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PLAY . The idea of play may be embedded in the very metaphysics of certain cosmologies (Handelman and Shulman 1997), as well as in particular ritual contexts. Although the idea of play has widespread currency in religions with differing epistemologies, the profundity of its presence corresponds to the level of premises at which it is lodged in a given religious system. The more abstract and encompassing the premises of a religion imbued with the ideation of play, the more pervasive and fateful are its systematic expressions in religious life.

Attributes of the Idea of Play

The idea of play is universal among humankind, whether or not particular cultures have terms to denote such a conception. A first attribute of play is that its assumptions are preeminently conditional, for play is a medium through which the make-believe is brought into being and acquires the status of a reality.

Especially human is the capacity to imagine and, so, to create alternative realities. In question, however, are the truth values of such realities, that is, the extent to which, and under which conditions, they are accorded validity. In the logic of modern Western culture, the imaginary is not accorded any ultimate status of validity or truth. Gregory Bateson (1972) has argued that the messages that signify the existence of play are "untrue" in a sense, and that the reality that such messages denote is nonexistent. This, of course, holds in a culture whose religious cosmology is predicated in part upon a comparatively immutable boundary between the divine and the human, with the former accorded the status of absolute truth, while the latter is perceived in no small measure as sinful and as a profanation of the former. Given its imaginary character, the idea of play in much of modern Western thought often is rendered as pretense and is relegated to the domain of the culturally "unserious," like the world of fiction and that of leisure time activities, or to the realm of the "not yet fully human," like the play of little children. Yet to equate the imaginary universally with the frivolous is to render the essential powers of play impotent and to obscure their roles in religious thought and action, especially in cosmologies where a state of existence is also a condition of untruth.

A second attribute of play is the necessity of a form of reference that can be altered in systematic ways. Play changes the known signs of form into something else by altering the reified boundaries that define and characterize the phenomenon. What is changed still retains crucial similarities to its form of foundation and so remains intimately related to it. For example, the medieval European Feast of Fools, a rite of inversion, required the form of a traditional Christian Mass that could be altered. The play-mass would have no significance for participants were it not derived from and contrasted with its everyday analogue, the traditional Mass.

A third attribute of play is that any phenomenal form can be transformed through a sense of imagination that itself remains constrained to a degree by the composition of the "original" form. This attribute may be problematic for ontologies that strongly implicate the active presence of play in the acts of creation, as in Hinduism. For since the idea of play requires the existence of forms that can be differently modeled, how can this idea be present prior to the creation of form? Nonetheless, if the Hindu cosmos comes into being as the adumbrated dream of the all-encompassing universal principle, brahman, then this attribute of play is not obviated, since original form itself is imaginary and illusory.

A fourth attribute of play is that it brings into being something that had not existed before by changing the shape and positioning of boundaries that categorize phenomena and so altering their meaning. One may state simply that creation, destruction, and recreation occur and recur because those boundaries that demarcate the coherency of phenomena are altered. Therefore play is associated intimately with creativity and with creation, as Johan Huizinga (1938) and Arthur Koestler (1964) have maintained, as well as with its converse, destruction. In the most limited case of creation, that of the inversion of a phenomenally valid form, it is only the reflection of such form, still constrained by the original positioning of boundaries, that is brought into being. For example, the inversion of gender is constrained by finite permutations, as is the overturning of a clearly defined hierarchy, as long as gender and hierarchy remain the respective terms of reference of these inversions. On the other hand, cosmologies that strongly feature trickster figures also tend to be characterized by lengthier series of transformations of these types, so that it becomes difficult to state which form is the original and which the playful copy.

A fifth attribute of play is that it is an amoral medium, one that is marked by plasticity, by lability, and by flexibility in ideationqualities closely related to those of imagination and creativity. In play, these qualities have the potential to meddle with and to disturb any form of stability and any conception of order.

A sixth attribute of play is a penchant for questioning the phenomenal stability of any form that purports to exist as a valid proposition and as a representation of "truth." The idea of play is amoral in its capacities to subvert the boundaries of any and all phenomena and so to rock the foundations of a given reality.

Whether, and to what degree, these qualities of play are integral to the metaphysics of a given religious system should illustrate how that system works. For example, whether the boundaries that divide the paranatural and human realms are quite absolute or are matters of continuous gradation and whether the character of a cosmology's population (deities, spirits, demons, tricksters, and so forth) is one of positional stability or of ongoing transformation should be illuminated by the relative presence of the attributes of play in a particular religious system.

