Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) was the most famous female classicist of her day, and perhaps of any day. Mary Beard, a Cambridge don and author of the best Harrison biography now available, has even called her the first female “career academic.” She was also Hope Mirrlees’ tutor at Newnham College and later Mirrlees’ mentor, living partner, collaborator, and very close friend for many years. She deserves a proper introduction, but I don’t have the time to assemble one quite yet, so please forgive me for referring you to her Wikipedia page for details.

The influence of Harrison’s ideas on Mirrlees’ work is immediately visible once you start looking at Harrison’s extensive and groundbreaking work on ritual, myth, religion, and art—sometimes startlingly so, as in Lud-in-the-Mist—and I think anyone seriously interested in Mirrlees, and in Lud, should try to dunk themselves pretty thoroughly in Harrison. Not because it’s important to validate Mirrlees’ work by affixing it to the respectable texts of a more famous writer, nor because it’s useful (or true) to imply that Mirrlees ‘lifted’ her ideas from someone else, but because it opens up passages to the subterranean chambers of ritual and folklore that give Lud so much of its resonance. To those more interested in Mirrlees’ other works, a reading of Lud alongside Harrison’s work also reveals the womens’ interplay of ideas and casts more light on the extraordinary relationship the two women maintained until Harrison’s death.

There will doubtless be quite a few Harrison posts up here over the next few months, but for now, I just want to post an excerpt from Harrison’s 1925 incredibly charming autobiography, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life. This section falls toward the end of the book, which is short enough to read in a single happy afternoon, and resonates quite clearly with the inner life of Lud-in-the-Mist.

I have elsewhere tried to show that Art is not the handmaid of Religion, but that Art in some sense springs out of Religion, and that between them is a connecting link, a bridge, and that bridge is Ritual. On that bridge, emotionally, I halt. It satisfies something within me that is appeased by neither Religion nor Art. A ritual dance, a ritual procession with vestments and lights and banners, move me as no sermon, no hymn, no picture, no poem has ever moved me; perhaps it is because a procession seems to me like life, like durée itself, caught and fixed before me. Only twice have I seen a ritual dance, and first the dance of the Seises before the high altar in the Cathedral at Seville. It was at Carnival time I saw it. I felt instantly that it was frankly Pagan. Its origin is, as the Roman Church frankly owns, “perdue dans la nuit des temps”—we can but conjecture that it took its rise in the dances of the Kouretes of Crete to Mother and Son. The dance was accompanied by a prayer to the setting sun, a prayer for fight and healing. The movements executed by six choristers are attenuated to a single formal step. It is decorous, even prim, like some stiff stylized shadow. But it is strangely moving in the fading fight with the wondrous setting of the high altar and the golden grille, and above all the sound of the harsh, plangent Spanish voices. Great Pan, indeed, is dead—his ghost still dances.

Only last year I saw a wondrous ritual procession, a marked contrast to the Seville dance. It is held at Echternach each year, on the Tuesday after Pentecost. It is, I think, the most living survival of the ritual dance to be seen in Europe. Thanks to the kindness of a Luxembourgoise lady, Madame Emil Mayerisch de Saint Hubert, I was able to observe it in every detail. The dancing procession is held now in honour of our Saxon saint, St.Willibrord, but obviously it goes back to magical days. The dancers muster at the bridge below the little town and, gathering numbers as they go, dance through the streets, halting here and there and ending in the Basilica. As the dance is magical, it is essential that the whole town should be traversed. The clergy are in attendance, any one and every one dances or rather leaps, for it is a jumping step; like the Cretan Kouretes they “leap for health and wealth.” I saw an old, old woman, scarcely able to walk, but she “lifted her foot in the dance.” I saw a woman with a sick baby in her arms, and she danced for healing; but most of all it was the young men, the Kouretes, who danced.

The ritual dance is all but dead, but the ritual drama, the death and the resurrection of the Year-Spirit, still goes on. I realised this when I first heard Mass celebrated according to the Russian, that is substantially the Greek rite. There you have the real enacting of a mystery—the mystery of the death and resurrection of the Year-Spirit which preceded drama. It is hidden, out of sight; the priest comes out from behind the golden gate to announce the accomplishment. It is the coming out of the Messenger in a Greek play to announce the Death and the Resurrection. The Roman Church has sadly marred its mystery. The rite of consecration is performed in public before the altar and loses thereby half its significance.

I mention these ritual dances, this ritual drama, this bridge between art and life, because it is things like these that I was all my life blindly seeking. A thing has little charm for me unless it has on it the patina of age. Great things in literature, Greek plays for example, I most enjoy when behind their bright splendours I see moving darker and older shapes. That must be my apologia pro vita mea.

5 Responses to “Jane Ellen Harrison on Ritual”

  1. mary beard says:

    Hi erin.. interesting! good luck, mary

  2. H. Wessells says:

    Superb quotation, Erin. This makes clear to me why Harrison’s dream of the dance of the bear was so significant to her (Hope-in-the-Mist p. 10).
    Thank you!
    And my, what distinguished company you draw!


  3. Erin says:

    Thank you so much, Professor Beard. I am a great fan of your work, and it’s extremely kind of you to stop by.

  4. Erin says:

    And thanks to you as well, Mr. Wessells. Reminiscences is a real joy.

  5. Richard Mills says:

    You are going to find the following improbable, but I believe it will be of interest to you. I stumbled across your Hope Mirrlees Web site, and having very fond memories of the book, I scanned through the site. Since it appears that very little is known or has been written about Mirrlees, I would like to share details about my interactions with her. These occurred almost 40 years ago, so some of the details will be fuzzy.

    I first became aware of Mirrlees when I read the American paperback edition published by Lin Carter. This prompted me to purchase a copy of “A Fly in Amber.” Since that book was in print, and Carter had written that he was unable to trace Mirrlees, sometime in the early 1970s I wrote a letter to the publisher of “Amber,” asking if there was any way to contact Mirrlees. In response, Mirrlees either contacted me directly, or did so after the publisher gave her address to me. She was unaware of the paperback edition. I believe I wrote to Carter, but in any event the two of them established contact and presumably a payment was made to Mirrlees. I think Carter wrote a brief note to me to this effect.

    Subsequently I received a few letters from Mirrlees. I do not have any exact memory of their content, but think they were more autobiographical in nature rather than concerned with her literary efforts. She also sent a copy of one of her poetry collections to me. I do not recall the title.

    These letters, including the note from Carter, should still be in my possession. I thought they were in a collection of letters I have received from various authors, but that is not the case. Therefore they must be kept in the envelope that the volume of poetry was sent in. All of this material should be in one of the many boxes of books in my basement, which were put into storage four years ago when I moved. I will try to find them, but this will take a few months, as I am preparing to leave the country for a trip abroad this month.

    Good luck with your thesis!


    Richard Mills

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