During the past twenty-five years, a large body of literature
has developed analyzing the rites of the ancient world. This is first
of all the product of both a growing number of ancient documents discovered
and appearing in print. But it is also, I would argue, the result of a
growing awareness about the importance of ritual and the appearance of a
large body of theoretical studies in this area. Indeed, "ritual studies"
has developed into a whole discipline with its own journal (Journal of
Ritual Studies , since 1987). Ritual studies is a synthetic or integrative
discipline, employing not only theology and history of religions, but anthropology,
social psychology, art history, music history, archaeology, performance
theory, as well as other disciplines. The introductory essays by Grimes (1987)
and Zeusse (1987) will briefly orient the reader to the major issues (both
in sec. 1 below).
Those in biblical studies, Classics, and the study of the
ancient Near East can benefit greatly from attention to some of the theoretical
discussions which have gone on recently, and I would suggest several reasons
for raising our awareness. First, to understand the ancient peoples and
their culture, more than linguistic and historical acumen is necessary.
Ritual analysis focuses attention on rites which help expose the modern
scholar to the fundamentals of ancient worldviews, symbols, values, and social
organization. Second, cross-cultural analysis raises new questions for
the researcher, both practical and theoretical. Third, ritual studies
presses the reader of ancient documents for a "thicker description" (to
use Geertz's expression) and a fuller analysis. And fourth, awareness of
rituals in one culture can raise the question of how similar phenomena were
handled in others.
Definining ritual is not an easy task; and as Grimes points
out, most definitions are overly narrow and bereft of fruitful imagery.
But he goes on to identify five key characteristics: repeated, sacred,
formalized, traditional, and intentional (1995:60-61). The meanings of
ritual, ritualizing, rite, and ceremony often overlap or are used as synonyms
by different scholars. For heuristic purposes it may be useful to employ
the term "rite" as the overarching category, "ritual" to refer to rites
of passage, boundary crossing (status transformation or status reversal),
and "ceremony" to refer to regular celebrations, feasts, and worship services
which maintain and celebrate the group's boundaries (see Malina, Christian
Origins and Cultural Anthropology , 1986:139-43). In a practical sense,
the labels are not as important as defining those one uses, employing them
with consistency, and demonstrating their analytic value for interpretation.
Most of the articles and books on ancient rituals do not
employ "ritual studies" methodologies. They are translating key documents
or passages, discussing the linguistic or historical problems in interpreting
these documents, etc. But they often provide the starting points to press
further into the performance aspects of these sources. New questions can
be asked, different methods can be employed, fresh comparisons can be
made, and fuller analyses can be developed. Theoretical awareness cannot
produce new evidence, but it can open new avenues of exploration.
In the following bibliography I have begun with two
introductory sections: 1. Theoretical Approaches and Overviews, and 2. Cross-Cultural
Studies. Of all the sections, section 1 is the most "selective." I have
attempted to limit this section to works that are widely quoted and have
been influential in the history of the discussion. Section 2 is limited
to those works which are broadly comparative of ancient societies; the more
specific comparative pieces (e.g., Ugaritic and Israelite comparisons) are
placed in one or the other section based on emphasis or the author's specialization
(e.g., deMoor under Ugarit). The other sections are pragmatic groupings,
organized by region. The dates covered here are 1970—1996; but the dates
are not absolutes at either end. Several jounals had not completed their
volumes by October 1996 when I finished this; and when I found an item
which preceded 1970, I included it if I thought it was necessary to the
history of the discussion.