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
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
A discussion on "Defining Theater" from
the ‘encyclopedia.jrank.org’ 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Sultana d’Osman Han. (2006) "Theater Origin and its Religious
Expression in Islam: Wisdom Sayings, Poetry and Music"
Dawson (D’Osman Han). (1980) "The Light of Truth
Beaming on the human Race". Exposition Press, Inc. ISBN