Tibet, pilgrimage has always been central to the religious lives of the people of the Tibetan cultural regions. In fact, while doctrine and meditation have been the purview of the elite monastic scholarly minority, pilgrimage has been far more pervasive and practiced by laypeople as well as the monastics for purposes both worldly and soteriological. Though religious elites or even ordinary Tibetans may describe pilgrimages in sophisticated Buddhist doctrinal terms, what they actually do is often as rooted in indigenous Tibetan conceptions of place and sacred power as it is in Buddhism. The concept of sacred place preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, and sacred places have remained important to both adherents of the Bön religion and of Buddhism. Pilgrimage to holy mountains, lakes, caves, and “hidden lands” was, and remains, central to Bön practice. This fact is consistent with the Bönpos’ self-identification as the preservers of the indigenous religion of Tibet. Buddhists in Tibet visited and venerated these powerful places, either overwriting their pre-Buddhist understandings with Buddhist ones or allowing the autochthonous powers respect alongside Buddhist practice. One well-known myth describes the Buddhist taming of Tibet in terms of Buddhist masters subduing and pinning down a demoness identified with the land of Tibet itself. Once tamed, mountains, lakes, caves, and hidden lands became understood in terms of tantric Buddhist doctrine and practice. After the conquest of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, pilgrimage became difficult for many Tibetans. This remained the case until the liberalizations of the PRC in Tibet in the mid-1980s. This shift allowed Tibetans to resume the practice of pilgrimage and opened Tibet to Western scholars interested in the practice. Since the mid-1990s, scholarship on Tibetan pilgrimage has flourished, and some scholars have turned their attention to pilgrimage in the ethnographically Tibetan regions in Northern India.

Article

Robin Osborne and Caroline Vout

One of the challenges shared across cultures and faiths is the intangible, ineffable nature of the divine. One problematic, yet theologically productive, solution to this problem is to embody the divine in sculpture and painting; another is to seek divine aid and attest to divine presence by making votive offerings. In the absence of a sacred text, it was sculptural and graphic representation of the divine that made sanctuaries and temples in Greece and Rome theologically active places. But the need to experience god was not confined to these centers. Greek and Roman gods were everywhere—on coins, gems, drinking vessels, domestic wall paintings. Even when they were not there, their power could be felt in the representation of those who had felt their power. They were as pervasive as they were all seeing. This article examines how this material culture worked to bring gods and mortals into contact. It does so by tackling three major issues: first, it discusses how a wide range of artifacts, monumental and modest, shaped sanctuary space and guided and recorded the worshipper’s interaction with the divine; second, it looks at images of gods themselves and how these affected epiphany, while maintaining a critical gap and insisting on their strangeness; and third, it uses art to rethink the relationship of religion and myth. Although there are some continuities between cultures, the rise of Hellenistic and Roman ruler cults created a new subcategory of gods, creating additional representational challenges. Out of this came Christ, who was god incarnate. We briefly explore how early Christian artists used the problems of anthropomorphism to their spiritual advantage.

Article

Fritz Graf

Mystery cults of Dionysos are attested to in Greece from the late Archaic epoch and expanded to Rome in Hellenistic times. They appear in two forms, the group (thíasos) of ecstatic women (mainádes) who celebrate their rituals in the wilderness outside the city and in opposition to the restrictive female city life; and the thíasos of both men and women that constitutes itself as a cultic association and celebrates inside the cities but preserves the ideology of a performance outside the city. The main goal in both types of cult groups was the extraordinary experience of loss of self through drinking wine and dancing; the mixed-gender groups often added eschatological hopes. The purely female thiasoi were led by a priestess of Dionysos, whereas the mixed-gender groups were often led by a male professional initiator. The most conspicuous trace of these initiations are the so-called Orphic gold tablets that attest to the expectations for a better afterlife.

