Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reverent River Ritual

If you were designing a ritual for the river, what would it look like? Each year at the Brisbane River Festival the River is honoured with a spectacular of fireworks. Massive colourful sparks fill the sky, spiralling, bursting, floating in an excitement of sight and sound. The Brisbane populace throngs the riverbank marvelling at the event which pays reverence to the icon of this city.

Rituals bind practitioners together in focused performance. The 19th century social scholar Emile Durkheim referred to the social cohesion and the energy of such worship as 'collective effervescence'. It's an embodied feeling which overflows with energy, enthusiasm and connection - with each other and with the object of worship, the river and environs.

Ritual theorists such as Richard Schechner and Victor Turner view ritual as an embodied performance enacted within a liminal or in-between space, an a-temporal plane, where social norms are loosened in a play at once subversive and celebratory.

In Brisbane, river rituals are a daily affair of connection with this watery realm. Currawongs chant their curra-wonnnggg, curra-wonnnggg song-chant to herald the river and focus our attention on its wide brown flow (muddy brown due to the massive rain and flooding recently) cruising slowly through the city. In this space the players/performers are those whose attention is drawn to the river as the central feature of this daily show which acts to integrate human and nature in an eternal dance.

In the liminal space we are transformed. We shed the shadows of our ordinary lives and enter into sacred space to commune with its symbolic elements - old growth trees, the tidal exchange of waters, the circus of birds - the Cockatoos screeching, the flashes of King Parrot's bright red wings and dashes of pink from flying Galahs, the lustrous feathers from Rainbow Lorikeets, the whistling song of the Butcherbird and the sweet sweet chirping of Scrub Wrens. The sight and sound of these performers is just as spectacular as the River Festival fireworks.

Victor Turner (1977:183) states that ritual is 'a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors' goals and interests' (in Deflem, 1991). They engage with the most significant values of a community - in the river's case, with the lifeblood of this city as the central water source as well as the other ecosystem services it provides. The river is sacred symbol, and rituals that revere its place and flow in the life of this city, can act as a kind of social transformer or social glue transforming community attitudes, values and behaviours about the river, its importance and their role in caring for it.

Victor Turner called these liminal space performances 'betwixt and between' but to me, they are part of the magical fabric of the Brisbane River valley. Not set apart from but a part of, embedded in the day/night/sun/moon/tides/flow of this wondrous effervescent glowing tidal ecotone.

Deflem M, 1991, 'Ritual, Anti-Structure, and Religion: A Discussion of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis,' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 30, 1, 1-25,
Turner V, 1977, Symbols in African Ritual. In JL Dolgin, DS Kemnitzer and DM Schneider, Eds. Symbolic Anthropology: A Reader in the Study of Symbols and Meanings, New York, Columbia University Press.