The Idea of Play and Premises of Cosmology

The embeddedness of the idea of play does not appear to be associated, in particular, either with great religious traditions or with local ones, either with so-called tribal societies or with more complex ones. Hence the examples adduced here are of a tribal people and of Hinduism.

The Iatmul of the Sepik River area in New Guinea are a tribal people whose culture values monistic and yet dualistic conceptions of the cosmos. Both coexist, each continuously transforming into the other. For the monism of the Iatmul view of cosmic order fragments into a multitude of competing principles that explain that order. In turn, these recombine into an elementary synthesis, only to multiply once again and to flow together once more.

Thus the character of the Iatmul cosmos is one of immanent transmutability, of plays upon phenomenal form. This reverberates throughout the institutions of Iatmul society and parallels a conduciveness to paradox in Iatmul thought. This proclivity of paradox highlights ongoing disjunctions among phenomenal forms. Therefore strong tendencies toward fragmentation lurk within numerous cultural traditions that declare the validity of a coherent synthesis of differing principles in Iatmul society. Thus Iatmul men, in the heat of argument, were to display their most sacred ceremonial objects before the profaning gaze of women and uninitiated boys, thereby completely destroying for years to come the ritual efficacy of these collective representations. Superficially this behavior could appear simply as uncontrolled and destructive. Yet further consideration would reveal that such behavior was quite consistent with those premises of an Iatmul worldview that denied to boundaries a fixedness of form for lengthy durations.

In such cosmologies, as of course in others, boundaries of form are brought into being through change. Yet in such cosmologies both phenomenal form and the agencies of change are, in a sense, illusory: though they persuade that the solidity of reification is their state, this masks the more profound observation that impermanence is their condition. Here play, as illusion in action, is crucial. The ideation of play is processual: it can bring into being forms that signify the existence of the cosmos. Yet these forms themselves must be transcended through their own negation in order to reveal those deeper truths that are masked by the very force of illusion. Therefore the processuality of play, of imagination, also effaces its own creation.

Aspects of Hindu cosmology exemplify this abstract sense of play as cosmic process. The Hindu concept of līla commonly is translated as the "play" of forces and energies that are continually in motion. These spontaneously create and destroy the possibility of a phenomenal world in an unending process. Līla, as play, is a metaphor of flux, of movement, from which the cosmos emerges and into which it will eventually disappear. Any reification of form, implying inherent solidity and stability, denies this basic premise. Yet the premise itself cannot be realized without the creation of form, which is then the opposite of nonform, of flux. Momentarily (in cosmic terms) the premise of līlā must create phenomena in order to revalidate itself by then subverting and destroying them. The creation of phenomena is activated through the use of māyā, commonly translated as the force of illusion, that is, as another aspect of the idea of play as it is used here. All phenomena rest and shift on the premise of illusion. Their most abstract of purposes is to cease to exist as phenomena.

Among the products of māyā is the cosmos that gods and humans inhabit. This can be rendered as sasāra, a gloss for all phenomena that exist in the cosmos. Sasāra, too, is understood as flux, as the processual flow that shapes all forms, and not as phenomena whose reification is absolute in any sense. Sasāra is also related to the idea of play and refers to the cycle of birth and rebirth of all beings. One can attain salvation, and so escape sasāra, only by dissipating the forces of illusion that render deep flux as superficial form. For gods and humans, for renouncers and antigods, aspects of the ideation of play are both their confinement, through illusion, in the bounded phenomenal trap and their escape from it through the dissolution of fixed forms. As named beings, deities are not ultimate forms in and of themselves. Rather they are signposts on the way to salvation, just as other figures point in contrary directions. Without beginning to overcome the forces of illusion, thereby gaining insight into both creation and destruction, one is caught endlessly in the paradoxes of a world that appears stable but is in flux. Yet perceptions that are paradoxical on one level of abstraction become merely ironical on a higher one.

The logic of these ideas permeates numerous aspects of Hindu cosmology. Ideally, the creative role of the sanyāsin, the renouncer, which is dedicated to the penetration of illusion, is also built into the Hindu life cycle as the final stage of living in this reality. Therefore, in a theoretical sense, the desirability of piercing the force of illusion that makes the world possible is integral to living in that world.

Like humans, Hindu gods and antigods are not constructed culturally as unitary and homogeneous figures. Instead they are self-transforming types whose logic of composition depends on the alteration of hierarchical and lateral boundaries within and around themselves. In their transformations these figures bear witness to the ultimate impermanence of illusion and also to the necessity of this force upon which they, like humankind, depend for existence. The only final stability in the Hindu cosmos is that of motility; the only final coherence in classification is its mutation.

