With these concrete examples of Maya ritual in mind, we might still ask what the term ritual means at a more abstract level? Ritual is a word that anthropologist, historians of religion, archaeologists, and other researchers in various disciplines use to describe a set of practices that are usually seen to have religious significance. Each author on the subject often has a different definition of what "ritual" means and in what contexts it is an appropriate term to use. The late anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined ritual as denoting, "the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers" (1999:24). He argued that ritual:
... logically entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract, the construction of the integrated conventional orders… the investment of whatever it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred and the sanctification of conventional order, the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic (Rappaport 1999:27 italics in original).
Rappaport's definition of ritual is useful because it unifies many of the issues that pertain to our investigation of the Cross Group. In the Introduction to the section on structures, we briefly reviewed the mythology that informs the plan and symbolism of the Cross Group. The fact these structures created or recreated a particular moment in myth suggests that the rituals performed there were also part of this same mythic narrative or were modeled upon it or its structure. It further suggests that the objects and images used in these rituals were connected in a complex web of meaning and social practice that is difficult to reconstruct, yet impossible to truly understand without attempting to do so. For art historians the idea of the "construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic," is a powerful one for understanding the role of art and architecture in ritual. Art, architecture, pageantry, and even olfactory sensations all may be part of ritual but are easily overlooked if we focus solely on the perceived function of ritual, its texts, or symbolism in isolation. That is, as we have seen previously in this discussion, objects such as censers are agents within ritual and are not just symbols. They are the deity. This is a particularly interesting fact to keep in mind when looking at other depictions of devotional rituals from the Codices, such as the Dresden and Madrid, where the enshrined entity is depicted using conventions normally reserved for living beings.
When we turn to Classic period, it appears that ritual, icons, and their architectural settings created orders of meaning that did indeed transcend the semantic. Just as words make thought tangible and the conception of the sacred possible, sacred images and architecture put a face to the divine and allow for humanity's communication with and manipulation of an otherwise invisible, numinous sphere of existence. This view allows us to go beyond the iconographic content of a particular sculpture to understand how it worked in the space and time of ritual.
Recently, there has been an increasing interest in how the actions that we call ritual are talked about and conceptualized by indigenous peoples. That is, there is a growing interest in the emic conceptualization of religious practice. In the context of the cultures of Mesoamerica, John Monaghan observes that:
If ritual is defined as action that is impractical, symbolic, supernatural, and/or fixed and routine, then its theological status is doubtful. Ethnographers at least have not been able to come up with an indigenous term that uniquely encompasses the actions we want to label as ritual. Again, based on the idioms people use to name and describe ceremonies, we see that instead of officiating at a rite, practicing a ritual, or performing a ceremony, officiants are "feeding" or "straightening" or "sweeping." Among the Mixe, rituals are simply called "work" (2000:32).
He makes the important point that the word "ritual" is not a term found in the indigenous languages of Mesoamerica, rather, these societies tended to refer to most of the actions that we call ritual with terms for work or other domestic activities. This may be seen in the images from the Dresden and Madrid Codices that illustrate this page. The scene above depicts an architectural ritual entitled with the phrase utek'aj, or “the pacing off" of the shrine. Less obscure in meaning are the three images that follow. These excerpts illustrate, respectively, the eating of tortillas, the drilling of fire, and the planting of food, interestingly depicted as gods divining into the earth. Domestic practices were likely the model upon which these and other rituals were based. Thus, both temples and houses are swept to clean and ritually purify them, stone monuments and structures are "tied," as is the thatch and frame of the domestic house, objects as well as people are fed, bathed, and clothed, and even the gods do not escape from the chores of planting. What perhaps seem for us two separate spheres of social life (however illusionary this perception might be) are for Mesoamericans a single whole brought together in the daily, monthly, and yearly ebb and flow of life's labor.
The Classic period Maya at Palenque also appear to have preferred to name their rituals with words specifying the specific action to be done, as we will see in the following subsections to "Rituals."