Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/August 1915/The Functions of Primitive Ritualistic Ceremonies

Popular Science Monthly Volume 87 August 1915  (1915) 
The Functions of Primitive Ritualistic Ceremonies by Clark Wissler




IF we take a naïve attitude toward primitive ritualism, we must wonder how it ever came about that people believe the proper method for attaining any desired end to be the use of a formula. Thus, we may note a Dakota Indian tossing a handful of dust into the air when going into battle to ensure victory, and wonder how a people, who otherwise impress one as intelligent, could possibly entertain so absurd a belief. Again when we see a primitive doctor singing and demonstrating a ritual over a sick man, we are moved at its pathetic folly. These things are incomprehensible to us chiefly because we can see no reason why the activities involved in the demonstration of a ritual can be considered as directly contributory causes to the ends desired. So long as we confine our attention to isolated cases of ritualism like the preceding our amazement will not abate, but if we examine in detail a large number and variety of primitive rituals, the phenomena become far more intelligible.

One striking feature of primitive ceremonials is the elaboration of ritualistic procedure relating to the food supply. Particularly in aboriginal America we have many curious and often highly complex rituals associated with the cultivation of maize and tobacco. These often impress the student of social phenomena as extremely unusual but still highly suggestive facts, chiefly because the association seems to be between things that are wholly unrelated. Thus among the Pawnee we find an elaborate ritual in which a few ears of maize are raised almost to the status of a god. At a certain fixed time in the autumn the official priest of this ritual proceeds with great ceremony to the field and selects a few ears according to definite standards. These are further consecrated and carefully guarded throughout the winter. At planting time the women present themselves ceremonially to receive the seed, the necessary planting instructions, etc. Thus, it appears that during the whole yearly cycle there is a definite ritual in function associated with maize culture.[1]

Again in the tobacco cultures of the Crow and the Blackfoot Indians, respectively, we find a close parallel. In the former case the ritual is expressed in the organization of a society whose chief function seems to be the direction and control of tobacco production. In the latter, the ritual while no less elaborate is objectively associated with a ceremonial bundle, in which the seed is kept and guarded by the official keeper of the whole. In both cases each important step in the process from seed to pipe is one of the fundamentals in a ritual. Many such examples can be found in the special literature of the subject.

If now we give our attention exclusively to planting rituals certain points of general import may be noted. As a convenient example, we may abstract the following from the data on tobacco culture among the Blackfoot Indians: At the planting of the tobacco seed the leading men hold a feast to which they invite their friends. Eight young men are sent out to gather deer, antelope and mountain-sheep dung. They use this dung because these animals run fast and therefore the tobacco will grow rapidly. They do not use the dung of the elk and moose because the animals walk slowly and would thereby delay the growth of the tobacco. The leading men give a feast which lasts four days, during which they dance and sing. The dung is then mashed up together with service berries, and tobacco leaves and water are added. All these make the tobacco seed ready to plant. The seed is now given out among the planters. To prepare the soil a lot of brush is gathered by all the men, women, and children and spread on the ground. At each of the four corners of this place a fire is started, four men watching the fire so as to prevent it from spreading further. After all the brush has been burnt, they make small brooms of brush with which the place is swept clean. Then a number of men procure sticks with curved roots or having curves that can serve as handles. The straight end of this stick is sharpened and used for digging up the ground. With these sharpened sticks they make holes about a foot apart and two inches deep in a row and the ground is divided up into sections in which each man plants his seeds. The seeds are dropped into these holes, the children covering them up by running back and forth over them four times. Should a child fall while doing this, ill luck would surely follow, and the child will die. After the seeds have been planted incense offerings are made on the four corners of the plot and the songs of the ritual sung.

This part of the tobacco ritual is clearly but a formal expression of the recognized method of planting tobacco. We see that the seed is prepared for germination, the seeds and roots of all intrusive plants killed by burning over the surface, the soil leveled and pulverized, then effectively fertilized and the seed planted in a definite way. What after all is the ritual in this case, but a formalized statement of how tobacco should be planted to secure a good crop?

We also note the existence of specific knowledge of the conditions for tobacco growing, which certainly deserves to be considered scientific. The problem then arises as to how this knowledge came to be associated with a ritual. While we have no direct data as to how the Indian arrived at this knowledge, there is no good ground for believing that it was developed by the construction of a ritual. So far as can be seen, knowledge that works, even among primitive men, is always arrived at by experimentation. Though it is likely that in this particular case the Blackfoot Indians learned the whole process from strangers, it is certain that each step in the process was originally worked out in some definite locality and the working out of these methods, while in a large measure due to the experience of many, quite likely received its final formalization at the hands of a single individual. This individual was the teacher.

