after this blog has been dormant for a while now due to a lot of work on my PhD, as well as some seriously needed holidays of hiking in the Alps and in the woods around my hometown, today I’d like to introduce you to a new weekly feature: the Scientific Sunday!
Each Sunday, there will be a post based on the reading I’m doing for a university seminar on rituals – we’ll be looking at rituals from an anthropologic, a Christian and other perspectives. In my posts, I’ll summarize the most interesting facts and try to relate them to pagan religious practices. Thus, I see my posts as a way of understanding what we as pagams are doing and, hopefully, why we’re doing it, so we can be more mindful of our practices, or include new (daily) practices into our lives to attune more with our spirituality and/or the divine.
Today’s first installment of Scientific Sunday is concerned with the work of Arnold van Gennep (1873—1957), a French ethnographer and folklorist, whose research interests include the theory of folk tales as well as rituals. This post will focus on the first two chapters of van Gennep’s highly influential text Les rites de passage (The rites of passage), in which he seeks to establish a classification of ceremonial sequences of rituals designating the transition from one state into another (= rites de passage).
Classification of Rites
Van Gennep works from the assumption that there are both profane and sacred groups in each society. Examples of the former include e.g. the nobility, or the working classes, with subgroups such as the different manual professions. Changing from one group to another requires the person to have or to acquire certain economical or intellectual prerequisites, such as advanced training in hir field. On the contrary, when changing from one state to another in the sacred realm, e.g. from a layperson to a priest, specific ceremonies are required.
Apart from priesthood, there are other ceremonies used to signify entering another state, which are termed rites of passage. These rites of passage include, but are not limited to, ceremonies of birth, puberty, parenthood, entering a higher social class or a special profession. Van Gennep concludes that underlying all these different rites is a similar structure:
The first part of rites of passage is a rite of separation, in which the practitioner is separated from hir old state in society. Then, a rite of transition follows; this becomes clear in initiations, where an applicant is transformed into a member of a society or group. Finally, there is a rite of integration, which firmly includes the new member into hir chosen group.
It is obvious that some rites can emphasize one aspect while backgrounding others. Funerals, for instance, stress the parting of the community with the dead, while weddings highlight the integration of the new bride or groom into the spouse’s family.
We further have to note that all rites have specific other aims apart from facilitating a passage, e.g. weddings include fertility rites such as the Heathen concept of blessing the bride with Thor’s hammer, or ordination, which includes binding oneself to one’s God/dess.
Van Gennep further stresses the importance of these rites of passage. On his view, the sacred is ambivalent and relative. Thus, a man living at home is situated in the profane world, but on becoming a traveller he enters the realm of the sacred: he becomes sacred to other communities. Hence, what is sacred depends on one’s current state in society. On changing one’s status, something profane can become sacred, and it is the rites of passage which work to weaken any negative effects these changes might have on the practitioner.
In his theory, van Gennep classifies rites in two aspects: theory and magic. The term theory comprises the ideology or kind of religion in question, while magic is used to designate the methods, that is the ceremonies, rites and cults underlying or actualising the theory.
Looking first at theory, we see that there are two kinds of theories or kinds of religions:
Dynamism, in van Gennep’s terms, is seen as the belief in an impersonal power source such as mana. It is monistic in the sense that on this view, all things are reducible to one source, that is, there is unity.
Animism, on the other hand, assumes a personified power, be it a single being or a collective, an animal or plant (totem), anthropomorphic or amorph (god). This view is dualistic as it assumes the existence of both a material world and a spiritual world (body and soul). As this is a view that I subscribe to, but that is heavily contested by atheists such as Daniel Dennett, I shall come back to it in further posts.
Animism, then, can be subdivided further to include the following religious beliefs:
In totemism, practitioners are said to have a connection or a kinship with a spirit-being, such as an animal or a plant. Spiritism can be defined as a belief in the survival of a spirit after death, as well as teachings derived from contact with said spirit. The term polydemonism describes a belief that all phenomena of nature are controlled by independent, more or less anthropomorphic supernatural powers. And finally, theism is the belief that at least one deity exists; in its specific sense theism conceives of God as personal, present and active in the organization of the world and the universe. This is essentially the conception of God in Christianity, Judaism, Islam as well as in some forms of Hinduism.
