TEARS have always played important roles as symbols and signs in religious life around the world, yet they have only recently begun to attract significant scholarly interest. From the tears shed in love and longing for the absent Kṛṣṇa by the gopis (milk maidens) in Brindavin to those shed by Shiʿi Muslims during the annual remembrance of the martyrdom of al-Husayn; from the tears of compunction of Christian mystics to "the welcome of tears" of the Tapirapé people of central Brazil (in which friends literally bathe each other when meeting), tears are ubiquitous in the world's religions. A general overview of tears in the history of religions based on a general phenomenology of tears enables us to appreciate many of symbolic associations tears have had in diverse religious traditions, as well as their many uses in religious rituals. No attempt is made here to exhaust the diverse examples of ritualized tears in the history of religions. Instead, what follows is a brief discussion of some of the central functions tears, or the acts of weeping, crying, and lamentation, have served in religious ritual activities, as well as in narrative, pictorial, and dramatic representations.
The Phenomenological Nature of Tears
Defined in physical terms, tears are a transparent saline liquid secreted from the lachrymal ducts around the eyes. The physiological functions of tears are to keep the cornea moist, wash away irritants from the eyes, and, with the antibacteriological agents they contain, fight infection of the eyes. It is not these physiological functions but rather the symbolic import of tears, the various meanings that people have attributed to them, and the diverse ways that tears have been ritualized that are important for the history of religions. In a pedantic sense, tears are a human universal, for all healthy persons have the ability to shed tears. Yet, in the study of tears in the history of religions, not all tears are identical; the meaning of specific tears is culturally and historically negotiated and renegotiated over time and space. The meaning attributed to specific tears depends upon a number of situational elements and specific sociocultural expectations. Local constructions of gender, class, age groupings, and occupational roles, for instance, can all affect the meaning of tears, as well as the value and appropriateness of specific acts of crying tears. For a supposedly dispassionate Buddhist monk, for instance, crying over a death might be considered inappropriate, whereas this would not bring any censure for a lay person.
The following basic phenomenological characteristics are worthy of note:
- tears are a salty liquid;
- tears flow from the eyes down the face;
- tears are an extruded bodily product;
- tears cross the bodily boundary of inside/outside;
- tear-filled eyes produce blurred vision; and
- tears are often, but not always, unwilled and uncontrolled.
Because they are liquid, tears often are associated with water, as well as with other bodily fluids such as blood and milk; because they flow downward, they are associated with streams, waterfalls, and rain; and because they are saline, sometimes they are associated with the sea or ocean. In this manner, tears are connected to broader symbolic complexes. Yet, it is difficult to imagine disembodied tears because of their immediate association with the human body and, more specifically, with the head and the body. Marcel Mauss (1872–1950), one of the leaders of the Durkheimian school of sociology, first pointed out that in societies and religions around the world, the human body is a primary site of symbolization and social control (Mauss, 1935, 1979). The human body as a whole, specific body parts (e.g., the head, arms, feet, stomach, genitals), body orifices, and bodily products often become religiously or ideologically over-determined signs. That is, the names of body parts metaphorically come to refer to more than their physiological referents, while they also carry positive or negative connotations. As such, they are discursive sites of multiple, competing, and even contradictory ascriptions of meaning and valuations. In addition, the body is frequently a physical site of ritual work designed to transform it, enculturate it, or otherwise control it.
Tears are a bodily product that is extruded from the body, like blood, sweat, urine, feces, vomit, mucus, spittle, mother's milk, and seminal fluids. All of these are symbolically charged substances. However, the specific cultural and historical understanding of the human body as such, the differences posited among specific kinds of bodies, and the cultural valuations that are attached to specific body parts and bodily products all help to determine how these symbolically charged things are viewed (positively or negatively) and how they are related to each other. Less often noticed are the ways these and related social factors affect how the human body and its products are subjectively experienced by individuals.
