From the epic poetry of Homer’s “Iliad” to hymns of Zarathrustra, compositions from cultures worldwide share a common structural pattern, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas.
Douglas spoke about these patterns to an audience of about 50 people Tuesday.
Known as “ring compositions,” works that follow this complex pattern draw parallels within stories based on repeated characters, numbers, phrases and many other literary devices.
“These rings are too intricate to be subconscious,” Douglas said. “People intentionally made these patterns.”
Douglas said she first encountered the idea of ring compositions in 1987, while working on her first book on the Bible, which focused on the Book of Numbers.
“Some Bible scholars dismissed it, saying it had no structure,” Douglas said.
Shortly after, Douglas said, she encountered many similar patterns in the “Iliad,” the “Aeneid,” the story of Isaac and Abraham, and even hymns of Zarathrustra.
The patterns are based on everything from phonetics to key plot points in the stories, Douglas said.
“It’s great that she found so much correspondence on a large scale.” Videen Bennett DIV ’06 said.
The idea of a ring structure is based on a hopscotch-like diagram of the stories. In the “Iliad” for example, the eight days of battle can be divided in half and corresponding parts of the “Iliad” have many similarities, Douglas said. The first day features the end of the feast of the gods where there is laughter and merriment, while the eighth day is about games and other festivities among the mortals. The second and seventh days also have similar events, as do the third and sixth, and so on. In addition to these parallels, Douglas said, the events alternate in mood. The first day and eighth days feature feasting, the second and seventh feature battle and tragedy and the third and fifth go back to a lighter interlude. This alternating pattern continues throughout the ring structure.
Many members of the audience said they were intrigued and had suggestions about where Douglas could find more ring compositions.
“I think music would be a great place to look for ring compositions,” said Lisa Berlinger, a visiting fellow at the Divinity school.
In addition to explaining the idea of a ring structure, Douglas also gave reasons for why so many cultures would use the idea.
“The complex structure of these poems reflects a need to authenticate yourself,” Douglas said.
In modern times, with credit cards and ID’s, Douglas said, we no longer feel the need to tell people who we are.
“If you were a traveling bard, you’d have to prove you have certain speaking and literary skills to get people to trust you,” Douglas said.
This talk was the second of four lectures Douglas is giving as this year’s Dwight Terry Lectures. In her next two lectures next Tuesday and Thursday, she will discuss further occurrences of ring compositions and other ways societies use them.
English Professor Emeritus Geoffrey Hartman described Douglas as “a wonderfully informed scholar.”
“[She] can make both the formal truths of construction and anthropological findings vivid,” Hartman said.
Once she finishes her lecture series, Douglas will complete a book on ring compositions.
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