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Gay, V.P. (1980). Death Anxiety in Modern and Pre-Modern Ritual. Am. Imago, 37(2):180-214.

(1980). American Imago, 37(2):180-214

Death Anxiety in Modern and Pre-Modern Ritual

Volney P. Gay, Ph.D.

That some religious rituals protect one from some kinds of anxiety is not surprising. More surprising is the fact that one can find both modern and pre-modern rituals that cultivate an especially acute form of anxiety, death anxiety. In this paper I use current concepts in psychoanalytic ego psychology to discuss three such rituals: Eliade's account of a pre-modern puberty ritual, LaBarre's description of a snake handling cult, and Warner's classic account of Aboriginal curses.

My general aim is to show how the very broad resources of ego-psychology can help us elaborate a non-reductionistic, comparative psychology of religion. My specific aim is to suggest, using key psychoanalytic concepts, that we can distinguish between beneficial and harmful or less effective religious rituals. A ‘better ritual’ will be one that transforms individual anxiety about one's own death into a public moment of both ritualized danger and ritualized salvation. Thus some rituals can effectively sublimate an individual's private anxiety and private desperation into a public behavior that demonstrates the power of that ritual and the consequent meaning it holds for the faithful. My argument will be that we can best conceive of this power of transformation in terms of the healing capacities of the religious superego.

Anxiety and Identification as Universal Processes

I have chosen to use the concept of identification as the ordering principle of this study for two reasons. First, it is a central and well developed theme in the psychoanalytic theoretical and clinical corpora which pertain to normal as well as to pathological mental processes. Freud and his strictist followers tended to examine religious phenomena from the side of the psychoanalytic theory of the neuroses (Freud 1907b, 1912x, 1927c, 1928a).

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