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Theatricalizing Memory: A Comparative Approach to Group Identity and Religious Performance in the Ancient World

Panel Chairs: Valentino Gasparini, Eric Orlin | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

The performance of religious rituals offers a means for social groups to reaffirm their cohesion through a « dramatic » experience which energizes shared emotional states and reinforces the individually lived participation through a symbolically-articulated communication. By preserving and re-creating cultural memories, social and individual construction of meaning is performed. Recent research has highlighted ways in which semantic memories are constantly recreated, allowing for the shaping of both collective and individual identities, and has raised questions about the role of rituals in the process of perpetuating cultural and individual memories. The panel aims to investigate how this memorialisation was constructed in the ancient world, especially through kinesthetic forms of dance, gesture, or theatrical performances, potentially combined with the spoken or written word. Four speakers have been invited to address this topic, each from different geographical and historical contexts within the ancient world.

François Voegeli

The Kratu and Vedic Ritual

To the casual, western, observer, a Vedic ritual presents itself like a well written play, with a slight touch of archaism. There is a stage made of the sacrificial grounds on which people move about following well defined paths, and Sanskrit verses are recited all the time by all the participants in the action. One could therefore think, at first sight, that Vedic ritual enacts some kind of cosmological drama, on a stage where gods and men meet. The traditional indian theory of drama indeed uses here and there the term "kratu" ("sacrificial rite, religious ceremony, religious achievement") to describe the stage, the play or the actor's work. The occurrence of this term in classical Indian texts on drama is surprising to our casual, western, observer, as the quite sophisticated theory of dramaturgy compiled by the Indian dramatists puts forward, as the main objectives of a good drama, the eliciting of feelings in the audience. Emotions are however precisely what seems to be lacking in the "performance" of Vedic ritual. My readings of Vedic ritual literature as well as my investigations of its rendition "in the field" point to elements explaining why the Indian dramaturgists felt that there existed some resemblance between their trade and the ritualists' "performances". These features are in fact quite "meaningful" when we try to understand some of the unstated goals of Vedic ritual.

Nicola Cusumano

Theatricalising Memory at Sparta: the Bomonikai in Hellenistic and Roman Age, and the Invention of Tradition

Sparta plays a crucial role in the “memory market” that developed in the Mediterranean area from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. This process consisted in a re-organization of the past which led to a real fabrication of the tradition. One of the most effective outgrowths of this strategy consists in the progressive “ancestralization” of the initiation rituals of young Spartans. The case of the fustigation of the young around the altar of the god Artemis Orthia is emblematic in this respect. This trial once used to occur with the only presence of the young's parents and the appointed magistrates. Every stranger presence was forbidden by the law. But, during the Roman age or just before it, this ceremony became public and accessible to strangers, and moreover a (wooden first, then brick-made) amphitheatre was built around the altar to accommodate the bigger audience. Even the ritual itself was changed, including the death of the young, honored by their parents who built columns and statues, that is mnemata. The idea of a surplus de signification fosters the collective building of the tradition and the sense of past. The surplus de signification in the Spartan sanctuary of Artemis Orthia is composed exactly by the deaths of the brawniest and strongest young. Through the dramatic ostentation of the physical suffering and the fanatic bravery, the illusion of an immobile and always available past is realized and a strategic use of the emotional sphere is obtained, that is, the theatricalization of an ante litteram “nostalgia”. The Spartan community as a whole becomes a tableau vivant of an “exaggerated”, “imagined” past.

Laurent Bricault; Valentino Gasparini

“Mulcebant Sacris Pectora Fessa Iocis.” The Inventio Osiridis and the Dramatic Perpetuation of Cultural Memories

In Imperial Rome, as well as probably in many other cities of the Mediterranean area, the festival of Isia (which took place from 28 October to 3 November) staged the mythical events of the loss of the god Osiris. Plutarch (De Is. et Os., 366e–f ) describes the devotees pretending to look for the remains of his body torn limb from limb by Typhon and, once finally found it, rejoicing as sorrow fades away during the culminating celebration of the Hilaria (also called Heuresis or Inventio Osiridis). “The lost is found, O let us rejoice together!” (Sen., Apok. XIII 4). Most part of the ceremony (probably not open to the public) had to be held within the walls of the sanctuaries or in the nearby theatres. Only the terminal part, with the proclamation of the rediscovery of Osiris, was maybe to result in extramural rituals. The performance of the Inventio Osiridis theatrically memorialised Isis’ mythical deeds by recreating the presumably related emotional states, and thus represented a collective experience which reinforced the feedback between performers and audience, and created that “effervescent” state (Émile Durkheim) or “communitas” (Victor Turner) which at the same time was a source of union with the divine and of social cohesion. This is exactly what Plutarch himself hinted at, when testifying (De Is. et Os. 361d–e) how Isis intermingled in such holiest ceremonies (ἁγιωτάται τελεταῖ) images, allegories and representations (μιμήματα) of her past sufferings in order not to let her efforts be forgotten and silenced, but to give to humans comfort and hope.


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