Article

Monuments, memorials, and museums mark America’s landscape and define both the purpose of spaces and the actors who inhabit them. From the earliest colonial encounters to the new age of mass trauma, memory and its cultural accretions have conferred meaning and denied agency at the intersections of economics, politics, culture, and religious habit. Inasmuch as battlefield memorial sites and statues to fallen soldiers generate community identity through demands for consensus memories and prescribed reactions, national memorials also reflect the diversity, contestedness, and political derivation of those consensuses and those memories. Memorials form physical sites for cultural rupture and ritual redress. Memorialization ritualizes behaviors, standardizes emotional expressions, and regulates the terms on which Americans orient themselves relative to one another. Whether staging mock funerals for an English king or leaving flowers and notes at a site where forty-nine young people lost their lives, death forms a key experience responsible for memorial motivation, but celebrations of independence and victory also produce parades, festivals, and active memorial traditions. In the flows of past and present, life and death, preservation and change, and sanctity and secularism, memorial objects, processes, and behaviors mark and are marked by the historic developments in American religious and civil life.

Article

Objects are implicit in understanding ancient religious practice. Taken as any material artifact used by an individual practitioner, faith community, or religious hierarchy for devotional or ritual purposes, objects can be interpreted as playing a number of roles in ancient religious practice. These roles include being a marker of faith identity; the physical locus of a metaphysical agent, able to be utilized in devotional practice; a talisman imbued with apotropaic effect; or an object ascribed with a ritual function (distinct from other objects of the same type), for example, a chalice. These objects are large and small, stationary and mobile. They can be carried by groups in ceremonial procession or by an individual person; worn as jewelry or installed on a domestic or public altar; buried or purposively broken; and exchanged with others to create and maintain social and interfaith relations. In addition to the recognized statue forms embodying divinities, examples may also include ancient Egyptian funerary goods, carved gemstones (e.g., Gnostic gems), pendants (e.g., Thor’s hammer or a Christian cross),votive images and dedications (including small figurines and models of building complexes), amulets (e.g., inscribed objects or texts worn on the person), sacred robes or headdresses, temple furniture, musical instruments used in rituals, relics, and pilgrim’s mementoes. Religious studies as an academic discipline has historically emphasized the textual foundations of belief practice; however, a turn toward “Material Religion” since the beginning of the 21st century, informed by broader material culture studies, has increasingly focused research upon the significant role of objects in religious practice. Of especial interest is their role in establishing, signaling, and maintaining individual and community identity and worldviews. This emphasis on material agency, although initially applied to interpreting prehistoric and indigenous “religion,” has more recently been employed to rethink identity and practice in faith traditions both ancient and contemporary. The very process of production (smelting, using naturally formed material, which may have been carved or painted,etc.), as well as how this is to be understood within a religious framework, including the metaphorical associations attributed to different types of material, has also been an area of sustained inquiry. Thus, these religious objects and what can be known of their use are “read” to understand lived religious practice. Rather than viewed as “secondary” to the written text, they are seen as crucial to the practice and development of faith. However, debate remains vibrant concerning those objects and their accompanying iconography when no, or limited, supporting textual sources exist and where conflicting interpretations have been presented. Further, there is increased recognition and critique of the degree to which academic fashions of the past have placed emphasis upon certain types of objects rather than others: for example, Greek statues contra artifacts involved in practices designated “magical” (and therefore not orthodox or mainstream; e.g., phylacteries, ritual handbooks, “demon bowls”), those employed in domestic piety (with associated gender bias), objects designated “low” culture, or objects of a rural or village practice rather than those found in urban centers.

Article

Adam Bajan and Heidi A. Campbell

New and emerging media has played a pivotal role in Christianity throughout history. In early times, the Christian message was disseminated directly from Jesus and his followers to growing numbers of worshippers in the ancient world. This unmediated form of Christianity, while effective as a method of proselytization due to its immediacy and intimacy, was limited by how far its early disciples could travel to spread the Gospel of Christ. As communication technology developed through a series of paradigm shifts spread over several centuries of human sociocultural development, Christianity capitalized on these shifts in a variety of ways. This fostered significant structural changes to the religion due to steadily increasing levels of technologically rooted mediation over time. In its most current form, Christianity is mediated through a variety of secular digital media with online capabilities. Media are utilized by increasing numbers of Christian churches throughout America due to their potential as platforms for efficient dissemination and ability to reach large numbers of worshippers with relative ease. As churches integrate secular digital media into their structures, a third space of interconnectivity emerges in which the boundaries between on and offline lived religious practice are bridged; blended; and at times, blurred, depending on the context and level of mediation. This third space that emerges is quantified as a digital religion in which Christianity becomes redefined as a cultural practice and site of collective and individual meaning making.