Such paranatural types, like other facets of Hinduism, often seem paradoxical to Western thinking, in which stability is believed to be truly real and flux is both a secondary and a deficient reality. In the South Indian Śaiva Tamil tradition, for example, Śiva is composed as a self-transforming figure. He is creator, protector, and destroyer. He is, in Wendy O'Flaherty's felicitous phrasing, the erotic ascetic. He transcends and contains the cosmos, yet also appears within it through synecdoche, the relationship of part to whole. He is trickster and tricked. He creates the antigods, the asura s, and, by the terms of their compact, is helpless before them as they wreak havoc. But he also transcends himself in creating his son, Muruka, who destroys the antigods. There are hints that Muruka at once is greater than Śiva, is Śiva, and is reabsorbed into Śiva. In this example the power of imagination, intimately associated with illusion, has the capacity to expand upon, to extend, and to transform phenomenal reality beyond those boundaries that previously had contained it in an ongoing play of generative forces. This potential is actualized since reality and the fixedness that gives it definition are illusory.

Like the permutations of malleability in Iatmul cosmology, that of Hinduism, although operating in terms of a radically different epistemology, emphasizes the fragmentation of unitary principles that flow together in synthesis only to divide once again. In both of these cosmologies the idea of play would seem to inhere in their abstract conceptualizations of phenomenal reality that, on the one hand, perch and teeter precariously on the border between cosmos and chaos and, on the other, conceive of processuality as a condition of existence.

Premises of Play in Ritual Occasions

As the focus of play shifts to the positioning of this idea in religious or quasi-religious occasions, it becomes more constricted, since its presence threatens the validity and the stability of the occasion in which it is located. Nonetheless the idea of play does accomplish certain kinds of work in particular ritual contexts.

Within ritual contexts the notion of play has perhaps the most embracing mandate in that category of occasion termed festival. As the etymology of the English word denotes, a festival is an occasion of celebration, of joyous attitudes, and of rejoicing, marked by moods of cheer. In European tradition it has affinities with the carnivalesque and with certain liturgical periods in the Christian calendar. In the Hindu tradition it encompasses annual occasions that celebrate the powers of particular deities, and such times often are indistinguishable from pilgrimages to the deities in this culture.

Of especial significance here is that festival approximates a total collective performance, one that celebrates a holistic unity of cosmic and social order on the part of a relatively homogenized population of participants. This implies that many of the distinctions between social categories of personswhether based on hierarchy, status, occupation, or agemay be temporarily subverted and dissolved in a playful spirit. Thus people, ordinarily separated by moral edicts and social rules, are brought together to experience the rediscovery of the significance of sacra that apply to all of them as a comparatively undifferentiated community of believers.

In part this may be done through inversions of social identity that reverse the relationships among everyday social distinctions, so that the high are made low and more peripheral positions become more central. This is the case in the North Indian holiday Krsnalila, or Feast of Love. Or, as in the European tradition of Carnival, the spirit of festive license and the erasure of social boundaries prepare the way for the ascetic restrictions of the days of Lent. In either instance the ideation of play is crucial to establish a comparative degree of social homogeneity among participants, permitting them to receive and to experience the power of sacra, individually and collectively. During carnivalesque occasions the indeterminacy of play serves as a mediating prelude to the transcendence of a social collective, preparing it to be recast as a religious community.

Still, the heyday of the European Carnival was during the medieval period, when the metaphysics of Christianity may have been quite different from their present-day counterparts. Then, the boundaries between the divine and the human were more mutable and interpenetrable, and the themes of the effervescent grotesque, itself a likely product of the mingling of domains, were pervasive. This more transformative cosmology was more similar in certain general respects to that of Hinduism than to its modern offsprings. And it is this kind of cosmology that encourages the genre of the religious festival. Here the playful celebration of the dissolution of boundaries creates the grounds for their reconstitution with renewed vigor.

The idea of play within ritual occasions, the boundaries of which are strongly and unequivocally reified, has a much narrower scope. Such occasions, unlike numerous festivals, tend to be organized as a clear-cut sequence of phases that follow one another in cumulative progression. Hierarchy is prominent; there are social distinctions among those who take part and between participants and others. Order is prevalent throughout, as is the measured progression to messages of the sacred. Where play is present, it rarely questions either the external boundaries that circumscribe the occasion or its internal distinctions. Instead, the mutability of play is bent to more specific purposes.

