Citation with persistent identifier:
Patera, Ioanna. “Ritual Practice and Material Support: Objects in Ritual Theories.” CHS Research Bulletin 1, no. 1 (2012). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:PateraI.Ritual_Practice_and_Material_Support.2012
Confined to the religious sphere [ritual] has some minimal utility. But used in the wide manner of ethologists (the rituals of copulation), archaeologists (with their ritual objects), the sociologists (discovering rituals of family living) and the anthropologists (rituals, more rituals, yet more rituals), there is little to be gained either from the term itself or from further subdivision. Goody 1977, 28
§1 Scholarly debates on “ritual” have so far attracted the attention of classicists in some very particular ways. For example, much ink has been spilled over the relationship between “ritual” and “myth.” Yet the origins of ritual remain a tricky and unresolved issue. It is also taken for granted in classical scholarship that ritual practice stems from religious beliefs. In this paper I will try to distance my views from these frequently raised issues in order to address more precisely the question of objects as materials used to support ritual practice.
§2 Ritual practice may indeed be examined on its own. Generally speaking, however, it is barely distinguished from other levels of ancient religion such as beliefs and emotions. As praxis, however, it has a definite setting that allows for its performance and efficiency. On the level of ancient Greek society, ritual practice is dictated by a long tradition of maintaining good relations with the gods that each practice is aiming to address. On a personal level, it is performed in an attempt to fulfill personal needs. In any case, ritual is to be differentiated from other forms of manifestations of piety, even though these may be expressions of a single attitude toward the gods and they may have the same scope.
§3 Besides rituals that involve an oral performance (utterances) and gestures, a number of ritual practices are enacted with the help of objects, or material supports, as I tend to call them. For the modern scholar, these supports serve as identifiers of ritual attitudes. We thus recognize libations from the presence of “libation-” bowls, and sacrifice from the presence of cauldrons and spits. Other items of distinctive shape refer to specific deities and to the rituals that honor them. Efficiency is thus achieved through objects that are either created specially for this purpose or simply taken out of everyday “ready-to-use” settings. In the latter case they are removed from their original context, recycled, and redirected into ritual (i.e., they are not exclusive to ritual practice). Whatever the case, scholars assemble these objects under the generic rubric of “cult equipment” or “ritual objects,” assigning to them various connotations that correspond in fact more closely to our own, modern, views and values.
§4 As scholars we often begin from the premise that objects contribute or generate knowledge on their own part. In this case, the individual researcher takes on to recognize the objects’ function, and from that to understand the mechanism of the ritual in question (i.e., supposedly our understanding of ancient practices). This attempt by the modern viewer to interpret the uses of ancient objects is based on certain preconceptions. The “object,” on the other hand, is involved in various dichotomies, the most significant ones concerning the ontological distinction between “human”/“non-human” and “subject”/“object.” For this reason, the study of objects has long been assigned a merely auxiliary role in classical studies. Theories on materiality have overcome this dichotomy, with agency now attributed to both “subjects” and “objects.”
§5 A further binary distinction that influences our understanding of ritual objects is that of “premodern-sacred” as opposed to “modern-coercive” power. “Sacred” becomes here a synonym of the “irrational,” especially when one discusses pre-Christian matters. Thus, because of their involvement in religious affairs, “ritual objects” participate in something “distant” and “irrational.” These negative connotations attached to objects have often also been combined with a fascination for antiquities and their interpretation through extraneous anthropological theories and patterns. The lack of appropriate methodology for approaching and interpreting objects in ritual practice has turned earlier interpretations into factoids and further contributes to the failure of questioning them anew. For instance, when one looks closer at ancient Greek nomenclature, it becomes clear that objects are never called “ritual.” We therefore have to ask how adequate our modern classification and nomenclature is for describing ancient objects and their functions. For the purpose of this paper, I will concentrate on the values attributed to sanctuary and festival equipment.
