Seasonal Ceremonies

views updated


SEASONAL CEREMONIES . In all parts of the world and in all ages, it has been the custom to mark the beginning of a year, season, or agricultural cycle by a series of public ceremonies. These were designed originally to dramatize the conclusion of one lease on life and to procure, by quasi-magical procedures, fertility, prosperity, sunshine, and rainfall for the next. They fall into a standard pattern. First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present. For this occasion, the shades of their ancestors and deceased relatives temporarily rejoin them.

Rites of Mortification

The initial stage of mortification is exemplified principally in the form of fasts, abstinences, and the suspension of public offices and routine business. Thus the Babylonians regarded the first ten or sixteen days of the year in some of their cities as a lenten period, and the Israelites prefaced their autumnal ag ha-Asif ("feast of ingathering") by Yom Kippur ("day of purgation"), on which the sanctuary and its vessels were purified, members of the community ritually aspersed and "cleansed," a fast observed, and all normal activity suspended. In Rome, a fast preceded the feast of Ceres (goddess of crops) in April. In the present day, the Choctaw, Cherokee, and Creek of North America fast at New Year, and among the Mao of Manipur a genna, or period of taboo, is observed for four days at the commencement of the harvest. The month of Muarram, at the beginning of the year, is a time of abstinence in Morocco, and the Ossets of the Caucasus keep a daily fast during the month before harvest. These examples could be readily multiplied. The Christian Lent and the Islamic Ramaān, it may be added, are, in the main, reinterpreted survivals of this usage.

The annual or seasonal eclipse of communal life is exemplified also by the deposition, execution, or temporary humiliation of the king or chieftain, by whom that life is personified and epitomized. In Babylon he was formally degraded on the fifth day of the New Year (Akitu) festival. A major priest stripped him of his robes, slapped his face until he wept, and forced him to his knees. He was then obliged to recite a penitential prayer before he was reinstated. In Cambodia, the king was formerly required to abdicate annually for three days in February, and, in Thailand, he was confined to his palace in late April or early May.

In many cases, the new year did not follow immediately upon the close of the old; there was an intervening "vacant" period, reckoned as outside the calendar. Among the Aztec, for example, it was known as nemontemi ("the days unfit for work"); all religious ceremonies and civil activity were then suspended. Similarly, the Maya of Yucatán had a period of xma kaba kin ("nameless days") at the end of the year, during which they abstained from all heavy work and even from personal ablutions. In the central provinces of India, this period was actually termed malmas ("excreta"), and the institution survives in European popular custom in the abstinences and restrictions imposed during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. During this time, when the real king was temporarily out of office, a substitute was (and is) installed. This was the practice, for instance, in the kingdom of Jambi in Sumatra, among the Kwotto of northern Nigeria, the Kitara of Uganda, and the Bastar of the Central Provinces of India. Such a temporary king, or interrex (Gr., zōganēs ), in the person of a slave, is reported also to have held sway at the ancient Iranian feast of Sacaea, and it has been suggested that the so-called flight of the king (regifugium ), recognized in ancient Rome as an institution associated with February 24, was a lingering relic of the earlier expulsion of the temporary monarch at the end of his brief term.

Another popular method of symbolizing the expiration of one lease on communal life is to bury a puppet that personifies it and to subsequently disinter it when the succeeding lease begins. Thus, in Romania, a clay doll called kalojan (from Gr. kalos Ioannēs, "beautiful John") is buried on the Monday preceding Assumption (August 15) and later dug up; in the Abruzzi, the same ceremony is performed with a similar figure named Pietro Pico ("little Peter"). In both cases, these are but Christianized versions of an older pagan usage known to us from the burial and disinterment of the god Attis in Phrygia and of Osiris in Egypt. In parts of Russia, an effigy named Kostrobunko was similarly buried on Saint Peter's day and later disinterred.

The buried spirit of life and fertility is ritually bewailed, usually by women (as regular practice at funerals). Such wailing is attested, on a mythological level, in the cults of Dumuzi in Babylonia, of Attis in Asia Minor, of Osiris in Egypt, and of Adonis in Syria, and in the iouloi ("howls") uttered in the cult of Demeter and Persephone in Greece. In this connection, however, it is pertinent to observe that tears are regarded in several cultures as regenerative. The Egyptians are said to have shed them while they sowed the first seeds, and at Great Bessan, in Guinea, oxen are slain and made to weep at an annual ceremony designed to ensure a good harvest. Indeed, it has been suggested that the familiar words of Psalm 126:5, "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy," were inspired by such a custom, and it is significant that the wailing cry, eleleu, was a feature of certain Greek seasonal festivals. Hence, it is not impossible that what came eventually to be interpreted as weeping for the slain or buried spirit of fertility was originally functional shedding of tears.

