Refining the modelling of religious action
At first sight, the focus on individual religious agents proposed above may seem to be in tension with the dearth of sources for individual lives that is a common obstacle to historical research into most places and periods of the past. We thus need to refine the modelling of religious action and agency with a view to the most extensive sources available for historians of past (and present) religion: material evidence rather than ‘ego-documents’ (texts that promise to provide insight into personal experiences, evaluations, or motives). I have suggested above that religion can be modelled as a form of communication with special agents (sometimes including objects) that are frequently conceptualized as god or gods, ancestors, or demons. Owing to the very existence of such communicative actions and the particular contents of this communication, these special agents are accorded agency in a way that is not unquestionably plausible. To employ religious communication at all in a specific situation, or to employ this type of religious communication, or to address this special addressee - all these decisions might be criticized by a given observer as being based on implausible suppositions, even if religious communication is deemed plausible in that particular society, which is to say that people would not question the existence of god or gods per se. Communication with or concerning such ‘divine’ agents might reinforce or reduce human agency, create or modify social relationships, and change power relationships, as will be seen in Chapter 3. Religious agency is, in fact, a constellation of two forms of agency: type A is the agency attributed to such non-human or supra-human agents; and type B is the agency of the human instigators of such communication. 1 am well aware that there is a great deal of phenomenologically comparable ritual action that does not assume the inclusion of such non-human agents. However, 1 deliberately restrict my definition of religion to the consequences of the invention of this specific type of agency, which I will call ‘divine agency’ (type A) in order to differentiate it from human religious agency (type B). In the eyes of contemporaries, the latter type of agency would be understood as deriving from the former, which is to say that the god grants agency to his or her human venerator (whether male or female, spontaneous or habitual, and whether conceptualized as ‘mediator’, ‘saint’, or merely ‘pious’ and exemplary). Agency could also be attributed and arrogated by other participants or by the peers, family, followers, or contacts of the primary group. It might also be used in a reversed manner, by negating the power, legitimacy, honesty, or piety of those excluded from the temporary or lasting relationship established in the initial or repeated act of communication: those not present, not listening, heathens or unbelievers, or simply ‘the others’, are all powerless or will ultimately be rendered powerless.
Expanding the dyadic model of speaker and addressee to a triadic model that also accounts for an audience to the communication (an audience that proves to be of paramount importance in the long term) leads us back to the problem of plausibility. Plausibility is a notion that ties the success of an act of communication to the approval of an audience, as I will discuss in Chapter 3. Here, I will draw on the discipline of Semiotics to provide a more detailed description of what is going on in such communication. So far, 1 have deliberately avoided talking about the medium of communication or the use of signs. This approach allows us to start with a simple model in which the speaker's own body and
A critical view of the concept of religion 11 speech constitute the most basic form of symbolic communication. However, it is certainly true that, historically, ritual behaviour often precedes language (Bellah 2011, 134-5).
While 1 will continue to put off further discussion about signs for the moment. 1 do, of course, admit that my initial dyad of speaker and addressee already has an implicit triadic structure if we consider, to use Charles S. Peirce’s terms, the sign proper (representamen), the interpretant, and the object represented (Peirce 1986, 1991; Klostergaard Petersen 2012, 156-7). The interpretant is not simply the religious agent speaking but is, rather, her or his conception of the sign. This conception includes, from the perspective of Peirce’s pragmatist turn, all the possible practical effects of the sign, and thus ties in with the concept of the individual’s religious agency and range of possible actions. The semiotic perspective and the semiosis, namely the creation of a chain of meaningful signs, do not stop here. The process of interpretation continues, as the interpretation is an interpretation for an audience now itself engaging in its own interpretation of the semiotic complex set before its eyes and ears.
