A.M. Hocart on the Role of Ritual and Mythology in Human Governance

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Charles Laughlin:

“Myth/Ritual and the Quest for the Good Life

The elements requisite to the good life are spelled out in each people’s mythology (Hocart 1922a, 1935). Myth is the body of knowledge upon which important life-giving and life-sustaining action in the world may be grounded. “In other words, the myth is the precedent. It is not a tale told to while away the idle moment, nor is it a deep and purely inquisitive speculation about the phenomena of nature” [Hocart 1952a : 15].

Precedent for what ? For ritual ; both myth and ritual being requisite to accomplishing the good life by controlling the natural contingencies around us. “The myth is necessary because it gives the ritual its intention” (Hocart 1952a : 16, 1922a). The myth embodies the knowledge presumed in performing the ritual process ; the latter often being an intricate interweaving of behaviors and symbols that must be reiterated in precisely the correct way to gain effect.

“One or two recitals are not enough ; it had to be committed to memory, and its meaning and its reasons had to be expounded in lesson after lesson” (Hocart 1952a : 12).

When Hocart speaks of “ritual,” he is often speaking of an amalgamation of what others distinguish as “magic” and “religion” — an empirically erroneous distinction for Hocart that was as common in his day as it is today (Hocart 1933 : 134 ; see e.g., Moro and Myers 2009).

Ritual is a robust complex of mythic stories, rites, procedures and social organization—present in all societies—for assuring the good life. In an intact system, ritual and myth are two aspects of the same psychosocial process : “Thus the myth is part of the ritual, and the ritual part of the myth. The myth describes the ritual, and the ritual enacts the myth” (Hocart 1952a : 22).

- «Let us stick to the real myth, the myth which has some relation to the serious business of life. It is a precedent, but it is more than that. Knowledge is essential for the success of the ritual. “He who knows this,” ends our first myth, “conquers all the quarters.” That is the conclusion which winds up myth after myth. The myth itself confers, or helps to confer, the object of men’s desire—life.» [Hocart 1952a : 16]

People everywhere integrate the information provided by myth into their daily lives. Their life is the life that their ancestors lived and taught. People continue to live this life because it is life-affirming—it promises longevity, prosperity, vitality, and contentment. The myths communicate the ceremonies upon which life itself depends.

Reflecting upon Australian Aboriginal ritual, Hocart noted :

- «These ceremonies take up a great part of [the Aborigine’s] time. We wonder how he can spare so much from the struggle for existence to spend on mere ceremonies, but he does so precisely because existence is so uncertain ; the ritual aims at abolishing that uncertainty. There are years when kangaroos, snakes, grubs, yams are scarce, when pools dry up. The ritual is designed to ensure a supply. For every species of food there is a ceremony which causes its increase. That ceremony’s performance by an ancestor is recorded in the myth.» [Hocart 1952a : 22]

The era in which our ancestors merely lived and experienced is long past. Humans not only live, but they conceive of life and living, and in thinking about life, they seek to ritually control it.

- «Out of all the phenomena contributing to life he formed a concept of life, fertility, prosperity, vitality. He realized that there was something which distinguished the animate from the inanimate, and this something he called life. …If life comes and goes it must come from somewhere and go somewhere. …[People] think they know in what objects life resides and into what objects it passes. Man has gone further : he has come to think he can control that coming and going. He has worked out a technique to the end of controlling it.» [Hocart 1970[1936] : 32]

Only more complex societies can afford to detach their myth/ritual complex from the everyday struggle for existence. Although ritual is inevitably accompanied by emotions of one sort or another, it is not emotion that gives rise to and drives ritual—ritual is the result of enacting a people’s understanding of and techniques for attaining what they desire (Hocart 1939). When myth does become detached from life, as often happens in societies that have developed a priesthood, the “life-giving” [8] aspect of myth is very likely doomed to the status of quaint antiquity.