Rites of Purgation

Ceremonies of purgation, or the ritual removal of noxious elements and of the contagion of latent sin, such as might jeopardize the continued life and health of the community or evoke retribution from the gods in the form of blight, drought, plague, war, or other calamities are likewise virtually universal. In Babylon, a ceremony called kuppuru (clearance, purgation), involving the cleansing and renovation of the temple, was part of the New Year ceremonies, and as stated above, a similar ceremony, Yom Kippur, was observed among the Israelites before the autumnal harvest. In Rome the month preceding the new year, March, was characterized as the period of februatio (whence the month of February), fields and human beings being then lustrated and temples scoured. Such rites of purgation often include a collective confession of sins. Examples of these are the semiannual Japanese ceremony of Ofuharahi ("purification"), at which the Mikado or a member of the Nakatomi order of priests shrives the people, and the Ashanti festival called Odwira. It was similarly a prominent feature of the ancient Israelite Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), a usage that survives in Jewish ritual to this day.

Latent sins that remain unconfessed are removed in many cases by being loaded symbolically on a scapegoat (either animal or human) who is ceremonially dispatched from the community. This was a prominent feature of the aforementioned Babylonian and Israelite ceremonies, while in Greece it was observed at the feast of Thargelia, in May.

Sometimes the latent evil is removed by expelling an effigy called "Death" or the like. The Inca of Peru, for example, drove out disease before the rainy season in this manner, and in Thailand noxious spirits are ceremonially banished on the last day of the year. In Cambodia the rite is performed in March, and among the Inuit (Eskimo) of Point Barrow, Alaska, the same ceremony is performed as soon as the sun reappears and ushers in a new lease on life. The modern practice of ringing bells, clanging gongs, blowing whistles, and cracking whips on New Year's Eve is a relic of such expulsion of evil and disaster, designed originally to scare away demonsraising, as it were, a pandemonium surpassing theirs.

Finally, evil is often removed by lighting bonfires at such crucial times of the year as New Year, midsummer, and midwinter. This ritual is too familiar to require documentation. It is common not only in most parts of Europe but also among Muslims at the ʿAshūrāʾ festival among the Berbers; and it was observed in antiquity at the Isia (the festival of Isis) in Hellenistic Egypt. Here, however, a word of caution is in order. Fire is also used in popular custom to lustrate fields in order to stimulate crops and also to relume the sun when it reemerges from its winter sojourn underground. Hence, some of the rites that have been interpreted as designed to burn up evil may really be directed toward these alternative purposes.

Rites of Invigoration

The elimination of the old leads naturally to the inauguration of the new, that is, to rites of invigoration. The most widespread of these is the staging of a ritual combat between Fertility and Blight, Rainfall and Drought, Summer and Winter, or simply Life and Death, the positive protagonist (the one who personifies renewal) being always the winner. This seasonal usage is attested among the ancient Hittites of Asia Minor and in reliefs on the walls of an Egyptian temple at Deir al-Bahri. Similarly, among the Iroquoian-speaking tribes of North America, a ritual battle was fought annually in late January or early February between the god of summer or life (Teharoniawagon) and the god of winter or death (Tawiskaron). Often the combat comes eventually to be explained as the commemoration of a historical encounter. The Hittites, for instance, identified the antagonists respectively as themselves and a neighboring people, the Masa, and Plutarch tells of a periodically recurring joust between characters popularly called Alexander and Darius. In the English Mummers' Play, which is really a survival of the same usage, the combatants are sometimes likewise identified as Saint George and the Turkish knight (probably a distortion of Saladin), or as King George and Napoleon, or even (in more recent times) as Churchill and Hitler.

Sexual license is another popular rite of invigoration. Among the Pipils of Central America, it is observed when the first seeds are sown, and in the Ukraine it is (or was) a popular method of stimulating the growth of crops on Saint George's Day (April 23). The Garos encourage sexual intercourse at seasonal festivals, and it is held by several scholars that the familiar stories of the rape of the Sabine women at a festival and of the women of Shiloh (Jgs. 21:1923) reflect the same custom.

