Book Review: The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists, by Robert Ackerman (Routledge, 1991/2002)

As my readers can tell from the nature of my latest posts, much of my recent research pertains to the mythology underlying our holidays and festivals and, starting in ancient times. Holiday celebrations first and foremost feature rituals. Hence, in such an inquiry the ideas of the ritual school of myth inevitably demand consideration. Of the books and articles on my shelf that I’ve revisited in this regard, The Myth and Ritual School: J.G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists by Robert Ackerman stands out as especially worthy. When I read it (well, most of it) long ago, I had not yet absorbed much of the writings of the figures that the book discusses, especially Jane Harrison, James Frazer, Gilbert Murray, and S.H. Hooke, but re-reading Ackerman’s analysis after having become more familiar with these other scholars gave me a valuable, deeper understanding of what these scholars were about, how they collaborated in thinking through the issues over the years, and how their works fit together. With this fresh experience behind me, although Ackerman’s book is not a new publication, I decided to post here a short book review of it, structured with a view to pointing out how my mythie readers could be similarly helped in connection with this subject.

This book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking to deepen one’s understanding about the relationship between myth and ritual in general and the ritual theory of myth (or “myth-ritualist” theory) in particular. This theory holds that myth and ritual are intimately linked. Originally (beginning with William Robertson Smith), and more commonly, its adherents have held that, as a historical matter, ritual came first, and that any associated myth came later to explain the ritual and so is secondary; others hold that myth came first because one must believe in or have a concept of something sacred in order to construct a ritual around it; others simply say that the two normally go together without giving either precedence. Whatever the case, the lesson for us is that we can understand myth better by studying any accompanying rituals, and vice versa. Just think, for example, of the relationship between the Christian liturgy and Christian holiday rituals and the underlying beliefs and scriptures (as well explained, for example, by Alan Watts in his book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity).

As the book’s title indicates, Ackerman focuses on a particular group of British scholars associated with myth and ritual theory active mainly in Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, principally James Frazer, Jane Harrison, A.B. Cook, Gilbert Murray, and F.M. Cornford, and on the aftermath of their efforts. Except for Frazer, they were principally classicists seeking to uncover the origins of Greek drama in ritual and myth, and so their work generally did not extend beyond Greece into the myths and rituals of other cultures. Accordingly, other than to provide helpful background (see below), the book too does not discuss myth and ritual theory from a broader, non-Greek perspective, and it accords generally short attention to other scholars who from that period forward have been associated with myth and ritual theory, for example Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. From this perspective, this narrow focus limits the utility of Ackerman’s book as a tool for understanding the issues in myth and ritual theory more generally. Likewise, the book’s final chapter, an account of the aftermath of the Cambridge group’s work, also focuses on subsequent scholars’ evaluations of the Cambridge group’s own efforts rather than providing Ackerman’s own evaluation of the Cambridge group’s role in later myth and ritual theory. For a broader perspective readers should turn to other works, for example the anthology of essays edited by Robert Segal entitled The Myth and Ritual Theory (Blackwell, 1998) and Segal’s own writings on the subject.

Nevertheless, the book does develop two areas of general interest in connection with the theory. First, Ackerman traces the relevant preceding general developments in myth theory that influenced the Cambridge group, in particular those stemming from the rise of anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology as relevant disciplines, which challenged the assumptions and scholarship of older disciplines, most directly that of Classics in the Cambridge case. Second, as a result of the above the book contains enlightening discussions of cross-disciplinary issues and the relevance of the above disciplines to myth theory in general. The book also ends up showing the important role of “myth criticism” in analyzing literary and religious texts, an approach which I consider essential but which disciplinary specialists generally fail to (and are unable to) take up, and which was the approach I took in my recent book analyzing the biblical Eden story from the mythological perspective.

What is lost as a result of the book’s lack of breadth is gained through the depth of its central inquiry. Whereas most discussions of myth and ritual theory are rather general and are weak on the application of the theory to the particulars, by focusing on the Cambridge group’s own scholarly treatment of Greek drama, mythology, and ritual, Ackerman leads the reader through the nitty-gritty of the issues and the argumentation in relation to that case, and one emerges from the read with a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the complexity of the particular problems involved in myth and ritual theory.

Ackerman displays a deep understanding of this subject, his writing is lucid and he avoids rambling and tangents, and the analysis is thoughtful and persuasive. The book’s discussion is well supported by endnotes with citations and further explanations and it has an adequate bibliography, but I would have liked to have a subject index and not merely an author index. Unfortunately, the book, even in paperback, is rather expensive ($43.95 list price; $37.87 on Amazon), so obtaining it through a library may be a preferable option for many.

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