“Ritual” has long attracted classicists. While building on anthropological theories, however, the field of classics has not yet fully explored or integrated recent developments into its hermeneutics. While anthropologists have written and thought a great deal about “ritual” and the adequacy of the term for describing repetitive actions in religious as well as profane contexts, classicists continue to use the term without questioning its theoretical implications.
“Ritual” conveys indeed dichotomies with which we can dispense, such as sacred/profane, and this is particularly the case when it is applied to objects to create the new category of “ritual objects.” This new category reifies a sharp opposition between belief and practice, between mind and material matter, and so on.
Seen through this modern and rather reductive lens, “ancient ritual practice” loses its complexity and diversity. More importantly, modern thoughts and values are projected onto the interpretation of ancient practices, thus blurring and confusing our attempt to assess “ritual” in its own context, that is, by using the “voice” of the people in the past.
This work aims at pinpointing some of these methodological shortcomings, which are often made apparent when assessing ancient Greek ritual. These problems do not issue from ancient perspectives, but from our modern cultural background, which invests ritual with connotations and interpretations borrowed from related or other disciplines that may be irrelevant or misleading. Ritual actions are dynamic and have multiple meanings. Their interpretation requires a new approach that seeks to address this complexity and to identify and mitigate methodological bias.