Ritual clown

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Ritual clowns, also called sacred clowns,[1] are a characteristic feature of the ritual life of many traditional religions,[2][3][4] and they typically employ scatology and sexual obscenities.[3][5] Ritual clowning is where comedy and satire originated; in Ancient Greece, ritual clowning, phallic processions and ritual aischrologia found their literary form in the plays of Aristophanes.[6][7][8]

Two famous examples of ritual clowns in North America are the Koyemshis (also known as Koyemshi, Koyemci or Mudheads) and the Newekwe (also spelled Ne'wekwe or Neweekwe).[9][10] French sociologist Jean Cazeneuve is particularly renowned for elucidating the role of ritual clowns;[11] reprising Ruth Benedict's famous distinction of societies into Apollonian and Dionysian, he said that precisely because of the strictly repressive (apollonian) nature of the Zuni society, the ritual clowns are needed as a dionysian element, a safety valve through which the community can give symbolic satisfaction to the antisocial tendencies.[12][13][14][15] The Koyemshis clowns are characterized by a saturnalian symbolism.[15]

See also


  1. Cazeneuve (1957) p.254 quotation:

    Cela montre que les Zuñis ont de plus en plus d'attachement pour leurs clowns sacreés... Le comique joue un rôle important dans la psychologie des sociétés. Il cimente et affirme leur unité ; il symbolise leur individualité... En fait, un groupe social est vraiment uni et particularisé lorsqu'il a ses propres traditions comiques. Ainsi, les Koyemshis, parce qu'ils repreésentent le rire national des Zuñis, sont un peu comme leur drapeau.

  2. Jonathan Z. Smith (1995) The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion pp.1093-1094
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jones, Lindsay (2005) Encyclopedia of religion, Volume 6, p.1498 quotation:

    Ritual clowns have been regarded as a characteristic feature of the ritual life of traditional religions... If the category of ritual humorists is extended to include fools, boofoons, and jesters of vaarious sorts, then ritual humorists can be found in many if not most religious traditions... When initially encountered by missionaries and anthropologists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religious ritual involving humor as well as often scatological and sexual elements were perceived as strange, exotic, ...

  4. Cazeneuve (1957) p.242 quotation:

    La présence des clowns dans les cérémonies rituelles peut être observée dans de nombreuses tribus. Chez les Navaho, l'équipe des danseurs Yebitchai comporte traditionnellement un clown qui danse avec les autres mais à contre-temps, qui se moque de tout par sa mimique et qui fait rire les spectateurs au cours de la cérémonie très sérieuse qui a pour but la guérison d'un malade. Les Indiens pueblos ont presque tous des clowns.

  5. Louis A. Hieb (1972) Meaning and Mismeaning: Toward an Understanding of the Ritual Clown In: Alfonso Ortiz (ed.) (1984) New Perspectives on the Pueblos; pp. 163-195. quotation:

    Jesse Walter Fewkes apparently found the "obscenity and vulgarity" (1891:24n3) of the Zuni Koyemci so offensive that he relegated most of his comments about them to footnotes. Alexander M. Stephen deserves credit for providing the most adequate and objective description of any aspect of ritual clowning—what he termed "grotesques" among the Hopi. While Elsie Clews Parsons attempted on several occasions (see especially 1917, 1922, 1939; Parsons and Beals 1934) to describe the general phenomenon of clowns and clowning, she is indebted to Stephen (1935) for many of the descriptions pf clown performances she published.

  6. Reckford, Kenneth J. (1987) Aristophanes' Old-and-new Comedy: Six essays in perspective pp.449-51, 461-67 quotation:

    All these things, taken together, formed a long intermediate stage in the developmente of Old Comedy from the rudimentart grouping of festive play forms (parodos, agon, and parabasis) to something like what we see in the plays of Aristophanes. [...] the playful childhood of comedy, rooted in ritual observance and festivity [...] elements basic to Old Comedy, including phallic celebration, indecency-and-invective (aischrologia), satire, and masking [...] appreciate the distance traveled by Old Comedy from its ritual origins toward artistic independence and playful self-awareness [...] Old Comedy distinctively retsined ... much of its ancient ritual power and meaning as festive play. [...] Our indecencies are more restrained ... their indecencies are really obscene ... a reminder of what potency aischrologia had in old fertility rites. [...] This was ritual aischrologia.

  7. Thomas H. Lewis The Medicine Men: Oglala Sioux Ceremony and Healing p.151
  8. Aristotle, in the Poetics, famously mentioned ritual clowning (phallika) and said that it is where comedy and satire originated. Poetics, 1449a-b quotation:

    Be that as it may, Tragedy - as also Comedy - was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities.

  9. Bonvillain, Nancy (2005)The Zuni pp.24-5
  10. Cazeneuve (1957) p.242 quotation:

    Surtout, les Koyemshis, tout comme les Newekwe, peuvent se permettre tout ce qui est contraire aux règles habituelles, et se moquer de n'importe quoi, même de ce qui est sacré. Leur obscénité et leur manque de respect n'atteignent pas le même degré que ceux des Newekwe, mais sont du même ordre. Cependant, il ya entre les uns et les autres une différence importante: les Koyemshis sont des clowns masqués.

  11. Makarius, Laura (1970) Ritual Clowns and Symbolical Behaviour in Diogenes, March 1970 18: 44-73. Also collected in Diogenes Issues 69-72, pp.52-3 quotation:

    Through his study of the Koyemshi, and his considerations on the "sacred," Cazeneuve has contributed to the elucidation of the problem posed by the clowns and more generally that of the violation of taboo.24 ... anthropologists have also noted that clowns break taboos, though less clearly perhaps than Cazeneuve.

  12. Revue (1960) p.118 quotation:

    Il discute aussi la célèbre définition de la civilisation Zuni par Ruth Bénédict comme une civilisation apollinienne, en montrant l'importance des clowns sacrés comme un élément dyonisiaque, tout en reconnaissant que cet élément ne va pas jusqu'à l'orgie. Nous croyons d'ailleurs que les ethnologues qui insistent sur l'orgie n'ont qu'une vision ethnocentrique des cérémonies religieuses dites primitives.

  13. Cazeneuve (1957) p.244-5 quotation:

    Ils constituent donc pour la tribu un moyen de donner une satisfaction symbolique aux tendances anti-sociales. Les Zunis, précisément parce qu'ils sont un peuple apollinien [où la règle prédomine], avaient besoin de cette soupape de sûreté. Les Koyemshis représentent ce que M. Caillois nomme le « Sacré de transgression ».

  14. Durand (1960) p.421
  15. 15.0 15.1 Durand (1984) p.106 quotation:

    Déjà Cazeneuve (2) [Les dieux dansent à Cibola] avait mis auparavant en relief, dans la Société « apollinienne » des Zuñi, l'institution et le symbolisme saturnal des clowns Koyemshis, véritable soupape de sûreté « dionysienne ».


Further reading