Rituals, like creation stories, can provide useful information on a community’s beliefs about the world. As with creation stories, we need to break down the rituals and study their separate elements to identify embedded meanings and messages.
We’ll adopt a simple approach to study ritual performances. Our main goal is to identify fundamental themes using a standardized strategy. This strategy can be also be used to compare and contrast different rituals. The strategy employs seven steps:
Let’s try out our strategy by analyzing this seventeenth-century description of a Caddo Indian first fruits ceremony.
To begin eating their new corn, they summon one of the saints from each of the houses. While he stands by one of the posts and mutters his prayers between his teeth, a portion of the new crop is cut. Part of it is toasted and part of it is ground in the mortices to make atole. When the prayers are ended they present some of the food to the old man who throws part of this pittance into the fire and puts the rest in his bosom. He usually has to stop to do this as it is a considerable portion. Neither acquaintances nor friends are lacking at these functions, both of the old man and of the family. When they are all gathered together and the first fruits are eaten, the Indians are given permission to take and eat whatever they like. These saints have fixed very firmly in the minds of these Indians the belief that if any part of the crop, large or small, either ears or stalks, is cut before these prayers are made, the guilty one will certainly be bitten by a snake. Even the dogs share in this threat or interdict; so, in order that a dog may not eat of the corn, the Indians tie one of his legs or paws to his neck so he goes around hungry on three legs so that he may not eat the corn, for dogs are extremely fond of it. And when by chance a snake bites anyone who has eaten of the corn before the ceremony described, they are confirmed in the belief in this superstition.
We begin with the observation that this ceremony’s primary objective is to offer thanks for the growth of a successful crop.
The participants at each household include the “saint” or local priest, the owners of the crop, and the family members of both the shaman and the crop owners.
The setting is the household at which the participants gather. An offering of some of the newly-harvested crops is made to the household fire.
The ceremonial sequence begins when the priest is summoned to the household. Upon arrival, he enters the house and prays while a portion of the new crop is cut and prepared by toasting and grinding. The shaman then makes a food offering to the fire, which has been lit by an ember brought from the community’s sacred temple fire. From that point on, household members can harvest, prepare, and eat the ripening crops.
Special categories include the agricultural products, the ceremonial leader (priest), community members, the Above World (represented by the ceremonial fire), the Below World (represented by the snake), and the distinction between sacred and non-sacred, represented by the crops in their blessed and non-blessed states.
The newly cut crops are offered in thanksgiving to the creative forces of the universe, which effects a transformation from (non-sacred) maturing crops to (sanctified) food fit for human consumption.
The primary theme reflected in this ritual is the reciprocal relationship between the spiritual forces transcending the three realms of the Caddo universe (Above World, This World, Below World). Before they can be used as food, the newly cut crops must be blessed by a priest—a leader acting on behalf of the community to mediate relationships between the three cosmological realms. The shaman’s offering and the potential for harm (snake bites) resulting from failure to perform the ritual reflects the interdependent relationships connecting the three cosmological realms.
Additional themes can be identified; can you think of any more?
Here are some more Indian rituals. What can you find out about these rituals by applying our seven step strategy?