§6 An ancient Greek name that still contributes to the confusion regarding the status of objects as “sacred” is the word hiera – a term with different meanings that in ancient texts accompanies “objects,” “rituals” (such as sacrifices) and appears alongside several cults. The most significant is that of the Eleusinian Mysteries where hiera were, in this context, related to the initiation ceremony of Demeter. A number of ancient authors, of a later date and Christian education, have attempted to identify these hiera with certain objects. Modern scholars have also made several attempts to make sense of the Mysteries and the hiera. The variety of the identified objects used in the Mysteries indicates the unproductive character of our modern attempts to fix particular value(s) to particular objects. Ears of corn, statues or relics, and also dramatic performances, have all been suggested as elements of the actions that took place in the Mysteries. The range of interpretations goes from durable objects to ritual actions. What is of interest in relation to our question here is that an equivocal term admittedly pointing to “sacred objects” does not necessarily refer to material manifestations, but may well take the form of performances. An impartial definition of a “ritual object” would then be, in this particular context, “a durable object used within ritual.” This “object” may be the focus of ritual or simply its material support (some kind of “props”).
§7 Let me elaborate this point further by offering an example. A recent and revealing study on dedications illustrates the concept of “dedicated cult or festival paraphernalia or images of them.” According to this author, “These include libation bowls that memorialized an original use in a dedicator’s rite, and bronze cauldrons (with or without tripods), which, though they carried many meanings, could, as boiling vessels, symbolize sacrifice and thus suggest something about the dedicatory rite.” The question here is about dedications, for no clear distinction is made in this assertion between “dedications” and “cult paraphernalia.” Epigrams are clear as to the nature of the things mentioned, but other types of sources are less explicit. Unless an inscription provides precise information, it is almost impossible to decide whether an object found in an archaeological excavation or recorded in temple inventories is a dedication, or whether it belongs to the sanctuary without being an offering. Clearly, cult equipment may have been dedicated. Dedication is, however, just an action – a mode of acquisition, among others, for sanctuaries to obtain the necessary equipment.
§8 In the aforementioned example, two different categories are brought together under the same title – on one hand we have “cult equipment” used in ritual, and on the other dedicated cult equipment that only recalls the ritual in question. In both cases the objects represented may well be the same. The rituals, however, to which these sub-categories allude are not the same nor is their scope. While a bowl may be dedicated for several reasons, libations are poured in more specific contexts. Because of the similarities observed in the material support used in both ritual actions, these are then linked to a generic idea of “libation.” “Libation” bowls, for example, could certainly be souvenirs of earlier libation rituals, and even of other kinds of ritual since “libation” may well be part of a sequence of ritual actions. Yet it is necessary to distinguish the two rituals – that of the “dedication” and that of “libation.” These are two different actions that are performed, and their goals require a distinct treatment.
§9 There is no doubt that the types of objects offered and/or used in a sanctuary overlapped. The interchangeable use, however, of these objects both in dedications and libations creates a major methodological problem. Dedications and libations are different rituals, performed in different contexts and having different aims, even when the material supports used for them are the same (i.e. the same object used in one ritual may acquire different connotations when used in another ritual). We therefore need to look for criteria for distinguishing them. For this reason we have to go back to the ancient Greek texts to identify passages referring to the “ritual handling” of objects. Instead of applying modern interpretations that skew our understanding of ancient ritual (e.g. “the more unusual the form of an object, the more probable its ritual function”), we should try and identify what the ancients may have thought of the objects in question. Most of the objects labeled “cult equipment,” however, have no specific (or exclusive) link to “cult.” Vases for transportation and presentation of offerings are usually of shapes that are found in any kind of context, cultic as well as domestic. Therefore the only reason to label them “ritual objects” is their presence within a “sacred space.”