Article

Youngmin Kim, Se-Hyun Kim, and Ji Hye Song

Because of the missionary activities of Jesuits in late imperial China and the world religions paradigm that emerged in the late 19th century, scholars tend to view Confucianism as a world religion. However, Confucianism does not fit into disciplinary boxes neatly. Accordingly, Confucian religiosity has been the subject of much debate among scholars. The answer depends largely upon how one defines religion and Confucianism. However, Confucianism and religion are not self-evident categories, but historically conditioned entities. Central to the theoretical discussion of Confucian religiosity has been the idea of transcendence. To many, Confucianism does not seem a type of religion because it does not put God at the center of attention. To others, Confucianism upholds immanent transcendence as its ideal, which does not impose an other-worldly standard but instead suggests human perfectibility. By invoking the notion of immanent transcendence, scholars caution us not to take European Christianity for granted and not to close our eyes to the array of alternative forms of religion. In addition to this theoretical debate, there have been other types of study on religious aspects of Confucianism. Anthropologists and historians have been studying practices of Confucian religious rituals in Chinese history. Rituals were a powerful method that rulers, throughout the dynasties, have employed to legitimize their rule. As with other rituals, imperial authorities patronized various rituals in the hope of attaining the support of their subjects. However, from its inception, Confucian rituals became complex interpretive arenas in which various social actors disputed, accommodated, negotiated, and rearticulated the Confucian orthodoxy according to their interests. Throughout the 20th century, mainland Chinese politicians and intellectuals often stigmatized Confucianism as the cause of China’s downfall. However, Confucianism, which had been regarded as only a hindrance by the Communists, currently appears to be a resource with which to remake China.

Article

Walter E.A. van Beek

There is not one African indigenous religion (AIR); rather, there are many, and they diverge widely. As a group, AIRs are quite different from the scriptural religions the world is more familiar with, since what is central to AIRs is neither belief nor faith, but ritual. Exemplifying an “imagistic” form of religiosity, these religions have no sacred books or writings and are learned by doing, by participation and experience, rather than by instruction and teaching. Belonging to specific local ethnic groups, they are deeply embedded in and informed by the various ecologies of foragers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—as they are also by the social structures of these societies: they “dwell” in their cultures. These are religions of the living, not so much preparing for afterlife as geared toward meeting the challenges of everyday life, illness and misfortune, mourning and comforting—but also toward feasting, life, fertility, and togetherness, even in death. Quiet rituals of the family contrast with exuberant public celebrations when new adults re-enter the village after an arduous initiation; intricate ritual attention to the all-important crops may include tense rites to procure much needed rains. The range of rituals is wide and all-encompassing. In AIRs, the dead and the living are close, either as ancestors or as other representatives of the other world. Accompanied by spirits of all kinds, both good and bad, harmful and nurturing, existence is full of ambivalence. Various channels are open for communication with the invisible world, from prayer to trance, and from dreams to revelations, but throughout it is divination in its manifold forms that offers a window on the deeper layers of reality. Stories about the other world abound, and many myths and legends are never far removed from basic folktales. These stories do not so much explain the world as they entertainingly teach about the deep humanity that AIRs share and cherish.

Article

Christopher Bell

Tibetans engage with a panoply of divinities and spirits in their daily lives and ritual activities. The word “demon” does not capture the sheer breadth and diversity of these beings because there is a rich assortment of distinct spirit types that cause illnesses, guard against calamities, or possess human mediums to provide clairvoyant advice. While comprehensiveness is impossible, a representative demonology is valuable by offering a foundation for further exploration. Most Tibetan spirits are capricious or overtly pernicious and require oracles, diviners, tantrikas, and other religious specialists to ward off or harness their power. The gods and spirits of Tibet also fit loosely into ontological categories along a larger spectrum that includes enlightened beings, transcendent deities, worldly gods, and fierce demons. The boundaries between these categories are often porous, especially when it comes to aligning certain spirits with buddhas, bodhisattvas, or wrathful deities of the land. For Buddhism and Bön, the two major religious traditions of Tibet, there are specific protector deities with robust mythologies and liturgical corpora that are frequently propitiated and revered in order to maintain these religions both materially and spiritually. Interacting with such divinities often takes the form of oracular ceremonies or image consecrations and offerings. The practices may vary dramatically between spiritual lineages and regions, but the overall concept is rooted in interacting with these powerful forces to effect social, communal, and individual change. In Tibet, spirits are potentially dangerous, but they also offer diverse opportunities for personal advancement and religious enrichment.

