Humour and Ritual


The Significance of Humor and Comedy in the Healing Process among Sinhalese.

Bruce Kapferer points out that the periods of comic behaviour within the Sinhalese healing ritual, far from being times of comic relief to ease tension, are an essential part of the transition of the patient from illness to health.

Trickery is an integral part of this healing ritual, the Adura (shaman) tries to trick the demon into thinking it is the victim, he also has to get the victim to transfer the illness to the offering baskets in order to fool the demon. The demons are conjured and in their presence various myths and legends are related, after a number of hours the dancers start enacting a process where everything goes wrong, dancers stumble, drop and break implements and objects, this draws the audience in from the other realm they are inhabiting, gossiping, eating, drinking and laughing.

The interaction between the players takes on a new dimension, wordplays, puns and analogies deriving from simple misinterpretation make links between everyday objects such as faeces and blood and deeper meanings of words.

The audience responds to this with hilarity and recognition, these things are a part of normal life, something that is common to everyone, and nothing mystical.

Douglasís argument of the joke as a form of anti-rite shows that humor is used to deconstruct demonical reality, to enact a ritual that demonstrates the lowly position of the demons in the pantheon, lower than low, that the demons are really subordinate even to humans.

The ritual moves into a space that is totally contrived by the performers. Once the demons have been lured into the demon palace, the trap is sprung on them slowly and they are unable to escape. The whole pantheon starts being subject to ridicule and satire from which no one is immune from the highest to the lowest. It is this re-enactment that allows the levels to be integrated; fear and humor exist side by side. The demons are ridiculed and reduced to silly parodies who donítknow how to behave in accordance with the cultural norms. They are shown as not being able to tell the difference between faeces and the best food.

Turner analyses ritual as having 3 stages during the rite.

The first is separation, here the patient is hidden from the audience.

The second stage is marginality, here they are gradually induced, through humor, to participate in a modified view of their universe that is more in accord with that seen by others.

If the patient does not respond, the shaman will try to cajole and bully them into responding, since this is the stage that determines whether the ritual is a success or not. Humor is not used simply as a stress or light comic relief but is an integral part of the whole healing process. Kapferer (1976). Douglas (1975) argue that humor also serves the function of an anti-rite. The humor serves to break down the perception of demons as being all powerful. At first the demons are treated like gods but are gradually reduced to the level of portraying unacceptable behaviour as ludicrous. Humor, fun, pranks, and jokes are an attack upon the forms that the demons manifest, that their effects are comic, more dangerous to themselvesthan others.

The construction of the ritual with its humor is a very important part of there-integration of the patient back into the community. The ritual, initially,separates the patient even further from the crowd than they originally were, then purifies, through re-enactment, drama and laughter. By gradually leading everyone through the healing process, the patient is drawn into laughing at the ridiculousness of believing in demons having power over the everyday aspects of life. The comedy aspect is laying the foundation for the next phase which is reunification with the group. Buddha is beyond illusion, beyond everything. Turner, in his analysis of various stages, points out the humor occurs during the liminal or transitional stages of the rite. Kapferer says the shaman does not consider the exorcism a success unless the patient has responded to the laughing and joking which means they have returnedto a normal relationship with the universe, one where the Buddha rules over an orderly universe.


Douglas M. 1975.The Healing Rite in Implicit Meanings. London. Routledge and Keagan Paul.

Kapferer B. 1983. A Celebrationof Demons. Bloomington. Indiana University Press.

Kapferer B. Emotion and Feeling in Sinhalese Healing Rites. Social Analysis 1, pp. 153 Ė 176

Jeannie Radcliffe © 2001. 2009