Academic journal article Oceania

Interpreting Ritual as Performance and Theory Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania 2010 Distinguished Lecture

Academic journal article Oceania

Interpreting Ritual as Performance and Theory Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania 2010 Distinguished Lecture

Article excerpt


Invitation to address the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO) offered the opportunity to look back at my ongoing research on ritual and its association with structured movement systems and dance. (1) I have re-searched my fieldwork that has taken me to four different parts of the world, and I present four short case studies (from Hawaii, Tonga, Bulgaria, and India) concluding with remarks on the study of ritual, this, a slippery concept that needs further research and updating. I am interested in the relationships between dance and ritual and especially in how dances are presented today and what they are said to represent from the ritual past.

Ritual has been of special interest to many anthropologists since the beginning of the discipline and many important insights have derived from research in Oceania. But, except for a few memorable studies, such as Alfred Gell among the Umeda in New Guinea (1985) and Andree Grau among the Tiwi of Australia (2001), little research has focused on bodily movement as part of ritual structure. Yet, Maurice Bloch noted, 'I very much doubt that an event observed by an anthropologist which did not contain the three elements of [ritualized speech, singing, and dancing] would ever be described ... as a ritual. In other words, these phenomena have been implicitly taken as the distinguishing marks of ritual' (1974:57). Here, I bring 'movement,' as one of ritual's distinguishing marks, to center stage to explore if and how ritual movement and dance are related. What ritual and dance often share is that they manipulate (i.e., handle with skill) human bodies in time and space resulting in structured movement systems. These are systems of knowledge that are socially and culturally constructed: Created by, known and agreed upon by a group of people, and primarily preserved in memory. Though transient, movement systems have structured content. They can be visual manifestations of social relations, the subjects of elaborate aesthetic systems, and may assist in understanding cultural values.


My interest in Hawaiian ritual arose from my study of Hawaiian dance, a structured movement system today called hula. I was particularly interested in hula pahu, a small group of dances that are said to be the remnants of pre-Christian rituals, and I wrote a book on the subject of Hawaiian Drum Dances (Kaeppler 1993). My research, which I began in 1970s and continued through the 1990s, recorded and analyzed the hula pahu of the three main schools that still performed and taught these dances. Since my original research, only one of these schools is still alive and well and I will focus on performances of this school, now known as the Zuttermeister School under the direction of Kumu Hula (master teacher) Noenoelani Zuttermeister.

In performances by this school that include hula pahu, there is always a ritual beginning. Kumu Noenoelani opens with an oli (a specific kind of chant) that calls upon the gods to inspire and surround the performers with the energy of nature. The performers respond with a mele kahea asking permission to enter onto the performance space. They often use one which originated from the traditional epic of the volcano goddess Pele. Kumu Noenoelani answers and invites them to enter. Noenoelani uses the pahu drum which, according to Hawaiian tradition, was brought to Hawai'i from an ancient homeland known as Kahiki by La'amaikahiki, sometime around AD1250. These drums were sounded in outdoor temples called heiau, and they remain instruments of power and sacredness. The sound of the drum is called kani and the head of the drum is waha (mouth). Hawaiians believe that playing the drum was a way of communicating with their gods. The pahu is carved from a single tree trunk, usually from breadfruit or coconut, and the waha is typically covered by sharkskin or, today, with cowhide. It is lashed with coconut sennit fiber in which the maker's prayers were captured to remain with the pahu for its lifetime. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.