«The ritual myth is not the result of perversion by that bugbear of scholars, an all-aspiring priesthood. It flourishes most where there is no professional priesthood, because there it remains in contact with reality. The myth detached from reality can continue to exist only in a society which is itself divorced from reality, one which has such a reserve of wealth that it can afford to maintain an intelligentsia exempt to intellectual play, to poetry, and to romance. …When a myth has reached that stage it is doomed. Myths, like limbs, atrophy and perish when they no longer work.» [Hocart 1952a : 25]

All peoples have rituals designed to increase a resource. That resource (animal, element, object) is sometimes labeled a “totem” in ethnographic descriptions of tribal people (Hocart 1933 : 135). However,

- «Most peoples have rites with a wider purpose : they aim at life, that is not only food, but health, and freedom from sickness, accident, and death. Many have ceremonies for the increase of a particular “totem :” the Koryaks for the whale, the Mandans for the buffalo, the Lango for rain, [9] in fact ceremonies for rain and sun are almost universal ; but besides that particular object they also include health, prosperity, and even victory in war ; besides the specific object there is a general one. Sometimes the specific object drops out. Thus bear ceremonies are held in North America to ensure a supply of bear’s flesh ; but the Cree have a bear ceremony which has nothing to do with meat, but secures the goodwill of bears, or rather bear-spirits, and their assistance in obtaining long life. This all-round purpose is more obvious in rain-making ceremonies, because rain promotes all manner of food, and so rain is a means to an end, which is plenty. This is even more the case with the sun ; for it is often looked upon as the cause of rain. Some peoples have carried this generalization so far that the specific vanishes from the state rites, and life swallows up entirely the narrower aims.» [Hocart 1933 : 135-136]

Ritual and the Evolution of Governance

Hocart’s most memorable contribution to psychological, as well as political anthropology was the way he ingeniously tied in the organization of society in the quest for life with the evolution of governance (see especially Hocart 1927, 1950, 1970[1936]).

For Hocart, the organization and functions of governance are latent in the social organization of the ritual enterprise—an enterprise that has as its intention the quest for the good life, and that conditions people to apperceive their ritual leaders, their principals, as equivalent to the divine. It only requires some social necessity to spark governance into existence from that earlier and very ancient utilitarian organization. [10] Hocart points to the institution of warfare among North American Indian tribes for an example. In these societies, leaders only have the authority of ruler when they are acting as war chiefs. At the cessation of hostilities, the authority enjoyed by the war chief evaporates, and the society returns to its more acephalous peacetime structure. [11]

Hocart expressly alludes to an organic model of governance in suggesting that, just as the functions of coordination are present in animals too primitive to have nervous systems, some human societies are sufficiently simple in organization to be relatively acephalous (my term, not Hocart’s). In such societies, social roles are far fewer and less differentiated, and each adult carries out a number of social functions. « A Fijian is his own farmer, judge, policeman, sailor, statesman, priest, dancer, and singer. An Englishman can be any of these, but not all. …There is then no government, in our sense of the word, among peoples like the Fijians, because there is no need for any. If, however, we look more closely at such societies we shall discover that nevertheless the machinery of government is there ready to govern, if governing is required. There is, so to speak, a governing body before there is any governing to do. » [Hocart 1970[1936] : 31] That latent political organization that is already promised in the social organization surrounding ritual is replete with mimetic figures (e.g., the principal) that may be transformed into a king and other officials if and when the need to regulate the affairs of people arises. In other words, ritual organization is preadapted for governance.

The Divine King

Hocart centers much of his argument on “kingship” because in his opinion the first form of state-level governance was monarchy, and the first form of bureaucratic religion was the divine king — that is, the mimetic apperception of the monarch as a god is a natural extension of the association of the ritual principal of pre-governance times with the ancestor-god (Hocart 1922b, 1927, 1970[1936]), while later forms of governance (e.g., constitutional monarchy, republic, federation, fascism, social democracy) arise in resistance to the excesses of monarchy. Prior to monarchical governance, the organization for ritual, “…exists where there is no government and where none is needed. When however society increases [demographically speaking] so much in complexity that a coordinating agency, a kind of nervous system, is required, that ritual organization will gradually take over the task” (Hocart 1970[1936] : 35). As with the American Indian war chief, when the king ceases to fulfill his function, the structure of governance may well vanish.

