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Rituals of Reenactment

Although studies of religion often us the phrase "myth and ritual," I prefer to think in terms of "foundational stories" and ritual. Foundational stories are the basic stories of a religious tradition.  In Christianity, the foundational story is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Consequently, the Eucharist or Lord's Supper is the primary ritual of reenactment in Christianity.  In Judaism, the foundational story is the story of the Passover: the deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt. This foundational story is presented in the rituals of Passover each year. Foundational stories of Islam include the stories of Abraham and Muhammad. The significant events in the founding of Islam are primarily reenacted in the hajj - the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In class, we viewed the video "Inside Mecca" in order to understand the components of rituals of re-enactment.  If you missed the video, or want to review the elements of the hajj visit Virtual Hajj to find out. 


The Hajj as a Ritual of Reenactment

The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  These "pillars" are the fundamental requirements that  every Muslim is expected to follow.  One of the  requirements is that  every Muslim who is able must make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in his or her life. Why Mecca?  Mecca is the city in Saudi Arabia that was the birthplace of Muhammad and the site of many of the foundational events of Islam.  Islam teaches that Abraham, the father of their faith, and his son Ishmael lived in and around the area of Mecca.  It was in this place that Ishmael's mother, Hagar desperately sought water to keep her child from dying of thirst.  It was in Mecca that Abraham built a place of worship to the one true God.  It was in this area that Abraham showed his acceptance of God's will by his willingness to offer his son as a sacrifice. 

Through a variety of complex actions, the Hajj reenacts these and other foundational events. Carefully work through the Virtual Hajj website and note how this complex series of rituals serves to build community, continuity and, more importantly, to transport the pilgrims to the timeless realm of the sacred.

You should notice three components to rituals of reenactment:

1. The rituals are based on an an original event. The original event serves as a model for a ritual. Usually, it is the original event that is told in the foundational stories ("myths") or a religion. Ritual studies refer to the original event as the archetype.

 2. Rituals of reenactment imitate the archetype: Ritual studies refer to this imitation as mimesis: imitation or reenactment. Thus, the Passover imitates the events of the deliverance from Egypt, the Eucharist imitates the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death and the events of the Hajj imitate various events from the life of Muhammad and Abraham.

3. Rituals of reenactments involve participants to allow them to  re-experience for themselves the events of the foundational stories of each tradition. The term used to describe the purpose of rituals of re-enactment is anamnesis: a remembering that makes the original event present to the believer.  In this sense, ritual negates time and space. As one writer expressed it: On Easter, Christians sing, "Christ the Lord is Risen today;" they never sing "Christ the Lord arose nearly 2,000 years ago in a far off country."  In a similar manner, the Passover is not something that merely happened thousands of years ago; rather it happens on "this night."  The Passover seder begins with the  questions "How is this night different from all other nights?" Ritual thus brings the believer into the timeless realm of the sacred in which the time and space that separates the participant from the original event disappear. Those who celebrate the Passover are not just remembering that their ancestors came out of Egypt, they are experiencing their own deliverance from bondage. When Christians celebrate the Eucharist, they do not simply remember the sacrificial death of Jesus; they also experience what that death means for them today. Muslims who participate in the Hajj are not simply remembering how Abraham struggled to be faithful; they find new strength in their own struggle to be faithful.

Anamnesis is not simply remembering the past, however.  It is often the case that the future is "remembered."  Each of the foundational events in some way alludes to a future event that is connected to the realm of the sacred.  For example, in the hajj, the days of standing together is meant to make present the future reality of the day of judgment.  In the Eucharist, most traditions make reference to the return of Christ or the "heavenly banquet" in the Kingdom of God. Finally, in the Passover Seder, many traditions make reference to the coming of Elijah the prophet to usher in the Messianic age.  Many traditions still end the seder with the saying "Next year in Jerusalem." 

The following table uses the events of the hajj to illustrate the relationship between anamnesis and mimesis:

Imitating Action (mimesis)

Archetypal event being imitated

Anamnesis: Experience of the event in present

Tawaf: Walking around the Kabah, the house of worship believed to have been built by Abraham Abraham who also worshiped in this way. Experience placing Allah's house at the center of one's life.
Sa'y: walking quickly between two hills and drinking from well Hagar who ran between these two hills in search of water,  Experience "the effort required in a person's search for salvation."
Drinking from the Zamzam well Hagar and Ishmael experience the miracle of water in the midst of the dry desert "Each pilgrim sips from its water as a reminder of the real results of spiritual effort and to be connected with the foundations of a religious tradition that emphasizes the worship of one God."
Yawm al-Wakuf: Day of Standing together  Adam and Eve's reunion after being expelled from Garden of Eden. Here they were instructed in how to live.

Site of Muhammad's last sermon

 Experience of forgiveness, examination of one's own life - the Last Judgment.
The Stoning: Pilgrims pass by three pillars and cast stones at cast stones at them Abraham withstands Satan's temptation three times  "This athletic activity engages each pilgrim, physically and symbolically, in resisting temptation and warding off wrong."