Ideas, Associations, and Misleading Interpretations
§10 Size, form, and material are the most distinctive features taken into account to label an object as “ritual object.” For example, unusual object sizes (very small or extra-large) are considered identifiers for assigning a “ritual” or “special” status to an object. Following this line of interpretation, a series of monumental vases dating to the sixth or fifth century BCE are thought to be used in some kind of ritual ceremonies. Too large for daily use, they are mostly found in sanctuaries. Because of their remarkable size, scholars tend to associate them with a theoxenia ritual and with heroic banquets. Their large size is thus given a special value regarding its relation to the divine. Being exceptional in this respect, scholars are of the opinion that the massiveness of these vessels may represent an attempt to render these pots usable by the gods and heroes in their banquets.
§11 Whatever the function of these vases, the use of their size as criterion for assigning status stems from modern preconceptions and cultural values. In a similar manner, miniature pots have long been considered to be “poor peoples’ offerings.” When it comes to ritual, however, we should remember that these small vessels are divested of aesthetic and value considerations and are in turn vested with particular “ritual functions.” The forms of artifacts is also thought to provide us with evidence regarding their function. Function, clearly, does not follow form. One further distinction we ought to make is that “function” is different from “functionality” – that is the purpose that something is designed or expected to fulfill. As a consequence, the utilitarian interpretation of pottery found in sanctuaries is unsatisfactory. For example, most pots when found in a sanctuary context are considered “offerings.” Those destined for ritual, such as “libations,” would instead be a rare phenomenon.
§12 At the same time material also plays an important role. In fact, few vessels would be necessary for ritual and they would, most likely, have been made of metal. Specific materials, however, are often used in scholarship as identifiers of “objects used in rituals.” For example, we often read that metal vessels, because of their “value,” were used in rituals. Although this point probably holds true for official occasions, where ritual is ostentatious (e.g. as it is also the case with processions), in other cases modest ceramics are more than adequate to perform what the ritual requires. Thus, “value” (a problematic term in its own right) is not a good identifier for “objects used within ritual.”
§13 To sum up so far: we are accustomed to understand size, form and material as having a priori specific connotations such as “over-size/divine” or “under-size/poor.” We infer that the same connotations were used in antiquity. We assume, for example, that when visitors to a sanctuary saw large vases they must have thought of them as banqueting equipment for gods and heroes. These objects, because they generate a story, have been labeled “narrative” objects. Behind this attractive categorization, there is a very practical idea. As it happened in antiquity, when direct information is lacking, we use our imagination to fill in the gaps. Objects are considered in this case as supports for mythography. They allude to specific narratives or personages, and when the allusion in question is not clear, the spectator may link the actual object to one of the myths or stories he knows. This is more or less what Herodotus is doing when he identifies foreign gods with Greek ones. Pausanias is acting similarly when he identifies statues and divinities in various sanctuaries with local representations. This is the mechanism of “mythography without texts,” as Anne-Françoise Jaccottet termed it. When the destined use of an object is no longer clear, this mechanism kicks in, generating assumed functions for objects. We subsequently link the objects to previously identified features in order to make sense of their outward properties.
§14 One additional methodological pitfall needs to be considered in the context of the associations inferred from size, form, and material. The identification of objects related in written sources is achieved through their names and their associations from descriptions of ancient authors such as Athenaeus and his Deipnosophistai. Names, however, hardly correspond to forms in the perfect way we imagine when we give every single artifactual category (say a vessel type) an ancient name. By doing so in fact we create a new cultural concept – a modern category. This is a new, arbitrary, category using real objects that are perceived as illustrations of a specific ancient term. Classification is indeed necessary for making some sense of the past. But when the names used come from an ancient vocabulary, then the assigned term acquires immediately assumed connotations leading to generalizations. The references available for use in the process of identification preceding the meaning assignment are in all probability not the ones we should have at our disposal for accurately identifying objects.
