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Crisis management: Ritualization and states of exception in ancient cultures

Completely unexpectedly, we are currently living in a state of emergency that stands out from our normal everyday life and requires radical rethinking, in the household, in public space and across entire larger regional systems. "Corona" is a synonym for the sudden realization that even practical life has no inherent “naturalness”. The virus opens our eyes due to its powers of reversal: meeting for a conversation in a café was an everyday occurrence, but it suddenly becomes an exception, while death is unexpectedly recognizable as an ordinary element of life.

Instead of becoming entranced by this upheaval which refuses to reveal a future path toward a new or a resumption of an old routine, we would like to invite you to reflect with us on structurally similar phenomena in the past. What kinds of mechanisms did past societies develop to arm themselves against such all-encompassing events? How did past collectives prepare for crises and catastrophes that befell them periodically? More specifically, have rituals been mechanisms for rehearsing the transition into states of extraordinariness?

In order to discuss these issues, we plan a two-day international workshop for the 12th-13th November 2020 in Berlin. We hope to be able to assemble all invitees personally. However, we also are prepared for the possibility that the workshop has to turn into a (partial) online event. We summarize our thoughts on the topic outlined above in the following four points and ask you to contribute to one of them:

  • Rituals can have strong instrumental features that aim to prevent crises from arising. This includes the large and multifaceted sphere of sacrificial practices. What is the power of sacrifices to establish order as a kind of insurance against the gods, as it is often supposed to guarantee the inner functioning of a society as well as its working to the exterior? What is the relation between costs and benefits, and what symbolic, semantic and performative excesses do such rituals produce? Despite their regularity, do they stage and manage the exceptional? If so, how is this crossing of the boundary into the exception marked?
  • Rituals are used to shape and master periodic and therefore somewhat predictable crises in everyday life. Above all, this includes the rites de passage, which - especially in the event of death and burial - constitute a bridge from an everyday condition to a critical one. Other rites de passage have the function of enabling role transfers by individuals without questioning the underlying social structures. Which aspects of such rituals ensure a successful return to the normal?
  • Rituals can mimic – albeit in a modified form – everyday actions. A good example of this are feasts with the everyday meal as a structural foundation. How are quotidian actions reshaped to lift them out of the unquestionalbility of daily life and integrate them into ritual feasts? What is the potential longer-term social impact of transformations ?

  • Rituals often require a considerable amount of work, time, space and organization. They consist of more than a simple distancing from the everyday, entailing complex and substantial material structures such as large buildings (temples), landscape sanctuaries and other paraphernalia. They are not only means for ritual action but in turn guide it in its course and stabilize it iachronically. How do these material and structural conditions of exceptionality relate to a life perceived as “normal”? And finally: what does the establishment of ritual structures (of and for exceptional states) mean for entire economies?


12.11.2020 (Thursday)

Log in

12.00 – 12.30
Susanne Gödde, Reinhard Bernbeck: Opening remarks

Session 1: Disease, Contagion and Purity

12:30 – 12.45
Nicole Brisch (Copenhagen): Ritual and Hygiene in Ancient Mesopotamia

12.45 – 13.00
Mark Geller (London/Berlin): Responding to Crisis: Infectious Diseases in Ancient Mesopotamia

13.00 – 13.45

13.45 – 14.30
Lunch Break

14.30 – 14.45
Philip van der Eijk (Berlin): Crisis and Crisis Management in Graeco-Roman Medicine

14.45 – 15.00
Esther Eidinow (Bristol): A Crisis of Trust: Mistrust, Uncertainty and Impurity in Ancient Greek Religion

15.00 – 15.15
Marietta Horster (Mainz): Coping with Jupiter’s Portents and Threats

15.15 – 16.15

16.15 – 16.45
Coffee Break

Session 2: Mayhem at the Large Scale: Its Historical and Anthropological Face

16.45 – 17.00
David Fontijn (Leiden): Horsemen of the Apocalypse – a Deep History?

17.00 – 17.15
Evangelos Kyriakidis (Kent): Ritual as a Tool for Crisis Management: an Extreme Example from Minoan Crete

17.15 – 17.30
Ömür Harmanşah (Chicago): Excavating the Earth: Rituals of Apology vs. Unfettered Resource Extraction

17.30 – 18.30

13 Nov 2020 (Friday)

Session 3: Cosmic Forces: Their Construction and Domestication through Rituals and Technology

12.00 – 12.15
Susanne Bickel (Basel): Ritual Responses to Crises and Natural Catastrophes in Egypt

12.15 – 12.30
Dagmar Schäfer (Berlin): Hanging by a (Silken) Thread: Prevention and Crisis in 13th Century East Asia

12.30 – 12.45
Brigitta Schütt (Berlin): Reducing Drought Vulnerability – Implementing Water Management Strategies

12.45 – 13.45

13.45 – 14.30
Lunch Break

Session 4: Power Rituals in Times of Crisis

14.30 – 14.45
Richard Bussmann (Köln): Making Crisis Relevant: Temple Ritual, Local Life and the Early State in Ancient Egypt

14.45 – 15.00
Cale Johnson (Berlin): Is Resilience Semiotic or Economic? Feeding the Gods in Late Uruk Mesopotamia

15.00 – 15.15
Constantin Willems (Marburg): Managing Crises by Way of Ritualization and Exception in Roman Inheritance Law

15.15 – 16.15

16.15 – 16.45
Coffee Break

16.45 – 17.00
Cosima Möller (Berlin): The Crisis of the confarreatio Marriage: a Ritual through the Ages

17.00 – 17.15
Edward Swenson (Toronto): Rites of Intensification Revisited: Ritual, Order, and Alterity

17.15. – 18.15
Discussion / Final Discussion

The unusual times for presentations and discussions are due to the online nature of our workshop. Participants are located in places with considerable time difference.

Due to the ongoing measures to contain the corona virus, the event will be held by video conference via Webex. Please send registrations to: sekretariat@berliner-antike-kolleg.org.