views updated May 23 2018


PROCESSION is the linearly ordered, solemn movement of a group through chartered space to a known destination to give witness, bear an esteemed object, perform a rite, fulfill a vow, gain merit, or visit a shrine.

Some processions, such as the Via Dolorosa procession in modern Jerusalem, constitute major rituals in their own right. Others, such as the "Little Entrance" of Christian Orthodox tradition (in which the Gospels are carried to the front of the sanctuary) or the procession of a bridal party down a church aisle, are only facilitating gesturesformalized comings and goings. The most familiar settings for processions are civil ceremonies (such as coronations, military fanfares, and enthronements), weddings, funerals, initiations, and fertility rites. Major processions seem most widespread in agricultural or urban cultures or those in transition from the one to the other. In hunting, nomadic, and industrial cultures, processions are likely to decline in frequency or significance and thereafter function only as minor gestural tributaries to other rituals.

The ritual space of a procession is linear. When it is completed by a subsequent recession, one might speak of it as "bilinear." By virtue of its linearity, procession differs from circumambulation. Processual action is not movement around a sacred object but to a special place. Even when a procession returns to its beginning point, its circuit is not generally continuous. The movement is oriented toward a destination rather than a center. Processants do not occupy centralized sacred space. Instead, they carry their "center" with them. The usual places of honor in hierarchically ordered processions are at the head or end of the line. Whereas circumambulation usually sanctifies or protects the place bounded by its circumference, a procession normally links different spatial orders, for instance, civic and sacred or urban and rural space. The rhythms of processing and recessing establish a corridor between a nucleus of sacred space and adjacent, nonsacred zones, or satellite shrines beyond these zones. Distances traversed in processions are usually moderate. One of the longer ones, held during the Greek Eleusinian festival, was fourteen miles. Others, such as the chorus's entrance (parados ) and exit (exodos ) to ancient Greek theater, were only a few yards long. Robigalia, the ancient Roman procession intended to avert blight and later adapted by early Christianity into its Rogation processions, was five miles, a more typical distance.

Walking meditation in Zen Buddhism is called kinhin. This practice falls between procession and circumambulation. Kinhin is not directed to any place, so it is not strictly a procession. And although its course is usually around a meditation hall, there is no centralized object of attention. Instead, practitioners' eyes are on the floor, and their attention is directed to the way of walking itself.

The solemn or meditative tone of a procession differentiates it from the expansive, celebrative ethos of a parade or the martial, aggressive one of military marches, picketing, or conquests (such as Don Diego de Vargas's entrada into Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1692). When Joshua brings down Jericho's walls, he is not processing so much as circumambulating in the service of conquest. Unlike mere invasion, conquest, now an obsolete military tactic, is akin to ritual because of its obvious stylization and emphasis on symbolic, rather than strategic, ordering. Examples of ritual elements that might distinguish conquest from invasion include carrying flags, playing drums, wearing uniforms, singing, chanting, and marching in columns. These activities sometimes retain their symbolic value long after their practical military values are lost.

The usual distinction between processions and parades identifies the former as sacred, the latter as profane. The distinction is minimally useful because processions often try to link these or other classificatory domains. Perhaps parades and processions should be considered as celebrative and solemn versions, respectively, of the same basic type of action. Consequently, speaking of a "religious parade" or an "academic procession" is no contradiction in terms. The pace of a procession is typically slower than that of a parade, and its rhythms are more deliberate than that of ordinary walking (or driving if, say, chariots, pageants, floats, or automobiles are employed to transport participants).

Participation in processions is more restricted than in parades. There seems to be a persistent tendency for every procession gradually to relax its exclusivity and become a popular parade in which bystanders can join. Because processing is group movement, it contrasts with running races, which is ritualized, for example, in the Olympic Games and among some modern-day Pueblos. A race is agonistic, setting one person in competition with another. The object of a race is to arrive ordinally (first place, second, third, and so on), not corporately or simultaneously. Perhaps the best term to appropriate for applying to an "individual procession" is quest. "Quest," however, is probably better treated as individualized pilgrimage.

Because a procession's destination is known, it is distinct from ritualized hunting, divination-directed migration, religious wandering (of the Hebrews in the desert, for example), and wayfaring (a common practice in medieval China and Japan). Whereas essential elements of these perambulatory rituals include becoming disoriented, abiding in unprotected places, and having to invent or discover one's destination, in processions there is no doubt where to begin and end, and little need for concern about personal safety.

Dancing has no destination; processing does. Processional dances such as the medieval European Dance of Death or the Hasidic dance with the Torah, are borderline instances. Dance presupposes not only rhythm but, typically, music. When dancing arises in a procession, as it does in Rio's Carnival, perhaps the event should be spoken of as a parade. And when dancing shifts from circularity and symmetry to linearity and asymmetry, the religious climate is likely to shift from prophetic criticism to priestly conser-vatism.

The space through which a pilgrim passes may be mapped, but, unlike a procession path, it is not chartered. Pilgrims pass through what Victor Turner calls liminal ("threshold") zones as they go from near to far. Whereas pilgrims tread ways they may not recognize or cross borders that make them subject to foreign authority, processants pass down ways specially cleared, decorated, and authorized for their arrival. Toward the end of certain pilgrimagesfor instance, to the shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico Cityone may sometimes join a procession. The chartered quality of procession paths is usually emphasized by the use of stations along the via sacra; at these, processants stop, rest, and oftentimes perform ancillary rites.

