Ritual Practice of Time as an Analytic Theoretical Concept

What constitutes and how can the concept “ritual (practice) of time” be defined? An enormous literature has been produced about the notions of “ritual” and “time”, which cannot be given simple definitions.12

A substantial disagreement exists among scholars concerning the meaning and function of the concepts “ritual” or “rite” (Lat. ritus).i3 I shall not


provide a lengthy theoretical discussion of a definition of “ritual”. “Ritual” alludes to a constructed practice, a formula or a pattern of repeated symbolic collective sequenced actions that incorporates a reflexive activity of the performers and frequently involves the dramatization of a story. Quite often the religious or ritual specialists—entrusted with the preparation, organisation and conduct of the ritual—stage it as a kind of theatrical spectacle or performance (with participants and spectators) that takes place at a definite time (tempus ritualis) and location (locus ritualis). The repeated, fixed, formal and structural patterns of practices formulate a culturally specific belief and symbol system of intrinsic value. Belief or orthodoxy and ritual or orthopraxy are interconnected. Ritual is therefore not a thoughtless but a cognitive action. The ritual practice and the belief system embody a coherent whole where ritual and the story concurrently impose an order and “... accounts for the origin and nature of that order, and shapes people’s dispositions to experience that order in the world around them” (Bell 1997: 21). Cultural values, ideas, social status and relations, ethos, worldview, solidarity and identity can be constructed and expressed by ritual-symbolic practices. Rituals represent the social reality by communicating symbols through practice. As a culturally specific strategy, rituals are both a production and communication of meanings or symbols (Bell 1992: 74). The ritual practice regulates the community, the behaviour and actions of its members. Rituals are therefore linked to the judicial, economic, religious, social and political organisation of a society. Paul Connerton (1989: 44-45) asserts that rituals can be perceived both as expressive and instrumental acts, even though they do not always have strategic ends. Rituals, as repetitive acts, also imply continuity with the past. There is a range of meanings, symbolic expressions and functions assigned to both the story and ritual (Dots 1986: 56-60). The instrumentality, character, meaning and function of the rituals define the ritual category. From the point of view of the participant and observant, a ritual constitutes a polymorphic entity with a multiplicity of meanings and functions. Rituals are accordingly both poly-semantic and poly-functional.[1]

Time delimits and defines a particular ritual practice. Rituals are associated with the concept(s) of “time” in various ways. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica states that “time” (Lat. tempus): “is a measured or measurable period, a continuum ...” or simply a computed repeatable and non-repeatable (succession of epochal) duration (Leach 1968: 125).[2] [3] Different qualities of time abide in human experience. “Time” as a social, cultural, religious and political construction cannot be understood as a universal and uniform category. The concept of time—as it is has been construed socially and culturally—has many aspects since the socio-cultural context determines the perceptions and experience of time. The nature and experience of time vary in various cultural cognitive systems. Cultures measure or calculate time and conceive time differently.!6

The experience of the duration or passing of time is constructed, organised and systematised in chronometers called calendars. The calendar delineates and measures time intervals. It represents and embodies both a determination and a computation of time. Time is mastered by conceptualisation and quantification through the calendar. Calculated (calendar) time accordingly creates order and meaning. Time can be categorised and classified in a variety of calendars. A calendar defines the course of time by dates and not by events. A day, although it may be defined in different ways culturally, may be considered to be the smallest calendar unit of time. The purpose of the calendar is to reckon or compute time over extended periods for time keeping. Time, as represented in a calendar system of dates and of successive series (intervals or periods) of durations, can be mathematically determined by the astronomical observation and the annual sequence of seasonal activities. But there exist many methods to create calendars by defining abstract time units. Multiple manifestations of time are unified in various calendars. This makes time a diverse term that must be interpreted and analysed in diverse ways.

“Calendar time” represents an aspect of the concept of time. As instruments that order time in a chronological sequence, calendars structure and classify reality in various cultures and, as Wayne Elzey writes, they function, as temporal maps of the world (Elzey 1974: 107-108). Calendars constitute social contracts made to serve the needs of society.[4] [4] For that reason the question of the accuracy of a calendar is not always relevant. A calendar founded on a certain set of rules is accurate if the prescribed rules are upheld. Calendars can be transmitted in an oral, visual or a written (semiotic) tradition. The various periods or units of time are systematised and organised to serve practical needs. Calendars can be employed to plan agriculture, hunting and migrations. In addition, they can be applied in divination, prognostication, prophecy and historiography. The calendars may determine civil and religious events serving as a social contract. In this way, the calendars uphold a cultural identity and the social and political order. They furthermore create a connection between the human world and the non-human (divine) world. The calendars may accordingly have a sacred status. The emphasis in the present analysis is the cultural, social, political, philosophical and religious context and use (e.g. practice) and not the function and calculation of the calendar, even given the fact that the operational aspect of the calendar has consequences for its religious, philosophical, political, social and cultural application.18 The socio-political and religious organisation of various societies emphasise different dimensions of time and make use of necessary ritual strategies towards the specific cultural organisation of time. What time is, how it is computed, the type of calendar that has been applied to measure it, and the political and social use of time (through imposing temporal disciplines within the cultural context) are topics that have been treated extensively in the scholarly literature. This book will not contemplate “time” or “calendar time” as concepts. The aim is not to ask philosophically or anthropologically what time is, but rather how some selected societies experience and conceive time through their ritual practices of calendar time.

