Prepared for the 2nd International Seminar of Religion and Theater, in Tehran, Iran, November 18-19, 2010. Topic: Reflections of religious rituals and rites in theater.

Impact of  Religious & Theater Rituals on Humans


Copyright 2010  Nadine Sultana d’Osman Han

Depending on era and interpretations, the distinction between religious rituals and the theater ones can be so interconnected  as to suggest  that theater was not separate from theinstitution of religion. All along its history religion in one form or another has used theatrical technique to communicate its messages, as demonstrated by the encouragement  by the Egyptian Pharaoh around 2000B.C. for the worship of  the God Osiris, and recorded in a play called "Passion".  
A discussion on "Defining Theater" from the ‘’ advances thetheory that the ancient Egyptians considered the theater not as an entertainment with actors and a stage, but rather that it functioned within  religious rituals as a teaching method or as an offering to the gods, with priests performing all acting duties, and that these dramatic presentations were held within a temple, suggesting that theater as we understand it, did not exist in Pharaoh times.   

The influence of the theater is undeniable in religious rituals as the religious class
transformed the early expression of  theatrical pantomime to explain happenings beyond the language capability into ritualistic ceremonies that led to religious rituals, some of which are still performed today, such as the Persians/Iranians reenactment annually of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein or the theatrical Christian Holy processions or the Whirling Dervish dance in Islam.  All are based on the realm of theater dramatization technique in a ritualistic pattern.

In this presentation, I shall present religious rituals and theatrical rituals as separate
entities, albeit mirroring each other,  based on the narrower definition of rituals.

Rituals by definition are a repetitive observance of a behavioral pattern performed in a set manner for a specific purpose.  Rituals are not the exclusive privilege of mankind.  Animals are known to perform courtship rituals in order to attract a possible mate.  As such it is an instinctive ritual, for the survival of the species.

The diversity of rituals are many, but fundamentally rituals are a survival mechanism to help humans to cope with the mysteries and sorrows of life.  It is a tool to interact with one another with a sense of belonging to a group or society:  a feeling of one’s acceptance.

Religion and the Theater mirror each other because both tried to explain the mysteries of  life by an exaggerated interpretation of the unexplainable.  Both institutions needed a participating audience and this prompted the emergence of rituals.  Mankind are followers and traditionalists by instinct, albeit prompt to rebellion.  Nonetheless, humans need the security of permanence of a behavioral pattern that rituals fulfill.  Rituals are a repetitive set of rigid rules or actions that bind an individual to a group or ideology.

Life in itself is a stage, ever changing, perhaps even an illusion of nature that is reflected in a nebulous spiritualism that needs religious rituals to give it some degree of realism.  

Religion came into being to give meaning to the very existence of mankind.  Indeed, from the time we are born until we die, we seem to continuously agonize over the mystery of life itself.  It haunts our consciousness while we ponder the frustrating and unanswerable questions that our very existence presents us.  To give it a substance, religion regulates allaspects of societies and its application took the form of rituals.  In fact, religion could not express itself without the aid of  rituals and ceremonies, as it needed to be understood by all regardless of language diversities or limitations.  Furthermore, rituals are a tool of
recruitment for its own convictions.   It give meaning to symbolic acts of marriage, birth’s ceremonials, death’s funerals or important events.  Rituals are an outlet for a whole range of human emotions — joy in celebration and grief in mourning. Furthermore, religious rituals emphasize the cultural practices of each religion, i.e. Ramadan, Eid, Easter, Palm Sunday or Christmas.  In another words, it gives each religion an identity and at the same time makes a bridge across cultures to common beliefs.  
In addition, rituals seduce its followers by its entertainment element found in the many festivities associated with it.  This entertainment aspect of religion rejoins the
theater and its creativity of a magical world..  Rituals also encourage respect as shown in worship, and influence as well as reinforce the shared values and aspirations of  a group or nation as well as society in general.

The religious rituals depend on their purposes. While we may assume that their purpose is solely spiritual, in fact this is not so.  It may be divided into several categories: spiritual, moral, educational, as well as political.

