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ESSAY ON RITUAL DRAMA

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It is a task of almost disheartening difficulty to interpret the culture and religion of a primitive race in modern language. Our words are incapable of expressing ideas that are not only divergent from our own, but run in totally different dimensions. In order to reproduce the intellectual life of these races, we must unlearn our psychology, and learn another, no less reasonable but differing in its very principles. Primitive ideas and sensations and sentiments have a harmony and tension of their own, because their holders group the harvest of experience according to another point of view, bring it to a consciousness under strange aspects and construct a reality so alien to ours that words like god and man, life and death, as they are understood by Europeans, carry no meaning in their language.

In preference to the term of primitive – conveying the preposterous idea of something incipient and consequently less “developed” – I would suggest the use of “classical” to indicate the type of culture confronting us in the ancient peoples of Greece and Rome and India etc. as well as in contemporary races beyond the pale of European civilization. A nomenclature allusive to the antagonism between ancient Greece and modern Europe is better suited to bring out the vital characteristics of the classical, realistic, all-embracing harmony of experience as opposed to our romantic civilisation, the reality of which is centered in the human soul and embraces only the reactions of mind on a shadowy world outside in the form of ideas, sentiments and moods.

The antagonism between classical and romantic culture is most keenly felt in the circumstance that the former presupposes a conception of time and space incompatible with our most elementary ideas and still more irreconcilable with our actual experience. In our experience the primary property of bodies is extension, whereas in classical culture it is primarily a force or life that governs all ideas; the earth is not principally the expanse of fruitful soil, but soil, fertility itself, and the reality of the spacious earth is as wholly present in a clod resting in my hand as in the fields stretching far and wide; a mouthful of water is water in the same sense as all the rivers and oceans of the world. In the same way, time is, in our experience, a stream of events descending from the unknown mists of beginning and running in a continuous flow down the future into the unknown; to the men of classical ages the actual life is the result of a concurrent beginning and has its source in the religious feast. The festival consists in a creation or new birth outside time, eternal it might be called, if the word were not as misleading as all others and as inadequate to describe an experience of a totally alien character. When the priest or chieftain ploughs the ritual furrow, when the first seed is sown while the story of the origin of corn is recited, when the warriors act the war game, they make history, do the real work, fight the real battle, and when the men sally forth with the plough or the seed or the weapons, they are only realising what was created in the ritual act. As with the future so with the past: the religious events constitute reality, and actual life acquires reality insofar as it develops the experience acquired in the world of the gods, into successive incidents and definite particulars. During the festival the gods take possession of the whole place; everything is filled with divine life, creating power: mean and their belongings, the house in which the sacrifice is held, the time from the opening consecration to the last ceremony of consummation; the events are eternal and dynamic like a germ that hides a coming plant in its core. The acts that fill up the time may differ in degree of holiness, but there is no difference in kind; one and all they print ineffaceable lines on the physiognomy of the future. This pregnancy of life during the festival makes itself felt in the anxious care of the worshippers – as manifested in strict rules of conduct – to eschew any occupation likely to influence the coming time to its disadvantage. The road of the sacrificers is marked by prohibitions as well as by injunctions; it is a road leading to gladness and strength, but lined with tabus indicating dangers to be avoided.

Consequently, classical culture is essentially active. In our experience time and history are given facts: a destiny linking the life of the individual to the lives of his predecessors; time being a flow of events, we cannot help but being waves in the stream borne along by the sheer weight of the past. Primitive man feels the importance of past events as keenly as we do, and he appreciates their determining impulse still more keenly, but to him the past is energy; he embraces his destiny, or rather the destiny of his race as it has manifested itself in the ancestors, as his own will, and instead of reacting upon the past he acts from it and remoulds it into living actuality.