Across cultures the most characteristic of these operations is found in inversions that are featured in the commonly termed "rituals of reversal." These are not usually rituals in their own right but more often occur in a particular phase in a ritual sequence. Inversions are marked frequently by the mockery, the mimicry, and the ridiculing of one category of person or theme by another, or of a category in relation to itself. This tends to occur in a spirit of play, that is, through the subversion of one form and its substitution by another. Here the validity of existing social categories or roles is not questioned. These remain the same; only their valences change, so that access to them is temporarily altered. Moreover, the inversion of form often seems to carry connotations of an unnatural condition so that the morally correct version of form lies in the converse of what is inverted. Therefore, inversions revert to the foundation-for-form, from which the inverted image was derived. Furthermore, an inverted form remains a refraction of its usual image, and this suggests that inversion maintains the very domain of discourse that is defined initially by the original form. This effectively restricts the transformative force of play and strictly limits the possible permutations of its plays-upon-form.

Nonetheless such constricted mutability may perform significant work within ritual occasions. In the Booger Dance of the Cherokee Indians of the southeastern United States, as this was practiced during the first decades of this century, an alternative reality that was experienced as threatening by the community of believers was proposed in play and destroyed through it. The Booger Dance itself was preceded and succeeded by dances associated with the dead and the defunct. The Cherokee who were disguised as Boogers inverted their everyday identities and took on those of strangers with obscene names, exaggerated features, and strange speech. They burst noisily into the dwelling where the ritual-dance series was performed. Their behavior was aggressive and boisterous, and they were perceived as malignant and menacing creatures. As each Booger danced he was mocked, mimicked, and laughed at by the onlookers. Furthermore by their moral demeanor the onlookers quieted and tamed the Boogers and eventually ejected them from the ritual space. Outside, they unmasked, and then, as Cherokee, they rejoined the others in further ritual dances.

The Boogers, familiar men inverted as fearsome strangers, represented all that was frightful and evil beyond the boundaries of the moral community. Their intrusion underlined and reinforced these boundaries rather than threatening them. By their mockery and laughter, members of the moral community queried the valid presence of these characters within the community, expelled these symbols of evil from within, and so reasserted the correctness of the moral and social orders. In this example the alternative order proposed by the Boogers does not appear to have been entertained seriously by the other participants. The reality of the Boogers was inauthentic from the outset, and therefore the make-believe of play was contrasted throughout with the verities of ritual, reaffirming them.

In other orchestrations of ritual occasions, play is used to falsify alternative realities that are proposed as authentic and that deny sacred verities. In the following example, of Sinhala Buddhist exorcisms on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, the alternative reality is adumbrated in seriousness and falsified through play. This permits the correct order to reemerge with a sense of revelation and in sharp contradistinction to the illusory character of play. In the Sinhala cosmology demons are inferior to humankind, as is humankind to deities and to the Buddha. A person possessed by a demon is understood to invert the hierarchical superiority of the human in relation to the demonic: the possessed is thought to perceive reality as one dominated by demons and not by deities. The problem of the exorcists is to destroy the superordinate demonic reality of the possessed and to reestablish the moral superiority of deities and humans. To accomplish this, exorcists first reify the validity of a superior demonic reality. The demons then appear in the human realm, confident of their superiority there. However their assertion of authentic ascendancy is subverted and destroyed through comic episodes that show this status to be illusory. The demons are proved to be laughable savages who are ignorant of the very rudiments of correct human action, etiquette, and morality. The assertions of demonic reality are dissolved through play, and the demons are ejected from the human realm to reassume their inferior cosmological position. These tests of the validity of demonic reality, through the medium of play, prepare the grounds for the revelation of the reemergence of correct cosmic order and free the possessed from the demonic grip.

This brief survey of certain of the relationships among the idea of play and aspects of the organization of religion and ritual leads to a final point that is of widespread concern to religious experience. The presence of play induces and encourages reflection on the part of believers upon the elementary premises of their religious systems. Playing with boundaries and therefore with the coherency and verity of ideation and form emphasizes that every taken-for-granted proposition also contains its own potential negation. In turn, the experience of such challenges deepens and strengthens belief in the truths of cosmology and ritual once their validity is reestablished.

See Also

Carnival; Chaos; Cosmology, overview article; Games; Līlā; Māyā; Performance and Ritual; Tricksters.


