Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.19

Claus Ambos, Lorenzo Verderame (ed.), Approaching Rituals in Ancient Cultures. Questioni di rito: rituali come fonte di conoscenza delle religione e delle concezioni del mondo nelle culture antiche. Proceedings of the conference, November 28-30, 2011, Roma. Rivista degli Studi Orientali, nuova serie, 86, supplemento no 2.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2013.  Pp. 323.  ISBN 9788862275910.  320.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gary Beckman, University of Michigan (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume presents essays developed from lectures delivered at a conference for younger scholars organized as part of a joint research project sponsored by the University of Heidelberg and Rome’s “La Sapienza” University. We find here one article each in German and Italian, the remaining fourteen in English. Of these latter, most of which have been written by non-native speakers, the style ranges from excellent to barely comprehensible. An unfortunate result of the wide adoption of my mother tongue as the international language of scholarship is the frequent assault on my literary sensibilities posed by half-baked prose. On the other hand, I am treated to the occasional amusing malapropism, as when an author here refers to the Assyrian king among his “courtesans,” when she should have spoken of “courtiers” (p. 269).

The editors stress that their program did not propose to develop a new common approach to the study of ritual, nor to apply any single existing model to all of the ceremonies and topics covered in the conference and resulting book (p. 11). Instead, the contributors employ various analytical strategies, old and new, from Arnold van Gennep’s rites de passage to “gender and embodiment theories” (p. 117).

Similarly, elements of several diverse religious systems are scrutinized. Only one contribution (P. Giammellaro) deals with the Classical world; the focus is rather on the east—on Mesopotamia (9 studies), Pharaonic Egypt (4), the Levant (2), and Hittite Anatolia (1). Although the Introduction mentions the advantages of considering ritual over the longue durée (p. 11), most of the articles confine themselves to texts or objects from a single culture and period.1 Like the English prose in this book, the essays vary greatly in quality and interest.

For instance, C. Ambos’ first contribution (“Mesopotamische Baurituale”), while an exemplary philological study, will remain opaque to the reader unfamiliar with his monograph2 to which it is essentially an addendum. N. Modena’s piece on the gebira in the Hebrew bible is little more than a collection of data from easily accessible sources concluding with a confession that we cannot reach any firm conclusions as to the role of this woman in the Judahite state.3

More intriguingly, two authors apply the rite de passage model to ancient ceremonies. In his second piece (“Rites of Passage”), Ambos studies the bit rimki (“bath-house”) component of the Assyrian substitute king procedure, whereby in response to an omen threatening evil for the monarch, a substitute is set in his place and then eliminated, thus deflecting the calamity foretold.4 Since the actual king must be both temporarily removed from the throne5 and later reinstated, Ambos reasonably suggests that the relevant activity be labelled a “rite of return” (p. 48). But it is unclear that this terminological distinction has any real implications for the validity of van Gennep’s schema, since we could just as well view the performance as two successive “rites of passage.”

H. Hays questions the universal applicability of van Gennep’s theory (p. 170) in his own analysis of an Egyptian funerary ritual as documented in word and image in the tomb of the nobleman Rekhmire (18th Dynasty). He concludes that Rekhmire’s send-off to the Afterlife should instead be broken into eight segments, not three, as the French scholar would claim. However, Hays’ own partitioning of the obsequies is arbitrary, not “evident in the material itself” (p. 175), however reasonable the identified structure might appear to the modern interpreter. The actual difficulty with van Gennep’s schema is that it is unfalsifiable: Any change of state may be analyzed as involving a prior condition, a transitional moment of whatever brevity or length, and an achieved condition. Of course, this observation calls into question the very utility of van Gennep’s interpretive approach. It seems to me that the real question is just when a ceremony is to be considered a rite de passage. Observances marking life crises such as birth, death, and attainment of sexual and/or social maturity would certainly qualify, but should healing procedures or routine worship be included?

Another Egyptologist, A. Pries, also considers whether a basic structure can be identified in Pharaonic ceremony. He makes the insightful observation that our necessary reliance on native documentation for the study of ancient religious practice has the inherent advantage of eliminating the danger of contamination by the participant-observer faced by anthropologists dealing with living cultures (p. 231). Conversely, he points out that the ancient scribes and the decorators of Egyptian tombs might well have abbreviated their accounts or depictions due to lack of space on papyri or walls, respectively (p. 232). Pries also positively evaluates the ideas of F. Staal on “the syntax of ritual”6, but soberly rejects the Indologist’s claim that religious observances are “meaningless” (p. 234).

