Rituals and Magic of 'Deep Play' of Past and Present Eras
It is common in our present location and age, perhaps except for those minority religious subcultures or communities who identify themselves as part of Wiccan or Goddess worship organizations, to view ritual magic as a legitimate practice only of the far past. Though millions read their horoscopes daily, and wear lucky talismans, there is a common intellectual currency amongst both scholars and the public at large to see rather than a system of belief structure that still has echoes in our present modalities of belief and being.
This is one reason why the anthropological works of Catherine Allen regarding the Runa, upon its publication in the 1980's, initially struck its readers with such force. The Runa are a small group of townspeople who adhere to customs of ancient Incan and colonial Spanish civilization. The book's most recent forward demonstrates that the Runa's way of life has undergone profound, even seismic changes, given alternative attitudes towards drug use in the present century. Still, Allen's discussion, even endorsement of the Runa's practice of using the chewing of coca leaves as a defensible ritual practice of entering the spiritual world remains provocative on a theoretical level, even if actual historical circumstances have shifted.
Allen presents a picture of a people whose way of relating to the land where "the material world" of ritual and the physical aspects of religion are "perceived as animate, powerful, and responsive to human activity." In other words, role that Coca chewing plays in their society and in creating their identity as distinct from their neighbors is partly a social and ritually integrative fashion of rendering the border between the materials as permeable. (Allen, 1984, 38) For instance, one figure she encounters, named Erasmo, because he chews coca leaves, claims that he can directly communicate with the spiritual world, can even fly, in a literal fashion. The world of the practice of drug use, through incorporating it into a social and religious ritual, rather than simply taking individuals out of reality in actuality takes them into a world of alternative reality, despite our accepted preconceptions about drug use.
Unlike the drug use of individuals in contemporary club culture, for instance, the collective ritual action of the coca chewing, combined with the cosmological structure of years of history give it an added significance and resonance, making it a kind of 'deep play' to use the words of Clifford Geertz's description of cock-fighting in Bali, rather than simply an escape from reality in the minds of those who employ and deploy such use. The rituals of drug use, that, in the modern context of the United States might be seen as shallow and negative aspects of adolescent culture -- 'passing around a bong' or a mirror full of white powder -- take on, in Allen's view, a kind of beauty as they provide a connection to the ancient Incan times of colonial and pre-colonial European rule, and the entry into a world view through physical practice no less literal or significance than the ideal of transubstantiation, or the rendering of the host as Christ's flesh during a mass.
The notion of 'deep play,' or apparently superficial play with multiple levels of anthropological and sociological significance comes to the forefront not only in the anthropologist Clifford Geertz's seminal work on Balinese cockfighting, where the author examines how the social life of Bali is reflected in the social ritual of betting on cocks. It is also reflecting in the frequently, one might say overly mythologized world of American Baseball. George Gmelch's article on the rituals surrounding the practices of some of baseball's top athletes show how, to guard against the possibilities of uncertainty that are inherent to the performance of any baseball game, indeed to any sport, players will enact elaborate rituals.
These rituals vary in degree, depending on the player. Some players reenact the same meal they ate before pitching or batting well, or wear the same jersey. One, noted by the author, insists on washing his hands at certain key junctures of the game and feels upset if he cannot. When asked how, why, and how important such rituals are, and which part of the ritual was most important, Dennis Grossini, a pitcher on a Detroit Tiger farm team responded, "You can't really tell what's most important so it all becomes important. I'd be afraid to change anything. As long as I'm winning, I do everything the same. Even when I can't wash my hands (this would occur when he had to bat), it scares me going back to the mound. I don't feel quite right." (Gmelch, "Baseball Magic")
What is so interesting about the rituals engaged in by Grossini in relation to Allen's observations might at first be their cultural difference. Grossini's is a schema of ritual observation that, unlike any religious or social culture, is constantly in flux in relation to external events. Grossini's is a personal system of control, a developed system of individual ritual with no larger cultural resonance other than his own performance. Unlike the coca chewing of the Andean community chronicled by Allen, the physical effects of the player's ritual do not seem to be biologically measurable, but purely superstitious in nature. In other words, washing one's hands does not produce a mentally altered state. Yet the actions clearly affect him, and he believes, affect his performance.
However, upon analysis, the difference between the superstitions of baseball players and the coca chewing of the tribe to access the spiritual world is not quite as distinct as one might think, either. Firstly, Grossini's rituals are in creative dialogue with his environment. Like the Runa, life and history shapes the way these rituals encapsulate history and the personal experience of those who enact the rituals. Not all coca chewers experience the shapes the take or their interpretations of the spiritual realm in the same fashion. Grossini's rituals have evolved over time. Grossini did not have one good game, and then suddenly decide to have two glasses of iced tea and a tuna fish sandwich, followed by a change into the sweatshirt and supporter he wore during his last winning game, and then set aside one hour before the game to chew a wad of Beech-Nut chewing tobacco. These rituals evolved over time.
All of these rituals came after long years of baseball practice, and performing well in a series of games. Although they might seem like purely mechanical and useless acts against he effects of chance -- of bad weather, bad calls, or a cramp in the arm or leg -- they might even be said, like the Andean coca chewing to have physical effects that positively impact the potential game. The caffeine in the ice tea, the coolness of the beverage, the buzz of the Beech-Nut Tobacco, even, in today's nutritionally conscious times, the Omega-3 fatty acids present in the tuna, in a perfect meld of protein and carbohydrate loading -- all have physical, albeit subtle affects upon the baseball player's physical as well as mental state. This is not to say that having an ice tea is the same as chewing a coca leaf. However, the physical aspects and effects of rituals created for the player in his own world have physical effects upon the player as well as analogs with the rituals that are generated in more communal and long-term cultural settings.
Moreover, baseball is, famously a team sport as well as an exhibition of individual prowess -- one reason it is so famed for its ability to teach young men about the value of life. The fact that so many great baseball players engage and engaged, over the course of the game's much chronicled history, in the ritual rendering of food, equipment, and practice that is delineated above, may convince young fans and aspirers to be the next A-Rod or Jeter, that they too must find the right baseball rituals that work for them, in this grand tradition. A climate of rituals, in other words, creates further rituals.
One additional insight offered by Gmelch is that Trobriand Islanders, according to anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who fished in the inner lagoon where fish were plentiful and there was little danger, used little magic, in contrast to the open sea where fishing was dangerous and yields varied widely. "Malinowski found that magic was not used in lagoon fishing, where men could rely solely on their knowledge and skill. But when fishing on the open sea, Trobrianders used a great deal of magical ritual to ensure safety and increase their catch." (Gmelch, "Baseball Magic")
In contrast, Catherine Allen paints a picture of a society where rituals are endemic, not only to areas of specific uncertainty, but pervade life. The uncertainty of the spiritual world, which has such a ready connection with the material, Allen suggests, in the Andean Community she studied, made all of life perpetually uncertain, rather than merely occasionally so. This uncertainty…