We would like to focus this essay on the topic “The Myth and Ritual Schools” of Catherine Bell’s Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions, along with its underlying facts and other literature that may have emerged since its inception.
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Which really comes first myth or ritual, or which one evolved out of the other, has been a subject for investigation by theorists. But as Bell said, “… rituals are tools that help us to analyze what may be going on in any particular set of activities” (Bell, 1997, p. 89).
Sometimes, myth and rite are interchanged. Bianchi (1975), in The History of Religions, says: “Indeed, the mere recitation of the myth can be itself a rite, that is, an action to be performed at a certain time, on certain occasions, with certain dispositions, and with very concrete, even utilitarian, intentions” (p. 112).
The importance of myths to our daily lives including our religions and beliefs cannot be undermined. Pickering (1984) says, “Myths contain religious ‘truths’ enshrined in stories, repeatedly recited, which are sometimes held to be historically true, sometimes not” (p. 362).
Max Müller (cited in Bell 1997, p, 3) argued that “myths were originally poetic statements about nature” or that, personalities in myths were originally abstract ideas transformed or later misinterpreted into personalities.
In other words, primitive people used their poetic knowledge in describing the sun or the moon or the stars, to the point of adoring them. When those “adorations” disappeared as time went by, they became myths about those heavenly bodies or nature.
Many theorists have other notions about myths and rituals. This one of Müller was challenged by other theorists, such as Andrew Lang and anthropologist Edward Tylor. Tylor (cited in Bell, 1997, p. 4) argued that “myth should not be interpreted as a misunderstanding, but as a deliberate philosophical attempt to explain and understand the world.” Myths did not just come into being, or were not invented stories; they have a reason and grounds for being. This means that it was the primitive people’s way of understanding, or their “intelligent” understanding of nature; they tried to explain it, became a myth but it is not a “misunderstanding”.
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Tylor further argues that myths are “an interesting product of the human mind” and should not be interpreted “as mere folly.” This phenomenon, as we may call it, is similar to the evolutional view of man’s social development. From the start, he is like a child or a savage, not yet “conditioned” or ignorant of the world around him. As time goes by, he becomes mature and knowledgeable of the world around him. The evolution of myth goes a long way. From mere primitive beliefs, they evolve and become part of religious belief.
Tylor explained that religion originated from the early people’s belief in dreams; people saw and communicated with the dead in their dreams. Primitive people later connected this with the after-life, a theory of souls and spirits. They also believed that the dead inhabited animals and plants, known as animism.
William Robertson, an Old Testament scholar, agreed with Edward B. Tylor’s explanation that religion originated from the early people’s beliefs of dreams. People communicated with the dead in their dreams. Primitive people connected this notion with the after-life, a theory of souls and spirits. They also believed that the dead inhabited animals and plants, known as animism. Robertson argued that religion did not originate from myths but from rituals which worshipped “divine representations of the social order … [but] religion did not exist for the sake of saving souls but for the preservation of society.” (Bell, p. 4).
Robertson’s theory explains that ritual is the primary component of religion, used for communion between gods and humans. Robertson’s famous work was on the ritual of Semitic tribes of Canada. This ritual initiated the practice of eating a “totem” animal (from “ottoman” in Ojibwa, the language of the Algonquins of Canada) which Tylor interpreted as a “gift offering to ancestors and spirits in return for blessings” (p. 4).
Robertson strongly argues that ‘myth was derived from the ritual and not the ritual from the myth.” His investigations of rituals and myths led to further investigations and groundwork for three schools of religious interpretation:
- James Frazer’s myth and the ritual school says that “in order to understand a myth one must first determine the ritual that it accompanied”;
- Emile Durkheim’s sociological approach to religion which is “not for saving souls but for the preservation and welfare of society”;
- Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical approach – points to modes of analysis and interpretation that look beyond what people themselves think about what they do or believe” (Bell, p. 5).
The myth and ritual schools
While Tylor was concerned with the theory of myth as an explanation, James Frazer sees myth as a “secondary remnant” or survival of ritual activity. Ritual, according to Frazer, is “the original source of most of the expressive forms of cultural life” (Bell, 1997, p. 5). Rite and myth are expressive and connected. Frazer’s theory is that when myth exists, there is a rite, its originator.
Frazer also places much emphasis on ritual in relation to culture. Primitive or tribal people are engaged in rituals. In fact, every tribe is recognized by its own rituals, be it religious or male initiations.
The original Robertson Smith’s idea of the ritual sacrifice of the divine totem was further developed by Frazer, a student of Smith, into a new and complicated theory. This theory states that there is one pattern of ritual underlying all rituals, that is, there is one god or divine king who sacrificed himself for the “fertility” of the land and well-being of the people. Frazer and his contemporaries theorized that this is the basis of all myth and folklore – the theme of a “ritually dying and reviving god” – present in the myths and folklore of the primitives from the French peasantry to the remote Pacific Islanders. Frazer’s third edition of The Golden Bough (1911-1915) contains such a theme of which he tried to catalog the customs of the primitives.
Religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have rituals and “superstition”, as Bell says, dating from the early Christianity, that Frazer and his contemporaries wanted to document. These myths may have covered the “evolution of human thought from savagery to civilization”, which all of us now think of as ungrounded, false, and superstitions that should not be believed.
The connection between mythology and religious life has been the subject of investigation and focus in anthropological circles.
