“Approaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures” edited by Claus Ambos and Lorenzo Verderame

copertinaApproaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures: Proceedings of the Conference, November 28-30, Roma. Eds. Claus Ambos and Lorenzo Verderame. Supplementi N° 2 Alla Rivista Degli Studi Orientali. Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, pp. 328, 320 € (Online).

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Fabrizio Serra Editore for providing a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

This volume, the proceedings of the conference “Questioni di rito: Rituali come fonte di conoscenza delle religioni e delle concezioni del mondo nelle culture antiche”, draws from a wide variety geographical regions and time periods in order to demonstrate the many ways to approach ritual. While the papers touch upon a range of topics, many of which include questions and critiques of well-known methodologies for ritual, the primary aim to engage with ritual across the ancient Mediterranean area. Following, I will provide summaries and thoughts on the exquisite articles engaging with ritual in the ancient world.

Claus Ambos applies Arnold van Gennep’s tripartite scheme for a rite of passage to the parallel bit rimki and ritual of the substitute king in order to highlight the spatial dimensions of van Gennnep’s scheme. Rather than agreeing with the details of van Gennep’s rite of passage, Ambos agrees with Crapanzanos’ “rite of return” for the king”. Most importantly, Ambos offers a fresh translation and publication of text fragment BM 32534, a previously unpublished fragment, pertinent to the bit rimki. With this new translation available, we now have a valuable text available which is directly related to ritual in ancient Mesopotamia.

Federico Contardi examines how Egyptian worship and royal rituals were customized and appropriated and why the historical setting permitted such a reception in the 1st millennium. The historical perspective of Contardi regarding this appropriation of rituals for the vast majority from originally royal and cultic rituals in Alexandria makes me wonder if the Hebrew Bible/LXX can be understood in a similar vein. Perhaps trends presented by Contardi will illuminate religious trends within the Levant.

M. Erica Couto-Ferreira examines the spatial and time parallel of a late Babylonian fertility ritual. She highlights the spatial dimensions in order to show how infertility was conceptualized and understood within the ritual. Especially for Gender Studies, this paper is extremely valuable because, while Couto-Ferreira focuses on issues relating to conceptualization of fertility, it implicitly illustrates the social structure in which men and women operated.

Agnes Garcia-Ventura and Mireia Lopez-Bertran propose analyzing figurines from a perspective of embodiment in order to open new possible readings through the theoretical framework. Through stressing the involvement of the figurine as a being within ritual, not a static object, they successfully open and draw out the importance “physicality of the past” (137), further illustrating the polysemic nature of the body.

Pietro Giammellaro highlights how in ancient Mediterranean civilizations, and thereby Greek myths, thresholds were an important narratological tool and focuses on the threshold as a place for beggars within Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. From a practical perspective, I greatly appreciate Giammellaro’s contribution. Rather than wrapping up with merely academic or scholarly conclusions, he applies his conclusions to how we understand the contemporary world. Contrasting the ancient world’s understanding of beggars as sacred, protected, and sheltered, he notes that beggars in the modern world are marginalized, often by ethnicity, in order to hide the failure of the welfare state and social policies. In the current election period, this has never been more relevant. Especially as insight into the relationship between ritual and time and space, his article is especially important.

Engaging with pertinent methodological issues, Harold M. Hays  provides concrete criticism of van Gennep’s “rite of passage” model and argues for a ritual syntax approach which, unlike the “rite of passage” model, does not have a “predetermined answer for the shape and meaning of ritual structure” (185). Although the paper is primarily concerned with methodology through Egyptian ritual, it is equally applicable to any ritual studies. I appreciate it especially because it provides more than a critique of van Gennep. Joseph Campell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is heavily influenced by van Gennep’s work. So, it provides solid criticism of a popular, though problematic, approach to ritual, myth, and stories. I highly recommend this paper for papers discussing ritual, as it provides an essential critical consideration of a popular approach to ritual.