Mary Douglas famously argued that "the body can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened and precarious" (Douglas, 1966, p. 115). As an extruded liquid, tears cross the bodily boundary of inside and outside. They flow from the realm of the invisible to that of the visible, and from the hidden or private sphere to the public sphere. As Arnold van Gennep noted many years ago, liminal states, sites, and activities, including the crossing of boundaries, are ambivalent and inherently dangerous (Van Gennep, 1960). When the boundary is bodily, issues of purity and pollution arise almost inevitably. Thus, in an important sense, tears are liminal; they move and exist betwixt and between two distinct states or spaces, and therefore they are "natural symbols" of transitions or passages. These passages may be spatial or temporal, or both. Not surprisingly, ritual tears are often shed at important rites of passage, such as weddings and funerals, as well as on more common occasions of parting or reunion.
The liminal nature of tears enables them to serve as a symbolic means of mediation between persons (living or dead), between an individual and society, between the inner world and the outer world, and so forth. In this sense, tears play an important sociopolitical function in mediating (and potentially transforming) power relations between humans, divine and human beings, and the dead and the living. In crossing the boundary of the body, bodily products have a transgressive potential that often makes them dangerous, polluting, or disgusting. The ancient Indian text The Laws of Manu includes tears in a long list of bodily products that are polluting. In many cultures blood becomes polluting when it flows outside a body (e.g., as menstrual flow), but in other instances—or, better, in the case of other bodies—blood may be said to have positive power, as in the ritual bleedings the Aztec and Mayan kings performed on themselves in order to reinvigorate the cosmos. Unlike most other bodily products, though, tears are usually considered to be polluting. Indeed, perhaps because of the function they play in washing the eyes, they are widely believed to be purifying and even to possess healing powers.
In many cases, instead of becoming a polluting substance by transgressing the boundary of the individual human body, tears function as a sign of a problem with the social body. Seemingly uncontrolled weeping produces a disheveled body, which itself symbolizes a disordered or chaotic social body. Thus, tears may imply that proper social boundaries have been transgressed, or that a desired interpersonal relationship has been ruptured. At the same time, tears can function as an invitation to the other party to repair a broken relationship, or as an appeal for rectification of a problem.
Another potential meaning of tears that is suggested by their crossing the bodily boundary of inside/outside bears mention: Tears may serve as a sign of ecstasy—an out-of-body state or psychosomatic experience. This is why tears are often associated with mystical experience in religions around the world, including Jewish Qabbalah, Christian mysticism, and Sufism. Alternatively, tears may be taken as a sign that a spirit or deity has entered a body and possessed it. In the religious services of Pentecostal Christians, for example, the descent of the Holy Spirit into the body of a believer is signaled by glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the loss of full consciousness, and frequently by copious tears flowing down the face. The absence of tears may also be a sign that a human body has been possessed. During the Spanish Inquisition in Europe, suspected witches were sometimes ordered to cry. Because the ability to cry tears was considered to be a mark of human nature, the inability to produce them on command signaled that a demonic nature inhabited the witch's body.
Healthy eyes bring light into the dark cavernous human body and the mind, providing crucial information about conditions in the exterior world. In the West, the eyes have long been called "windows to the soul." Although this metaphor is culturally specific, reflecting on the phenomenology of windows enables us to appreciate the symbolic associations drawn in the West between windows, eyes, and tears. A transparent window provides outsiders with visual access to an interior space, while simultaneously providing insiders with visual access to the exterior. As such, windows are a passive medium for visual activity across a boundary demarcating an interior and an exterior space. Eyes are like windows insofar as they, too provide visual access to both the interior and exterior of the human body. In sharp contrast, tears cross the bodily boundary of inside and outside in one direction only: Tears flow out of the eyes, not into them. The unidirectional nature of the flow of tears informs the widespread belief that tears carry information about the interior world of an individual (or, at times, of a group) out to the broader world. Tears are believed to be signs of interior and otherwise invisible states, most commonly affective or spiritual states. However, as noted earlier, the determination of the meaning of specific tears is also affected by the local religious and medical understanding of the body. For instance, in the Western humoral theory of the body, which held sway from the time of Galen in the second century ce until the Renaissance, tears were taken to be a symptom of the changing balance of the five humors in the body. Similarly, melancholy, which was characterized by uncontrollable bouts of crying, was considered to be the result of excess humidity in the body.