Hence it follows that his religion is dramatic in character; his piety does not find an outlet in devotion and surrender, in praying and receiving, but in action. Life must be won, death, sin, evil must be conquered. To form a true idea of this conquest of life, it is necessary, however, to bear in mind that classical thinking is concrete in its very essence; in our experience, life is something abstract, power or energy entering into a variety of forms, whereas in classical culture it is “luck and honour”, life as it manifests itself in the character of the race, in its history, in its traditional friendship and enmity towards other circles of men, its individual relation to the powers and beings of nature. The festival covers the history of the clan or the people from its very beginning to the day of the feast, concentrated into one tremendous event. It recreates life, not as a plastic possibility, like clay ready to be moulded into any shape, but as a destiny, as a definite sequence of events, made up of war or husbandry, of marriage and child-bearing or formation of friendships, as history went onward into the future. The person who fights in the ritual is the god, the clan personified, as we say, in one heroic figure, and his antagonist is the enemy, all the enemies of the race, spiritual as well as material, impersonated by the demon; when Thor crushes the giant or Indra slays Vritra, his deed comprehends all the wars living in the memory of the clan, and his success ensures the repetition of its victories in the future. The god fights the battle kat' exochen and wins the victory kat' exochen. Our words being unable to express the wholeness or fulness of classical experience, we are reduced to defining it form different points of view, f.i. by calling the events of the festival prototypic. In order to give expression to the fulness, the eternal or universal force of the ritual, we are tempted to reduce it to acceptable terms by a sort of peeling, f.i. by saying that the ceremonies represent a divine act or event, while at the same time symbolising the history of the clan. This may be our only way of approach to classical experience, but it is nevertheless true that by such an explanation we have irretrievably perverted the meaning of the ritual and destroyed the organic wholenss of its conception. The religious principle does not admit of an analysis on our lines nor of any translation into our historical forms.

The rites of worship are predetermined by the active character of classical culture. In reality no special forms of religion exist, in the sense that piety gives rise to acts or gestures peculiar to a spirit of devotion; ritual ceremonies are nothing but the functions of ordinary life: eating, drinking, working, hunting, ploughing, fighting, exalted by the festival into eternal prototypically pregnant acts; in fact, every act performed during the sacred period necessarily turns into a rite. When circumstances require that the sacrificers move form one spot to another, their walk becomes a procession, a creative march; when any instrument has to be shifted into another position, a holy rite of religious import is born; when the worshippers partake of meat and drink, a sacrament comes into existence. The forms of religion vary according to the character of the people and to its habits of life; among hunters they consist of scenes of the chase, among peasants of scenes of ploughing, sowing and harvesting, among shepherds of scenes of sacrificial banquets, among warriors of fighting episodes: in short, ritual reproduces the history and the daily life of the people in the dimension of holiness. The predominant motif of the drama among Aryan races is strife: the contention between the gods, or life-giving powers, and the demons, who are constantly on the watch for an opportunity to sow death and destruction and turn this fair world into a barren wilderness.

The divergence of experience occasions a radical difference between the fundamental principles of classical and of modern drama. A modern play is made up by a sequence of events which are unrolled chronologically before the spectators, and we look on with the same expectant interest as we watch an episode of the street in the process of development; we expect to be told a new story, to be introduced to persons who up to this moment have been strangers to us, to be initiated into their destiny by following their discourse and interaction; we strain eager eyes anxious to learn how the catastrophe is prepared, in what way the conflict becomes tense and fearful, how the problem is solved. In ritual drama the exact reverse holds good: classical drama presupposes that the fable is present to the minds of the participants, the worshippers stand in need of no enlightenment or exposition of the theme, the drama being their own history, its evolution the working out of their own destiny. In fact, they are not spectators but actors, and their presence makes up the play. They are not present to learn how the story goes, but to live it and carry it through to a happy conclusion; they know exactly what is going to happen and how it is going to end, but they are all of them responsible for a consummation which turns a possible tragedy into the triumph of life. With them there is no scope for an emotion such as our curiosity; our eagerness of expectation is replaced by an interest of far keener tension, waiting as they are with bated breath for history to realise itself and to win through to a new, powerful existence.

The principle of ritual drama involves a form totally different from the structure that comes naturally to us. Modern drama rises like an arch tensely spanned from exposition through conflict to solution, whereas ritual drama is characterised by an intensity and condensation not comparable to any form in our experience. To make its mode of expression clear, we must go to classical culture itself for a suitable illustration, and recall that life is not confined to one form of appearance nor dependent for its reality on a visual manifestation, but exists as a force intensely capable of emerging into shapes apprehensible by the senses. Ritual drama does not evolve within the boundaries of the feat: the festival is the drama itself; the whole extent of its theme is inherent in every single moment and comes out in each several situation during the festival. When f.i. the Vedic worshippers kill the victim, when its flesh is eaten in the sacrificial meal, when soma is pressed and when it is offered up and consumed, on each occasion the fight of Indra comes to life before the sacrificers.

