Literature and Sport as Ritual and Fantasy

By Meyers, Ronald J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Literature and Sport as Ritual and Fantasy


Meyers, Ronald J., Papers on Language & Literature


In From Ritual to Romance, first published in 1920 and an important source for T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Jessie L. Weston pointed to the evolution of literature from previous rituals that gave rise to the form of the romance. Pursuing convergent interests to those in Sir James Frazer's analysis of primitive religion and ritual contained in The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion (1922), she found that the "quest of the grail" was based on various myths and cults--the principal one being the triumph of the life-giving deity and the restoration of the land to health and fecundity. Similar studies, by Gilbert Murray of Epic and Tragedy and by Francis Macdonald Cornford of Attic Comedy, traced the origins of these literary forms to some of the same primitive rituals. Allen Guttmann, in From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sport, has emphasized the role of ritual in sports and quotes noted sport historian Carl Diem that "all physical exercises were originally cultic" (16); he has argued that sport has a global, universal appeal, yet the culture of sport reflects the particular environment in which it existed and flourished.

It has been noted by the philologist George Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, that "fundamental concepts" such as ritual and fantasy can be powerful metaphors that reflect "values deeply embedded in our culture" (22), and give enhanced meaning to our lives. Claude Levi-Strauss taught us how to decipher universal and concurrent meanings from global rituals. And Roland Barthes found in sport--e.g. wrestling--a metaphor or structure that contained the same underlying meanings that literature reflected: "On a deja note qu'en Amerique le catch figure une sort de combat mythologique entre le Bien et le Mal. . . ." (19).[1] Roger Caillois, in Jeux et Sports, argued the dominant role of sport in world culture and presented an encyclopedic classification of sport and games by four types: agon, based on competition, alea, on chance, mimicry, on imitation, and ilinx, or voluptuous panic (173). Guttmann, Levi-Strauss, Barthes, and Caillois all concur that there is, according to Karl Beckson's definition, a "second," or allegorical meaning to ritual, literature, sport, and games.

Games, like literary genres, are as varied as the cultures that have produced them. Some games reflect the artifacts of primitive man; archery was created as far back as the Paleolithic age, for example, and golf and perhaps the game of hockey derived from the idle pursuits of the shepherd, his crook applied to rocks---no doubt with a mixture of accuracy and frustration. Football probably evolved from games in which the skull of the defeated enemy was used as the first pigskin and certainly would account for the etiology of the game's brutality, similarly shown in the medieval running of the gauntlet and other modern hazing. Other games, like baseball, are said to have ritual origins either in an ancient Egyptian stick game as advocated by Herodotus, in fertility rights, or in the expulsion of demons in China, as suggested by Huizinga. In any event, there was the representation of the cosmic relations between god and man, the universal myth of the solar-lunar conjunction in the seasonal struggle between winter and spring.

In Mesoamerican artifacts, there is evidence of such struggles represented in athletic contests---here is where the rubber ball was created in pre-historic ages, and the playing field itself was sacred ground. The artifacts of clothed warriors suggest dress for the gods, warriors, and athletes---all of who occupied a high place in the culture and religion and attest to the significance of play in the Americas at an early time. In Mayan theology, the maize god was reborn on the ball-field. The sacrifice of the defeated army to decapitation or evisceration might have been associated with the ritual practices of the Incas and Aztecs. Paul Plass has made the connection between gladiator sport and politics in The Game of Death in Ancient Rome, defining them as "the political uses of public bloodshed," and describing them as spectator events that celebrate dismemberment and cruelty "aimed at renewal of the community's vigor through furious discharge of energy" (14).

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