Myth and Ritual School

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MYTH AND RITUAL SCHOOL . The term Myth and Ritual school refers to two movements, one in Great Britain in the second quarter of the twentieth century, connected with the name of S. H. Hooke of the University of London, and the other, less clearly identifiable, appearing at about the same time in Scandinavia. The "school" or movement arose in reaction against an evolutionary approach to the study of ancient religions, although it depended upon data collected by scholars holding to the evolutionary outlook. It arose also as a result of a growing recognition in many circles of the central importance of ritual acts for ancient peoples and of the accompanying textsthe myths. The movement thus was rightly designated the "Myth and Ritual school," for it sought to show how pervasive were the central ritual acts of ancient societies and how inseparable from these acts were the accompanying words. The school gave great prominence to the religions of the ancient Near East; the most weighty applications of the school's findings were made to the study of the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.

The pattern of religious activity identified by the school was focused upon the celebration of New Year's Day and upon the place of the king in that celebration. The community was enabled to participate in the actual renewal of the cosmos as the various elements of the ritual were observed. The Myth and Ritual school thus stressed the enormous cultural significance of right observance of the ritual; ritual and its accompanying words were, according to the Myth and Ritual theorists, at the heart of an ancient society's self-understanding.


Many elements contributed to the appearance of the Myth and Ritual school. The gathering of data on religious practices by ethnologists and anthropologists such as was carried out, for example, by James G. Frazer and reported in his multivolume work, The Golden Bough, 12 vols. (19111915), provided vast comparative materials for the school's use. Specialized studies of the social and psychological aspects of the life of ancient Israel, in particular the work of the Danish scholar Johannes Pedersen (Israel, Its Life and Culture, 2 vols., 19261940), proved influential in Great Britain and in Scandinavia. And the studies of the great Danish historian of religion and specialist in Germanic religion Vilhelm Grönbech were a highly influential factor in shaping the school's appreciation of the dynamism and power of cultic life, with its many-faceted ritual acts. Also influential were the studies of the German scholar Wilhelm Mannhardt on cultic practices related to agriculture and the agricultural year (see especially his Wald- und Feldkulte, 2 vols., 18741876, 2d ed., 19041905).


Both branches of the school originate in association with the work of the great Hermann Gunkel, founder of the method of form criticism. An Old Testament specialist whose work firmly rooted the study of the Old Testament in the cultic practices of the ancient Near East, Gunkel also saw the connection between ritual and myth, especially in his studies of the myths and legends of Genesis (Genesis, 1901; 2d ed., 1922). But it was the Norwegian scholar Sigmund Mowinckel who first applied the insights and approach of Gunkel to the cultic materials of the Hebrew Psalter in a series of studies (Psalmen-Studien, 4 vols., 19211925).

For Mowinckel the early Israelite cult was a living reality, marked by the existence of wonder-workers and mischief makers who had to be dealt with by means of ritual acts and formulas. The New Year's Day celebrations saw the Israelite God Yahveh enthroned afresh as lord of the universe, with whom the earthly king was cultically associated. Details of this celebration would later be worked out by the Myth and Ritual school, but Mowinckel gave the basic structure of the celebration in this early study of the Israelite cult. Mowinckel gave examples from the surrounding religious practices to show that this cult of Yahveh in Israel had very close similarities with those of its neighbors. Many other scholars would join in the search for parallels and for further evidence of the influence of ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual upon the religion and cult of early Israel.

The British School

The Myth and Ritual school in Great Britain was a remarkable instance of scholarly collaboration in an age in which individual scholars tended to work in relative independence of one another. The moving force within the school was S. H. Hooke, longtime professor of Old Testament studies in the University of London. He edited a series of studies during a twenty-five-year period in which he and his colleagues sought to identify the connection between ritual acts and the words that accompanied themthat is, the myths, the "libretto" of the ritual score. The first study appeared in 1933 under the title Myth and Ritual. The second, The Labyrinth, was published two years later. These two works covered the rites of the peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, and Canaan, and dealt at length with the myth and ritual of ancient Israel and of early Christianity. The third of the volumes came out in 1958: Myth, Ritual, and Kingship. It included an essay by H. H. Rowley, "Ritual and the Hebrew Prophets," in which Rowley indicated reservations about aspects of the school. It also included an important critical assessment of the school by S. G. F. Brandon, which called attention to certain critics of the school and included several points of sharp disagreement by Brandon himself. This chapter in the book is addressed by Hooke in his introductory essay. It was a salutary thing that this open debate on the school's view was furthered by publications in which the school's central positions were espoused.

For the British school, the central undertaking seemed to be to show how many of the cultic practices and the motifs of ancient Near Eastern myths and sagas had their counterpart in texts of the Hebrew scriptures. The reconstruction of the annual festival in ancient Israel produced an amazing richness: recitation of the story of creation; humiliation and ritual murder of the king; descent of the king into the underworld; resurrection from death and restoration to the throne; the sacred marriage of the king and his consort, representing the divine pair; the reestablishment of the cosmos and the historical order; and the recitation of the divine law. The pattern was derived from the New Year ritual text preserved in the Akkadian language and dating to Seleucid times, augmented by many texts from other times and societies.

