Ritual and Ceremony
in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East:
A Select Classified Bibliography (1970–1998)

K. C. Hanson
Fortress Press
Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209
© 1997-1998

MRZH-Ritual Tablet From Ancient Ugarit;
Photo from: West Semitic Research Project


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.

Ritual Studies: Theoretical Approaches and Overviews

Cross-Cultural Studies on Ritual in Antiquity


Mesopotamia, Syria, and Persia


Ugarit, Cyprus, and Phoenecia

Israel—Hebrew Bible

Copyright © 1998, K. C. Hanson
Last modified: 2 June 2002

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