Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Ceremonial Mythoi

To give an addendum to the previous post's comment on how generalizing from the Poetics gives one a framework for analysis of ceremonial rituals, when Aristotle speaks of the kinds of Plot (mythos), he recognizes that they can be of all kinds, but he identifies two major types: simple and complex, the complex ones being those with 'plot twists', as we might say. And Aristotle identifies two kinds of plot twist as particularly important for tragedy:

Peripeteia -- a change by which the action  with narrative plausibility turns around to its opposite

Anagnorisis -- a change from ignorance to knowledge that changes love and hate between those destined for good and bad fortune

The two twists are not exclusive; for instance, the most famous tragic twist of all, that in the story of Oedipus involves a discovery (anagnorisis) that overturns everything (peripety).

Many ceremonies have a simple organization of incidents, but some of the most important have a ceremonial equivalent of peripety. In a wedding, for instance, the bride and groom move, by the course of the ceremony itself, from unmarried to married; in a baptism, the one to be baptized moves from catechumen to Christian; in the Mass, the bread and wine flip over into the Body and the Blood; in a Presidential inauguration, one who was previously just a candidate presumptively elected becomes the President.

I think there are quite a few ceremonies that are structured as if they had peripety that they do not actually have. An obvious example of a pseudo-peripety is in the modern graduation ceremony in high schools and colleges. You do not actually graduate and receive your formal diploma at most such ceremonies today; that happens entirely independently of the ceremony. Rather, the ceremony is structured as if you graduated and received your diploma when they call you up, but in reality that is a false peripety -- nothing actually changes in or through the ceremony itself, it's just a symbolic recognition of a change outside the ceremony. Reflection shows that a very great many ceremonies are structured this way -- you aren't actually initiated, your status doesn't actually change, you are not different because of the ceremony, but the ceremony is structured as if it did work that way. I think there are three reasons for this: (1) by and large, ceremonies with peripety are more interesting; (2) since most of our most important ceremonies involve peripeties, it is natural that when a ceremony symbolizes some major, important change, we structure the ceremony as if it had peripety in order to emphasize that what is symbolized is, in fact, very important; (3) people in developing other ceremonies just imitate other ceremonies without thinking, and some of the most salient, precisely because most important, are ceremonies with peripety. In some cases, and graduation ceremonies are perhaps a case, the peripety-structure might be residual from an ancient day when the ceremony did involve a change that has since moved outside the ceremony entirely.

Discovery is much more rare among ceremonies, but you can still find occasional cases. Certain kinds of award ceremonies, for instance, seem to be this way, as when the winner of a contest is unveiled.