of Ceremonies and the Ceremonial

An anthropologist should be expected to have a lot to say about ceremonies; and I'm the only one among us who grew up in the household of a Ritual Specialist, so I should know a lot about that role too. Paradoxically, I'm inclined to ambivalence about ceremonies in specific and the ceremonial in general. It's been my habit to dodge ceremonial participation whenever I could, and to dismiss such public manipulation of cultural symbols as bogus. Those chickens have come home to roost with this Question...

Ceremonies are one of those human universals: everybody everywhere has them, and the archaeological record displays evidence of ceremonial activity reaching back at least 40,000 years (see Oldest cave art found in Sulawesi) and probably a lot more — hematite (iron oxide, ochre) shows up in graves from 80,000 years ago and perhaps long before.

Ceremonies are exercises in socio-cultural solidarity and reaffirmations of shared symbolic elements, by which important acts and passages are sacralized, publicly recognized: transitions of status (e.g., weddings, graduations, investitures) and changed social identity are endorsed. Shibboleths are invoked and paraded, reasserted, recharged with their particular mana (power, magic, significance). Here's the summary from Notes and Queries On Anthropology (from the 1961 edition):

Ceremonies and rites represent the traditional mode of behaviour in which are reflected both implicit and explicit beliefs, attitudes, and sentiments. Ritual ["a formal mode of behaviour recognized as correct"] may be considered in relation to four main categories of activities:
  1. Ritual concerned with the life of men and with extreme emotion
  2. Ritual concerned with physical phenomena
  3. Ritual concerned with economic activities
  4. Ritual concerned with social structure

For flavor, here's Gregory Bateson on the Naven ceremony of the Iatmul people of the Sepik River, New Guinea (ca. 1935):

(the ceremonies involve cross-dressing by both men and women) The women walked about flaunting their feathers and grating their lime sticks in the boxes, producing the loud sound which men use to express anger, pride, and assertiveness... (pg 15)
...and see also Horace Miner Body Ritual Among the Nacirema for something a bit closer to home:
While much of the people's time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

Ceremonies are often performed by officiants, ritual specialists who know the requisite forms and proprieties, and the required/conventional Mumbo-Jumbo ...at which point I got to wondering about this 'mumbo-jumbo' and went hunting for further enlightenment:

Wikipedia on 'Mumbo-Jumbo:
Mumbo Jumbo is a West African word often cited by historians and etymologists as deriving from the Mandinka word "Maamajomboo", which refers to a masked male dancer who takes part in religious ceremonies. In the 18th century Mumbo Jumbo referred to a West African god. Mungo Park's travel journal Travels in the Interior of Africa (1795) describes 'Mumbo Jumbo' as a character, complete with "masquerade habit", whom Mandinka males would dress up as in order to resolve domestic disputes.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:

Mumbo Jumbo is a noun and is the name of a grotesque idol said to have been worshipped by some tribes. In its figurative sense, Mumbo Jumbo is an object of senseless veneration or a meaningless ritual.

According to the 1803 Supplement to Encyclopedia Britannica Third Edition:

Mumbo Jumbo: A strange bugbear employed by the Pagan Mandingos for the purpose of keeping their women in subjection. Polygamy being allowed among these people, every man marries as many wives as he can conveniently maintain; and the consequence is, that family quarrels sometimes rise to such a height, that the husband's authority is not sufficient to restore peace among the ladies. On these occasions, the interposition of Mumbo Jumbo is called in; and it is always decisive. This strange minister of justice, who is either the husband himself, or some person instructed by him, disguised in a sort of masquerade habit, made of the bark of trees, and armed with the rod of public authority, announces his coming by loud and dismal screams in the woods near the town. He begins his pantomime at the approach of night; and as soon as it is dark, he enters the town, and proceeds to the Bentung or market-place, at which all the inhabitants immediately assemble ... the ceremony commences with songs and dances, which continue till midnight, about which time Mumbo fixes on the offender. This unfortunate victim being thereupon immediately seized, is stripped naked, tied to a post, and severely scourged with Mumbo's rod, amidst the shouts and derision of the whole assembly; and it is remarkable, that the rest of the women are the loudest in their exclamations on this occasion against their unhappy sister. Daylight puts an end to this indecent and unmanly revel ... That the women are deluded seems evident; for Mr. Park assures us, that the dress of Mumbo is suffered to hang from a tree at the entrance of each town; which would hardly be the case if the women were not persuaded that it is the dress of some supernatural being.

And from dictionary.com

meaningless incantation or ritual... senseless or pretentious language, usually designed to obscure an issue, confuse a listener, or the like... an object of superstitious awe or reverence.

Well, thought I, surely we need a video to lighten things up a bit, so:

Zaouli dance (not Mandinka, but magnificent nonetheless)


And this just in:

Robots are performing Hindu rituals — some devotees fear they'll replace worshippers
Ritual automation, or at least the idea of robotic spiritual practice, isn't new in South Asian religions.

Historically, this has included anything from special pots that drip water continuously for bathing rituals that Hindus routinely perform for their deity icons, called abhisheka, to wind-powered Buddhist prayer wheels — the kinds often seen in yoga studios and supply stores.

...and compare Maneki Neko:


Betsy gently informed me that I (in my haste to distance myself from the ceremonial) hadn't answered the Question, and later on we asked Kate for her thoughts, and the horizons opened significantly to include quite a few other facets:

The question as originally posed included the concept of closure, so I can't resist adding this:

and I'll end with some celebratory music:

[Cavalcade: a formal procession of people walking, on horseback, or riding in vehicles]

and one more: Rituel pour se débarrasser des politiciens faisandés (Ritual to cast out the gamy politicians) by Daniel Heïkalo