An additional contribution worthy of note is A.-C. Rendu Loisel’s discussion of the sensory dimension of the Mesopotamian utukku lemnutu (“evil demons”) ritual, which calls up the intense atmosphere of sight, sound, and smell that would have surrounded the ancient patient. Certainly these elements will have contributed significantly to the psychological effectiveness of the treatment for what we moderns would consider a mental illness.

Finally, I must single out for praise the study of G. Torri and S. Görke, who marshal evidence from the archaeological find-spots of tablet fragments, careful philological consideration of the quality of duplicate manuscripts, and analysis of the contents of the Hittite building rituals themselves to demonstrate the central importance of temple and palace construction to the ideology of Hittite monarchy.7

In sum, this book includes work of uneven value. It is unfortunate that the gems among the essays will probably see limited circulation in the scholarly community due to the excessive price of the volume, around $435 at today’s exchange rate!

Table of Contents

Claus Ambos and Lorenzo Verderame: Introduction
Claus Ambos: Mesopotamische Baurituale aus dem 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. Nachträge und Verbesserungen
Claus Ambos: Rites of Passage in Ancient Mesopotamia: Changing Status by Moving through Space: Bit rimki and the Ritual of the Substitute King
Emanuele M. Ciampini: La dinamica del rituale di Hathor nel tempio della dea a File
Federico Contardi: The Reception of Royal and Divine Rituals by Individuals in Egypt of the First Millennium
M. Erica Couto-Ferreira: The River, the Oven, the Garden: the Female Body and Fertility in a Late Babylonian Ritual Text
Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Mireia López-Bertran: Figurines & Rituals. Discussing Embodiment Theories and Gender Studies
Pietro Giammellaro: The Beggar on the Threshold. Spaces, Ritual Crossings and Social Identity in the Homeric Epic
Harold M. Hays: The End of Rites of Passage and a Start with Ritual Syntax in Ancient Egypt
Patrick Maxime Michel: Ritual in Emar
Nicola Modena: Lost in Description: The Missing Rituals of the Queen at the Court of Ancient Israel
Davide Nadali: When Ritual Meets Art. Rituals in the Visual Arts versus the Visual Arts in Rituals: The Case of Ancient Mesopotamia
Andreas H. Pries: On the Use of a Grammar of Rituals. Reflections from an Egyptologist's Point of View
Anne-Caroline Rendu Loisel: Noise, Light and Smoke: the Sensory Dimension in Akkadian Rituals. A General Overview
Marta Rivaroli: The Ritualization of War: the Phases of Bellum and their Sacral Implications
Giulia Torri and Susanne Görke: Hittite Building Rituals. Interaction between their Ideological Function and Find Spots
Lorenzo Verderame: Means of Substitution. The Use of Figurines, Animals, and Human Beings as Substitutes in Assyrian Rituals.


1.   An exception is the piece by A. Garcia-Ventura and M. López-Bertran, which examines Punic figurines from Iberia in comparison with similar artifacts from Tell Asmar in Babylonia. However, the discussion of the latter material seems to have been rather clumsily tacked on in order to expand the scope of the discussion. Incidentally, in Fig. 10 (p. 136) I cannot recognize the breasts mentioned by the authors. And why must the avian heads be masks, rather than parts of Mischwesen?
2.   Mesopotamische Baurituale aus dem 1. Jahrtausend v. Chr. (Dresden: Islet, 2004).
3.   Given the great temporal gap between twenty-fourth century Ebla and Judah, the activities of the queen in the earlier society (p. 201) are unlikely to be relevant to determining the role of the queen(-mother?) in the latter.
4.   The substitute king rite is also studied within the contribution of L. Verderame (pp. 317-21).
5.   The movement of the king through seven reed huts (“houses”) during the bit rimki in order to remove his impurity should be compared to the stripping of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar of her accoutrements when she passes through the seven gates of the Underworld. For a convenient translation of this poem, see B. R. Foster, Before the Muses, third ed. (Bethesda: CDL Press, 2005), 498-505.
6.   “The Meaninglessness of Ritual,” Numen 26 (1979): 2-22.
7.   A study useful for comparison here is S. Lackenbacher, Le roi bâtisseur (Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les civilisations, 1982).

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