The identity of the festival with the drama brings it about that every act required for practical and ritual purposes must necessarily give expression to the motif of the drama; a turn of the hand, the flash of a knife, the lifting of the victim from the ground, the partition of its body: every item means acting a part. As a consequence an outside spectator will never be able immediately to read the import of the gestures; his explanation will consist of guesses at random, unless it is founded on positive information imparted by the initiates. Thus ritual drama is made up largely of symbolic acts, in no way realistically representing the event implied, but these conventional gesture shade off by degrees into imitative movements and attitudes, more or less suggestive of the acting in our theatres. Accordingly our distinction between symbolism and realistic mimicry does not hold good in the case of ritual drama, and even the words symbol and symbolise are apt to be misleading insofar as they imply a merely fictitious or adventitious parallelism between form and idea. In the following pages “symbol” only serves the practical purpose of indicating dramatic gestures and objects the import of which is not discernible to the uninitiated.

Our phrase “the festival is the drama”, involves still another consequence, viz. that no line can be drawn between ritual actors and ritual implements. The god may be impersonated by a man, but it is no less probable that he will make his appearance in the form of a skull, a ram's head or horn or any other object resting on the sacrificial place, and in this guise play his part as well as by means of the acts and gestures of the sacrificers.

In classical culture, action and speech make up the totality of the drama, so that neither of the two can drop out without the drama falling to pieces or disappearing. Our plays are composed on the fundamental principle that the words cover the story or plot, so that a reader will be completely instructed in the history of the persons by reading the dialogue consecutively; the play is acted in order to bring out the events implied in the word. In primitive drama, action and speech supplement one another so intimately that the drama comes into life through their interaction.

The subject and the purpose of a ritual drama are developed in a legend which can be defined approximately as the programmed of the play. The legend reproduces history as it really happened, viz. as it was enacted on the ceremonial stage during the festival; thus to eyes accustomed to other forms of tradition, legend has the appearance of mixing up real events with elements of a different character. A patient scrutiny of classical history as opposed to modern records of past events should disclose a difference not consisting in divergent forms of tradition but in incompatible modes of experience. Our historical events move to the tempo of chronology, classical history turns on an eternal creative reproduction operative in the festival and resulting in the renewal of daily life; or past is preserved as a series of facts, consummated once for all and unchangeable, strung on a thread of dates like dried berries, whereas classical history is living and breathing, is for ever being actualised into fresh combinations and new harmonies of experience, as is the wont of living things or beings. It is this history which manifests itself in drama and legend. Either mode of experience creates its own form according to its needs; obviously these forms cannot be measured one against another, so that no analysis, no formula or theory regarding what is called primitive mentality suffices to convert legendary history into chronological record. The interpretations of myth given by European analysis fall wide of the mark, because the analyst naively credits the narrators with his own historical sense, as if it were possible for classical man to step out of himself and look at himself from outside; the ethnologist regards myth as a piece of figurative disguise or makeshift, and searches for a kernel of fact beneath the trappings of mythical fancy, as though this scientific treatment really implied that “primitive man “ is able to examine his own ideas and feelings from a point of view unnatural to him, and only huddles them into inadequate forms for want of time and opportunity to develop his mental powers. As soon as the original character of legend is recognised, mythology will take on a new aspect and disclose itself as a body of valuable “historical documents”.

The only highway to the interpretation of a people's legends lies through an intimate study of its experience and its ideas, or more correctly, through a realisation of the individual harmony of experience and idea which constitutes the foundation of its life and institutions; the historian of religion will not be able to elucidate the ritual and the legends of a classical race until he has succeeded in identifying himself – so far as such an identification is possible to modern man – with the worshippers, until he has learnt to look at things with their eyes, to re-experience heaven and earth, animals and plants, and convert this new experience into appropriate ideas. No general research into the customs and myths of “primitive culture” can do more than prepare the ground for an examination of each particular people as a personality.

The legend does not originate in the cult as an explanation of its rites and ceremonies. Speculations as to the origin of the myths are idle, as in most cases they hail from times that are inaccessible to our eyes, even if we be furnished with the strongest glasses of prehistoric theory. In fact, the origin of the myth, its provenance, whether grown in the soil or imported from without, are questions of inferior interest, the myths are real insofar as they have been incorporated into the ritual and made motifs of the drama. In an examination of the matter of mythology we are confronted by another problem of greater importance, viz. the distinction between true legend and free myth or story; the latter is nothing but a piece of entertainment which can be told anywhere to while away the time and to raise a laugh, whereas the former belongs to the feast and may not be narrated otherwise than during certain periods of time and in certain circles of men. Norwegian literature exhibits specimens of such fairy tales as f.i. the story of Thor's visit to Utgarda-Loki (SE 44). Contes of this kind are absorbing interest as refracting the ideas and emotions of the narrators and listeners; the burlesque of the god plunging and floundering in the net of illusion woven by the giants, gives a thrilling pictures of the Norwegian's weird experience in Utgard. In their form, too, such fables necessarily bear the stamp of the imagination at work in the legends – man having only one sort of imagination to do duty in his leisure hours of jest as well as in his moments of tense passion – and thus the pictures of the myths shadow forth the solemn images of the ritual. Some of the scenes of the Thor myth – such as the killing of his rams – obviously turn upon pure cult motifs, but in the case of this myth the problem is complicated by the fact that the Northern myths have been subjected to a literary treatment; probably Snorri or a predecessor of his had a hand in turning a jolly tale into a work of art by the intermixture of features from several sources.

