A postcard from a journey: Observing New Year celebration in the First Millennium BCE through the lens of anthropological theory on ritual

The aim of my presentation at the AMME Seminar was to give an overview of anthropological theory on ritual practice. I presented different approaches of ritual and pointed out which of them had and hadn’t been applied to the study of New Year rituals in the Ancient Near East.

Approaches generally known as belonging to “the myth and ritual school” are widely known to Assyriologists, and a very abundant literature analyses the ritual sequence of the Akitu spring equinox in relation to what is identified as the relevant myth. The idea of the abolition of time and the recreation of order is somewhat preeminent, despite criticism of the paradigm of cyclical representation of time.

I then moved on to the functionalist approach to ritual, that focuses on the effect of ritual practice on social relations in a group. This is addressed in the field by literature insisting on the function of New Year rituals in the annual reaffirmation of the legitimacy of the authority of the ruling political elite. However, there are still avenues to explore here and one can look into the specific relations formed by a boarder spectrum of social agents: who does what and why, who goes where and how at the time of the New Year? I pointed out that I am working to reconstitute the sociability of the State agents at the time of the New Year, by drawing on existing literature and looking into the logistical aspects of the organization of the celebrations, with procedures that vary from one Empire to another and from one province to the next: displacement of the magnates, displacement of the King or of the King’s garments, displacements of statues of gods along roads and canals, movement of basic components of food offerings from the margins to the centre and then of the transformed products from the centre to the margins, feasts and commensality.

I also presented what authors belonging to conflict theory have written about rituals, insisting on their idea that rituals are necessary to the equilibrium of a society because individuals are always involved one way or another in conflictual relations.

I then presented the avenues opened by a later interpretive and symbolic anthropology. An important element here is the variation of meaning of a same ritual in a group from one individual to another depending on different categories: gender, age, social group, occupation, urban or rural setting. I insisted that this approach is very promising for the analysis of New Year rituals in the Ancient Near East as it allows for a more holistic but socially specific understanding of spring equinox celebration in the First Millennium BCE. I then presented my approach of the spring Equinox as consisting of an attempt to isolate different layers of meaning by identifying representations, beliefs and practices in the astronomical, socio-economic, religious and political fields.

In the course of the presentation, I shared the challenges of coming to Assyriology from Social anthropology and dealing with the level of uncertainty in areas such as in the history of literature, but also undergoing the process of identifying paradigms in the field. I also pointed out one of the difficulties of interdisciplinarity lies in the very way that I construct my object of research: my training in social anthropology often means that I ask questions that I then have great trouble answering because of an impossible access to fieldwork.