Discovering Rituals & Ceremonies
The Pahlevani and Zoorkhanei rituals in Iran are a peculiar mixture of weight-lifting, dancing, gymnastics and music which have been around for 2,000 years, and now it’s possible for outsiders to experience them. Iran is opening up to travel (although it’s a massive country and there are no internal flights due to a lack of spare parts for planes), but this is one of the intriguing places I’d love to visit.
In the past I’ve have taken part in Bedouin opium rituals, Japanese tea ceremonies and Egyptian boating chorales. As a tourist it’s possible to see whirling dervish dances, Spanish Sardanas and Sri Lankan drumming festivals that aren’t merely staged for outsiders, but we only scratch the surface of the world’s extraordinary history of communal activities.
One of the more shocking rituals I’ve seen is the spontaneous firing of rifles at Arabic events. Killing time outside the souk in Nizwa, Oman, I spoke to a merchant selling rifles, knives and canes. ‘Our love of rifles is misunderstood,’ he explained. ‘They hold an important ceremonial purpose, together with the curved knives. Guns are fired into the air for celebration at weddings and circumcisions. We do not hunt with them. Every Friday there is a weapons market, a tradition dating back over four centuries.’ It was easy to see how news footage of celebrating Arabs could be misinterpreted. ‘What about the canes?’ I asked, pointing at several varieties of decorated whippy sticks. ‘They have many different meanings but those are for beating naughty children,’ he replied.
The good thing is that the opening of tourism does not stop or damage age-old ceremonies. In certain cases they’ve been revived due to renewed interest; look at the Jack-in-the-Green ceremonies that take place once more around the rural British Isles. My former producer once went to a small island off the coast of Scotland to film an harvest ceremony, and said to a local lady; ‘It feels as if there’s something very odd going on here.’ To which she replied; ‘There is, but we don’t talk about it with strangers.’
England is so dotted with symbols of ritual that we treat them with disinterest or disrespect. There was surprisingly little outrage when betting-for-mugs group Paddy Power altered the Uffington horse by adding a jockey on its back. The Daily Mail seemed to think it was a great jape, and only comedian Stewart Lee castigated them in print (although his words were cut by the hair-gel freesheet Shortlist).
England is different to America in that, like Europe, it has ancient indigenous ceremonies, although Stephen King’s ‘Children of the Corn’ and Thomas Tryon’s ‘Harvest Home’ both come close to inventing them from Americana. The point about Britain’s ‘The Wicker Man’ is that most – if not all – of the rituals and ceremonies it featured were already in place. I’ve long wanted to set a book on one of the smaller British isles – which, like Italy, has more than you realise.
Most of the smaller London rituals are barely acknowledged and close to vanishing, like the handing out of hot cross buns at The Widow’s Son and Beating the Bounds. My question today is; do we form new rituals? If you know of any new ones, tell me about them.