Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Soundscapes: the female voice in ritual

Two weeks ago I was at the regional AAR/SBL religion conference in Atlanta, and sat in on several enjoyable sessions. One of the papers that has continued to intrigue me since then was read by Jessica Starling, University of Virginia, who has done research on female priests in Japanese Temple Buddhism. Her paper touched on the question of how sounds impact our experience of religious rituals. Specifically, she raised the issue of how a female voice fills a ritual space, as compared to a male voice, and what this different soundscape means.

She described how she had once heard another woman softly wonder out loud, following a ritual led by a female priest in a Japanese temple, whether this ritual was indeed effective. The ritual, usually led by a man, is typically associated with the speaking and chanting of a male voice - a deeper voice, which carries further. The experience of listening to a woman's voice is different. It evokes different associations and, at least in this particular case, it confounded expectations and led to doubts about the authority of the ritual. I find it intriguing how rituals can jar and mesh with our senses like that.

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