… That is why each community that wants to affirm its autonomy also has to face the creation of a ceremoniousness of its own.
In his last will, Epicurus instituted the celebration of the 20th of every month among his followers as an important tradition that would preserve the memory of the founders for 700 years in antiquity. Indianos write an eloquent defense of ceremony in their Book of Community, and argue that the new atheists endanger the continuity of their achievements by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Like Lucretius in De Rerum Natura, Indianos then muse about the possible naturalist explanations for the origins of ceremony, arguing that ritual made possible the leap from the troop to the tribe, and to the creation of culture: the passing on of non-tangible information and communal traits, even expressing the belief that we’re configured to be ritualistic animals. These views might be validated by the work of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and others.
Symbolic capacity, emotionalism, language, fantasy, ritual and ceremony are skills that are specific to our species.
We not only need to tell the tale of what unites us, we need to represent it to feel like we are actors in the meaning of our lives.
When discussing the evolution from hunter-gatherers to agrarian society, the book argues that it wasn’t the whole tribe but one or two people who began to care for fermentable crops that produced beers and other fermented goods, which were integrated into the tribe’s ceremonial cycle through festivals. Through celebration, the social bonds were renewed.
It is therefore understood that they are not just reducing ritual to an excuse for drinking beer, but that it’s also an excuse to come together and, temporarily, blend our minds and form the communal bonds that our own nature seeks.
A few case studies seem to vindicate the theory presented here.
Take the case of the Festival of Drunkenness in ancient Egypt: Sekhmet, the Lion Goddess, was considered one of the two searching Eyes of God whose responsibility in the universe was to seek out and punish wrongdoers. In the myth, she once grew so furious at the evil of mankind that she became a raging lioness and the only way to appease her was with a beer festival. Therefore a great annual celebration was held in her honor to get her drunk so she would forget mankind’s evil. Naturally, this was a harvest festival where beer was communally enjoyed, and in keeping with the forgiveness of sins theme, enemies would reconcile in her honor.
An entirely different culture in another part of the world, the peoples of Oceania, also have a sacred inebriating drink known as kava. The entheogen is ceremonially enjoyed under a sacred tree, the nakamal, where in the presence of the chiefs the men can reconcile their differences. This is why kava is known as the drink of peace.
We also know that the drinking of a certain very strong entheogen made from barley was part of the Eleusis mysteries, and that the Egyptian God Osiris was honored through an eucharist of beer and bread, as was Dionysus and Orpheus. It seems, then, that beer and wine were not the only excuses that our ancestors used to invent ceremonial cycles. Meals also were incorporated.
What’s not necessarily evident in all cases is the argument that these ceremonies evolved only in egalitarian societies, unless the Sekhmet festival emerged in very early times, long before the strict hierarchies that Egyptian society was known for. We must also consider that the main philosophical proponent of ritualism as a means to societal harmony was Confucius, who was decidedly not an egalitarian thinker. Ceremony is useful also to the state, and can also serve to perpetuate its own narratives and imagined identities. To be fair, the book does acknowledge the problematic appropriation, and eventual monopoly, of ceremony by proponents of imagined community narratives.
By confusing (ritualism with belief in the monotheistic God), they grant the beliefs of the great contemporary monotheistic religions a “naturalness” that does not exist.
Against this backdrop, another criticism is made of the lack of ceremony in our smaller, natural communities.
As community we should be firm when faced with attitudes that strip away meaning, as this shows lack of self-respect.
In this manner, Indianos make the case for celebrations, rites of passage, civil ceremonies, baby namings, birthdays, Halloween, Chrismas and other family traditions that create community. Even a rotating toast at the daily lunch can serve to articulate a community’s values and identity, and to render its individuals’ togetherness meaningful.