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by Archaeology Newsroom

Time, Ritual and Teleology

The anthropologist Edmund Leach has contended that rituals may work to modulate the social experience of time. In so doing, they often incorporate cultural images of time itself into their dramaturgy. Participation in such rituals can, in turn, influence the fate of people both in life, and after death. Rituals thus represent time while affecting people’s experience of time. Ritual form, time,and teleology are thus all bound up together.

In this paper I identify practices of circling in Greek rituals as a prime example of the symbolic representation of time in ritual. In antiquity, time was measured by reterence to the circular motions of the stars. The transposition of this knowledge into ritual can be observed in Neo-Platonic magical practices, elements of which, I contend, re-surface in main Christian Orthodox liturgical practices. Contemporary local-level magical practices also involve ritual circling -magic circles-, but I argue that in these cases the circle is not related to celestial motion, and thus to time, but to the creation of boundaries between the sacred and the profane. It is nonetheless interesting to observe that although Church rejects these local practices as superstitious “magic”, it has itself borrowed from a “high tradition” of ancient magic in formulating some of the key elements of its own ritual practice.