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Announcing ! BLOOD SACRIFICES

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Blood Sacrifices: Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities edited by Robert J. Bunker

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of Blood Sacrifices, edited by Robert J. Bunker, to which Charles Cameron and I have both contributed chapters. Dr. Bunker has done a herculean job of shepherding this controversial book, where thirteen authors explore the dreadful and totemic cultural forces operating just beneath the surface of irregular warfare and religiously motivated extreme violence.

We are proud to have been included in such a select group of authors and I’m confident that many readers of ZP will find the book to their liking . If you study criminal insurgency, terrorism, hybrid warfare, 4GW, apocalyptic sects, irregular conflict or religious extremism, then the 334 pages of Blood Sacrifices has much in store for you.

Available for order at Amazon

Of Easter Fires

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — the beauty and the burning ]
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Today was Easter Day for the Orthodox, and the Resurrection was celebrated with what Fr Janjic describes as Holy Fire in Jerusalem.

Fr the Orthodox, this event is both a liturgy, spreading from Jerusalem around the globe —

— and a miracle — an intersection of the divine with earthly existance:

Thus one might say the vertical enters the horizontal plane.

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Sadly, a similar celebration in New York was followed shortly thereafter by tragedy:

Much of beauty was consumed:

— and in an eerie echo half way round the world, a church in Australia blazed

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For more on the miracle, see the Description of the Miracle of Holy Light (Holy Fire) that happens every year in Jerusalem:

The ceremony, which awes the souls of Christians, takes place in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The date for Pascha is determined anew for every year. It must be a first Sunday after the spring equinox and Jewish Passover. Therefore, most of the time it differs from the date of Catholic and Protestant Easter, which is determined using different criteria. The Holy Fire is the most renowned miracle in the world of Eastern Orthodoxy. It has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place every single year for centuries. No other miracle is known to occur so regularly and so steadily over time. It happens in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, where Christ was crucified, entombed, and where He finally rose from the dead.

One celebrant, the late Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem, described the miracle thus:

I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead. I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees.Miracle of God. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake — it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn — I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp… At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.

— and there’s a great deal more of considerable interest at the above link.

Happy Easter to all my Orthodox friends!

Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

Comments? Questions?

Two profound instances of ceremonial (liturgical) impact

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a follow up to my post on the Vespers liturgy at Hampton Court Palace ]
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Boring as hell or blissful as paradise? Religious worship can be either one.

I know that when I was at Wellington College I must have sat through dozens of sermons in which one or another scriptural passage was read in that droning pastoral voice which Alan Bennett so skilfully skewered in his Beyond the Fringe satirical sermon on the text of Genesis 27.11, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man”:

I was a deeply religious kid, but verses like I Samuel 15.3, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” went right past me. I had no qualms back then about Old Testament genocides, pretty much because I didn’t notice them — these were just sacred words, intoned, a strange blend of heaven, lullaby and snooze.

In my piece on the Hampton Court Vespers, I tried to give readers a sense of how things look from a perspective where liturgy and rites and rituals more generally need not be viewed as dry relics of a past best forgotten, but as well-springs of deep personal, interpersonal and transcendent inspiration and communion.

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Here, I’d like to supplement my attempt with two “cases” that I hope will illustrate the power of liturgy.

the first I found a few days back in Peter Berger‘s essay, Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America:

When the service began late on Saturday evening the cathedral was dimly lit, all the hangings and the altar cover were black in the color of Good Friday. Then the entire congregation went out into the street and marched slowly around the block. It was very cold. When we returned the cathedral was brilliantly lit and the color of everything was very bright. Easter had arrived.

So — somebody turned the lights on.

But no, it’s more than that, it’s the utter darkness of Christ’s descent from the cross and burial, it is grief physically imposed by that very cold pilgrimage around the block — and it’s the shock, the palpable beauty of the Resurrection dawn.