Patrick Michel examines how Emar rituals involving standing stones were practice in Late Bronze Age Syria. While I’d normally comment on an article, the reception of the article attests to it’s article. In the updated edition of Mark Cohen’s Festival and Calendars of the Ancient Near East,, it plays an important role in connecting the zukru festival to Pesach. So, needless to say, it is extremely important to understanding ritual in the Hebrew Bible and, of course, Late Bronze Age Syria.

Through examination of key Hittite, Ugaritic, and Eblaite texts, Nicola Modena speculates that the gebira at the Judean court were involved with ritual and, more specifically, part of a Judean version of the Mesopotamian lubustu ritual. While she is careful to note that evidence is meagre and highly speculative, her argument would be strengthed with more linguistic and, even more importantly, conceptual parallels between the lubustu ritual and the gebira. For, without it, her speculation is nothing but a house built upon sand.

Davide Nadali examines the role of visual arts in ritual, and ritual in visual arts, and finds that “the anthropomorphic codification where the gods are represented as humans and the viewer can can take part in the ritual through his body, both in reality and in pictures” (224), is the relationship between ritual and visual arts. How Nadali distinguishes between, though, is somewhat problematic. He writes that “When the statue of the king is involved in the performance of a cultic ritual in a temple, even here one should consider the possibility that one is facing a civic and not religious ritual, which aims at reinforcing, stating and fixing the authority, force and practice of the royal power and kingship” (210). While we can, to a certain extent, distinguish between civic and religious, such a suggestion does not consider how kingship and royal power were conceptualized. In ancient Mesopotamia, part of what constituted royal power was divine insignia and power from the divine realm. Likewise, kingship was tied to religious belief and practice. Therefore, the statue of a king in cultic ritual in a temple is both civic and religious.

Andreas H. Pries evaluates and reflects upon the use of grammar of ritual in Egyptology, noting both productive and insufficient aspects to the methodology. Although focused primarily on Egyptology, his conclusions regarding the value of Frits Staal’s approach are still valuable to any consideration of Staal’s methodology. Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel highlights how integral the sensory dimension is in Akkadian rituals through analysis of the exorcist incantation in Utukku Lumnutu (Evil Demons 1.1-97). Brief coverage of other Akkadian rituals demand further research about the sensory dimension(s) in Akkadian ritual.

Marta Rivaroli examines the rite of passage from a royal context regarding the rituals involved in movement from peace, to war, and back to peace. Rivaroli’s argument and illumination of various elements, such as divinities, mythology, time, space, peace, and war, produce a cogent and clear description of the reality of war in the Neo-Assyrian royal context. Guilia Torri and Susanne Gorki analyze the Old Hittite building rituals (CTH 726/725/414) in order to show how the sequence of creation of Hittite kingship was so important ideological, as is the ideological value of building rituals. Finally, Lorenzo Verderame reviews the wide range of substitute rituals (with figurines, animals, and human beings) and highlights common substitute ritual trends and how more complex substitute rituals required more economic power for the patient. Because Verderame touches on how more complex rituals are for peoples with greater economic power, further engagement with how it broadens our understanding of the relationship(s) between ritual and economic power in Neo-Assyria would have clarified the importance of his approach to ritual.

In conclusion, Approaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures is a highly valuable work. Most of the articles are relevant for Ritual Studies as its own field of study. Yet, even for more nuanced studies of Neo-Assyria, ancient Israel, Greek, etc., most of the article contribute to and elaborate on the nuances of approaches to ritual. Already some of these papers are foundations to major scholarly developments. The only downside to this work is the cost. At 320 €, few people will every consider purchasing this book. So, I suggest searching the library.Even so, in terms of the quality of materials and scholarship, Approaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures is incredibly valuable. I highly recommend the book.

*I should clarify that I did not discuss or summarize two of the articles which were in German and Italian.


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