Mellon Seminar Reflection 2: Is there a connection between myth and ritual?

The topic for the second discussion in the


seminar was Ritual Theory. The readings were numerous, and it was fascinating for me to spend a week going over the history of the discussion of ritual and myth. I realized even more than I had before how much the question of the relationship of ritual and myth has defined the field of religious studies. I'm not so sure it ought to have, but we are stuck with the fact that it did. If you are looking for a very well-written detailed overview of the history of ritual theory, I recommend the first three chapters of

Catherine Bell's book,

Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions


I am not going to go into detail here about the history of ritual theory. What I am going to do is reflect on my own understanding of ritual. It is not an understanding that came out of studying ritual theory, nor trying to negotiate the Myth and Ritual School or the views of Durkheim or Freud. My reflections come straight from my work as an historian who has immersed herself in ancient texts for the last twenty-five years of my life. I have discovered that I tend to be very pragmatic in my approach.


Ritual and myth have a symbiotic relationship.

There is a connection between the community's ritual and myth, although these connections are not stable. Both ritual and myth shift in their performance and narrative over time and for various reasons, some conscious and some not. It may not be possible to determine whether the ritual or the myth came first in the formation of the movement. For me this is not even the interesting question. The interesting question is how and why the ritual and myth shape and reshape each other in peculiar ways.


There is a community of real people involved in the ritual and the myth.

The texts I study are about practices and ideas that involved real people in real life situations. The category "


" is something that was made up so that the problem of real communities and their shape or historical boundaries can be ignored.


Ritual and myth are culturally-determined and historically bound.

We might be able to find some psychological or cognitive feature in humans that predisposes us to create rituals that involve stages of separation and reintegration, but the quest for 'a universal myth' or 'a universal


-ritual' behind all myths and rituals is not tenable, at least from the perspective of a historian.


There are different types of rituals and myths, and therefore different functions.

Rituals and myths of initiation may not have the same function as rituals and myths of matrimony, birth, or purging. While the main function of one ritual might be to foster social cohesion, another might be to relieve personal guilt or anxiety. So a careful mapping must be put into place and universalism avoided.


Rituals and myths build and support relationships of power within the community.

They provide divine sanction and legitimacy for the dominance of some and the subordination of others.


When the ritual and myth of the dominant group does not answer all the questions or is contradictory, supplementary and alternative rituals and myths are developed, sometimes



And here lies the origin of the concept of orthodoxy and heresy.