Voice and Voicelessness
“Social Silence and Ritual Voice: Women’s Laments in Byzantine Funerary Ritual”
This paper will address a peculiar articulation between usual women’s public silence and occasional, clamorous public voices which women express during byzantine time.
Scholars have indeed already underlined the acute voicelessness of Byzantine women in various fields of social organization, not only within juridical or religious areas but also within domestic circles. In some ritual contexts though, women voices are to be heard by the whole community, despite continuous limitations, disapproval or banning these practices encounter. Among them we can above all hear laments, screams and mourning songs delivered during funerary rituals.
Funerary voices and their permanence become more astonishing considering that the message spread among laments and mourning songs are mainly contrary to the Christian doctrine of the afterlife and Salvation. Not surprisingly, Byzantine Church fathers, as Gregory of Nazanius and John Chrysostom developed elaborate condemnations against such practices.
How could we explain the persistence of these ritual voices within the evolving context of Greek cultural society, from Antiquity to Christian time?
Beyond the philosophical and psycho-historical explanations yet proposed by E. De Martino, an anthropological approach of the phenomenon allows us to offer another reading which enlightened women ritual voices. Taking into account the permanence of the practice in itself as a sign of permanency not only of religious response but also of a social constant mechanism in Greek social organization. We will propose thus to see through the loud cries of mourning women the sign of the constant need, for this marginal group, to release tensions due to social usual silence in itself. The conclusions of Victor Turner in his study of ritual process, especially of rites of passage, are here of a peculiar interest. In other traditional cultures, marginal groups of inferior status play momentarily a prominent role precisely during the liminal stage of ritual, when social hierarchies are cancelled or reversed, before finding again its own usual inferior status during the reintegration phase of the rite of passage. This releasing occasion of pacifying, and thus reinforcing social structure is to be further understood in the context of Greek Byzantine Christianity, which has integrated very well, in crucial matters such as funerary beliefs, whole parts of pre-Christian religious horizons.
Ritual status of voices, already noticeable in rituals, would be then predominant to express, beyond particular discourses, interplays of social structures.