Ritual perspectives on landscapes

The previous post was about the three lectures held at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens during the first weekend of December, where professor Timothy Insoll gave a very vivid presentation of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Recently, a monumental handbook on archaeology edited by Insoll reached the bookshops. The aim of the publisher, the prestigious Oxford University Press, is that each volume of the handbook series offers “authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area”. The volume under discussion is The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion with no less than 1100 pages of global archaeology in the fields of ritual and religion. The team of specialists that Insoll put together for the task is indeed impressive: Michael Dietler, Yannis Hamilakis, Olivier Gosselain, Paul Bahn, Joanna Brück, Colin Renfrew, Anders Andrén, to mention just a few! Besides writing the introduction, Insoll himself has written about sacrifice, Sub-Saharan Africa, animism and totemism, and ancestor cults.

We had the honor to read already Chapter 2 titled Landscape and authored by Randi Haaland and Gunnar Haaland – both professors emeriti at the University of Bergen. Like always, the writing of Randi and Gunnar is ‘food for thought’ to use one of Randi’s favourite expressions!

The chapter opens with the two first verses of a poem by the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: View with a grain of sand. The poem introduces the Haalands’ perspective of the landscape in a lyric way, since they consider landscapes to a large extent as created by the viewers’ perceptions.

The first section consists of theoretical reflections on ritual perspectives on landscapes and draws on the Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth’s work among the Baktamans of New Guinea. Barth considered the ways those people viewed their environment as symbolic expressions of basic values and cosmological ideas.

In the same section, the Haalands give an introduction to the two theoretical perspectives of their interpretations: orientational metaphors and life-cycle rituals. The ensuing discussions of both perspectives made us think of paralles from our own experiences in Greece.

For the orientational metaphors, Randi and Gunnar take as an example the polar opposition up-down, where “mountains are close to the sky, and the sky is often associated with ‘heavenly’ qualities”, while underground is below the world of humans and often associated with evil qualities. This reminded us of the fact that the Greeks build the churches for Profitis Ilias on the mountain tops, because they associate the Hebrew prophet both with Helios (Greek for sun) that is a heavenly creature and with pagan Zeus and his connections with mountain tops as well as his power over rain, thunder, lighting, and wind. This is also why we like som much the name Ilias in our family ;-)

For the life-cycle rituals, the Haalands turn to van Gennep – logically one could say – and his tripartite structure of this category of rituals into the following phases: separation, liminality, and reincorporation. And here again, our experience of the Orthodox baptism of our son naturally come to our minds: the separation of the child from his parents, the liminal state when the baby is in the hands of the priest performing the rituals of oiling and immersion in the holy water of the baptism font, and finally the return to the family as a reborn person, new member of a faith and a church… The Haalands point out how “liminal dimensions of social life may thus lead to conceptualization of specific kinds of environmental places as liminal”, and they take bogs as an example as they are neither solid land nor lakes.

Then, the largest part of the chapter on landscape is devoted to rich comparative ethnographic and archaeological material. Here, the Haalands take the reader from Paleolithic caves to Celtic bogs, from Aboriginal Australia to Hindu Nepal, from the agricultural Khasi of Shillong to the nomadic Basseri, and many other peoples and landscapes. Since we mainly know – and have referred to here earlier – the work of the Haalands in Africa in general and Sudan in particular, it is a special pleasure to read this section of their contribution to the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion since the examples they bring forward in such a convincing manner derive mainly from their work in Asia.

An emphasis on the Asian continent is also discernable in their introductory comment about the Chinese concept of jing guan, which they explain through the poem of Szymborska, as well as in the opening remarks of the concluding section where the Haalands underline the different perspectives a Chinese may have looking at a natural landscape: practically as possibilities for resource utilization and ritually as concerns for how to move in relation to positive and negative energies.

The last insight that the Haalands share with the readers in this chapter is how landscape archaeology, as examplified by Julian Thomas’ work at Avebury, can be fruitful for interpretations of other enigmatic prehistoric ritual landscapes, and as they close their very important contribution in the Handbook with a reference to the Nazca lines in Peru, we wish to close by remembering Tim Kendall’s reading of the Napatan ritual landscape focusing on the pinnacle of Jebel Barkal, the holy mountain of ancient Sudan (T. Kendall. “Why did Taharqa Build his Tomb at Nuri?” In Between the Cataracts: Proceedings of the 11th Conference for Nubian Studies, Warsaw University).

Randi and Gunnar Haaland’s treatment of ritual perspectives on landscapes has certainly stimulated the wish to read more chapters of the fascinating Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion.

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4 Responses to Ritual perspectives on landscapes

  1. jakesprinter says:

    Very Great Story thanks for sharing :)

  2. chirine nour says:

    mumtaz and thank you for your very interesting article-a real food for thought!

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