Categories in general and the category of “ritual objects”
§15 Let us consider again the so-called ritual objects in the light of the methodological problems mentioned above. “Ritual objects” is a modern category comprising a variety of miscellaneous artifacts. There are many reasons for their collection under a single label. They may be dear to a deity and somehow representative of the deity’s presence on account of attributes that point to specific cults. They may also be objects used during ceremonies honoring this deity or actual objects found in his/her sanctuaries. To avoid the traditional approach that uses form and material as identifiers of these “ritual objects,” one should instead concentrate on the broader connotations of objects. Objects indeed are neither entirely functional nor entirely symbolic. They do not merely serve to express ideas or to communicate, although they can serve to support communication with gods in ritual contexts. In much the same way as rituals do, objects appear to be involved in more complex actions than communication of meanings and values. In theories of material culture that include all kinds of things relating to humans, objects have a role to play in shaping human experiences and interactions. Thus objects are not seen anymore, at least by some theorists, as mere symbols of certain ideas, but as contributors (agents) in the shaping of ideas and culture.
§16 Through this interesting lens, action and concept work together. Material culture theory combines “persons, objects, deities, and all manner of immaterial things together, in ways that cannot easily be disentangled or separated taxonomically.” Durable things are thus juxtaposed with immateriality. They are part of a process embodying something in a physical presence that “renders abstract thought and belief both tangible and efficacious.” This attractive theory suits well the example given by Lynn Meskell that Egyptian gods embodied in their statues become sorts of fetishes, while being at the same time inanimate objects and powerful entities. Yet the theory overtakes its own subject. Fetishes in anthropology are now part of the politically incorrect terminology, and, even for anthropologists, materiality obscurs the actual “material.”
§17 Theoretical approaches all tend to assign to objects a noticeable significance, similar to that assumed when using the colloquially admitted expression of “ritual object.” Objects are indeed part of an action that is intended to change the course of things. In that sense, “ritual” is described as “representative acts designed to change or maintain their object, thus distinguishing ritual from all other kinds of communication and from all other kinds of action.”
§18 What are the qualities of these “ritual objects” that permit this kind of mediation with the gods? In short, what makes them so special? As it was stated long ago, there is no “sacral property” as a separate legal category. Thus the question is not one of sacredness. It is rather a question of status that is dependent on the owner, the state or a sanctuary (all of which are, after all, responsible for assigning “value,” “status,” and “meaning(s)” to these objects and regulating “ritual”). Even though there are regulations regarding the use of objects (e.g., by certain individuals and in certain occasions), the state can borrow and use these objects when needed. Legal matters are therefore not what make these objects stand out.
§19 Our category of “ritual objects” in ancient Greek religion as it presently stands encompasses an artificial amalgam of too many different things, comprising things that do not have the same status. This category is therefore formed in a very loose way, since a single “label” is assigned to different things. Let us consider how this naming mechanism functions. According to Aristotle, “things are equivocally named, when they have the name only in common, the definition corresponding with the name being different.” In our modern category of “ritual objects,” “ritual” has the very specific function of establishing a particular quality for the objects with which it is associated. The designated objects are in turn taken to relate to actions addressed to gods. They are used in specific places and times when these actions are performed within a continuous cult and not as single actions arising from specific situations with single aims. The ways and circumstances in which these “objects” are used depend on the “ritual” they are meant to contribute.
§20 Precision is also required with regard to the “substance” of objects. We may follow Aristotle’s classification of substance (ousia), as the basis of modern classification. Aristotle gives the example of the substance of “man,” that does not admit of degrees, although it admits many qualities. Man cannot be more or less man as compared with himself or another. Quality on the contrary may vary in degree, for instance beauty: a beautiful object has more or less beauty than others. Accordingly, the substance of “ritual objects” can be seen as lying with (or better, “in”) the object itself. Ritual is only a variable quality defining a changing status. Traditional ethnography shows that a single object may have various successive statuses. When Claude Lévi-Strauss made his famous journey in the Caduveo country in south Brasil, he saw wood figurines that were childrens’ toys taken over by the elder women who kept them piously. This point made by Lévi-Strauss leads to a subject dear to many Hellenists nowadays, namely the inadequacy of a strict opposition between sacred and profane.