Moreover, the first kings very likely did not take the much later form of absolute ruler :

- «We have also seen reason to think that the original priest-king was not a person of great majesty ; prosaic, at times grotesque, his humdrum function was to ensure a regular supply of food and a satisfactory birthrate by the best means inference could suggest, whether dignified or undignified. He was probably not much more august than the divine kings of the island of Futuna who, notwithstanding that upon them depends the prosperity of the people, are often threatened with deposition if they express opinions distasteful to their unruly subjects ; or than the sacred Sau of Rotuma who during his annual reign was distinguished above the people chiefly by sitting on a stool and eating three meals at night as well as by day.» [Hocart 1927:238] [12]

Michael Winkelman (2010 : 50-65) has shown that the classic shaman—a socio-religious role that under the right conditions would fit into Hocart’s notion of the principal—is generally found only in small hunting, gathering, and fishing societies in which sociopolitical integration does not extend much beyond the local community. As societies become more complex in their sociopolitical organization, additional “professional,” full-time ritualist roles emerge to take their place among the ranks of the power elite. These Winkelman labels priests.

While Hocart would agree wholeheartedly with scaling ritual organization to increased levels of sociopolitical integration, he was hesitant about the use of “priest” as a meaningful ethnological concept, principally because it is often fuzzy in application :

- «Students of customs both ancient and modern have long been aware that the line which divides a king from a priest is a very faint one and often disappears altogether. They have therefore coined a term priest-king or king-priest to indicate that doubtful personage of whom it is difficult to say whether he is priest or king. He is chiefly to be found in ancient times or in backward communities [see Merrill 2008 for the example of ancient Israel]. Among modern civilized nations the distinction has now become a very clear one. There has therefore been a differentiation of an original genus into two species.» [Hocart 1927 : 119]

When the acephalous society changes into a hierarchical form of governance, ritual becomes inevitably focused upon the king :

- «The principal of the ritual, if he is a human, [13] is the head of the community. In a small tribe …we call him the headman ; in more advanced or larger communities we call him the king. Sometimes we hesitate between chief and king. Our use of these words is rather arbitrary : we translate the native word one way or the other, according as the state kept by the principal comes near to our idea of a king, or falls short of it…» [Hocart 1970[1936] : 86]

All political/spiritual power becomes lodged in a single social role :

- «The king is consequently the repository of all power ; and when he goes it passes to an oligarchy. Whether monarchical or republican, the state whose religion is ethical can tolerate no state within the state, no local autonomy. Ritual and administration are standardized. They tend to overflow the national boundaries and to assimilate the nations around : they proselytize and annex.» [Hocart 1970[1936] : 82]

What Hocart means by the king is virtually an archetype in C. G. Jung’s sense of the term (see Jung 1970 [1955/56] : Chapter 4 on the archetype of “Rex” and “Regina ;” see also Ludwig 2004 for a modern take on this issue).

What he is getting at is that there was a point in the history of a society before which the principal is more of a shaman with headman or leadership qualities who guides people by charismatic attributes and ritual power—something like the classic South Pacific big-man (Sahlins 1963) — and after which, due to demographic or other pressures the structure flips to a hierarchical social organization in which the principal gains the power of governance while still retaining the spiritual power that accrues from his association with the ancestor spirits or gods. In other words, the universal organization of ritual in acephalous societies is a set-up for divine kingship in all its various forms. As the regulation of human affairs becomes more complex, the king’s power becomes allocated to functionaries like sub-chiefs, nobles, tax collectors, judges, priests, healers, etc. At this point the king and his sub-chiefs and perhaps other functionaries like priests share in the responsibility over ritual increase (Hocart 1970[1936] : 102). Things have thus become so complicated that the king cannot operate as lone principal and requires an entire sub-society to carry out the functions of governance.

The Rise of the Bureaucratic State

Inherent in Hocart’s account of the evolution of governance is a profound critique of the bureaucratic state. Hocart’s was a straightforward and simple insistence that the major role of consciousness in human affairs is the biological, social, and cultural quest for the good life (Hocart 1934b). People living in simple societies are no different than people living in complex societies in that they all want the same fundamental thing—life. The furtherance of that universal, instinctual desire may lead different peoples in different directions depending upon how they construct a technical and social adaptation to local contingencies.