Even priestly processants may have little to say about the intentions of their actions. Processions, unlike initiation rites or sacrifices, evoke little codified commentary, so scholars usually have to infer intentions. The most obvious one is to display what Erving Goffman might have called a "with": These people "go with" that god. By walking with a god, processants gain merit by association and give witness that sacredness is not geographically restricted to one spot but capable of annexing, even if temporarily, other places. Both a territorial imperative and a hierarchy of gods or sacred places is implied in most processions. Being seen, particularly in postures of homage before elevated, but proximate, sacred objects, legitimizes bonds and often establishes these sacra as a group's own. Far from having an inversion effect, as a Mardi Gras parade might, public processions confirm established hierarchies and sacralize ownership and order. For example, one of the oldest known processions was part of the Great Akitu festival held in Babylon in honor of Marduk. The first day of the new year was set aside for a solemn procession in which Nabu and other gods (carried in boats), kings, and subjects were seen visiting and paying homage to Marduk in his "chamber of fates." Royalty was allowed to take the hand of the god, as if inviting him down an elaborately paved procession way, in order to confirm and renew the divine kingship. At an earlier time Marduk may have been obligated to go in procession to Nabu. Whichever deity was made the goal of a procession was by implication at the pinnacle of the pantheon.

The display of venerated objects, such as the Host during Christian Corpus Christi processions, or symbols of power, such as weapons in Roman triumphal entries, is a common motive for processing. Lustrations, or gestures of purification, are sometimes enacted to ensure that such objects do not come to be contaminated or regarded as common because of overexposure.

The ritual form most akin to procession is pilgrimage. Though both are styles of symbolic journeying, they differ in essential respects. While pilgrimage is more goal-oriented (the return is usually anticlimactic), processions may be more focused on a carried object than a goal, and recessing may be as significant as processing. In contrast to pilgrims, processants do not usually eat, sleep, or suffer together, nor do they endure long periods of solitude. Furthermore, processants are usually the objects of spectating, while such is not the case with pilgrims. For these reasons processions tend more strongly toward social conservatism. Ironically, however, the more popularly successful a procession becomes, the more likely it is to become a ritual of inversion.

See Also

Circumambulation; Pilgrimage, overview article.


In the 1910s A. E. Crawley wrotein his article "Processions and Dances" in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 10 (Edinburgh, 1918)that no comprehensive or scientific work on processions had yet been written. His observation is still largely true. His article, like B. I. Mullahy's in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967) and Lawrence J. Madden's in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1973), draws from scant comparative data and depends largely on Christian, specifically Roman Catholic, categories (functional, ordinary, and extraordinary processions) for its analyses and definitions. Rare is the book that includes a chapter, section, or even an index entry on processions.

Presently, data on processions are still largely to be found in works on the religion and ritual of a particular area or tradition or, more specifically, their festivals and pilgrimages. Such works are Herbert William Parke's Festivals of the Athenians (Ithaca, N.Y., 1977) and J. M. C. Toynbee's Death and Burial in the Roman World (Ithaca, N.Y., 1971).

In Symbol and Conquest: Public Ritual and Drama in Santa Fe, New Mexico (Ithaca, N.Y., 1976), pp. 6274, I have written more fully on the distinctions among processions, pilgrimages, and parades.

Because processing and dancing are so often linked, Eugène Louis Backman's Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, translated by E. Classen (London, 1952), is still helpful, as is Lillian B. Lawler's The Dance in Ancient Greece (London, 1964).

New Sources

Ashley, Kathleen, and Wim Hüsken, eds. Moving Subjects: Processional Performance in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Amsterdam and Atlanta, 2001.

Billows, Richard. "The Religious Procession of the Ara Pacis Augustae: Augustus' Supplicatio in 13 B.C." Journal of Roman Archaeology 6 (1993): 8092.

Higgins, Sidney, and Fiorella Paino, eds. European Medieval Drama, 1999. Papers from the Fourth International Conference on Aspects of European Medieval Drama, Camerino, August 58, 1999. Camerino, Italy, 2000.

Hockings, Paul. Mortuary Ritual of the Badagas of Southern India. Chicago, 2001.

Reis, João José. Death Is a Festival: Funeral Rites and Rebellion in Nineteenth-Century Brazil. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003.

Ronald L. Grimes (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 11 2018

pro·ces·sion / prəˈseshən/ • n. 1. a number of people or vehicles moving forward in an orderly fashion, esp. as part of a ceremony or festival: a funeral procession. ∎  the action of moving forward in such a way: the fully robed civic dignitaries walk in procession. ∎ fig. a relentless succession of people or things: his path was paved by a procession of industry executives.2. Theol. the emanation of the Holy Spirit.


views updated May 21 2018


a group of people moving in an orderly state; a regular series; sequence or succession of things resembling a procession. See also cortège.

Examples : procession of stately aqueducts; of boats, 1839; of tradesmans tools, 1688.