Judeo-Comanche Rituals

Despite being geographic and conceptual worlds apart, Judaic and Comanche rituals have some things in common. I know this sounds strange but bear with this juxtaposition, which came to me yesterday while reading an article in the morning and book in the evening. In this piece, which is subtitled “Judaism’s manual of sacred technology prizes action over thought and ritual over belief,” Adam Kirsch writes:

Much of the Talmud, I’ve discovered in the year and a half since I began reading Daf Yomi, can be understood as a choreography of Jewish life. Just as a dancer must master an intricate series of movements and postures, so the Jew’s daily routine must follow the patterns laid out in the Talmudic tractates: when to pray, what to eat, where and how to move on Shabbat. Usually the follower of a religion is called a “believer,” but the Talmud pays little attention to what Jews believe. What concerns the rabbis is what they do, down to the smallest detail—for instance, which shoe ought to be put on first in the morning.

Yet choreography is not quite the right metaphor here, since the goal of the rabbis is not to produce a graceful or beautiful life, but a holy one. So, Jewish observance can also be likened to a technology—a series of tools that, if used correctly, will produce the desired result, which is to please God and win his blessing. The Talmud, then, would be a manual of sacred technology, showing how to calibrate every prayer, ritual, and action so that it will be most effective. 

And in this excerpt from Comanche Society: Before the Reservation (2005), Gerald Betty writes (pp. 42-43):

Comanche men participated in such rituals on a daily basis. According to Jose Francisco Ruiz, a council was held when the chief of the encampment, “who is always an old man,” would send out a notice for all the warriors to “come to the pipe.” The chief would take the “the principal seat” and waited for the others to come to his tent. Upon arrival, the men, one by one, say “here I am, what seat shall I occupy? The answer is given by the chief, on the right or left, as the case may be and he enters and seats himself accordingly.”

In the next paragraph (which I have omitted), Ruiz provides a detailed first-hand description of the elaborately choreographed Comanche pipe-smoking ritual. Betty then continues:

Comanches performed the religious smoke ritual at any time and for various occasions. Each morning at dawn, the men “render[ed] him [the sun] homage, bowing low before him and censing him him with the first smoke of their pipes.” Warriors seeking to avenge a fallen comrade also practiced this ritual prior to conducting a raid. Berlandier further remarked, “every meeting they hold, no matter what its purpose, opens with an act of homage [the smoke ritual] and respect toward him [the sun].” Like the Sun Dance among other plains peoples, this ritual venerated ancient ancestors and traditions, ultimately encouraging sacrifice and solidarity among kinsmen.

This admittedly is an odd juxtaposition, but the action and intent strike me as similar. For those of us who live in largely Protestant milieus, it’s sometimes hard to understand that for many people ritual-action takes precedence over thought-belief.


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3 thoughts on “Judeo-Comanche Rituals

  1. Gyrus

    I wondered as I read it about Kirsch’s move from the “choreography” metaphor to the “technology” metaphor. In this I see some of the priority of “thought-belief” over “ritual-action”, and the probably related (and very Protestant) distinction between “beauty” and “function”.

    I once saw Dale Pendell (author of the brilliant Pharmako/poeia) field a question from someone about doing magic, the person was having problems believing in the ritual actions they were performing. He advised, “if magical thinking goes against your grain because you’re educated, and you don’t want to be superstitious, look at it as art, use aesthetic principles. Look at it as art and theatre, and you can do the same thing that way.” Of course it’s useful in scholarly terms to have some guidelines about where art and magic overlap and differ, but in practice – in the action-centred practice that is the focus of most art-making and ritual – these guidelines become less relevant.

  2. Cris Post author

    An astute observation and error on my part. It has been fixed. I’m thinking also that I should include the paragraph describing the pipe ritual — it’s fascinating.

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