Correspondences between ancient and modern categories
§21 Aristotle again states explicitly that nouns have a meaning only by convention (kata sunthêkên). This holds for names in antiquity and also for our own categories. When we use our modern categories to interpret ancient objects, an additional difficulty arises because of the conceptual changes that have occurred in the course of time. The categories we create in order to make sense of ancient objects are not literal translations of ancient Greek names. What’s in a name then? From the time we assign a name to a particular class of objects, we either identify certain qualities and properties as part of this class or attribute new ones. The latter is what happens in the case of “ritual objects.”
§22 How do things work in practice? Within a set of objects that are stored together in a specific place in a sanctuary, one of them is chosen for use in a specific occasion. When it is introduced into the ritual, it corresponds to our definition of a “ritual object.” What about the rest of the objects? One may assume that the remaining objects are potentially “ritual.” “Ritual” refers in this case to functionality, whereas function is very often deduced by names. One may compare the way personal names are bestowed and are endowed with specific meanings. They specify persons, while titles are standardizing qualities. In much the same way, names characterize and accurately label things. As Geertz notices, however, “the symbol systems which define these classes are not given in the nature of things – they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individually applied.” What ancient Greek names contribute to the actual objects and their function is consequently a question of reception (or what can be charmingly called “lost in reception”). Since tropes are usual in Greek formulas, one has to inquire into the correspondence of names and meanings.
§23 Let us take the example of the changing status of Greek objects to illustrate this issue. A very good example is given by Athenaeus describing the pelikai. He quotes various authors and relates their identifications.
Callistratus [the grammarian] in the Commentary on Cratinus’ Thracian Women, defines this [the pelikê] as a kulix. But Crates in book II of the Attic Dialect writes as follows: Pitchers (khoes) were referred to, as I noted, as pelikai. The shape of the vessel was previously like that of a panathênaïkon (at which time it was referred to as a pelikê), but later it took on the look of an oinochoê (wine-pitcher), like those set beside people at the festival. These were the type they referred to in those days as olpai, and which were used to pour wine, as Ion of Chios says in The Sons of Eurytos: Draw potent wine from sacred jars and pour it gurgling forth from olpai.
§24 Then Athenaeus returns to his own time:
Whereas nowadays the use of vessels of this type is restricted, as it were, and they are only set beside us at the festival, while the shape of the type that has come into common use (and which we refer to as a khous) has evolved, and is more like an arutaina (dipper).
§25 Thus the pelikai that we today describe as “containers of liquids” and identify with a particular vessel type, were resembling at the time of Callistratus a type of a kulix (i.e., a broad and shallow drinking cup). Yet another author makes them similar to khoes – pouring jugs or pitchers of various sizes that modern scholarship relates to the festival of the Anthesteria. This, in turn, is compared to the shape of the panathenaic amphorai that were once called pelikai. The shape and name of this particular type of vessel changed through time and it became more like an oinochoê, of the type called olpê in Athenaeus’ days. Thus, name, function, and shape are certainly not identical among the quoted authors in Athenaeus and were open to debate even in his own time.
§26 This example urges us to revisit existing correspondence between names and shapes. Categories are certainly misleading when one seeks specific uses. The fact that we apply ancient names to specific shapes does not give more credence to our interpretation, not least because these names were a matter of debate even in antiquity. What matters, in our case, is that ancient Greek names are indicating the possibility of identifying objects and functions.
Conclusions: assigning meaning to ritual objects
§27 Very often “ritual objects” are assigned symbolic meanings in specific contexts; that is, they supposedly represent an idea or a thing or, in other words, they stand for something else, usually for a more general idea. To return to the previous example, “bowls” stand for “libations,” and “cauldrons” for the “sacrifices offered to gods.” From the premise of ritual context, we interpret specific objects or findings in a very specific way that suits the occasion we tend to imagine. It would also be of interest to consider that rituals in fact, as pure performance, do not have any meaning. Seen as activity governed by explicit rules, the weight is on what is done/performed, and not on what is thought or believed.
