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Friday, August 5, 2022

Beliefs and Practices through the Ages - 2

 Today happens to be National Bloggers Day, according to Tech Times. The word “blog” is an acronym and stands for the original “Web log”, which became “weblog” and then just “blog”. 

Sir Frazier summarizes two kinds of magical thinking in primitive cultures. One is called Sympathetic, also called Homeopathic magic based on similarities between objects or events and the old idea of “like produces like”. The second is called Contagious magic based on the belief that things which were in contact will continue to be in contact even if separated by distance or time. In other words, the belief system says: “Once connected always connected”.

These ideas were the basis of medical treatment in primitive societies and continue to be so even in modern societies.  Galen, a physician from the 2nd century, whose ideas dominated medical practice until 1800’s recommended treatments and taboos based on these ideas. For example, pain in the ear was treated with a plant whose flower looked like an ear.

Sir Frazier gives scores of examples. This includes several from India – why the crematorium- keepers were tabooed from the villages (contagion of death) and practices associated with menstruation and childbirth. There is an example of strict rules for continence among the weavers of Mirzapur district during silk-worm breeding season. The weavers did not want to offend the animal spirit and the consequent superstition that if men have sex during this season, silkworms will not be able to reproduce.

There are examples of purification ceremonies for returning soldiers after killing in war, so the spirit of the dead does not linger and cause harm (contaminate) or to appease the spirit of the dead.  The author gives an example of propitiation for killing a cobra in Madras (obviously Tamizh nadu).

Sir Frazier gives examples of practices in India which required a King to be deposed every 12 years. Twelve years corresponds to the time taken by Jupiter to make one revolution around the Sun. Jupiter seems to be the ruling planet for the kings. One of the legends around this 12-year cycle suggests that the king was be-headed in a special ceremony at the end of his reign. Frazier calls this “thalavettiparothiam”, and those of us who know Tamizh and Malayalam know that thalai is head and vetti means to cut. I did not believe it first; but found a book on Kerala written in 1900 by one Mr. Panicker who refers to this practice in the past.

 Even more fascinating is the suggestion that the “maha maham” of Kumbakonam has the same name as the Kerala celebration called Makamakam.  Since these festivals come once every 12 years, I wonder whether this has anything to do with the rotation of Jupiter. And the fact that in ancient Greece, the King ruled for only 8 years. This seems to be related to the fact that full moon falls on the longest day of the year once in 8 years, signifying the alignment of the Sun and the Moon.  

In an example from Bilaspur, India we are told that when the king dies, a Brahmin eats khir (milk and rice sweet) from the hand of the dead king and becomes a king for one year. At the end of the year, the Brahmin is banished. This is given as an example of a custom in many societies where the King’s power to produce good harvest, bring rain and prosperity is passed on to a substitute for a short period and the custom of killing the king at the end of 8 years or 12 years was given up. (Later still, instead of the king getting sacrificed, the custom of sacrifice of the first son of the king came. This was replaced later by the custom of sacrificing an animal) 

We learn from this book that a festival called Rali ki Mela was celebrated as a Spring Festival in Kanagra District which is now in Himachal Pradesh. (This is given as an example of festivals in several cultures to welcome spring) 

There is a description of an ancient custom in several parts of West Asia which the author calls “sacred prostitution”.  Specifically, he mentions a custom in ancient Cyprus in which women had to cohabit with strange men at the temple of Aphrodite before they can get married. A similar practice was also prevalent in some ancient followers of the pre-Jewish religions.  This reminded me of the custom of Devadasi in India and also the custom described by Perumal Murugan in his book on Madhorubagan or Ardhanareeswara.

Sir James Frazier describes a Festival of Adonis in ancient Syria, Greece, and other places. He thinks that by enacting this festival people mimic the growth of crops hoping to ensure a good harvest. One can question his interpretation. But the ritual and its details are interesting.

In this festival which occurs usually in early spring people plant seeds of wheat, barley, lettuce, fennel, and some flowers and grow them for eight days. At the end of that period, they ceremoniously immerse these plants in water. The author says that this is to pray for better rain and that the Easter ceremonies of Christian era got associated with this ancient custom.

For me the interest was the similarity of this festival to our custom of growing sprouts in mud pots and then immersing them in water. (paaligai,பாலிகை ). Indeed, Sir James Frazier describes this also as part of similar examples. He also describes another similar festival among the Mundas of Bengal. But he does not mention Varuna Japam and the ritual of immersing Nandi in water whenever there was drought.

As I have written in my book on Our Shared Sacred Space, comparative studies of cultures in a systematic scientific manner have made us realize how commonly similar beliefs are held in several different cultures, how several festivals correspond to rhythmic cycles of the seasons and harvest, and how each culture finds its own rituals and practices to relate to events in life such as birth and death. This is the importance of studying comparative anthropology, comparative mythology, comparative religion etc.,

Emile Durkeim’s book (Elementary forms of religious Life), Sir John Frazier’s The Golden Bough, The Believing World by Lewis Brown and Joseph Campbell’s several books are great starts.


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