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Detail of Harvest Shrine 2004
Detail of Harvest Shrine, 2004

Modern calendrical rites

Early ritual theorists, such as Fraser and Freud, saw our modern European calendrical system as being a set of ‘ancient’ pagan rites, which have been adopted and adapted by ‘modern’ Christianity. This view has been propounded by several “neo-pagan” movements, such as Wicca and Druidism, which have extrapolated back in time from modern customs to reconstruct a hypothetical pre-Christian ritual calendar. However, the historical and archaeological evidence show that the origins of our current calendrical festivals are much more intricate than this.

Not only does Northern Europe have a rich and intertwined pre-Christian heritage (Prehistoric, Celtic, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman and Teutonic [Anglo-Saxon/Nordic]), it also has a complex Christian history. Some Christian festivals have been juxtaposed with pre-Christian festivals, taking on aspects of both traditions, such as Christmas and Hallowe’en. In such cases there is often a ‘competition’ between Church and tradition, to emphasise the Christian symbolism, and diminish the pre-Christian aspects.
Others, such as Easter, have naturally evolved from pre-Christian festivals. In these cases it is impossible to mark a point of ‘changeover’, and the symbols used can be seen as both quintessentially Christian and pre-Christian. Other festivals, such as Harvest, have been constructed entirely by the Christian Church, from common ritual elements of feasting and celebration. Any pre-Christian symbolism can be seen as due to the Universality of particular symbols in our understanding of the world. These cases are particularly interesting for the sake of seeing how new rites are designed, established, and then evolve.
There has been a recent explosion in literature which claims a sound historical, anthropological or archaeological basis, most of which has actually been made up. Well known examples of this are the works of Carlos Castaneda, and the tenets of Wicca. Although such literature has recently been termed “Fake-Lore”, it has now been referenced as ‘fact’ so often that it is beginning to take on its own reality!
In the background material presented here, I’ve tried to stick faithfully to historical records and the archaeological evidence. I have used this evidence as the starting point for my creative work, responding to the historical evidence, re-interpreting, and re-working calendrical ritual for a modern secular and multi-faith context.
The pieces exhibited here have been arranged, and re-arranged in different contexts, as illustrated in the supporting materials, for different celebrations over the last 8 years. This reflects the idea that rituals can be seen as being composed of symbolic ‘elements’, which can be arranged and re-arranged for the many different ceremonies.
In this exhibition, I will look at just a few of our major rites:
  • Christmas
  • Easter
  • May Day
  • Summer Solstice
  • Lamas
  • Harvest
  • Hallowe’en

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