§28 In this case we do act more or less through ritualization – we render something present through ritual action. Ritualization is an act that distinguishes itself from other ways of acting. Ritualization operates in the naming process regarding ritual actions or festivals. We may see these names as performative expressions that stand for what is done rather than what they are describing. For example, when a festival day is named after a pot such as the Khoes or the Khytroi of the Anthesteria, scholars take it for granted that these shapes had a major role in the ritual activities (and stemming from the discussion in Athenaeus’ days one may ask: which shapes of pots exactly?). These names were given for a reason we are not able to retrieve if not by later sources and aitia. We should therefore not take the designation at face value when it comes to actual ritual.
§29 As classicists, we are becoming more and more aware of the dynamic character of rituals, which change over time even though they are conceptualized from antiquity to now as the most traditional of actions. Even when they are modified or just launched, there is an effort on the part of the participants to make ritual actions appear unchanging and unchangeable, and this is an essential aspect of ritual practice. Moreover, scholars tend to assign them a meaning even though most of our sources are mute with regard to the purposes of rituals. Even if we are able to recognize their meaning, we have to keep in mind that this “can easily be given and taken away by society.” As a consequence, “purpose (content) and form of ritual acts are unrelated or at best vaguely connected.” In much the same way as naming, meaning is indeed determined by convention. And these conventions themselves change with time.
§30 In much the same way we consider rituals as dynamic and transformative actions, their material supports are changing too. It is a well-known phenomenon in archaeology that distinctive types of objects appear at some point in time and disappear years or centuries later. This does not mean that the ritual is abandoned; merely that its form has changed, perhaps along with its purpose. In this context, “ritual objects” do not even appear as necessary for the carrying out of the ritual.
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 Hodder 2012, 3, takes the example of a transfer pipette in a laboratory incorporating knowledge about measurement procedures, and physical properties of liquids, to mention a few informative cases.
 Athenaeus XI, 495a-c: Πελίκαι. Καλλίστρατος ἐν Ὑπομνήμασι Θρᾳττῶν Κρατίνου ἀποδίδωσι κύλικα. Κράτης δ’ ἐν δευτέρῳ Ἀττικῆς Διαλέκτου [FGrHist 362 F 8 (mid-fifth century)] γράφει οὕτως· οἱ χόες πελίκαι, καθάπερ εἴπομεν, ὠνομάζοντο. ὁ δὲ τύπος ἦν τοῦ ἀγγείου πρότερον μὲν τοῖς Παναθηναικοῖς ἐοικώς, ἡνίκα ἐκαλεῖτο πελίκη, ὕστερον δὲ ἔσχεν οἰνοχόης σχῆμα, οἷοί εἰσιν οἱ ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ παρατιθέμενοι, ὁποίους δή ποτε ὄλπας ἐκάλουν, χρώμενοι πρὸς τὴν τοῦ οἴνου ἔγχυσιν, καθάπερ Ἴων ὁ Χῖος ἐν Εὐρυτίδαις [TrGF 19 F 10 Snell (fifth century)] φησίν· ἐκ ζαθέων πιθακνῶν ἀφύσσοντες ὄλπαις οἶνον ὑπερφίαλον κελαρύζετε. νυνὶ δὲ τὸ μὲν τοιοῦτον ἀγγεῖον καθιερωμένον τινὰ τρόπον ἐν τῇ ἑορτῇ παρατίθεται μόνον, τὸ δ’ ἐς τὴν χρείαν πῖπτον μετεσχημάτισται, ἀρυταίνῃ μάλιστα ἐοικός, ὃ δὴ καλοῦμεν χόα. Transl. Olson.
 Staal 1979, 9; Staal 1989, 131-132. In this view, what we take as “symbolic” aims such as reinforcing the bond between the participants, are seen as side-effects that do not explain the origin of the ritual. It is because of its meaninglessness that rationalizations and explanations are constructed around it.