The ordering of time is one function of a ritual or festival, as Leach puts it. Time is also measured, structured and organised through the succession of the ceremonies (Leach 1968: 125-126; 132-135; Plessner 1957: 237-239). The notion of time in a cultural system is symbolically expressed through its calendars and rituals, its “rites periodiques” (Hubert and Mauss 1909; Du- mёzil 1935-1936). Time is disciplined through an organisation in calendars and by its associated ritual practices (Leach 1968: 135). As noted, it is the ritual practice of calendar time or computed, systematised and organised temporal units that is the subject of this book—i.e. how time, delimited, systematised and organised in calendars is observed in ceremonies. I introduce a novel theoretical category, namely that of “ritual (practice) of (calendar) time”, where time itself is the ritual protagonist or subject. I define ritualised time or “ritual (practice) of time” as an abstract analytic ceremonial category relating to the meaning of ritual celebrations of time periods of a culture. In many cultures there is a religious importance of a temporal periodicity.[6] Rituals of time constitute a ceremonial completion and an introduction of a given period of time where the time-intervals, time-endings and inaugurations of time periods are observed in the ritual practice. Various rituals within a calendar period do, however, not necessarily occur at the end of a time period. They can recur on the same crucial date within the calendar, not as a ritual celebration of a beginning or and ending of time, but as a recollection of important events.

A differentiation must further be made between the celebration or performance of rituals of the time of the world, society or community and rite de passage of the time of the life of the individual human being, which mark the individual’s social development, like birth, initiation to adulthood or puberty, marriage and death according to the biological calendar, which creates order and definition to the bio-cultural life cycle of the human be?ing. As can be surmised, it is the former, which constitutes the topic of the present explication.

  • [1] Cf. outline of the concepts “ritual” and “rite” by “Ritualdynamik”. Heidelberg University’s Collaborative Research Center 619, August 2002 (http://www.ritualdynamik.de/index.php?id=22&L=1).
  • [2] In a short article E. R. Leach has reflected upon the problem of translating the Englishword “time” (Leach 1968). Leach points out that various qualifying terms for “time” cannoteasily be translated into another European language despite the fact that the English word“time” is rendered as “temps” in French, “Zeit” in German, “tiempo” in Spanish, “tid” inNorwegian etc. There can be various expressions of the word “time”, which are not synonymsin a given language. The problem of finding an equivalent to this term is even more acutein languages outside of Europe and the Western world (Leach 1968: 124). The Hopi language,for instance, contains no words corresponding to the western notion of “time” accordingto a classic study by Benjamin Whorf (1975). The same can of course be said about translating “ritual” or “ceremony”.
  • [3] Scholars have catalogued the diverse organisations of time in various cultures. Cf.for instance Nilsson, 1920; Evans-Pritchard 1939; 1940; Leach 1961; 1965; O’Neil 1976; Bloch1977; Howe 1981; Fabian 1983; Aveni 1980; 1989; Gell 1992; Munn 1992; Geertz 1993.
  • [4] L.E. Doggett. Calendars. Reprinted from The Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac, P. Kenneth Seidelmann, editor, with permission from University ScienceBooks, Sausalito, CA 94965—published by Fred Espenak. NASA/Goddard Space FlightCenter, Code 693 Greenbelt, Maryland 20754 USA on Fred Espenak’s Eclipse Home Page:sunearth.gsfc. nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse.html.
  • [5] L.E. Doggett. Calendars. Reprinted from The Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac, P. Kenneth Seidelmann, editor, with permission from University ScienceBooks, Sausalito, CA 94965—published by Fred Espenak. NASA/Goddard Space FlightCenter, Code 693 Greenbelt, Maryland 20754 USA on Fred Espenak’s Eclipse Home Page:sunearth.gsfc. nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse.html.
  • [6] Not every culture incorporates rituals following a calendar. For instance, ceremoniesof the Apache and Navajo of the southwestern part of North America are performed onlywhen necessary to restore health and secure blessings in order to survive (Taylor 1991: 58).H.B. Nicholson classifies this phenomenon “noncalendric ritualism” e.g. non-periodicceremonies not regulated by calendars like rite de passage in the life span of human beings,dedication of monuments and structures, inauguration to a religious office, daily domesticrituals etc. (Nicholson 1971a: 435-436). We must accordingly make a distinction betweenwhat Pierre Smith categorises as “periodical” as opposed to “occasional” circumstances,that is, regular (calendar) versus extraordinary (occasional or special) rituals (Smith 1982:108-109).
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