Article

The architecture of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam during the historically significant period of the 16th through 20th centuries reveals many similarities and differences. Particularly important are the architectural languages each employed to materialize, facilitate, and communicate their religion, and how they changed over time. Additionally, the ontological and symbolic roles of architecture and the key theoretical approaches to the subject are relevant contexts. These include typological taxonomies of organizations, path sequences, and historical, conceptual, or symbolic characteristics. Lastly, seven primary roles of religious architecture—historical, authoritative, commemorative, theocentric, cosmological, prestige, and community places–can effectively situate and contextualize particular examples. During the pivotal 16th century, popes remade St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican and transformed Rome into the ecclesiastical and political center of Christianity; Jews built substantial synagogues that reflected their status during the Golden Age of Jews in Poland; and the Ottoman Empire built some of its most significant mosque complexes that expressed the hegemony of the theocratic state. Subsequent periods of the architecture of the Abrahamic religions illustrate particular themes, and explicate the variety of roles, and relative importance, of the architecture at particular periods. Modernism, in particular, produced significant changes in the architecture, where complexity, ambiguity, inventiveness, and oscillations between tradition and innovation reflected the impacts of new technologies, liturgical reforms, and global architectural cultures. Throughout, the capacity of architecture to materialize and communicate ontological, historical, religious, and sociopolitical content and accommodate communal rituals cannot be overstated.

Article

Sarah Iles Johnston

Myths were told in a broad variety of contexts by a broad variety of people in ancient Greece. Unlike fairy tales and fables, Greek myths focus on specifically named individuals, such as Heracles and Athena, who interact with other such individuals across a span of different stories, creating a network of stories and characters. Although Greek myths explore many of the same plots and themes as other traditional tales, they were particularly interested in tales of heroes, metamorphosis, and love affairs between gods and human women. Ancient intellectuals interpreted myths as allegories or as distorted versions of real history. Modern scholars have used a variety of approaches to interpret Greek myths, most of which have been anchored in act of comparing them to the myths of other cultures: the ritualist approach, the structuralist approach, the psychoanalytical approach and narratological approaches. In the past few decades, there has been increasing interest in mythography and in the reception of Greek myths.

Article

Ritual  

Barry Stephenson

In contemporary scholarship, the term ritual serves double duty. On one hand, ritual is a theoretical concept; on the other, ritual is a catchall term for a diverse set of cultural forms or practices, such as worship, baptism, parades, coronations, and festivals. These two uses of the term ritual are typically intertwined. As a distinct concept and discourse, “ritual” emerges in early modern Europe during the Reformation era, accompanying the emergence of secular modernity, taking its place alongside related concepts such as religion, art, ceremony, culture, and the secular. In the post-Enlightenment period, the intellectual and cultural influences of Protestantism, Rationalism, and Positivism created a general climate of suspicion about ritual’s merits: ritual was often deemed a backward, premodern cultural form, just as religion was considered a stepping-stone on the path from a magical and animistic worldview to modern science. At the same time, however, there emerged within European culture a longing for a perceived loss of transcendence and sociality, which included the urge to recover or reinvent lost or suppressed rites and cultural performances. Running through European thought, culture, and scholarship is a tension between ritual’s conserving and transformative potential. In the 19th century, in the new disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and in the detailed, comparative study of textual traditions, ritual was given considerable attention, although research was largely focused on the practices of non-Western and historical cultures; this research, coinciding with the heights of European colonialism, was often saddled with prejudicial and stereotypical views of ritual. The turn, however, to studying ritual in the field (rather than only in texts) laid the foundation for the emergence, in the 1970s, of ritual and performance studies as an interdisciplinary area of research, shaped in part by feminist, postcolonial, and critical theories. An important feature of this “performative turn” was to explore the connections between ritual and art, especially performative arts such as music and drama. Until the mid-20th century, ritual, under the influence of structural functionalism, was usually theorized as a stabilizing, normative social practice. In the 1970s, there begins an effort, stimulated by the thought of Victor Turner, to develop a more dialectical understanding of ritual, emphasizing both ritual’s aesthetic, expressive qualities; its relationship to other performative genres such as music, theater, and sports; and its dynamic role in processes of cultural change and transformation.