The legend not only develops the dramatic action into narratory forms, it releases, also, the conception inherent in the scenes and the motives and emotions of the participants in the drama, their anxiety, their tension of feeling, their triumph. The malice and enmity of the demons which lie at the back of the drama like a dark, threatening storm to be dissipated by means of the happy consummation of the ritual, are projected by the legend into epic activity; if the gods did not continually foil the schemes of the evil powers, if they did not create the world over and over again, the giants would turn it into a wilderness, they would steal Thor's hammer, swallow sun and moon and extinguish the light of the world, carry off the goddess and her life-giving food, hide the ale, making everything unheore, and in the legend this dreadful possibility is put into time as if it had really come to pass and required to be remedied. If the dragon were not slain over and over again, the events of Ragnarok as described by the myth would immediately come true: the dragon blow venom far and wide and fills all the air and the sea with his poisonous breath, thus the legend telling how the god frustrated the plotting of the demon will run, as in the verses of Vsp. (2-6)” “Who has filled the air with poison and carried off the goddess to the realm of the demons? – Thor rose, he seldom keeps his seat when such things reach his ears”.

In classical culture, religion is the heart of the people. During the festival, life is brought to its highest pitch; ritual drama represents the passionate expression of life enjoyed to the full, and becomes play or art. In modern civilisation where art and religion have parted company, men leave work in order play: they indulge in games for recreation, they suspend their practical pursuits - or avoid altogether becoming entangled in worldly cares – to contemplate life and their own souls in poetry of aloofness, to sing lyrics and compose dramas dealing with life. Play has its very raison d'être in its absolute character, its self-existence, in other words its independence of the laws governing actual life, its irreality, as is expressed forcibly in such terms as to “play at” being, and “art for art's sake”, whether this phrase is taken to mean that art has absolutely no purpose outside itself, or that it is expected to act indirectly as a mental tonic upon the happiness and morals of ordinary people. In every sense of the word our intellectual life is the life of a spectator at a play, and our literary and artistic interests have developed forms of their own; through this bisection of life art comes into existence as a separate reality and aesthetic enjoyment is born, side by side with and consequently in opposition to religious devotion. In classical religion art can never be divorced from religion, because religion is art in itself and religion becomes art by working in a sphere above the exigencies of the hour. Ritual drama was a play, a game in a sense that sounds unfamiliar to our ears, because it involved a real contest, drew its interest, in fact, from the circumstance that the issue was of greater moment than all secular decisions, that the perils exceeded all possible risks in daily life, that it had practical results of far more vital importance than any successes achieved by work. The joy of playing is rooted so firmly in passionate earnest that it would lose its spice in the event of its being turned into mere make-believe; heaven and earth, luck and honour, past and future, happiness, in body and mind, hang in the balance and are won – or lost – by the game. No wonder that the play ends on a note of triumphant, overpowering joy: there was gladness in the hall.

A statement that the emotions called up by the festival were intensely, even exclusively of a religious character, thus amounts to saying that they included what we call an aesthetic enjoyment of the scenes as art and of it language as poetry. The ritual moves in a region of speech above the commonplace dialogue of every day; it gives birth to a vocabulary abounding in metaphors and images, in stately solemn phrases bearing in their very rhythm and cadence the weight of chanting. This formal speech is poetry because it is the passionate language of life at its highest and strongest moments; not the cry of a soul artificially and aesthetically exalted to a tension, partly delight and partly pain, by high-strung emotions and raptures of ecstacy, but the soberly fervent words of life in the throes of new birth, hovering on the brink of tragedy and triumphantly redeeming itself. Classical poetry voices the experience of history – the history of the clansmen – coming to life and through its new birth gathering strength to achieve greater and more ambitious objects. The poetical language differs from habitual speech in being more ornate in dress as well as more passionate in spirit, but not in being less true to nature; its images and metaphors stand out from the homely phrases of the day, because they illustrate the facts of life as they appear on the ritual stage: life as it really is.