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Going back yet a day further, from Good Friday to the Maundy Thursday which in the church’s calendar porecedes it, we can see the similarly profound impact of a simple gesture as my old mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston, washes the feet of his students in Sophiatown, the Johannesberg shanty-town where for years he taught and preached. In his own words, drawn from his book Naught for Your Comfort, we read:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

That world, for Fr Trevor, was the world of South African apartheid. He carried that truth out into Johannesberg and the world in his book, and as President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement — and with what impact! He lived to see apartheid gone.

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In closing, let me quote TS Eliot who wrote, in his Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry:

I say that the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass. … And the only dramatic satisfaction that I find now is in a High Mass well performed. Have you not there everything necessary? And indeed, if you consider the ritual of the Church during the cycle of the year, you have the complete drama represented. The Mass is a small drama, having all the unities; but in the Church year you have represented the full drama of creation.

Fidei Defensor — Henry VIII, Defender of the Faith

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Catholic Vespers at Hampton Court, February 2016 ]
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chapel-royal-hampton-court

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Yesterday, February 9th 2016, the (Cathlic) Cardinal Nichols celebrated the beautiful Vespers liturgy in Henry VIII‘s old chapel at Hampton Court Palace in London, with the (Anglican) Bishop of London and Dean of Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal, Dr Richard Chartres, delivering the sermon:

chapel royal

As the Guardian reported:

Almost half a millennium after the Act of Supremacy, which declared the Tudor king as the supreme head of the Church of England and formalised the break with Rome, England’s most senior Catholic cleric celebrated Vespers in the palace’s Chapel Royal on Tuesday evening.

The scent of incense filled the air beneath the chapel’s magnificent blue and gold ceiling as a small procession made its way towards the altar. Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, in a gold mitre and brocade robe, walked a few steps behind Richard Chartres, the Anglican bishop of London and dean of the royal chapels, in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation.

The first Catholic service in the chapel for more than 450 years was hailed as “one for the history books” by John Studzinski of the Genesis Foundation, which jointly organised the event with the Choral Foundation. “Dialogue between faiths is much needed and welcomed in these turbulent times. We need to recognise that we have more in common than not.”

And Vatican Radio:

World renowned ensemble ‘The Sixteen’ which specializes in early English polyphonic music, will perform works from the Reformation period, highlighting how – in the cardinal’s words – “music can help us rediscover our roots and shared heritage” [ .. ]

Cardinal Nichols notes that the music has been chosen to fit the history of the Chapel Royal, featuring composers like Thomas Tallis who “lived through all the turbulence of the Reformation of 1535” and the subsequent decades during which, he says, the situation in England was “quite porous and quite subtle”. Tallis and others wrote both Catholic and Anglican music and in many ways, the Cardinal says, “the Chapel Royal captures the fluidity and ambiguity of the age”.

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So — two senior clerics belonging to rival churches managed to join in prayer — is that such a big thing?

If religion is a semi-cultish fad or superstition, nah. If religion is a major aspect of culture, maybe. If the divisions in Christianity are an offence against the God of Love and a voluntarily imposed obstacle to the workings of Love in the world, then yes, and this is a step in the right ecumenical direction.

From a secular British perspective, leaders of two rival versions of the same superstitions managed to agree with one another long enough to hold a joint press conference and a concert. The concert was first rate, the setting historic, the seating limited – tickets were allotted by ballot – and the whole event worth maybe a human interest column in the day’s news, well behind the bombing of some city in Syria.

Let’s call that the perspective from the ground up.

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But hold it. The secular mind works from the facts, the “material world” as Madonna put it, with priority given to survival, food, shelter, and other needs – but to the sacred mindset, it is the spiritual world, the world of inspiration and joy that takes priority. Myth, ritual, dream, poetry, romance – these are the elements in human culture which must deeply touch our hearts, our souls — and from that perspective, the event yesterday at Hampton Court was anything but unimportant.

Let’s call this the perspective sub specie aeternitatis — from above. Rene Daumal describes its benefits in his brilliant mountain-climbing novel, Mount Analogue:

What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.

