Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual

Today, I went to see “Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual,” and since it is Anthesteria, I was delighted that so many things in it told visual stories of jubilance and of honoring the dead. The exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery presents a narrative about sensory religious experiences that incorporates ritual objects from several of the university’s museum collections.

The Wild Hunt wrote a post about the exhibit a week or two after I learned about this because I was apparently not paying attention to the writeups about it that came out in November 2018. It closes at the beginning of March, so we are at the tail end of it.

As a warning, this post is photography-heavy. I think I can share pictures; I saw nothing in the exhibit that prohibited photography, and the exhibit intro card had hashtags on it (#ancientritual).

You will have a parting from the companions now around you.

I scheduled a meetup after some conversations in the group I’ve tried for the past year or so to get started, and initially, there were two other people who were going to meet me. It was fresh, exciting, and purpose-driven.

On Monday mornings, I do divination. I ask Hermes and Apollon for a Greek Alphabet oracle and three randomly-generated Delphic Maxims to help me grow in arete and meet challenges as they arise. I received τ this week, and I did not initially think of the meetup. I wondered about it as I pondered it, and I was extra careful to invest in some of my relationships just in case it was a warning of upheaval that I did not want.

It is very difficult to get three unrelated adults who are strangers to one another to successfully meet at the same time. I realized last night that the divination was about this, and so I went to the exhibit and was very prepared to be alone, which I was.

The Exhibit

“Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual” is in a space on the fourth floor of the art gallery. It is divided into three sections or rooms. A sculpture of Xōchipilli is just beyond the generic introductory gallery text, and the gallery title has a small sistrum of Hathor beside it.

The exhibit is multicultural, with Africa (mostly Egypt; there is one image from an Orisha-worshipping area and a few things from late medieval Christianity in parts of Africa), the Americas (mostly Mesoamerica), Europe (mostly Greece and Rome), and Asia (mostly Mesopotamia, Java and China). The gods are referred to in the past tense.

A cuneiform tablet with prayers to gods based on musical notes struck on an instrument. This was interesting and exciting, and I hadn’t known that things like this were done before. Elsewhere in the exhibit, there were seals that doubled as prayers to gods and that were often worn as protective amulets.

True to the theme, the first area focuses on showing processions and musical performances, ritual objects used to make noise, and gods related to music. There are Javanese Hindu ritual bells and a Nigerian bell used in the worship of Òsun. A Buddhist ritual cloth (bidak) worn by Indonesian women in Buddhism is lain out in a case in the center of one of the exhibit areas. There is a relief of a procession where Apollon plays music as Zeus, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite walk before him. There are coins and mosaics of the Mousai.

One of my favorite pieces in the first room was this relief of five gods in a procession.

One of the most striking parts of the main gallery is the juxtaposition of Dionysos and a Mesoamerican god of wine and death. There couldn’t have been a more perfect display case to view during the Anthesteria.

A reclining Dionysos, a kylix with Dionysos and revelers, and a vessel with a Mesoamerican god (Akan, according to the description) whose offices include death and drunkenness.

I had to leave the exhibit this point because I was writing in a notebook with pen, and the security guard told me to stop writing or use a pencil. (Pens are banned in the Yale Art Gallery?) I didn’t have my mechanical 0.3mm pencil with me, and I do not write with other pencils because they’re not friendly to left-handed people — they leave graphite smears on one’s hand and arm and inevitably get into clothes in ways that are nearly impossible to remove. They also smear graphite on a page and can make writing difficult to read. I went out to the stairwell/elevator to finish my notes.

The situation made me irritated because I wish the policy were a bit more visible to visitors — perhaps in bold lettering on the page with all of the other visitor logistics. (Rare book libraries and archives also ban writing instruments that are not pencils, typically to avoid vandalism and scholars who unintentionally write in rare books.) For the rest of the exhibit, I periodically went out to the elevator bay to gather my thoughts in notes.

The Cross Corner

There’s a very weird transition in this exhibit. On the exhibit flyer in the gallery, the curators say that it runs from 1500 BCE to 1500 CE, and I was still not expecting them to include Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Christianity. There is an entire corner devoted to Christian religious music and processional crosses.


The corner bothered me. While technically during the time period of interest, I tend to think of the word ancient (when used specifically in this context) as “a time period in a place before contact with destructive proselytizing religions” that excludes any time period after the Industrial Revolution and much of the brunt of European colonialism. Mesoamerican things from the second millennium CE before European contact belong in a way that I would argue the Christian content does not.

Did the curators feel like Christianity was in danger of being left out? Why not pick things from a bit earlier in Christian history? I understood why the bowl from the Samanid dynasty was there, as it seemed to bear a relationship with religions of Iran before Islam and I could see its thematic and conceptual relationship with the items beside it (East Asian tea ceremony cups/bowls). I would have wanted the Christian content to be anchored in the same way — by showing how it relates to practices in other religions or how these objects can be used to show continuity from pre-Christian processions and religious music. The rest of the exhibit was engaging in a lot of comparative religion; why was Christianity exempt?

Facing this corner, there are a few Mesoamerican objects, including this pulque beaker. Pulque is made from fermented maguey (a type of agave) plant nectar. Drinking vessels in Mesoamerica were (are?) often depicted with imagery related to the dead.

Pulque beaker. Really cool iconography.

Rituals for Death and the Dead

Much of the East Asian, and specifically Chinese, presence in the exhibit is in the final third, which is devoted to ancestor worship and funerary rituals. Mesoamerica and Egypt are also highly represented.

These are dancers from a tomb that represent dancers to entertain the dead. I really love how expressive the figurines are.

There, I also found a mourning siren. The card beside the figurine said that they are associated with Persephone and that they searched for her after her abduction by Hades.

A contemplative siren.

The funerary ritual room is connected to a tiny room that talks about the place of expensive, highly rare blue pigments in religion, with most examples drawn from funerary objects like bright blue Egyptian figurines or the jars used for liquids related to Chinese ancestor worship and funerals.

All in all, it was a good exhibit, and I was thrilled by the themes and enjoyed the objects that were presented. If you can visit New Haven before the exhibit closes, it’s worth the time, especially for those who have not seen the standing exhibits on the art gallery’s other floors.

5 thoughts on “Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual

  1. “Did the curators feel like Christianity was in danger of being left out?”

    I will go out on a limb here and say yes, maybe they did. How many visitors to Yale have seen Christian street processions in a place (e.g. Greece at Orthodox Pascha) when those processions really are expressing the religion of the populace? How many have attended services at a liturgical church (Catholic, Anglican, etc.) that use processional crosses indoors?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, that question was rhetorical. 😅 I’m also guessing that they wanted to leverage as many collections as possible because I could see that happening in an exhibit meeting.


  2. Thank you for sharing your experience! This is an excellent review,, and highlights the importance of pagan/polytheist representation in journalism and art criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

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