Critics pointed out that these elements were actually drawn from many places in the Hebrew scriptures, never appearing together, if indeed some of the elements actually appeared at all. Critics also made the point that Israel's earthly king is a latecomer in Israel to the historical scene and is often under the most severe challenge and indictment by the prophets. But for about three decades the British Myth and Ritual school pressed its viewpoint, enlisted scholars of great learning and influence into its ranks, and sought to refine its position.

The Scandinavian School

Less formally associated with one another than were those of the British group, the Scandinavian specialists dealing with myth and ritual also gained much of their initial perspective from the work of Hermann Gunkel and from the early writings of Sigmund Mowinckel. Other works of special importance for the Scandinavian school included a study of Exodus 115 by Johannes Pedersen in which the author saw these chapters to be a text that accompanied the celebration of the Passover festival in early Israel. The whole drama of the call of Moses, the move to Egypt to effect deliverance, the plagues, the last dreadful night as the Passover was observed, closing with the legend of the crossing at the Red Sea, the defeat of Egypt's forces, and the triumph song of the Israelites, would have been recited as the libretto of the Exodus celebration. Early stages of the text that accompanied the ritual could to some degree be distinguished from the later stages of the tradition; but the character of Exodus 115, said Pedersen, was better explained as the Passover ritual text than on the basis of separate literary sources or traditions. Pedersen recognized Passover to be a nature festival of pastoralists that, by means of the annual celebration with its accompanying legend, rooted the natural festivity in Israel's historical consciousness.

The work of the Swedish scholar H. S. Nyberg on the Book of Hosea also greatly influenced the Scandinavian school. In Studien zum Hoseabuche (1935) Nyberg argued that the text of Hosea was probably preserved orally until the time of the Babylonian exile, but he also argued, on the basis of analogies from the ancient Near East, that oral tradition is very reliable indeed. Thus Nyberg spoke for the value of the cultic community of ancient Israel in the preservation of the words of its leaders and for their reuse in the cult, thereby (like Pedersen) expressing mistrust of the "bookish" approach of western European and North American scholars. In addition, the comparisons drawn by Nyberg to early Arabic practices would prove useful in the later work of the Scandinavian Myth and Ritual school.

Other studies followed. Alfred Haldar examined the relations of ancient prophets to the cult and came to the conclusion that although prophets were often critical of the cult, they were themselves usually the product of the cult as well, functionaries who had their regular place in the ceremonies and rituals by means of which the society's life was renewed. Aage Bentzen of Denmark, in one of his very influential writings (King and Messiah, 1955), dealt with later eschatological writings, showing that the kingship ritual of early times continued to exercise influence in postexilic times, as Israelite messianism developed. Richard Reitzenstein (1978) did the same for Hellenistic religious rites and practices, bringing to the study and evaluation of the New Testament a wealth of history-of-religions materials reflecting cultic practices believed to illuminate the world of the New Testament. A lengthy commentary on the First Letter of Peter by Frank Leslie Cross (1954) presented this New Testament book as the text to accompany the celebration of the Christian "Passover," Easter.

Ivan Engnell and Sigmund Mowinckel, in quite different ways, brought the work of the Myth and Ritual school in Scandinavia to a new level. Engnell was a vigorous exponent of the king's central position in the cult. He probably overstated the case for the accuracy of oral tradition and related too many biblical texts to the royal cult, thus producing a reaction against the entire position of the school. An essay by Martin Noth was considered by many scholars to have offered the definitive refutation of the Scandinavian approach to the place of the king in the Israelite cult ("God, King, and Nation," in The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Essays, 1966). Noth pointed out how late kingship appears on the scene. Israel's very identity as a people is formed in the Israelite traditions long before there is a king. The kings are held under constant surveillance by the ancient prophets, according to the biblical record. And the eschatological pictures of the king of the time of consummation offer such a picture of this "last" king that further judgment is expressed against all incumbents. Mowinckel, in his major work on Israelite messianism and eschatology, He That Cometh (1955), provided a seasoned and thoughtful critical assessment of the work of the Myth and Ritual school in both its British and its Scandinavian forms. At the same time, Geo Widengren continued his specialized studies dealing with the relation of myth and ritual, refining the outlook of the Myth and Ritual school and making it evident that in most particulars the school's outlook had stood the test of time.

