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Rituals Then and Now: New Publications from the Heidelberg Long-Term Collaborative Research Project on Ritual Dynamics

12 February 2007

Two new publications from the Heidelberg Long-Term Collaborative Research Project 619 on "Ritual Dynamics". Rituals in the past, the present and in marginal sectors of society. Interesting insights on an everyday phenomenon we are frequently unaware of.

They are everywhere, in football games and in school, in the family and in religious life. And yet we are frequently unaware of them. Rituals are part of our everyday lives, today, in the past and certainly in the future as well. Without public rituals social life would be inconceivable, a fact that is equally true of all civilisations and all epochs. Admittedly, some of these indispensable fixtures, like the smashing of a bottle of champagne on the hull of a ship at its first launching, appear a great deal less spectacular to us than, say, the dramatisation of death practised in some Nepalese village communities that burn the bodies of their deceased on the banks of the nearest river.

In Heidelberg a long-term collaborative research project funded by the German Research Foundation and the Rectorate of the University has been investigating this fascinating subject for a number of years already. In the meantime "SFB 619 — Ritual Dynamics" has enlisted the cooperation of scholars in about a dozen departments from various Faculties specialising in cultural studies and the social sciences. The fruits of their investigations are passed on to the public in a variety of publications. In the following, two recent titles are described with a view to providing some idea of the range of subjects covered by the project.

Die Welt der Rituale ("The World of Rituals") supplies an excellent overview of the contexts and specifics of a wide range of rituals from antiquity to the present. The 10 authors of this highly enlightening volume come from different areas of cultural studies and the social sciences. Accordingly, the range of insights on the functions performed by rituals in various societies is broad indeed. Many of the examples are well-known and the articles focus both on the emergence of individual rituals and on the changes they undergo in the course of time.

As is only to be expected, many of the traditions discussed here may appear slightly macabre from a present-day viewpoint. The sacrificial goat in Delphi that refused to shake its head as a sign of consent to its own ritual slaughter is just as striking an example as the medieval "dog-bearing" ritual first imposed on the ruling classes of the Holy Roman Empire in the Ottonian period as a way of regaining the monarch's favour after some misdemeanour.

"A dog was obviously understood as a symbol of loyalty," writes Stefan Weinfurter of Heidelberg University's Department of History, "and carrying a dog signified a re-avowal of fidelity. (…) So dog-bearing was a relatively honourable punishment." In the course of time, however, this rather bizarre legal tradition took on increasingly negative connotations until what was initially a more or less conciliatory ritual began to change into a much more punitive version "in the vicinity of capital punishment, without any need to change its external attributes."

But rituals are encountered just as frequently in the more marginal reaches of human existence. This is exemplified by the volume Rituale erneuern. Ritualdynamik und Grenzerfahrung aus interdisziplinärer Perspektive ("Renewing Rituals. Ritual Dynamics and Experiential Extremity from an Interdisciplinary Perspective"), which is devoted to the processes of change that social rituals are subject to. Both private and public sectors and institutions experiment with cultural transfer and the reinvention or modification of rituals, thus displaying a surprising degree of dynamism and breaking with the preconceived notion we have of their rigidity and immutability.

The volume is interdisciplinary in scope and offers not only theoretical or empirical approaches to the current debate on the dynamics and impact of rituals but also some vivid insights into the way in which human existence can expose itself to such extreme hazards as drug abuse while at the same time cultivating its own rituals. A graphic example of this is the report by the Munich singer Konstantin Wecker, who not only attained fame with countless critical chansons but also caused a considerable stir in the mid 1990s with his career as a drug addict. In the volume he gives an involving account of his descent into the maelstrom of addiction and the concerns and fears of an individual dependent on base or crack. The alarming disparity between the content of his songs and the life he led at the time is something that appears to have surprised Wecker himself more than anyone else.

Thus the volume Rituale erneuern is not merely an exchange of views between scholars and practitioners but a realistic discourse on topics mainly associated with health and social policy. The authors ask whether this is an area in which we can find new and more flexible realms of ritual and ritual structures or whether the "democratisation" of ritual spells the demise of its very essence.

The two volumes discussed here offer their readers profound and detailed access to the history and topicality of various rituals, including those observed outside the hallowed realms of mainstream social activity. The European Middle Ages, the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean and the Indian sub-continent are given just as much attention as the borderline areas of present-day society. Also, both books stimulate the reader's curiosity and the desire to learn more about the almost inexhaustible subject to which the University of Heidelberg's long-term cooperative project 619 is devoted.

For more information on the project go to

Heiko P. Wacker

Claus Ambos, Stephan Hotz, Gerald Schwedler, Stefan Weinfurter (eds.): Die Welt der Rituale. Von der Antike bis heute. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 2nd edition, 276 pp., 11 b/w ill., 3 b/w maps, cloth bound, ISBN-10: 3-534-18701-6; ISBN-13: 978-3-534-18701-0, € 49.90

Henrik Jungaberle, Rolf Verres, Fletcher DuBois (eds.): Rituale erneuern. Ritualdynamik und Grenzerfahrung aus interdisziplinärere Perspektive. Psyche und Gesellschaft series, Psychosozialverlag Gießen, 397 pp., stiff covers, ISBN-10: 3-89806-544-8; ISBN-13: 978-3-89806-544-3, € 34

Please address any inquiries to Dr. Michael Schwarz Public Information Officer University of Heidelberg phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317


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