Bianchi (1975), in The History of Religions, says that ‘mythic-ritual pattern’ was the subject of researches of Malinowski, and a more general historical religious treatment in the work of Pettazzoni and Eliade’ (p. 112). They are referred to as “‘the truth of myth’ and on mythology as the expression of the totality and sacredness of the origins of the world” (p. 112).
The Near Eastern Specialists and the Cambridge University classicists
The “myth and ritual school” is an approach to the historical and cultural primacy of ritual of which Robertson Smith and Frazer were the original proponents and inspiration. Two interdependent branches evolved, and these are the biblical scholars or Near Eastern specialists, and the Cambridge University classicists.
Samuel Henry Hooke is one of the Old Testament scholars who argued that myth and ritual (of which Bell termed as the thing said and the thing done) “were inseparable in early civilizations” as manifested in the religions of biblical Egypt, Babylon, and Canaan. These were primarily ritual religions centered on the king as a god on which the entire community depended. The ritual in these religions centered on the story of the “god-king” who sacrificed for the well-being of the people.
Hooke and his colleagues supported this theory by digging into the myths and rituals of the Near Eastern cultures of the Nile, Euphrates, and Indus River valleys. They did this by reconstructing the events of the planting and harvesting season which had rites or ceremonies wherein the king was humiliated and symbolically killed. The rites purported to show that the king descended into the underworld but he arose to restore order and defeat the forces of chaos. This victory allowed him to reclaim the throne, celebrate a marriage, and proclaim the laws of the land. This sacred kingship story however has no historical proof, which is one of the strong grounds for other theorists to criticize it. It is just a figment of the imagination, one would say, that has been connected to other historical events, told and retold, and has become more of truth than a lie.
One of the instances, or proof, that myth can be itself a rite is the classical example of the “Babylonian New Year’s Day, the famous feast of akitu, which included a series of celebrations (for example, the humiliation and re-enthronement of the king, who is co-protagonist of these rites of the year’s renewal) the recitation of the Enuma eliš, the Babylonian epic of creation” (Bianchi, 1975, p. 113).
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In this New Year’s Day celebration rites, the creation of the world and the new beginning are represented by the New Year, and destinies of the coming year are decided at Babel, with Marduk as the hero of the narrative.
Bianchi (1975, p. 113) says:
The recitation of the Enuma eliš was intended for the glorification of Marduk and to appeal to the god Demiurge “to perform another great work for the benefit of his worshippers” (Bianchi, p. 113). A connection is made between the story of the first beginnings of the world and the renewal of the year’s life [the New Year], which is obvious in all liturgical typology of the Easter liturgical tradition which includes the re-lighting of the fire and the recitation of the beginning of the Book of Genesis before that of other Biblical texts concerning the story of redemption and regeneration.
On the other hand, the Cambridge “school of classicists” argued that “folklore and literature derive from the ritual activities of ancient sacred kings, not from the actual history of the folk imagination, as people had believed” (Bell, 1997, p. 6). One of their pieces of evidences is the dying and rising Near Eastern god-king which is used in Dionysian fertility rites, and as a structural model for Greek drama. Among the classicists are Gilbert Murray, Francis M. Cornford, and Arthur B. Cook, who also showed that this was present in other fertility rites.
Most influential among the Cambridge classicists was Jane Ellen Harrison whose work, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis, tried to show the connection between Greek myth, theater, and the Olympic games, to the rites described by Frazer. (Bell, p. 6).
In Harrison’s theory, ritual comes first and is the source of myth, or the thing said is derived from the thing done which is the action of the ritual. However, a ritual usually dies out and the myth remains and may continue to exist independently. The myth then could attach itself to other events or historical figures or even to a “pseudoscientific explanation of particular phenomena”. (Bell, p. 6).
The Cambridge school has influenced scholars and various authors of literature and drama. They have searched every field of work in “fairy tales, nursery rhymes, children’s games, folk drama, law, language, and even experimental physics” all in search of the ritual pattern that may be found in those writings.
Critics countered Frazer’s legacy simply because there was not enough evidence to support his theory. Many have judged it harshly. One of these important critiques was made by Clyde Kluckhohn who said that not all myths are related to ritual. It is impossible to prove, but there is substantial evidence that myths and rites are independent of each other. He said that there should be more detailed study and data on the relationship between myth and rite. This was further reinforced by Joseph Kluckhohn’s critique, saying that “there is no historical or ethnographic data that can serve as evidence for the reconstructed pattern of the sacrifice in Near Eastern kingship” (Bell, p. 8). This destroys – partly or wholly – the many evidence and scholarly work of Frazer and colleagues and those concerned with origins.
Despite the many criticisms of Frazer’s theory, however, the ritual has remained important in the study of the different cultures which always involve religion and society.
The myth and ritual schools have great significance on the study of rites in churches and in still existing primitive rites in many parts of the world, although, as Robert Segal (cited in Bell, p. 8) said, “many of their theories are wrong since they opened up questions concerning the relationship of practice and belief, and religion and science, that have been central to the study of religion in the 20th century” (Bell, p. 8).
Barnard, A. (2000). History and theory in anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, C. (1997). Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions. US: Oxford University Press.
Bianchi, U. (1975). The History of Religions. Brill Archive, ISBN 9004042377, 9789004042377.
Pickering, W. S. F. (1984). Durkheim’s Sociology of Religion: Themes and Theories. Routledge, ISBN 0710092989, 9780710092984.