The usage was mythified in the "sacred marriage" of god and goddess at the New Year in various ancient Mesopotamian cities and in the marriage of the god Horus and goddess Hathor at an annual celebration at Idfu (Bedet) in Egypt; the mating of the god (impersonated by the pharaoh) with a divine bride is portrayed on reliefs at Deir al-Bahri. Similarly, Aristotle tells us that a marriage between Dionysos and the king's consort took place annually in the Bucolicon (boukolikon ) at Athens. A burlesque of this ritual is a feature of the festival plays still performed in northern Greece. The offspring of the "sacred marriage"the spirit of the new lifeis often introduced as a baby in a crib and thus finds its echo in present-day New Year cards. The famous passage in the Book of Isaiah (9:6), "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given," is believed by many modern exegetes to have been inspired by this usage.

New members of the tribe or community, especially children, are often initiated at seasonal festivals. This initiation is (or was) carried out, for instance, by Muslim Arabs before the spring harvest and by bedouin at Mecca and at the Nebi Musa (Eastertide) festival at Jericho, as well as by the Haida Indians of the Queen Charlotte Islands at an annual potlatch. Significant in this connection is the statement in the Book of Joshua (5:28) that when members of the new generation were formally received into the community after the Exodus from Egypt, the initiating rite of circumcision was performed before the festival of Passover. The initiation is sometimes represented as a rebirth. Indeed, among certain people of the lower region of the river Kongo it is termed kimbasi ("resurrection"), and the neophytes have first to fall as though dead at the feet of the officiant.

Rites of Jubilation

The seasonal program concludes with a communal feast, at which the ancestral dead are also present ("our founders are with us in spirit"). Thus to cite but a few examples, the Greeks supposed that these "ghosts" returned temporarily at the festival of Anthesteria, and the Romans, at the festival of Lemuria; the Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran hold a feast of the dead at the beginning of the year. In the Trobriand Islands, the dead rejoin the living at an annual festival called Milmala; in Thailand, at the New Year festival in April; among the Huzul of the Ukraine, at Easter and Christmas; and among the ancient Celts, at the feast of Samhain. This return of the dead, which survives in the folklore of Halloween, is, of course, the counterpart of the initiation ceremonies; past and future are alike involved in the renewal of corporate life, since both are constituent elements of its continuum. The gods, too, often attend the banquet, either as guests or as hosts, because they too belong to the "kindred."

All of the seasonal rites here describedthe initial period of disorder and chaos, the combat, the defeat of the powers of evil and disaster, the installation of the victor as king, the resurrection of the dead, and the inauguration of a new era of the world, sometimes also a "messianic banquet"are retrojected mythically into cosmogony and projected into eschatology. What happens at the end of each periodic lease on life is held to have happened also at the beginning of the present cycle of the world's existence; the supreme god vanquished a contumacious monster, was installed as king, promulgated a new dispensation, and tendered a banquet to his divided subordinates and sometimes also to ancient heroes. When this era ends, he will do so again. The process is cyclic; as Vergil puts it, "the great order of the centuries is born afresh." Seasonal ceremonies, originally functional means of renewing life from year to year, thus become paradigms of human existence throughout time.

See Also

Agriculture; Fasting; Hieros Gamos; Mortification; Purification; Tears.


The great quarry for those interested in seasonal rites and customs is James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 12 vols., 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 19111915), now available in my abridged and updated edition, New Golden Bough (New York, 1959). Much interesting information can also be found in The Book of Days, 2 vols., edited by Robert Chambers (London, 18621864), and in William S. Walsh's Curiosities of Popular Customs (Philadelphia, 1915). A useful source for European customs is Ethel L. Urlin's Festivals, Holy Days and Saints' Days (London, 1915), as is, for those who read German, Paul Sartori's Sitte und Brauch, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 19101914). The "ritual pattern" theory of seasonal festivals is presented in S. H. Hooke's Myth and Ritual (Oxford, 1933) and, in somewhat different form, in my Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East, 2d ed. (1961; New York, 1977).

New Sources

Aveni, Anthony F. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. Oxford and New York, 2003.

Gufler, Hermann. "Cults and Seasonal Dances of the Yamba (Cameroon). " Anthropos 92, no. 45 (1997): 501522.

James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals (1961). Detroit, 1993.

Santino, Jack, ed. Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville, Tenn., 1994.

Teish, Luisah. Carnival of the Spirit: Seasonal Celebrations and Rites of Passage. San Francisco, 1994.

Theodor H. Gaster (1987)

Revised Bibliography