Commentary Magazine

Thespis, by Theodor H. Gaster

The Roots of Ritual
Thespis. Ritual, Myth and Drama in the Ancient Near East.
by Theodor H. Gaster. Henry Schuman.
498 pp. $8.50.


This book is an extremely erudite study of the seasonal rituals of several societies of the ancient Near East, as they may be traced in surviving writings. But, as the subtitle suggests, it is not only of interest to philologists and archaeologists, but to students of drama, and to all who have been fascinated by The Golden Bough and the many studies growing out of it which have been made of the ritual forms underlying Greek tragedy and other literature. Professor Gilbert Murray, one of the most distinguished students of the ritual pattern, says in his introduction, “Dr. Gaster has turned his vast learning to demonstrating, in fields far beyond my reach, the existence of a similar pattern, based on the same seasonal drama, in the extant remains of Canaanite, Hittite, Egyptian, and Hebrew literature. He has shown that here too the same variety of forms obtains, and he has traced the essential structure backwards to purely functional procedures and forwards to residual survivals in hymns, psalms, and other forms of liturgical composition. The result is to my mind very impressive.”

If Professor Murray disclaims the philological and archaeological “reach” of Dr. Gaster, it is clear that few will be competent to discuss the scholarship of this work. But Dr. Gaster offers the merest layman a number of interesting ideas about ritual, myth, and drama, which he has derived from his researches; about the relationships of these cultural forms, and their “attenuation,” in various later forms of literature.

One of Dr. Caster’s most fertile ideas is that of the “topocosmos,” as he calls it: the picture of the world and of human life therein which a primitive society forms in a particular region, such as the Nile Valley. The topocosmos or place-cosmos differs from later, more abstract and universalistic cosmologies in its immediacy and concreteness. It is an imaginative ordering of climate, seasonal changes, rivers, mountains, and vegetable and animal life as the inhabitants of a certain region actually experience them. And it is in this rich nexus that the seasonal ritual is developed, to assure, pray for, and celebrate that rhythmic succession of birth and death, the fertilization, sprouting, and withering of vegetation from which man actually gets his living. Then comes myth, which like ritual is closely analogous in form in many ancient societies: the story of the human hero who fights, dies, and is born again—the “basic” myth in its myriad versions—to make the ritual order more humanly significant and intelligible. Drama, in its root form, includes both myth and ritual. A great dramatist—an Aeschylus or a Sophocles—inherits this cultural form, and proceeds to use its manifold analogies between the withering and renewal of vegetation, and the dying and coming-to-birth of man’s animal life, to reveal the deaths and rebirths of the spirit.



Dr. Gaster proceeds to apply these ideas to certain ancient texts, including the Canaanite “Poem of Baal,” the Hittite “The Combat of the Weather-God and the Dragon: The Myth of the Puruli Festival”; the Egyptian “The Ramesseum Drama,” and a number of other shorter pieces. Most of the book consists of translations of these texts, with Dr. Gaster’s philological and archaeological notes, and his explanations of the particular ritual and topocosmos upon which each is based. He thus gives suggestive glimpses of several ancient, sacramentally ordered societies, which appear to be closely akin (with geographic and climatic variations) to the more familiar primitive culture of the Greeks. Among the most interesting of these translations are thirteen of the Old Testament Psalms.

It has been known for some time now that most of the Psalms were written for liturgical purposes, but Gaster explores the nature of this liturgy in more detail, assimilating it to the pattern common to all the ancient Mediterranean cultures and perhaps, as he suggests, all ancient cultures everywhere. He also provides his own translations of these Psalms. His English is not to be compared, as English poetry, with that of the King James version; but it has its own simplicity and vigor, and it brings out very clearly the essentially dramatic form of the Psalms.



It seems certain that it will take a long time to digest the material which Dr. Gaster here presents, much of it accessible in his book for the first time. I suppose the scholars will get to work upon it; but in the meantime, one or two of his ideas are also of more general interest.

Dr. Gaster says that because ancient drama has an over-all form and meaning, it is more than mere mimesis or imitation. The form of drama is that of the seasonal ritual which itself celebrates the topocosmos. My objection to this formulation is that Dr. Gaster seems to be limiting the notion of mimesis to mere literal or photographic representation, as we know it in modern realistic literature. Aristotle (whom Dr. Gaster quotes) did not use it in this sense, for he says that tragedy imitates not men, but “life and action,” and individual characters only with “a view to the action.” If mimesis is understood in this way, the ancient seasonal ritual itself may be regarded as mimesis: an acted-out imitation of the succession of the seasons. “Mimesis” would then designate a primitive but fundamental mode of human understanding; a way of grasping the movements of human life before verbalization and rationalization. Primitive peoples depend largely upon mimetic responses and histrionic means of communication, as one can see in the case of the Pueblo Indians, for instance; yet we too, for all our proneness to theorizing, may learn this language. After all, we do get something out of ancient myth, and ancient drama with its ritual poems, though both are opaque to discursive reason. The notion of mimesis, properly understood, may help to bridge the gap between our own understanding and the rich world of ancient man.

Most of Dr. Caster’s readers will be familiar with some of the artists and thinkers who have been nourished by the new insights into primitive culture: Eliot or Bergson or Joyce, for instance. Such readers will find Dr. Caster’s notion of the topocosmos valuable and stimulating. We suffer a kind of homesickness for that comparatively stable, simple world; it often looks to us like the natural home of the human spirit. But in spite of the artists and thinkers who have used the insights of ancient man as a means of understanding contemporary experience, we do not know what to make of these insights. We no longer feel dependent upon the order of visible nature in a particular region. We are enclosed in our machinery, mental and mechanical, with its artificial paradises, its screaming debacles, and its expanding, uncontrolled power. Dr. Caster speaks of the “attenuation” of the ritual forms in literature, but does not indicate where he would place the optimum point of human understanding in the shifting perspectives of culture. The allegorizing and rationalizing of ritual and myth seems to have started very early; but just when does the life leak out? It is hard to think of an Oedipus Rex as attenuated in any sense.

But it was no part of Dr. Caster’s purpose to suggest answers to such questions as these. The great fertility of his work for those who are not specialists lies in his presentation of ancient community life and culture, and in his demonstration that the ritual basis of Hebrew and other Near Eastern literature is very similar to that of Creek drama and literature.



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