Elisa Foster March 24, 2008



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Elisa Foster

March 24, 2008


Sacred Space, Performance and the Body:

Four Societal Approaches to the Study of Ritual


Works Reviewed:
Fassler, Margot. “Adventus at Chartres: Ritual Models for Major Processions.” In

Ceremonial Culture in Pre-Modern Europe, ed. Nicholas Howe. Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Indiana Press, 2007.
Muir, Edward, Ritual in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press,

1997.
Parkin, David. “Ritual as Spatial Direction and Bodily Division” in Understanding



Rituals ed, Daniel de Coppet. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Wheeler, Brandon. Mecca and Eden: Ritual, Relics and Territory in Islam. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 2006.


While past scholarship on “ritual theory” has often produced abstract sociological or anthropological works that extract notions of ritual from their performative contexts, the question of “ritual” has had a profound impact upon the recent scholarship of several disparate academic fields. Being so, it is not surprising that the works to be reviewed here encompass European history, musicology, anthropology, art history and Islamic studies. However, despite the seemingly distant foci and methodological approaches displayed in these works, this interdisciplinary array of literature seeks to answer the question, “what does ritual do?” Or, perhaps more precisely, how does ritual function? In each case, these scholars argue that the social component to ritual is paramount in understanding its function. Thus, ritual is not prescribed by divine presence, but rather it is contingent upon the societal context that creates such behaviors.

Influenced heavily by the works of Emile Durkheim and more recently, Victor W. Turner, these studies understand both ritual and the “sacred” to be socially constructed and thereby, aid in legitimizing new political or religious authorities. Thus, this emphasis on the social qualities of ritual connects these works’ interest in bodily-kinesthetic relationships to sacred space. As we shall see, the concept of the body in action, centers prominently in each work and thus provides a mechanism for conversing about their contributions to the larger field of ritual theory.

In this paper, I will examine the works of Margot Fassler, Edward Muir, David Parkin and Brandon Wheeler through their attention to three critical points of dialogue regarding ritual: sacred space, the body and performance. These points of intersection are not meant to imply a deliberate dialogue between these authors, but rather to suggest a more informal scholarly engagement with these issues that allows us to examine both methodological approaches and areas of divergence within these works.1 Through examining these works’ approaches to the bodily connections of ritual and sacred spaces, I hope to suggest tangible connections between these diverse areas of study and thereby to offer new considerations for future studies in ritual theory that may help not only to answer what ritual does, but how it does what it does.

As stated above, each of the above authors insists that both ritual and the sacred space in which ritual action is performed are socially determined. Thus, unlike the view of religious scholar Mircea Eliade, the sacred is not “made manifest” by hierophany but rather gleans its meaning through its relationship to society. This argument that ritual is foremost relational has been recently argued by Jonathan Z. Smith’s investigation of the Temple of Jerusalem; however, Smith’s theoretical position, as with the reviewed authors, is notably influenced by the work of nineteenth-century sociologist Emile Durkheim.2

Durkheim’s influence is directly addressed by several of the reviewed works and will be discussed further in this paper; thus, it is necessary here to summarize his theory regarding the sacred and the social. Most importantly, Durkheim’s view that religion is the reflection of society, or, more succinctly, “society is the soul of religion.”3 Religion thus inaugurates one into society and provides a source of solidarity among a group of individuals. This last aspect of Durkheim’s argument was expounded upon by another influential figure for this group of scholars, Victor W. Turner. For example, according to Turner, Durkheim’s notion of group solidarity or communitas occurs through the process of ritual whereby participants enter a liminal state of being that is disconnected from the “structures” imposed by society (Turner 95). Turner thus does agree that religion is socially situated; however, he extends Durkheim’s argument to promote the processual aspect of ritual to achieve the group solidarity of part of this society, not the whole. Further, Turner’s understanding of the sacred is not limited to Durkheim’s monolithic entity of “religion,” a notion that, as we shall see, is somewhat adopted by these authors with various intents.




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