Unlike transparent windows and healthy eyes, which allow clear vision across boundaries, tearful eyes produce blurred vision. Phenomenologically, this blurred vision of the outside world suggests the blurring of boundaries and differences. Thus, ritual tears shed in mourning over a deceased person may blur the boundary between the dead and the living. Similarly, ritual tears may dissolve other spatial and temporal boundaries. The participants in the annual Shiʿi devotional rites of Muharram, for instance, weep in order to return to the time and the place of the martyrdom of al-Husayn at Karbala. Recalling this aspect of the phenomenology of tears also helps us to better understand the phrase "dissolve into tears." When an individual dissolves into tears, verbal speech is no longer possible, but the entire body "speaks." Collective weeping can produce a psychosomatic experience of communion.
Another aspect of the phenomenology of tears has long caused problems for students of religion. Tears are often seemingly spontaneous emotional responses to external stimuli or memories. When understood to be a spontaneous and unwilled affective response to joy, anger, frustration, and so on, crying appears to be a natural and universal human emotional response and therefore, precultural in nature. Although feelings or emotions have a subjective immediacy and reality, they have no observable or objective physical reality per se. Feelings have to be expressed—in a grimace, a smile, a frown, a cry, rolling of the eyes, and so on—in order to be communicated to others. Tears, though, are literally expressed in the sense that lachrymal fluid is squeezed out of the body. This characteristic allows actual tears to provide apparent objective evidence of subjective states and of otherwise hidden psychosomatic conditions.
The problem historians of religions faced was that ritualized weeping is clearly not spontaneous; it is choreographed. Ritual weepers, professional and nonprofessional as well, can often turn their tears on and off at will. Some Western scholars found this disconcerting; others found it to be confirmatory evidence of the presumed duplicitous and insincere nature of "primitives." Yet others, perhaps influenced by the Protestant suspicion of the "empty" rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, sought to distinguish between "real" tears and artificial or false ones. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown in his famous anthropological study The Andaman Islanders (1922) noted that there were two types of weeping: (1) weeping as a spontaneous expression of feeling; and (2) weeping as "required by custom." Following Durkheim's argument in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), Radcliffe-Brown largely dissociated ritual weeping from individual emotions of grief, sadness, and so on. Functionalists followed Radcliffe-Brown in arguing that, rather than being provoked by a strong emotion such as grief, the tears shed in ritual contexts primarily served to evoke feelings of social solidarity. Here, too, they developed a claim made by Durkheim, who asserted that ritual weeping produced a collective sense of "effervescence" that helped to restore and strengthen proper social relations.
The functionalist interpretation of ritual weeping is not completely wrong; ritual tears serve multiple purposes, including creating a shared emotional state. However, insofar as this line of argument suggests that spontaneous tears are "real," whereas ritual tears are not, it is misleading. In effect, to distinguish true and false tears in this way is to universalize the Western bourgeois and Protestant privileging of the individual as the ultimate locus of value. Moreover, it prematurely forecloses serious inquiry into the distinct local discourses about tears and the body. Finally, to imply that "primitives" are hopelessly controlled by "custom" is to deny that they can willfully act for their own intents and purposes. It also ignores the ways in which people everywhere at times use the cultural expectations concerning emotional displays for specific purposes. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that social and cultural "feeling rules" do inform ritualized weeping and other affective displays. Cultural capital is often gained by following such affective scripts, but we must also take account of those affective displays that challenge the status quo.