Coming now to magic, van Gennep notes six kinds of rites, which come in dyads:
Sympathetic rites work from the view that like attracts like, e.g. making a clay model of an animal and killing the model will ensure a lucky outcome of the hunt.
In its counterpart, contagious rites, natural or acquired qualities and properties of objects can be transferred to humans, either by direct contact or over a distance.
The next dyad comprises direct and indirect rites, with direct rites designating an effect immediately created by the practitioner, e.g. when cursing someone or when using a spell. In indirect rites, however, the effect is created mediately by a higher power, e.g. through prayer, vows, cultic actions. The rite is thus performed to initiate an action by a higher power on behalf of the practitioner.
In the final dyad, positive rites are defined as the practitioner’s wants (volonté), while
negative rites comprise taboos (not-wanting; nolonté); these can be understood only in relation to positive rites.
To give a more elaborate example: a pregnant woman refuses to eat blackberries for fear that her unborn child will be disfigured. This rite is dynamistic (since forces in the blackberries cause disfigurement), contagious (as there is a direct transferral of the berries’ properties to the child), direct (as the effect occurs immediately upon eating) and negative (as the woman refrains from eating).
In another example, a sailor vowed to offer Mary, mother of Jesus, an effigy of a boat if She saved him from drowning. This ritualistic offering is animistic (as Mary is the agent who causes salvation), sympathetic (as the boat effigy is a symbol of the actual boat), indirect (as Mary is acting on the sailor’s behalf) and positive (as the ritual expresses the sailor’s wants, i.e. being saved).
However, we have to note that a rite can be classified in more than one way; and very different rites can belong to the same categories. The classification system is further complicated by the fact that it is especially difficult to decide whether a given rite is animistic or dynamistic, that is, for example, whether a ceremony to cure an illness aims at banishing the illness as such (dynamistic) or a demon personifying the illness in the patient’s body (animistic).
At least in Europe, a passport is not required anymore when one wishes to cross from one country to another. While we do see signs of crossing over into another country, such as customs declarations, the actual border of the countries in question can only be seen on maps.
In reality, borders are usually marked in specific locations (e.g. paths, crossroads), either by natural demarcations (woods, stones, rivers, lakes) or by other objects (e.g. standing stones – or the customs booth mentioned above). These markers mark the territory as belonging to a specific group and thereby as being holy.
In magic practices, drawing a circle around the practitioner(s) serves the same function: to set the area apart as belonging to a specific group and activity, and to set it apart as being outside of the mundane.
With the inclusion of gatekeeper gods such as the Celtic Manannán, the Northern Heimdallr, or the Greek Hermes, the physical act of crossing over is transformed into spiritual act as a personified power ensures a safe crossing. This is acknowledged, for example, in the ADF rites, which include calling on the culture’s gatekeeper.
We have to note, however, that physical and spiritual crossings are not necessarily separate, but usually combined acts.
Coming back to borders, in the Middle Ages and later, there used to be a neutral border between countries or community lands. This strip of land was sacred for the community members, but on standing in neutral zone, the surrounding countries became sacred. Thus on entering the neutral zone, one entered a so-called treshold phase, i.e. one was crossing over from one realm into another. This can be seen e.g. in cutting the circle so that other practitioners can enter.
On a smaller scale, the treshold of a house or home fulfils a similar function and is still of importance in today’s rituals, e.g. in a ride being carried over treshold at wedding ceremonies.
These treshold rituals all have an underlying schema:
They usually begin by a rite of separation, which serves to separate the practitioner from the mundane world and to facilitate entering a ritual mindset, e.g. by ritual baths, cleansing, or by putting on ritual garments.
After the rite of transition itself (unfortunately, van Gennep fails to list specific examples), treshold rites conclude by a rite of integration, that is by welcoming the newcomer into the community/the home, e.g. by eating together. In a spiritual rite, this could be the sharing of offerings with the deity one has invited to the ritual.
Interestingly, rites of separation and integration can be similar, as can be seen by Catholics anointing themselves with holy water on entering and leaving the church.