The spiritual religious rituals can be mystical and humble, like in most Sufi Orders, or splendid affairs.
Spiritual rituals make a lavish use of rhythmic dance movements as well as songs, prayers incantations and music in a set repetitive pattern.  In Islam, religious rituals are mostly mystical, dignified and humble in tone, particularly in Sufi orders.  Christian rituals tend to be more theatrical and flamboyant in tone, particularly in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Catholic choir rivals theatrical musical performances, as well as the reenactment of Nativity at Christmas masses.
Ceremonials and religious rituals are all important as a moral, social and educational tool.  Its expression may be in specific gestures and traditions, such as the crossing gesture in Christian faiths or the exchange of gifts at Christmas; the kneeling and bowing to the ground in Islam as well as the tradition of fasting  at Ramadan  or providing for the poor at Bayram or Eid  celebrations.  Eid ul Adha of Dhul’ Hijja (month of Pilgrimage) use rigid rituals that commemorate among other things the willingness and obedience of the Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, and that is done ever since in the religious ritual of the sacrifice of the sheep, the meat being distributed among the poor.  
All these rituals strengthen the closeness between individuals, encourage social
interactions, teach both traditions and morals as to human acceptable behavior.
Another aspect of rituals is its vehicle as a publicity medium as well as a show of power, much like the ceremonial splendor of most royal courts.   Fath Ali Shah of Kadjar Persia understood the power of splendid ceremonial rituals as does the British monarchy of today.   The Ottoman Sultans were masters in using both theatrical and religious rituals in their court, reflected in a protocol of respect for age, position and laws, even warfare.  The Ottoman elite soldiers, the janissaries,  followers of the Bektashi Order, owed their military prowess and exceptional fighting courage to this Sufi Order’s teachings and rituals.

Religious counterpart, the theater, reflects an illusion of human nature through human creativity that needs the bond of rites to emphasize its message.  From early on, the theater was a tool to rationalize  in the form  of entertainment the many aspects of natural  frightening phenomena happenings . What nature did not specify, man had to explain for himself.  Later, as it became more sophisticated, rituals were introduced in the disguise of magical  make-believe to attract the attention as well as  influencing an audience on current issues of a political nature, injustice or any other controversial topics, without the retaliation of polemics.  Theatrical rituals also make acceptable many human foibles.  It is rituals in the use of arts that bring a powerful visual expression in story-telling.  

Rituals both religious and theatrical are a powerful communication tool that is understood by all, both educated and uneducated people, because they speak directly to our inner emotions—they reassure us, educate us, entertain us, encourage us , and are a leading  force toward civilization.  They are an extraordinary unifying force for common goals or hope.  They give motivation and purpose to an otherwise meaningless existence.

Life is by its very essence ephemeral and intangible.  Animals just exist, but human beings seek the explanation of everything and every thought that surrounds them with the result that their life is a perpetual struggle.  Rituals bring stability among chaos.

There are some major differences between religious rituals and theater rituals.
Religious rituals aim to bring human beings closer to the universe by rejecting realities and emphasizing mysticism  and inner peace for the elevation of the soul toward the Divine for whom there is no earthy descriptions.  It is a dramatization of ecstasy, a state  brought to the ultimate level by Rumi  and whose religious rituals’ legacy is still practiced by the Whirling Dervishes.  The rituals use of controlled rhythmic  dance movements,  music and poetry  took a different dimension under Rumi for the intense inner focus, concentration and self-discipline for self-improvement in spirituality.  However, religious rituals while still spiritual in theory, in practice their political influence cannot be underestimated. Under the  disguise of spiritual rituals the struggle for power is fierce and may be more effective than  theater rituals.

Theater rituals developed from the need of human beings to bring into reality their dream world.  The stage is the dramatization of daily lives in which both drama and comedy are viewed with a degree of satisfaction.  Theater rituals  carefully condition the audience  by presenting its actors as idealized human beings. In return, the actors  bow respectfully to the spectators after each performance.  The stage  follows an established ritual procedure from the decor to the rising of the curtain to present its actors so as to produce awe in the viewer.  In a theater, the audience expects magic  and thus is receptive to the influence of the message that the actors want to project on them.  For that reason theater rituals can be a useful tool for political satirical criticisms  or any other agenda it may choose to influence opinions.  No matter which topic is being performed, the ritual of applause by the audience after each performance, brings the public participation into the play  and the unconscious endorsement of its message.   A rejection of a play brings out
the ritual response from the audience—  a sort of  loud"hissing" sound.

Both religious rituals and theater rituals are an essential part of human being’s life
experiences—it is a necessity for mankind’s sanity to escape now and then the reality of his existence.  We are surrounded by rituals, and consciously or not, we are influenced by it in our daily lives as we participate in them.

Nadine Sultana d’Osman Han. (2006)  "Theater Origin and its Religious Expression in Islam: Wisdom Sayings, Poetry and Music"
Nadine Dawson  (D’Osman Han).  (1980)  "The Light of Truth Beaming on the human Race".  Exposition Press, Inc.  ISBN 0-682-49576-X