Neither the attribution of meaning nor the imagining of effects come from nothing. Rather, they draw on previous experiences, shared meanings and imaginings, and shared strategies, that is, on traditions of interpretation (Fish 1995). While limitless in principle, the probable range of interpretations is thus restricted, even if such a restriction does not exclude the capacity for creative acts (Joas 1996). There is no zero point in an encounter between a user and a sign. Any articulation of this encounter - or, more precisely, of the experience in which such a sign is involved - is already framed by language and the shared meaning inherent within it (Jung 2005). This is not to advocate a culturalist approach. Linguistic research has demonstrated the rapidly changing character of language, as well as interpersonal and inter-group differences in its use.4 The variety of meaning, often implicit or communicated through narratives or images, goes far beyond the clear-cut dichotomies favoured by structuralist interpreters or the systematizations attempted by indigenous or academic ‘intellectuals’, which, as indicated above, generate in turn the ‘religious traditions’ of our handbooks (Otto, Rau, and Rüpke 2015; Rüpke 2018c).
The approach proposed here involves conflating the perspectives of articulation (focusing on the initiator) and interpretation (focusing on the audience) against the backdrop of the specific character of religious communication. Religious communication is communication with special agents that are not undeniably relevant. As it is, the very communication that brings the divine agents into situational relevance, and thus situational existence, and the pragmatic efficiency of this communication, as well as its plausibility - the latter needing to be assented to by the audience (even if only imagined) - are stressed for both the agent and the audience by the intensive use of media. In fact, the very act of communication and the vast range of media involved advance the existence of the otherwise invisible addressees (Rüpke 2007). The media-intensity of religious communication is far from the least significant reason for its presence in the archaeological records of different cities and periods.
We can now turn to the notions of sacralization and the sacred. I propose to use the term sacralizing to refer to actions and processes that include within the act of religious communication elements of the situation in which that communication takes place - objects, space, time - and which thus ascribe meaning to them. Sunrise or the day of the full moon are thus marked as specifically conducive: a hot spring, the top of a hill, or a tomb are places associated with more successful communication; a torch, a sacrificed animal, a valuable dress, or a block of stone might support the formulation and conveyance of one’s message. Thus, the instigators make their communicational intent more relevant to their addressees and their communication as a whole more relevant and plausible to any audience. The speakers are heard by the gods and seen by their fellow humans thanks to intensive sacralization.5
The notion developed so far suggests that one might also speak of 'temporary sacralization'. A place is used for religious communication and is subjected to specific interpretations, perhaps even rules of behaviour, for the duration of the communication (usually this would take the form of a ritual but, for the moment, 1 will try to avoid introducing additional concepts). A marketplace might be used for a prayer or a street for a procession. Usually, such a temporary sacralization would not leave any traces in the city, unless, perhaps, a bronze plaque is placed to commemorate the visit of a particularly important religious actor, such as a guru, saint, pope, or the like. Nor would such a place strengthen the religious character of an action in a future instance, unless great efforts are made to reactivate the former ascription of a special character by way of remembrance or full re-enactment. Sacralization also need not encompass the whole of a large site. It might focus instead on single, even small, objects that happen to be available or are consciously introduced into or produced within the situation. ‘Gifts’ or ‘tokens’ that refer in some way to the communicants involved or the message to be transferred are widespread (Linders and Nordquist 1987; van Straten 1981; also Auffarth 1995; Riipke 2018b). Particular forms of dress or objects attached to the body - festive garments, crowns, ornaments, or body painting - are also used.
It is now easier to imagine the processes of interpretation in their temporal development. Sacralized objects (and places or times marked out using these objects) would create presuppositions that serve to guide the processes of interpretation connected with the communicative action (scheduled for a given place or time). Reuse of objects or sites, or the addition of new objects into the process of framing, would strengthen and intensify the religious character of the event. Sacralization is a matter of both quantity and scale.6 Perhaps only under certain conditions and in specific cultural contexts can such processes produce debates about the dichotomy between that which is ‘sacred’ and that which is ‘profane’ (from the Latin profanus, literally ‘in front of the sanctuary’ (Riipke 2006). Space in a crowded city is scarce and the presence of observers, commentators, and systematizes in a given urban space would certainly be supportive of such distinctions. As is well known, these distinctions, reformulated as religion on the one hand and society on the
A critical view of the concept of religion 13 other, have remained important in Europe and other regions up to the present day (Burchardt and Wohlrab-Sahr 2013).