Monarchy, like religion, is a matter of myth, ritual, dream, poetry, and romance. The stories of the kings and queens of England are replete with myth and legend – King Arthur, Guinevere, Sir Launcelot, the Holy Grail, Glastonbury. The royal year is shot through with ritual – the great Royal weddings, Trooping the Colour and Changing of the Guards, the opening of Parliament, the races at Royal Ascot, the tagging of swans during Swan Upping, and towering about them all, the successive Coronations of sovereigns down the ages.

In sum, the monarchy embodies, for those who see it, the dreams and poetry of the nation, its traditions and its aspirations. And pageantry is at the heart of those dreams, its richest expression, just as liturgy – the performance of the rites and services of the church — is at the heart of the church’s dream, each being the enactment, with all solemnity and symbolic force, of a great ordering and binding principle.

Where the prayerful and celestial liturgy of the church and the grand traditions of the monarchy come together, the spirituality, the pageantry, the music, the gorgeous robing, the sacred architecture and yes, nobility, come together to stir the deep national memory, elevating us to that double sense of identity conveyed in the great hymn, I Vow to Thee, My Country, with words by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice and music by Gustav Holst. This hymn rang out in a multitude of voices at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, at the Festival of Remembrance, at the funerals of Princess Diana, of Baroness Thatcher and Sir Winston Churchill, and it articulates the sense of a double world – “my country” and “another country”, the material and spiritual worlds in harmonious continuity – which is buried deep in the British consciousness.

I vow to thee, my country

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

That “other country” calls to mind Blake’s Albion, the sleeping Britain — the Britain of a possibility that transcends the Gross National Product, and lies at the heart of Britain’s reluctance to give over its sovereignty to the bureaucrats of Brussels.

All this is evoked by the grand ceremonial of Catholic Vespers accompanied by the prayers, incense and choral voices raised in prayer to the gilded rafters of Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace, where Catholic worship last took place in the reign of “Bloody” Mary Tudor (1553-58). It is, if you will, a foretaste – in high British ceremonial style — of paradise.

And so yes, from a ceremonial, symbolic and mythic perspective, it was and is a big deal. It is a moment rich in the tapestry which interweaves heaven and earth, the sacred and secular realms – not to mention two great rival religious traditions. For yes, it was Catholic against Protestant that warred in Europe and gave us, finally, the Treaty of Westphalia, and the concept of the nation state, Catholic against Protestant that echoed from the Battle of the Boyne to the Belfast Troubles, Catholic against Protestant that sent Guido Fawkes plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in an earlier era of sectarian hatred and religious terror…

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King Henry VIII was granted the title of Defensor Fidei or Defender of the Faith by a grateful Pope Leo X in 1521, in recognition of a treatise, Defense of the Seven Sacraments, which he had written attacking the “reformed” teachings of Martin Luther. In 1530, however, Henry broke from the Papacy and Catholic Church to establish the Church of England under his own royal authority, and was excommunicated and the title papally withdrawn. No matter, the British parliament confirmed Henry in the title soon after in its new sense, as Defender of the Faith of the Church of England – a title which continues to be held by British monarchs to this day.

During the coronation ceremony, the monarch swears an oath to govern the far-flung territories of the Commonwealth “according to their respective laws and customs”, “to cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed” in all the monarch’s judgments; and to protect the Church of England, of which the monarch is Supreme Governor. At the most recent British coronation, that of Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

— to which Her Majesty responded:

All this I promise to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.

It is the Coronation Oath too, along with the twin sectarian meanings of the title Defensor Fidei, which is in play as we approach afresh the meanings of church and state, constitutional monarchy, in times both ecumenical and sectarian, secular and sacred, traditional, vitally present, and forward looking. The Catholic liturgy of Vespers, celebrated yesterday with all dignity and ceremonial in Henry VIII’s own chapel at Hampton Court is a reminder and a promise of the high spiritual, ritual and cultural possibilities to which our British traditions invite us.

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vespers-at-the-chapel-royal

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A video of yesterday’s ceremonial is not yet available, but I imagine this was the Magnificat that Harry Christophers and his choir sang…

I could live my life out under the shelter of such Magnificats.


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