But underlying it all is a common inexorable process of development :

- «Conscious purpose precedes the adaptation of behaviour, and the adaptation of behaviour is followed by adaptation of [institutional] structure. A community wants something ; it shapes its actions so as to achieve that something, and the result of its action is to alter its organization. It is not indeed government that man wants, for how can he conceive of a government except by experience of it ? It is life he wants, and in the effort to live he does one thing after another till he eventually finds himself governed, that is specialized into producers and into regulators of those producers. He does not want a priesthood or a civil service to control him ; he wants to control nature for his own benefit ; but in the pursuit of this aim he places some members of his community into new functions which in turn produce a new type of man, no longer the all-round handy man, but the man who lives largely by thinking. The conscious purpose is the impulse that sets the whole machinery in motion with results that are not foreseen.» [Hocart 1970[1936]:299]

In the pursuit of the good life, the organization of the acephalous band and tribal society gradually develops a hierarchy—it loses that simpler horizontal organization typical of kin-based band, clan, moiety, and segmentary lineage systems and takes on the form of hierarchical officialdom. “Gradually the high rise higher, the low sink lower, until the state is rearranged in a vertical hierarchy such as ours” (Hocart 1970[1936]) : 292). In ancient India this vertical structuring process resulted in a caste system (Hocart 1950). In each case of vertical structuration, the organization is grounded upon the society’s mythology and organized ritual. The high castes perform the necessary ritual functions, while the king is associated with the sun or some other high god. The social structure mirrors the cosmology in both its social roles and ritual activities.

The contrast between acephalous societies and modern technocracies is stark :

- «True it is that such [acephalous] societies cannot form big nations, maintain disciplined armies, lay networks of roads and railways, or suffer economic crises on a colossal scale, but they can exist, and quite successfully too, if success consists of survival with happiness. We cannot get on without a central government, because our society is so vast and complex that some coordinating system is needed, for each one has to cooperate with thousands whom he never sees, or even hears of. There are societies where everyone is related to everyone else ; they have no need for a coordinating system. They work by mutual understanding.» [Hocart 1970[1936] : 128]

Within this pressure for coordination arises the process of specialization of governing role. People are taken into the government and taught to do jobs that no longer are carried out within and for the old kin-based system.

Moreover, specialization becomes more and more constraining upon the individual’s own quest for life :

- «As there is little specialization in the South Seas [true at the time of Hocart’s fieldwork], there is little discrepancy between a man’s work and his fitness for it. It is otherwise with us : a rivet-maker is far from being adapted to make nothing all day but rivets ; still less is a cafeteria girl designed by nature to do nothing else but hand out knives and forks for hours on end. It follows that a very small part of their persons is exercised for one third of the day, and then it is exercised to excess. The great remainder is left hungering for activity till evening. It is the tragedy of our civilization : our men and women have not yet been narrowed down by nature to fit the narrowness of their tasks. …The pursuit of life is no longer a wide all-embracing exercise, but an alternation of limited reactions.» [Hocart 1970[1936] : 297-298]

People in modern technocratic society are forced to adapt to roles that no longer fulfill that primal desire — the quest for the good life. Much of the pressure is unavoidable, for it is driven by demographics ; as the population grows, the competition for the means of attaining the good life becomes more complicated, exclusionary and stressful. Somewhere along the line, the “coordinating system” (bureaucratic state, corporations, labor unions, political parties) absorbs more and more of the resources available to the society—it becomes as it were a society within the society—and increasingly feeds its own needs, rather than the needs that gave rise to the institution in the first place. It ceases to carry out the prime functions that originally gave rise to the coordinating system, but because it is now institutionalized and worse, bureaucratized, it thwarts the existence of alternative organizations that might answer that primal need more directly and effectively. Those who wish to provide for themselves better protection than existing police forces are willing or able to provide are labeled vigilantes and are outlawed and ostracized. In the end, society becomes so fragmented and specialized that the result is the increasing alienation of the people who find their natural, innate quest for life thwarted and frustrated. This loss of control over the means to satisfy the quest for life leads (à la the psychology of W.H.R. Rivers) directly to psychodynamic conflict and suppression, and thereby results in alienation, depression, and psychopathology on a grand scale.”