The classic work on the role of play in the evolution of society remains that of Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: Versuch einer Bestimmung des Spielelements der Kultur (Haarlem, 1938), translated by R. F. C. Hull as Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London, 1949). The most comprehensive study of the role of play in modern philosophies is that of Mihai I. Spariosu, Dionysus Reborn: Play and the Aesthetic Dimension in Modern Philosophical and Scientific Discourse (Ithaca, 1989). Don Handelman and David Shulman, in God Inside Out: Siva's Game of Dice (New York, 1997) offer a radical perspective on the formative role of play in the constitution of Saiva cosmology. That play is integral to creativity is explored by, among others, Arthur Koestler in his The Act of Creation (London, 1964). Susanne Langer, in "The Great Dramatic Forms: The Comic Rhythm," included in her Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York, 1953), argues for an intimate association of the spirit of comedy with that of life-renewing forces. In a contrasting vein, Henri Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (New York, 1912), translated by Cloudesly Brereton and Fred Rothwell from three articles of Bergson's that appeared in Revue de Paris, persuades that the comic exposes the disjunction between the presumptions of rigidity of form and the vitality of human spirit. His work is best read in conjunction with a more semiological approach, like that of G. B. Milner, who, in "Homo Ridens: Towards a Semiotic Theory of Humour and Laughter," Semiotica 5 (1972): 130, discusses the shift to the ideation of play as a change in paradigm. Gilles Deleuze's Logique du Sens (Paris, 1969), translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, as The Logic of Sense (New York, 1990), begins with an extended analysis of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and seeks the shifting locations where sense and nonsense collide. The seminal essay on the paradoxical character of such a cognitive shift, at least in Western thought, is Gregory Bateson's "A Theory of Play and Fantasy," in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York, 1972). Mary Douglas, in "The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception," Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, n. s. 3 (September 1968): 361376, brings to the fore the plasticity of indeterminacy that the ideation of play introduces into social reality. The most comprehensive cross-cultural overview of theories of play, among both children and adults, is Helen B. Schwartzman's Transformations: The Anthropology of Children's Play (New York, 1978). This volume contains an excellent bibliography. Game, Play, Literature, Yale French Studies, no. 41 (New Haven, 1968), a special issue edited by Jacques Ehrmann, contains provocative studies on the assumptions of playful ideation. Brian Sutton-Smith, in his The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), uses an original and insightful approach in discussing theories of play in terms of the different varieties of rhetoric through which these theories are constituted. An explicit comparison of the idea of play with that of ritual is my "Play and Ritual: Complementary Frames of Meta-Communication"; in It's a Funny Thing, Humour (Oxford, 1977), edited by Anthony J. Chapman and Hugh C. Foot. My, Models and Mirrors: Towards an Anthropology of Public Events (New York, 1998, 2d ed.), discusses the constituting roles of play in a variety of rituals and proto-rituals. Galina Lindquist discusses the role of play in neo-shamanic ritual in, Shamanic Performances on the Urban Scene: Neo-Shamanism in Contemporary Sweden (Stockholm, 1997). A diverse collection on the relationships between religion and playful ideation is Holy Laughter (New York, 1969), edited by M. Conrad Hyers. His Zen and the Comic Spirit (London, 1974) is an in-depth study of such relationships in one Eastern religious tradition. Useful general considerations of festival are found in Roger Caillois's Man and the Sacred (Glencoe, Ill., 1959), pp. 97127, and in René Girard's Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, 1977). An insightful and varied collection on the relationships of play to power is the special issue of Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology 37 (2001): 7156, entitled Playful Power and Ludic Spaces: Studies in Games of Life, edited by Galina Lindquist and Don Handelman. The most intensive, subtle, and nuanced study of socialization through play in a non-Western culture is that of Jean Briggs, Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old (New Haven, Conn., 1998). The North Indian Ka Līla is described most evocatively by McKim Marriott in "The Feast of Love," in Krishna: Myths, Rites and Attitudes (Honolulu, 1966), edited by Milton Singer. Medieval European worldview and the tradition of Carnival is discussed with imagination and insight, if with a modicum of exaggeration, in Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). Iatmul cosmology is analyzed by Gregory Bateson in Naven, 2d ed. (Stanford, Calif., 1958). The Booger Dance of the Cherokee is described by Frank G. Speck and Leonard Broom, with the assistance of Will West Long, in Cherokee Dance and Drama (Berkeley, Calif., 1951). The elements of play in Sinhala exorcism are analyzed richly by Bruce Kapferer in A Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka (Bloomington, Ind., 1983). Among modern Christian theologians, Harvey Cox argues for the value to Christianity of a renewed interest in the spirit of play, in The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy (Cambridge, Mass., 1969); and Josef Pieper maintains that festivity without religious celebration is artifice, in his In Tune with the World (1965; Chicago, 1973). Brenda Danet has done pioneering work on playfulness in internet communication in [email protected]: Communicating Online (Oxford, 2001).

Don Handelman (1987 and 2005)

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