Tears as Substance, Sign, and Symbol
Tears sometimes function as a powerful substance in religious ritual practices or in myths. That is, the actual physical tears themselves are believed to have specific powers. In the Middle East, for example, tears have been collected in tiny glass bottles for their healing qualities for thousands of years. Two examples illustrate how one aspect of the phenomenology of tears—their salinity—has been adapted to local ecological and agricultural conditions in symbolic form. During the annual dry season, as well as in periods of extended drought, the Aztecs performed rain rituals which incorporated sacrifice and ritual weeping. More than being mere expressions of grief, it was believed that the saline tears shed by participants produced rain by flowing down to the moist and rotting underworld where fresh water was trapped. Like the salt water of the sea, tears had the power to desiccate the land and to wither the crops. Just as Aztec agricultural practices required them to control and direct the salt water from the great Mexican basin in order to irrigate crops with fresh water, tears, too, were controlled and ritually directed. The ritual tears flowed down, causing the release and counter flow of fresh productive water from underworld springs.
These Aztec ritual tears recall those shed by Susano-o, a Japanese deity, in a myth recounted in the Kojiki (712 ce). Like the Aztec rituals, the Susano-o myth cycle is closely related to the local ecology, agricultural cycle, and irrigation practices. After the death of Izanami, the spouse of Susano-o's father, and her descent to the underworld, Susano-o was appointed to rule the realm of the ocean (a variant found in the Nihon shoki [720 ce] says the underworld). Susano-o, however, refused: "He wept and howled until his beard extended down over his chest for a length of eight hands. His weeping was so violent that it caused the verdant mountains to wither and all the rivers and waters to dry up" (Philippi, 1968, p. 72) Here, too, salty tears shed over the dead threaten to destroy the fertility of the land.
Although tears are sometimes powerful substances, more often they function as highly charged symbols and signs. As signs, ritual tears exaggerate human emotions and interpersonal relationships for dramatic effect. Mourning rites often include ritual weeping, with stylized performances of grief. Weeping here may be an expression of felt emotion, but it need not be. It may also help to create a sense of social solidarity, as Durkheim first suggested, but frequently ritual weeping publicly displays the social and moral status of the deceased and his or her family. One might say that in many cultures ritual tears are the measure of the man. The death of a great man (however that be defined) provokes intense and extensive weeping, whereas a dead man for whom few people weep risks being perceived to have been a "small" man in many ways. Similarly, weeping for the bride in marriage rites marks a rite of passage, a separation of a woman from her natal family, and her reincorporation into a new family. The sadness in parting may be real, but we must also note that the "worth" of a bride may also be measured in part by the depth of feelings of loss that are publicly displayed by relatives.
Ritualized tears also are used strategically or politically to "say" things by those who are powerless or who occupy a socially inferior position. In the ancient Near East, for example, a widow, orphan, or resident alien could get a hearing from the king by calling out to him, throwing herself prostrate before him, and crying. In II Samuel 14 is an example of this: Joab asks a woman to dress as a widow and approach King David to appeal for his mercy on Absalom. The ruse succeeds precisely because of the cultural expectation that a good king is one who protects the weak, the powerless, and the poor. Not to respond to the tearful pleas of a widow could open the king to whispered criticism and even his branding as a bad ruler. Significantly, in the Psalms and elsewhere King David himself reportedly shed copious tears of the same sort as this "widow"; that is, King David's ritual tears participated in the same cultural politics of affective display. However, in this case, when David wept and appealed to Yahweh, he effectively placed himself in the inferior and debased position relative to God, whereas he was in the superior position relative to the widow. In other words, insofar as God was imagined as a king writ large, even human kings had to appeal to Him through the same sort of stylized affective display.
Scholars have only begun to investigate the ritual display of emotions and, alternatively, the control of them. We will fully appreciate such rituals, and understand the rich multitude of literary and artistic representations of tears, only by carefully noting how specific aspects of the phenomenological nature of tears have been exploited, adopted, and adapted by specifically situated persons in their own efforts to create religious and moral worlds of meaning. Medieval Japanese poets often equated tears with the dew, employing the poetic conceit of "dew on [one's] sleeves," for instance, to suggest the tears shed by a sensitive person. Although the Japanese poets stressed the ephemeral nature of the dew and tears (and, by extension, human feelings), the evidence of the history of religions speaks to the ubiquitous presence of tears over time and space.
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Gary L. Ebersole (2005)