The argument has come full circle back to the notion of agency. By invoking in specific situations agents or authorities held to be divine, human agents extend their possibilities for imagining and acting. In this way, religious agency, instantiated in the attribution of agency to divine agents or the like, allows the human agent to develop ideas that transcend the situation in question. This may lead to creative strategies that suit the situation, such as those that are deployed by principals in ritual performances or individuals who claim to be in a state of possession attributed to a divine being. Performing ritual actions or claiming religious knowledge creates powerful allies, spaces, audiences, and, in the long term, even networks. But the converse is also possible. When acting with agency is seen to be the preserve of divine agents, the same mechanism can also trigger an abjuration of personal agency that results in impotence and passivity for the individual human. Quietism, or even voluntary death, provides illustrations of the effect such perceptions can have.
Evidently, such agency or patiency can find expression and temporal extension in processes of sacralization and in the spaces, times, or objects thus sacralized. Conversely, such agency could be supported by employing previously sacralized objects or by situating itself in previously sacralized contexts. Praying (Patzelt 2018) in a sanctuary (Riipke 2013b and 2018a), sacrificing on a holiday, preaching in a priestly garment, could all serve to enhance religious agency so long as the position of power held by the actor allowed her or him to enlist such resources. The use of such resources involves a process of negotiating and appropriating them within the overlapping networks of urban space. This is the case whether such actions are simply the outcome of previous, comparable actions by prestigious individuals or the outcome (and further development) of the action of a powerful organization, such as a priesthood running a temple or a ruler who had already dedicated a place, building, or altar and who might well use it again. The performance and novelty of religious agency interfere with institutionalized sacrality in many different ways, some of which may potentially conflict with one another. A new actor might be regarded as an impostor or a heretic, as illegitimate or simply unworthy. All this depends on the audience present at the time or on later indirect observers, and on the relationships between the observers and the human religious actor. These relationships might range from people who feel hostility or disinterested neutrality towards the actor, through contemporaries who could possibly be mobilized in support, to people with obligations to existing institutional powers or who might simply be the family or followers of the initiator. As audiences widen and the public position of the actor grows, so are both potential and risk increased.
Such an understanding of sacralization and the resulting degrees of sacredness clearly differ markedly from the notions of ‘the sacred' that have been used in sociological or theological reflections from Rudolf Otto through
Mircea Eliade to Hans Joas.7 In contrast to my approach, these notions of the sacred are inspired first and foremost by the Latin concept of sacer, the property of the gods, but also by the Hebrew concept of qadosh, which describes God and the manifestation of his radiance into the world in its varying degrees of intensity. My own version of sacralization stresses rather the transformation of ownership in relation to the concept of sacer and inverts the agency involved in qadosh-. it is the human, not the god, who sacralizes.
The high social and material investment into the construction of initially less plausible addressees (or ‘counterintuitive agents’, in the terminology of evolutionary theories of religion, e.g. Boyer 1994), into the attribution of agency to them, and into the production of relevant communication with them seems to promise increased self-stabilization, even power, or capacity to solve problems - and is immediately rendered precarious and contested by any inequality produced by success. Sacralizations within the unquestioned plausible and evident environment are elements of such strategic action and frequently take material form beyond the bodies of the human agents involved. With miniaturized objects at one end of the spectrum (Smith 1987 and Fine 2010; Quack 2009; Riipke 2014b), investments at the other end can reach high levels of material extravagance and sometimes strive for mon-umentality, leading to an enormous expenditure on the media of religious communication. This expenditure often focuses on size and material value as much (and more) as it does on aesthetic qualities and artificiality.