Ritual Chickens and Musical Eggs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

John Blacking, the late British ethnomusicologist, posed an ostensibly innocuous question: “Which came first: music or ritual?” The conventional assumption is that ritual was first, since ceremonies seeking contact with the spirit world arose in the early phases of human evolution. Music and dance, it is thought, were added to ritual as a reliable means of promoting the desired atmosphere. But Blacking postulated that it might have been the other way around. Just as children instinctively dance, sing and gravitate toward instruments well before they begin to walk or talk—let alone engage in structured activities—musical experimentation might have been the primordial spark that ignited ideas of a supernatural realm and eventually led to ceremonial enactments. The absorbing effect of music—mysterious to peoples ancient and modern—sent the mind groping for otherworldly explanations. To ensure that musical-spiritual sensations would be controlled and repeatable, increasingly complex mélanges of words, objects and gestures were devised, and music took on a (seemingly) secondary status. In other words, music was the egg that hatched religion.

This scenario is entirely plausible. Music was discovered long before religious behaviors developed and could have inspired beliefs about contactable spirits. But since we are so distant from that prehistoric moment, a conclusive statement on musico-religious origins remains out of reach. What is uncontestable is that music and ritual have been joined for millennia.

This is important when examining liturgical segments of the Hebrew Bible. Although the book is brimming with prayer-songs—including a daunting assortment of 150 psalms—references to associated rituals are surprisingly sparse. Even if we presume—as we do—that prayers were regularly sung in ceremonial contexts, the Bible itself provides only hints of confirmation. In fact, it is our own experience of music in ritual that best supports a biblical link between music, liturgy and cultus. Were it not for that alliance, we could hardly account for the preservation and transmission of psalms over extended periods prior to their canonization. But again, concrete evidence is lacking.

The place of song within biblical religion is treated extensively in the writings of Sigmund Mowinckel. Taking a “cult functional” approach, Mowinckel maintained that all of the psalms were connected to the cult: they both originated in and were intended for communal ritual. Placing this general claim in a specific setting, Mowinckel attached more than forty psalms to a hypothetical autumnal New Year festival. His grounds for this celebration came from the Babylonian New Year feast, which celebrated the rule of the chief deity Marduk and the corresponding earthly reign of the king of Babylonia. The king played a major role in this dramatic celebration, and was a central figure in cultic activities more generally. Mowinckel proposed that the festival, which had pre-Davidic roots but apparently lingered in the Israelites’ consciousness, was the basis for Israel’s own autumn New Year commemoration (Exod. 23:16; 34:24; Lev. 23:23–24). According to Mowinckel, the event culminated with the procession of the Ark to the Temple, representing God’s enthronement, and the singing of “enthronement psalms” praising God as king (e.g., Pss. 47; 93; 95–99). Following Babylonian practice, the ritual coincided with the reaffirmation of the Israelite king, and was proclaimed in “royal psalms” celebrating his status as the earthly embodiment of God’s heavenly kingship (e.g., Pss. 2; 89; 110).

Although Mowinckel constructed this festival without direct biblical support, the Bible does divulge a few subtle indications of musical-liturgical ritual. For example, there is the priestly benediction with which Aaron and his sons blessed the Israelites (Num. 6:22–26), and the cultic liturgy of the first fruits (Deut. 26:1–11). Solomon’s Temple included “prayer and supplication” (1 Kgs. 8:28), while prophetic books attest to a statutory Temple liturgy (e.g., Isa.1:15; Jer. 33:11; Amos 5:23). Whether the occasion was a local festival, national holiday or regular offering, the singing of psalms and psalm-like prayers seems to have been a regular part of public ritual.

On a practical level, it matters little whether or not we can ascertain details of worship rites in biblical times, or whether music or ritual came first in the development of religion. The bond between music and ceremony is sealed so tightly as to suggest an eternal union. It is an expected element of societies past, present and future.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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