Article

Historians of antiquity used to argue that, from the 6th century bce onwards, the religious traditions of Greek and Roman pagans became an empty shell maintained by elites who no longer had any belief in them except as a device for keeping the masses subservient. In recent decades this theory, always highly speculative and over-dependent on the views of ancient philosophers, has been largely abandoned. In fact, down to the 2nd, even the 3rd century ce, pagan worship still seems to have been an important element in the way cities and communities of the Roman Empire worked, sustaining the power of ruling elites, but also defining the way individuals expressed their private concerns and problems. For the overwhelming majority, the old deities kept their hold, and there is a strong tradition of dedications, in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses, that bears witness to a continued tradition of individual piety. At the same time, although the Empire was successful from the 1st century bce onwards in maintaining widespread order and prosperity, the nature of city life was changing in fundamental respects. With stability came a high degree of mobility, and cities of both East and West came to find themselves with religious groups living in tense proximity, first of Jews, then of Christians, Manichaeans, and others. To those with a taste for broad generalizations, it has been appealing to interpret these developments as a great conflict between polytheism and monotheism, some rating monotheism as so superior that it could be treated as an inevitable step up in the evolutionary progression of the human race. Paganism was therefore doomed in advance. What is certain is that pagan religion and its many deities became the target of a concentrated attack by the Christian Fathers; but that alone can hardly explain why traditional worship lost its appeal to so many of its adherents in quite a short period of the 4th century ce: pagans suddenly began to abandon age-old practices and join new cults that they had once despised. Efforts at resistance to Christianity, in particular, once thought very important, prove to have been evanescent at best in the light of recent research. To find a new understanding of these very profound changes in religious history, analysis is needed: first, what were the fundamental differences between pagan traditionalism and the competing religions, and, second, how did relations between religious groups change over time. Answers cannot lie in studying only Christians, or only Jews, or only pagans, as is still too often the practice, but rather in the nature of their interactions with one another. The kind of religious competition for members that characterized this situation was quite a new phenomenon to the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire. They were not accustomed to dealing with competing religious groups each with their own ideas and doctrines. Pagan deities had always needed to attract worshippers to their sanctuaries; but they were defined by myths, rituals, and the functions they performed, not by having distinct theologies or creeds. It was the coming of competition and conflict that radically changed the religious landscape and generated new elements in religious life. Meanwhile, once the Emperors had adopted Christianity, paganism, which had always been involved in the exercise of central power, retreated to the margins.

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Buddhist practice transformed the religious landscape in China, introducing new forms of mental cultivation and new ritual technologies within an altered cosmology of spiritual goals. Buddhist practice was carried out by individuals, but was equally as often a communal activity. A basic unit of religious practice was the family; Buddhist cultivation was also carried out by communities of practice at monasteries, which were also sites of large-scale rituals. Forms of religious practice included meditation, oral recitation, ritual performances including confession and vow making, and merit-making activities. Meditation encompassed following breath and exercises that recreated Buddhist images in the practitioner’s mind. Meditation could be carried out while sitting, or while walking, and might also incorporate recitation of scriptures, names of the Buddhas, and dhāraṇī. Indeed, meditation practices were most often embedded in liturgical sequences that included confession, vows, and merit dedication. The goal of these religious practices might be personal spiritual development; through the concept of merit transference, religious activities also worked to benefit others, especially the dead. The fundamental of components of Buddhist practice were present very early in the tradition’s history in China, and over time these elements were combined in new ways, and with reference to changing objects of devotion. The four major bodhisattvas of Mañjuśrī (Wenshu 文殊), Samantabhadra (Puxian 普賢), Kṣitigarbha (Dizang 地藏), and Avalokiteśvara (Guanyin 觀音) were especially important as objects of devotion, and also were emplaced in the Chinese landscape, where they were incorporated into pilgrimages.