Assuming that this is the condition leading to the formalization of the tobacco-planting procedure, and that it is fundamentally based upon material experiment, how can we account for the seemingly useless ceremonial accompaniments? In the case of culture traits like the tobacco planting of the Blackfoot Indians the problem is always complicated by already existing patterns, or method concepts. Thus it may come to be regarded as axiomatic that to succeed any process must be carried out in a ceremonial manner, or that mere social usage demands that it be so. If either or both of these conceptions prevail, it is clear that the original formalizer of the tobacco planting process would give it a ceremonial dress by introducing into it the more or less conventionalized ceremonial units prevailing in his group. If it was the custom of his people to give some weight to peculiar personal dreams, then also some of his dream experiences might be incorporated. The total construct then resulting would be a tobacco-planting ritual of which the Blackfoot example is typical. Yet this complication need not obscure the essential factor in the case, for, eliminating this "following of existing patterns," we have revealed the backbone of the ritual, the concrete demonstration of processes empirically determined.

Perhaps if we compare the conditions among primitive groups with those under which we ourselves live the case may be clearer. If tobacco planting as a new agricultural trait should be introduced to us, its demonstrator would reduce the necessary directions to writing or cast his oral directions in a form easily reduced to writing. Such writings would then be credited by some authority to furnish the sanctions for the procedure, take certain conventional forms as books, periodicals and lectures, and conform to a certain standards of literary style. Thus we should construct what may be considered a text-book, which, whether written or not, would take the same essential form.

Now, among primitive groups the machinery for perpetuating and standardizing knowledge of this kind is the ritual. The objective method of written records not having been developed, we find in its place a memorized formula whose seriousness and sanction seems to be found in its ceremonial setting. We may safely conclude then that one of the chief functions of a planting or hunting ritual is the perpetuation of the method involved and that whatever may have been the conditions underlying its inception, it grew naturally out of the perpetuation of the method by instruction. There is no reason to believe that it arose primarily as a ceremonial act, but that it must have been the result of homely experiment.

If we take the widest sort of view of the world there appears no good reason why primitive men should not be considered as great materialists as we fancy ourselves to be. Our anthropological museums are filled with the debris of primitive man's endless experimentation with stone, bone, shell, clay, pigment and metal. In all this one can often trace more or less clearly the successive triumphs of great inventors. Out of this boundless striving, step by step, doubtless hesitatingly and slowly, was built up the world's present store of real knowledge. For ages and ages and even yet, much of it was carried and perpetuated as a mere matter of memory. To distinguish between the essential and the inessential in a procedure is rarely easy, the great human way being to "follow the leader" in every detail, thus naïvely doing the necessary along with the irrelevant. Thus we are able to form a satisfactory theory of ritualism. It is based primarily upon empirical data, for the universal human method has always been "to try it." The experience of all mankind is, that wonders can be worked only by proceeding in certain precise ways, the real reasons for which are often utterly baffling. The person who knows the way can bring the result by merely going through with the formula. It is true even now that many who see the curious workings of these formulæ generalize and conceive of a universal method which is essentially the application of a formula. When such a conception becomes a part of folk-thought, we may expect individuals to experiment and try more or less at random formula of their own devising or, what is more likely, borrowed from another. Thus it comes to pass that many misfit formulæ in use everywhere.

The survival of true misfits in the more material affairs of life is unlikely, but when formulæ are applied to psychological and physiological phenomena, it is very difficult to decide as to their efficacy. A strong corrective influence works in one case in contrast to a weak one in the other. One scarcely need be reminded that our own scientific method developed first in strictly material problems and is but gradually extending its methods to the outlying phases of organic phenomena; and doubtless, here too many naïve and over-generalizing individuals misapply the mere empty methods of material science to the deception of themselves and others.

In short, a ritualistic ceremony in primitive life, and perhaps everywhere, is based upon a methodological ideal of accuracy in procedure or experiment and is an expression of a specific series of procedures so dressed and arranged as to hold the interest, emotions and retentive activities of men. Its primary function is to perpetuate exact knowledge and to secure precision in its application.

  1. The reader wishing a good detailed example of maize rituals should scan the writings of Frank H. Cushing, particularly in volume 9 of "The Millstone."