Huizinga & Reality: The Philosophical Conundrum of Cultural Rituals as Play


According to Huizinga, play is a universal trait of all species that is essential for the development of civilization (“Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon,” 100). In play, players reject the usual rules of the world and have fun within a clearly designated time and space (106; 104). In these regards, I agree with Huizinga’s stance, but to say all cultural rituals are play is too much of a stretch. It was not play when the Mayans sacrificed humans to the gods despite elaborative rules and ceremonial dress. It was a ritual cemented firmly in their belief about how their world functioned. It is also not play when Catholics go to mass each Sunday for although they worship at a designated time and in a designated space the values or the “rules” of their game cease to exist when the church is left; ideally the preached principles are practiced the other six days of the week. When rituals are centered on and are acted out of genuine beliefs then it ceases to be play because if not, then what in this universe is actually real?

If Huizinga’s idea of cultural rituals as play is accepted as an overarching truth of all rituals then we might as well be the people in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” who only see the shadows of true objects and never know that they are in fact mere shadows. A distinction needs to be drawn because some cultural rituals are forms of play such as the example Huizinga gives of parents playing Santa Claus for their children (115). The main differences between play-ritual and not-play-ritual are that play-ritual players know that they are acting a part, that they will only be acting that part for a specific amount of time, and that the target audience of their acting will at some point learn the truth. It does not mean that play-rituals are diminished in terms of significance or sincerity as players can be completely serious in their roles, but it is only a temporary role that they play. To say that all cultural rituals are play creates this Matrix-esque, simulated reality and as play is inherently voluntary and free I doubt this is the case. Play is important to culture, but all cultural rituals are not play.

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One Response to Huizinga & Reality: The Philosophical Conundrum of Cultural Rituals as Play

  1. cstabile says:

    But listen to what Huizinga actually has to say in regard to what he calls “sacred” or “mystical” performances that according to him retain “the formal characteristics of play”: “A sacred space, a temporarily real world has been expressly hedged off for it. But with the end of the play its effect is not lost; rather it continues to shed its radiance on the ordinary world outside, a wholesome influence working security, order, and prosperity for the whole community until the sacred play-season comes round again” (108). So I think what he is arguing is that the play-element is at work in sacred rituals (and keep in mind that he sees play not as being something that is always non-serious).

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