Ritual games



This article is a report of an ethnographic study of the people living in Adelaide, South Australia. I shall discuss a particular area of some of their rituals, and analyse their significance. There is still much work to be done, particularly in the way in which the rituals have become modified to suit the needs of people living in the twentieth century. The fieldwork which resulted in this article was conducted during 1992 in Adelaide.

The ritual games to be described occur at different times of the year, there being considerable apparent difference in the winter and summer forms. However I shall argue that the differences are more apparent than real, and that the ritual games are actually of the types found in many pre-industrial societies, being related to the rebirth of the sun at the end of winter, and to the maintenance of the cycles of the sun during summer. The rituals are further related to the fertility of the Earth and, indeed, of all life. Like most such rituals, these are also forms of ritualised conflict between 'good' and 'evil'.

 There are a number of variations in the forms of the rituals, but these will be put aside where they are not of significance to the interpretation of the symbolic nature of the rituals. Why these variations should occur is not clear, and requires further investigation. Possibly they are forms introduced by the successive waves of settlers. Whether they are seen as heretical is also unclear.

The ritual games of both summer and winter are performed by two teams of players. The players are selected by rigorous competition, which, for many, begins while they are still children. Indeed, children can often be seen practicing the rituals, wherever there is open space. Those who achieve the highest ranks of performers become celebrities and amass great merit. The games are supervised by priests who ensure that the rituals are performed properly; players who do not observe the correct forms may be ejected from the game by the priests. This may also result in temporary or permanent excommunication. Although the rituals may be performed by both sexes, they are not mixed in any one performance. However, most of the large public performances are conducted by men; women's performances do not seem to have the same popular appeal.

The winter rituals are collectively called 'football'. They take the form of the capture of a sacred object by one of the two teams, who must then attempt to carry it to a place of safety, against the opposition of the other team. The place of safety, or 'goal', is a symbolic sanctuary which might comprise a structure covered with netting or simply two sticks stuck in the ground, and probably represents an altar. In the different forms of the ritual, the sacred object is either round or egg-shaped. These shapes obviously represent the sun (the round object) or fertility (the egg). Carrying the 'sun' or the 'egg' to the 'goal' can be seen as gaining the properties of the object for the community, who will then be blessed with good conditions for the production of food during the coming spring and summer. During the period of the ritual, which might take several hours, each team will have a number of chances of capturing the object and presenting it at their altar. The more times the ritual object is carried to the team's altar, the more the team is admired, and the more support it will have at future rituals.

The participating teams often attract large groups of lay observers, some of whom make long pilgrimages, following their chosen team to whichever shrine is to be used for the ritual. To foster this sort of support, the teams adopt the names of various animals or birds, and particular colours which they wear during the rituals. Whilst on their pilgrimages, the supporters often wear clothing which matches the colours of their favourite teams. In a sense, this allows those who, perhaps due to age or circumstances, are not themselves able to enter the rituals, to vicariously enjoy the spiritual state attained by the players.

The observers are not merely passive. They often take part in ritualised chanting, which may include the names of their favourite teams, such as "Carn-the Dogs" and "Up-the Blues". Other chants which have been noted include "Kill-the-bum" and "Get-a-bag-ya-mug". The meaning of these chants is not yet clear, but the latter two appear to be references to a mythical hero named Nedkelli. Nedkelli was apparently a 'swagman', which may be something akin to the wandering monks of medieval Europe. He was caught by non-believers, near a sacred pool called a 'billabong', whilst ritually sacrificing an animal which he had in a container called a 'tucker-bag'. To avoid persecution, Nedkelli drowned himself in the 'billabong', and so became a martyr. This suggests that shouting "Get-a-bag-ya-mug" or "Kill-the-bum" could be requests for a player to commit ritual suicide or murder. Although the performers are often injured in their enthusiasm and religious fervour, I have not observed any cases of ritual suicide or murder during the games, so the connection may be apocryphal.

In all forms of 'football' the ritual object can be propelled towards the 'goal' by kicking it. In some forms, the object can also be thrown with the hands, or butted with the head. These variation do not seem to have any symbolic significance, however, since the object of all the forms is the same: to move the ritual object into the sacred space of the altar, thus ensuring the rebirth of the sun as the winter days lengthen into spring, and fertility for the coming year.

The summer rituals are far less strenuous than those of the winter, probably due to the hot weather. There is one main form, called 'cricket', and a minor form, called 'baseball'. Again, adherents of one form rarely participate in the other, although there appears to be little conflict.

Both games are ritual races, and again involve two teams. The attacking team is scattered around the ritual space, while one of their members attacks a symbolic altar by throwing a small round object at it. The altar is purely symbolic, since in 'cricket' it consists of three sticks placed in the ground, with another supported on the top of them. One of the defending team protects the altar by attempting to deflect the round object with a stick. If the attacker succeeds in hitting the altar, then the defender retires from the field, to be replaced by a team-mate. The defender also attempts to reach a similar altar placed some distance away, between the throws of the attacker. Running between the two altars accrues merit for the player. After a period of a few hours the two teams changes status: The attackers becoming defenders and vice versa. In 'baseball', the major difference is that there are four altars, arranged in a circle, to be visited.

Symbolically, the most important aspect of the summer rituals is running from one altar to another, which, I suggest, represents the sun's daily journey from east to west. By running, the player is symbolically helping the sun maintain its daily journey across the sky. Defending the altars from attack can be seen as defending the sun from evil spirits when it is at its most vulnerable points, near the horizons in the east and west; that is, at sunrise and sunset. That these rituals are performed during the long days of summer indicates that they are aimed at maintaining the long hours of sunshine, and delaying the decline into the shorter days of winter.

The summer rituals attract smaller audiences than the winter ones. Why this should be so is unclear, though the fact that, during the summer, many people perform lengthy rituals which involve prostrating themselves on the edges of the sea may have something to do with it. The sea rituals are at present under investigation, and an understanding of them may have further implications which space precludes me from discussing here.

This paper gives only a brief description of the ritual games of the Australians. However it is possible to come to some conclusions regarding their significance. That the Australians are sun and nature worshipers must be obvious: Their winter ritual is aimed at ensuring the rebirth of the sun, and the summer ritual at maintaining the sun's daily cycle. Both are performed in the open air on large grassy areas where contact with the sun and nature spirits is easiest. The symbolism of the round and egg shaped objects in this context has already been discussed, as has the significance of the ritual races.

I suggest, also, that the rituals are symbolic conflicts between good and evil. Of the two teams, one attempts to perform a rite of worship and the other tries to prevent it. To minimise the negative effects, to the participants, of acting out what could be construed as evil, the sides alternate in being attackers and defenders. This probably accounts for the control exercised by the priests; they ensure that the players do not slip under the influence of evil, and are available to immediately perform exorcisms, if necessary. However, regardless of which team scores the most points, there is always some score at the end, which means that the ritual always has a positive outcome; that is, the amount of 'goodness' has been increased. Usually one side will end up with a higher score, thus indicating that 'good' has triumphed over 'evil'.



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