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Meanings of rituals

Les sens du rite

Incense and religion in ancient societies

Encens et religion dans les sociétés anciennes

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Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2016 by João Fernandes

Summary

Although several studies have drawn attention to the role of incense as an ingredient in ritual and a means of communication between men and gods, there remains no comprehensive examination of the practical functions and cultural semantics of incense in the ancient world, whether as a purifying agent, a performative sign of a transcendent world, an olfactory signal to summon the deity, a placatory libation, or food for the gods. Moreover, recent archaeological research has provided evidence (alongside literary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence) that the physical origins and chemical constituents of incense are complex and diverse, as are their properties : resins, vegetable gums, spices, and a welter of aromatic products that could be exhibited and burned before ancient eyes and noses. These were components of a multi-sensory religious experience in which music, colourful costumes, lavish banquets and tactile encounters defined the ritualsensibilities of the community.

Announcement

Argument

Although several studies have drawn attention to the role of incense as an ingredient in ritual and a means of communication between men and gods, there remains no comprehensive examination of the practical functions and cultural semantics of incense in the ancient world, whether as a purifying agent, a performative sign of a transcendent world, an olfactory signal to summon the deity, a placatory libation, or food for the gods. Moreover, recent archaeological research has provided evidence (alongside literary, epigraphic and iconographic evidence) that the physical origins and chemical constituents of incense are complex and diverse, as are their properties : resins, vegetable gums, spices, and a welter of aromatic products that could be exhibited and burned before ancient eyes and noses. These were components of a multi-sensory religious experience in which music, colourful costumes, lavish banquets and tactile encounters defined the ritualsensibilities of the community.

During the two days of the conference, incense will be interrogated as a historical phenomenon. We will explore its materiality, provenance and production, as well as the economic and commercial aspects of the incense trade. The conference will also examine the mechanics of incense use and the various ways it was integrated into various Mediterranean rituals (following the lines of enquiry set out by N. Massar and D. Frère), as well as its role within religious topography. The properties associated with the term ‘incense’ will be evaluated in the context of work by M. Detienne on The Gardens of Adonis (1989) : what components of incense make them effective and potent within ritual ? And what mechanisms and processes are used to release their aromas ? And what was the perception of incense by the various participants of the ritual – deities, priests, assistants, spectators ? These research questions will be informed by the recent research synergies of the organisers : M. Bradley, whose edited volume Smell and the Ancient Senses (Routledge, 2015) probes ‘foul’ and ‘fragrant’ odours as part of both human and divine social relations ; A. Grand-Clément and A.-C. Rendu-Loisel, who lead the Toulouse research project on Synaesthesia that is dedicated to the interdisciplinary and comparative study of polysensoriality in ancient religious practice ; and A. Vincent, who is engaged in the study of sensory perception in Roman ritual in his work on the Soundscapes (Paysages sonores).

This conference sets out to compare approaches across a range of disciplines in order to examine the role and significance of incense in ancient religion, and compare it to later aromatic practices within the Catholic Church. By adopting this cross-disciplinary and comparative approach, we hope to move beyond a universalist approach to religious aromatics and reach a more sophisticated understanding of the religious function of incense in the Mediterranean world : we hope to identify continuities in both the practice and interpretation of incense, as well as to identify specific features within individual historical contexts and traditions.

Keynote speakers

  • Joël Candau (University of Nice)
  • Esther Eidinow (University of Nottingham)

Submission guidelines

Abstracts of approximately 200-300 words should be submitted by 31 October 2016 to Mark Bradley (mark.bradley@nottingham.ac.uk) or Adeline Grand-Clément (adelinegc@yahoo.fr). Successful contributions may be considered for publication in a conference volume.

Organisers

  • Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History, University of Nottingham
  • Béatrice Caseau, Professor of Byzantine History, University of Paris-Sorbonne
  • Adeline Grand-Clément, Associate Professor in Greek History, University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès
  • Anne-Caroline Rendu-Loisel, Post-Doctoral Researcher in Assyrology, University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès
  • Alexandre Vincent, Associate Professor in Roman History, University of Poitiers

Places

  • Rome, Italian Republic

Date(s)

  • Monday, October 31, 2016

Keywords

  • histoire de l'Antiquité, histoire des sens, anthropologie des sens, rites, encens

Contact(s)

  • Alexandre Vincent
    courriel : alexandre [dot] vincent [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr
  • Béatrice Caseau
    courriel : beatrice [dot] caseau [at] college-de-france [dot] fr
  • Adeline Grandclément
    courriel : adelinegc [at] yahoo [dot] fr

Information source

  • Alexandre Vincent
    courriel : alexandre [dot] vincent [at] univ-poitiers [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Meanings of rituals », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2016, https://calenda.org/378365

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