Continuing Influence

Despite the weaknesses of the school, as pointed out by Henri Frankfort (Kingship and the Gods, 1948), Martin Noth, and many others, the result of the work of these scholars has been on the whole very positive. The Myth and Ritual school presented a forceful critique of evolutionistic schemes employed in the study of religion. It kept critical scholarship continuingly alerted to the need to take the actual practices of a religion at least as seriously as it took that religion's ideas and its literary heritage. It underscored the significance of the king for the entire life of ancient societies. Moreover, the comparative approach of the school has endured and become characteristic of the study of religion. Historical, comparative, structural, and systematic studies of religion all have their place in the study of religion, and the Myth and Ritual school contributed much to the enlargement of the vision of scholars engaged in the study of religion.

The school was able to bring together specialists from many backgrounds, linguistic interests, skills, and schools of interpretation, forging a working team (as in Great Britain) or furthering collaboration on several interlocking problems (as in Scandinavia), offering creative and comprehensive interpretations of central features of religion, especially the religions of the eastern Mediterranean area and Mesopotamia.

The school claimed too much for the pervasiveness of the pattern of ritual observance in the societies studied. It did not sufficiently allow for the differences in the understanding of kingship in the different lands. It seems also to have reconstructed patterns that turned out to be not nearly so widespread as its members thought, such as ritual marriage and the death and resurrection motif. But the school also brought to prominence several features of religious understanding and cultic practice that are unmistakable as the study of religion and religions continues.

Some of the critics of the Myth and Ritual school also went too far in their contentions. The differences between the historical consciousness of ancient Israel and that of Israel's neighbors were exaggerated by Martin Noth and others. And if the chief festival in the life of ancient Israel was centered upon the covenant rite or upon Jerusalem, rather than upon the king as representative of the deity, even so the role of the king in the cult of ancient Israel was very prominent indeed.

Two aspects of scholarship characterize the study of myth and ritual in the early twenty-first century. The first is the extent of collaborative work on myth and ritual by scholars in many fields: philologists, historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, philosophers, archaeologists, along with specialists in religion. Indeed, the study of religion today is unthinkable without such collaborative work. It is important to remember, however, that the Myth and Ritual school did much to further this collaboration and to display its fruitfulness.

The second aspect is the comparison of texts in religious studies. Not only does the comparison of texts help to clarify the varied meanings of ritual acts; it also helps scholars to see the strength and meaning of the texts as literature. Here the interest of the Myth and Ritual school was too narrow. The story of creation does belong in association with ritual acts, but it also has a life outside its ritual use. The great prayers and hymns of the ancient world and of Israel are cultic texts to be used as the community participates in the recreation and reestablishment of its world and of the cosmos, but they too have a life of their own. These cultic texts offer perspectives, a worldview, an understanding of certain fundamental realities upon which the social existence of the peoples depended. Nevertheless, the school's insistence that these cultic texts were to be seen as actual parts of the ritual life of the people was an invaluable recognition.


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Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1986, 2000.

Fontenrose, Joseph. The Ritual Theory of Myth. Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles, 1966.

Gaster, T. H. "Myth, Mythology." In Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. III., ed. George W. Buttrick, pp. 481487. New York and Nashville, 1962.

Grönbech, Vilhelm. The Culture of the Teutons (19091912). 3 vols. Translated by William Worster. London, 1931.

Hooke, S. H., ed. Myth and Ritual. Oxford, 1933.

Hooke, S. H., ed. The Labyrinth. New York, 1935.

Hooke, S. H., ed. Myth, Ritual and Kingship. Oxford, 1958.

James, E. O. Christian Myth and Ritual. London, 1933.

Müller, Gerhard, ed. Theologische Realencyclopädie, vol. 23. Berlin & New York, 1994, pp. 597665.

Oden, Jr., Robert A. "Myth and Mythology." In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. IV, ed. David Noel Freedman, pp. 946960. New York and London, 1992.

Patton, Laurie L., and Wendy Doniger, eds. Myth and Method. Charlottesville, N. C., and London, 1996.

Porter, J. R. "Myth and Ritual School." In Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. John H. Hayes. Nashville, 1999.

Reisenfeld, Harald. "Kultgeshichtliche Methode." In Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 4. Tübingen, 1960.

Reitzenstein, Richard. The Hellenistic Mystery Religions (1910). Translated by John E. Steely. Pittsburgh, 1978.

Segal, Robert A., ed. The Myth ane Ritual Theory: An Anthology. Malden, Mass., and Oxford, 1998.

Sienkewicz, Thomas J. Theories of Myth: An Annotated Bibliography. Magill Bibliographies. Lanham, Md. & London. Also Pasadena, Calif., and Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1997.

Westermann, Claus. "Kultgeschichtliche Schule." In Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 4. Tübingen, 1960.

Widengren, Geo. "Die religionswissenschaftliche Forschung in Skandinavien in den letzten zwanzig Jahre." Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 5 (1953): 193222, 320334.

Widengren, Geo, et al., eds. La Regalita Sacra/The Sacred Kingship. Leiden, 1959. See the historical chapter by Carl-Martin Edsman, "Zum sakralen Königtum in der Forschung der letzten hundert Jahre," pp. 3-17.

Walter Harrelson (1987 and 2005)