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Project Area B

Reconstructing Processes of Ritual Dynamics in Bygone Cultures

Project area B mostly investigates topics related to bygone cultures, which are not accessible anymore and thus cannot be directly observed: the ancient Egypt, Assyria, the Hellenistic and imperial Greece, Rome and Western Europe during the High Middle Ages as well as Rajasthan (India) from the 18th to 20th century, but also the medieval Ashkenazic Judaism in the (christian) Central Europe (Germany, France, England).

All of them are cultural areas that left behind rather limited and thus manageable source material, allowing us to study developments that evolved over centuries (Greece, Rome, High Middle Ages, and Rajasthan) or even millenniums (Egypt).


Natural processes of deterioration have left us mostly, but not exclusively with source material illuminating the public performance of rituals and their function in public life. The sources also shed light on the roles of the upper classes, political leaders or autocrats. The role of everyday rituals of the masses and lower social levels, however, is hard to explore from the surviving material.


The common aim of the subprojects is to shift the research from a mostly descriptive treatment of rituals and from the quest for reconstruction of the ritual actions and determination of their origin towards the investigation of the tensions that arise from the continuation of ritual practices in an institutionally, socially or ideologically advanced environment.


The fact that the subprojects not only share these common aims but also the limitations regarding the source material explains the numerous similarities in the basic theories, the topics as well as the methodology. 


The underlying theories of all subprojects are mostly based on works on the communicative function and the performative aspects of ritual actions as well as on symbolic and communicative actions in the broadest sense.
Our research includes:

  • the ritual performance of the father-son-relation to legitimate leadership in Egypt (B9),
  • the contribution of rituals to the public communication in Greece and during the Roman Empire (B2 and B10),
  • the private rituals of the Assyrian king and their role in the conservation of wellbeing and the elimination of harm (B3), and
  • the ritual and ceremonial attire during sovereign assemblies in the High Middle Ages (B8) or in Rajasthan (B5)

All these topics require us to recognize rituals as a form of "language". We will direct our special attention to the speech act executed during the ritual.


The more historical-oriented subprojects, dealing with normative interventions in public rituals in Greece (B2) and rituals of sovereign assemblies in the Middle Ages (B8) as well as the court ceremonial in Rajasthan (B5), follow the anthropological paradigms, in particular, where structural analogies between rites de passage and public rituals of honoring (B9) and leadership legitimating (B8, B5) are under consideration.


Even though we are dealing with a variety of topics, they all share a focus on "rituals of power" due to the limited source material. For example, they center on

  • the ritualistic configuration of the succession to the throne in Egypt,
  • the protection of power through spells, incantations and prayers in Assyria,
  • the characteristics of hierarchic structures in urban communities,
  • the changes of the cultic topography of sanctuaries through power rituals,
  • the paradigmatic manifestation of divine and human power,
  • the assembly of sovereigns as an instrument of political leadership in the High Middle Ages,
  • the changes in rituals in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Rajasthan. 


Important aspects of this set of questions, which is addressed in several subprojects, are e.g. the role of experts, from Egyptian priests and "ritual experts" in Assyria to the authors of normative texts in Greece and those organizing sovereign assemblies in the High Middle Ages or in Rajasthan. Other examples are the conveying of role paradigms through rituals (for instance the role of Osiris and Horus as role models for the king and crown prince), the rituals of enculturation of youth in Greece or during the Roman Empire and the dynamics of behavioral norms through rituals and cultural memory reinforced by rituals (see B11).


We will focus on two aspects and their inhering tensions:


1) the normative text that is recorded in script and contrasts with the changes in the circumstances (e.g. regarding the continuance of Egyptian ritual texts under the altered historic circumstances of the New Kingdom and the Late Period of ancient Egypt, but also concerning the deducible ritual dynamics of the indigenous reflexion of rituals on the basis of purity rituals of the medieval Judaism),

2) the ritual and ritualized course of actions that contrasts with the rational-pragmatically planned politics and critical rationalization tendencies (esp. in Greece and during the High Middle Ages).


Especially aspect no. 2 leads us to the question, which strongly demands a comparative investigation and transdisciplinary exchange:

Compared to Egypt, Mesopotamia or Rajasthan, is there a specific European rationality in the perception of rituals and ritualized behavior?


Besides the aforementioned questions, all our projects will also investigate processes of dynamic transformation. Ritual transfer is an important aspect in the diachronic consideration of rituals. The term refers to a multifaceted phenomenon comprising the transfer of ritual acts into new geographical, institutional or political contexts respectively. In Egypt, for example, burial and death cult rituals live on in the rituals of the rulers. Rituals for healing and stabilizing private individuals are incorporated in the Assyrian royal rituals. We cannot only observe ritual transfer in the design of Greek sanctuaries but also in the sovereign assemblies of the High Middle Ages.


Lastly, the performative aspects of rituals play an important role in all subprojects.

We strive to elucidate the concrete performative context of rituals, the roles of and interplay between performers and audience, ritual staging and aestheticization and most of all the relation between space and ritual. The relation between space (architecture and topography) and ritual in Egypt, the ritual-related changes in sanctuaries, the reconstructions of the local scope of Roman triumph and the ritual stage for sovereign assemblies in the High Middle Ages all depend on the results of the partial investigations and their contribution to a theory of ritual topography and ritual geography.

From a methodological point of view, we need to completely cover the relevant source material of all subprojects: we must gather it and subject it to textual criticism, we need to translate it and document the places of finding. The source material comprises ritual texts from the ancient Egypt, Greek cult laws, unpublished letters, invoices, official registries, court protocols, invitation letters etc from the High Middle Ages and from Rajasthan. Clearly, texts are in the center of our attention: literary messages describing rituals (ritual reports and narratives predominantly in Greece and from the High Middle Ages), regulations for rituals (prescriptive texts mostly from Egypt, Assyria and Greece, but also Rajasthan and Ashkenazic Judaism) and ritual texts (performative texts from all cultures). Moreover, all subprojects examine iconographic and archeological testimonies: pictorial representations, architecture, rooms, sanctuaries, urban streets and squares, and illustrations of court ceremonials. The complexity of the testimonies explains our methodological diversity: we have to employ the methods of textual criticism and literary theory, conduct an art-historical analysis and apply historical contextualization.


The precise reconstruction of rituals acts, for example, demands more than just applying textual criticism and text analysis to the material. This becomes clear when looking at performative texts like hymns, recitation texts, and magic formulas etc, which constitute a significant part of the available sources. The methods of modern literary studies and narratology can be employed very constructively in the reconstruction of concrete communicative situations. The historical and in particular the cultural and socio-political contextualization of the source material about rituals is one of the most important tasks for all subprojects. The precise historical context of the execution of rituals can be determined with the help of texts (such as royal inscriptions in Assyria, chronics from the Middle Ages, inscriptions in Greece and Ashkenazic Judaism) and is of crucial importance for the analysis of the tension between norming (script) and performing, which is characteristic for all subprojects. Since the research of project area B does not regard rituals as relics of old times but rather as a part of public life, we hope to gain new insights from the analysis of concrete ritual contexts. The exact determination of the context reveals, for example in Assyria and Greece, the need for adapting old traditional rituals to a certain situation. In some cases, this need not only induces the change of normative texts but also prompts the introduction or invention of completely new rituals. This makes the question about the impact of rituals and ritualizations on the change of the constant the common leitmotif of all subprojects.