Ritual Gone Wrong

What We Learn from Ritual Disruption

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Kathryn T. McClymond
Oxford Ritual Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


An abundance of material exists on ritual theory, analyzing performed or “imagined” rituals, but few theorists spend time analyzing ritual mistakes. Kathryn T. McClymond’s Ritual Gone Wrong: What We Learn from Ritual Disruption provides an analysis of several types of ritual error in an effort to expand our understanding of ritual, its complexity, and the relationship between ritual practice and the mundane.

McClymond views rituals as “dynamic, alive, supple, and open to constant flux and change,” in contrast with Max Weber’s view of routinization (5). She also perceives ritual as intimately connected with the mundane, rather than being limited to a distinct and controlled realm, as purported by Jonathan Z. Smith (5–6). To demonstrate, McClymond dissects five case studies: ritual reparations (prāyaścittas) in Vedic tradition (chapter 1), blood manipulation in the Mishnah (chapter 2), blood libels (chapter 3), mistakes and misperformances in the Olympic Games (chapter 4), and the execution of Saddam Hussein (chapter 5). 

The first two case studies deal with compiled religious texts. The prāyaścitta sare part of the Vedic ritual text Baudhāyana Śrauta Sūtra. The prescribed expiations allow for the correction of ritual mistakes and, by acknowledging the error, prevent such mistakes from routinization (39–40). Although ritual sabotage—where the priest purposefully misperforms the ritual or is accused by a patron of misperformance (34–36)—is possible, McClymond emphasizes that the inclusion of expiatory material indicates that the Vedic ritual system is “optimistic” and “self-preserving” (42). The second case study, the Mishnaic discussion of blood manipulation, is actually “rigorously constructed discourse about ritual behavior” (46–47). The destruction of the Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE meant that many of the rituals examined in the Mishnah could not be performed. However, this does not preclude lengthy and vigorous debates about ritual error. The function of pointing out the multitude of ways in which rituals could go wrong, and the complex solutions offered by rabbis, implies the rabbinic superiority over priestly practice (58). In this way, “discussions of ritual error are at the heart of establishing a new ritual order” (64). Therefore, the described ritual is no longer about just the priest and ritual patron but is a politicized discourse in which one ritual elite asserts its knowledge and authority over another (64).

In the third case study, McClymond discusses blood libel cases, beginning in the early Middle Ages, as examples of ritual misrepresentation. Blood libels involve two distinct ritual communities in which one mischaracterizes and misrepresents the ritual activity of another (66). The accusations made by non-Jews that Jews participated in “ritual murder” and “host desecration” resulted in Jewish communities responding defensively, even prompting some communities to alter the way they practiced Passover (66, 100). In such cases, ritual disruption takes place at the level of discourse, although this may result in actual changes to ritual practice (103). 

The fourth and fifth case studies focus on ritual performed on a global scale: the Olympic Games and the execution of Saddam Hussein. The Olympics provide a kind of global ritual arena in which athletes from around the world can compete in the “spirit of fair play” (109). The three ceremonies—opening, victory, and closing—are ritual performances in which individual athletes represent, to some extent, humanity as a whole and thus lose their individuality. In addition to discussing adjustments or corrections made to the Games, McClymond analyzes two cases in which athletes refused to conform to the expectations of “Olympism.” By protesting, the athletes retained their individuality, thus highlighting national and international tensions and exposing the “‘mythic’ nature of the Games” (137). The execution of Saddam Hussein provides an example of the clashing of ritual systems. As judicial ritual events, Saddam’s trial and execution were interpreted differently by various communities who held the events to certain standards: “the traditional national Iraqi political system,” “the international system of justice inaugurated at Nuremberg,” or “a distinctive religious worldview” (158–159). For stakeholders in these communities, the trial and execution were “disrupted” by various mistakes. However, as no one ritual interpretation of the errors held sway over the others, an interpretive “vacuum” resulted and the ritual failed to provide the expected results (peace, unity, justice, etc.) (172). 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of McClymond’s book is the broad understanding she holds of ritual and ritual disruption. Ritual errors, whether intentional or unintentional, provide valuable information about “shifts or tensions in social or political systems at the structural level” (175). Rather than assuming that ritual mistakes imply the failure of a system or result in routinization, ritual disruption illuminates the expectations and desires of individual stakeholders and ritual communities and demonstrates the elasticity and durability of a ritual system.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Gane Burton is an Independent Scholar in Tallahassee, FL.

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kathryn T. McClymond is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University.


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