Dr Nicholas Herriman
First published on New Matilda on 24 April, 2013.
What do Anzac Day, ritual meals of Java and ancestor worship have in common? Quite a bit if you’re an anthropologist. Many of the apparently unique ritual elements around Anzac Day are also found in other cultures.
Communion with the dead is a common feature of rituals in many cultures. In Java, ritual meals are practiced in which spirits consume the essence of the food and drink, leaving the perceptible food and drink for the humans. It is a communion of souls — living and dead.
In this way it is very similar to the capital "C" communion of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and the Congregation found in the Christian tradition, achieved through consuming bread and wine.
The idea that the spirits of the dead mortals inhabit this world and should be appeased might sound a little odd. Yet, I have been to a number of weddings at which speechmakers have mentioned that this or that dead relative or friend is surely present. In that context, it doesn't sound that strange. They should want to be there to take part and look over the living.
The Anzac Day ceremony also shares a lot with ancestor worship. Rituals associated with Chinese ancestor worship —whereby the spirits of one's parents, grandparents, and, often, forgotten ancestors are given offerings — might seem foreign. But on reflection, they are not so exotic. After all, when we put flowers and other goods on a grave, who do we expect to enjoy the fragrances? It’s the same with wreaths we lay on Anzac Day.
Related to this is the third element of ritual — toasting. Raising a glass is one of the most meaningful ritual actions in the European tradition. We do it for the bride and groom, the birthday boy or girl, or absent friends (both living and dead).
For Jewish people, it brings in the most holy of days — Shabbat. It’s different, of course, from sipping a coffee while watching TV on a Tuesday morning because it is much more meaningful. If done right (with alcohol, eye contact between those involved, with every one's glass clinking) the toast can confer auspiciousness and luck.
If someone refuses to drink without a valid, usually medical, excuse, like pregnancy, it can be an insult or, worse, jeopardise the fortune of the object of the toast.
The drink for the spirits is similar to a widespread category of libation rituals in which drinks are spilled on the ground for the divine or the dead. We see this on Rote Island (to Australia’s north) as much as in South Central LA (in the street culture).
Third is sacrifice. The connection with Easter and Christ's sacrifice is clear. Yet Easter itself is poignant because it draws on a deeper or more widespread notion of sacrifice. For example, Easter is more important than Christmas in the Philippines—this is because the story of Christ's sacrifice fits well with older notion of sacrifice and debt.
Fourth is the horn, bugle or trumpet. The trumpet is the right choice, being so evocative in Western culture: trumpets "shall sound and the dead shall be raised" as we are told in Corinthians.
Gabriel‘s horn is actually silver trumpet, according to Christian tradition, which would wake the faithful on the Day of Judgment. Also in Joshua "when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat" at Jericho. In Judaism the sound of the ram’s horn “shofar” creates a holy atmosphere.
Each instrument has its role in our culture. As for the trumpet, it connects, temporarily, the supernatural world with the here-and-now.
There are many other elements of the Anzac ceremony that have similar resonances with traditions in other cultures. These include the way the ritual is bracketed off from normal time; how it has responded to modernity and globalisation; the way different groups use the same ritual to their own purposes. But, by considering just these elements, the meaningful practices of other cultures seem less strange.
By taking part in the Anzac Day ceremony, we have an opportunity to connect with practices that are common to many other cultures.
Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on iTunes U.