Among the Teutons, poetry has preserved the ritual language in its kennings and epithets. The principle of style, obtaining in the scaldic poetics, that warriors are correctly paraphrased by a divine name, as f.i. the Tyr of the sword, is derived from the ritual fact that men were gods during the festival; when woman is called the dis or goddess of the ale, we catch a glimpse of the sacred figure carrying the cup round the hall along the row of worshippers. By the eleventh century the poetical language had become a literary idiom, or rather jargon, and most of the kennings are little more than clichés, but these very clichés owe their currency to the pageant of the ancient drama. When gold is called the light of the water, the shield is styled the ship of Ull, the sword is paraphrased as Heimdal's head, and Odin is charcterised as the friend of Hoenir, the kenning is nothing less than a dramatic scene – and a myth – crystallised or rather stylised into a compact figure as a picture in so-called conventionalised art.

In the court poetry the kennings were reduced to poetical equivalents of the naked word, to be used at random according to the demands of rhythm and rhyme; originally their use was determined, not by aesthetic fancy, but by truly artistic, i.e. religious reality, to illustrate an actual situation or to reproduce an actual picture from the dramatic scene. The literary craftsman would make Odin the friend of Hoenir when metrical or aesthetic reasons demanded variety or the poet felt that his verses needed a little polish; in ritual poetry the kenning reflects a scene in which Odin and Hoenir acted together, and thus add precision to the imagery of the drama. In a paraphrase like that of Odin as the robber of the ale or mead, professional poets saw no more than a pretty substitute for a rather hackneyed name; in the legend it conjured up a scene of vital influence, and consequently of overwhelming power over the imagination of the listeners. The original force of the poetic language is recognisable in the verse of Grinmismál (50) in a list of Odin's names: “I called myself Svidurr and Svidrir in the house of Sokkmimir, when I concealed my name to the ancient giant and slew his son Midvidnir”. The earliest scalds had not wholly emancipated themselves from the reality of the festival; frequently a display of flowing poetic draperies has replaced the clinging metaphors of legendary poetry, but occasionally the clear–cut images of the drama shine through the elaboration of their comparisons. An excellent example is furnished by the opening verses of Eyvind's Háleygjatal, cf. infra. p. 327.

The dramatic character of the festival is attested by the style of the Eddic poems which still bears witness to its origin in the stirring spectacular life of the drama. It has none of the characteristics peculiar to epic poetry, its slow, steady stride, its attention to the things marking its way. The Eddic poems do not even tell the story; one scene leaps forth after another, evoked at times by a lightning revelation of an attitude or of a sword descending on a head, at other times by a piece of a dialogue. The sequence of the pictures suggests a chain of events composing a forcible, passionate story, but it is left to the memory -- not to the imagination – of the reader to supply the links between them.

In its suggestiveness and its allusiveness, its appeal not to the imagination but to the memory or to an imaginative power or recollection, in its vividness of effect, this style represents the language of the legends, though in various stages of evolution, as becoming a literary medium. Some of the poems are all but pure legends – the only unadulterated legends left to us – others are so far evolved as to be poems founded on legend and displaying odds and ends of ritual material.

The character of the sacrifice among the Teutons is further indicated by the word in use for play or game; leikr – A S lác – denotes play and sacrifice (f.i. Gen. 975, 1497, 2843, 2933; applied to mass: Guthl. 1084; hence the meaning of gift as in Beow. 43, 1863, B A Po. III 183(1); cf. infra p. 278). In Norwegian leikr enters into kennings denoting battle, a fact indicative of the holiness of the warriors and the religious character of war (Hildar leikr etc.); cf. Beow. 1561 etc.

Our hope of forming an idea of the ritual among the Northerners is founded on the examination of these reminiscences preserved in poetic similes, completed by that of the legendary material embedded in the myths. On account of the abrupt, allusive and partly obscure character of the remains, the traces of the drama would scarcely be recognisable, if the eye of the examiner had not been trained by experience in other parts of the world, where religious forms are presented in their integrity and effectual power. The fragmentary state of the material will never admit of reconstructing the ritual drama as a whole, but the fragments should be numerous enough to reproduce a variety of scattered scenes sufficient to reveal the character of the blot. At times our information is such as to lead us to the very threshold of a hypotheses and mockingly to leave us standing in the dark with one foot seeking for a hold in the void. The material examined here is far from being exhaustive; I have given no account of a great many expeditions that landed the investigator in hypotheses that had nothing to recommend them but the possibility that they were true; but I feel confident that a greater amount of ingenuity and constructive power will succeed in gathering together into an orderly pattern threads that have here been left hanging loose.

 

   

   

 
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