People have traditionally turned to ritual to help them frame and acknowledge and ultimately even find joy in just such a paradox of being human – in the fact that so much of what we desire for our happiness and need for our survival comes at a heavy cost. We kill to eat, we cut down trees to build our homes, we exploit other people and the earth. Sacrifice – of nature, of the interests of others, even of our earlier selves – appears to be an inescapable part of our condition, the unavoidable price of all our achievements. A successful ritual is one that addresses both aspects of our predicament, recalling us to the shamefulness of our deeds at the same time it celebrates what the poet Frederick Turner calls “the beauty we have paid for with our shame.” Without the double awareness pricked by such rituals, people are liable to find themselves either plundering the earth without restraint or descending into self-loathing and misanthropy.
― Michael Pollan, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder
Modern weaponry has changed what it means to be a warrior. Showy technical skills are little use against bullets and rocket propelled grenades. I think most of us remember this poor guy from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Video via Patrick Roe via YouTube.
There was a time, however, when there was room for performance before fighting. Exhibiting elegance or skill might garner respect from an opponent; exhibiting frenzy and strength might scare them out of wanting to fight you. This pageantry has been largely dismissed as battle tactic, although it still appears in ceremonial settings.
Haka party waiting to perform for the Duke of York, 1901
The Maori people of New Zealand have a tradition called haka peruperu, or dance of war. Each tribe has its own haka (dances) that have been passed down for centuries, serving as challenges and war cries in preparation for battle. The goal of battle was to kill all of the opposing force so that there were no survivors to exact revenge. Haka performance was designed to intimidate the opponent and give him a last chance to back out before slaughter ensued, all the while building teamwork, cohesion and focus among fighters. Unorganized and out of synch performances were bad omens. It was imperative that every single participant move with the group as anything else would shake the warriors confidence and set them up for failure. Practicing these forms was a bonding ritual which also helped decide who lived and who died.
The haka peruperu consists of a series of postures, vigorous movements and rhythmic shouting. It is performed mostly by men, although women may take part in a limited fashion in some instances. There are other forms of haka entirely for women, some for mixed groups, and some for children. In peruperu, the focus is on being as terrifying as possible. Eyes are opened wide and tongues flash rapidly in a movement which recalls that of a snake preparing to strike. Men leap and squat, beating their hands on their chests and thighs and stamping their feet, using their bodies as musical instruments. Chanting, grunting and screaming are all employed to amplify the effect.
Today, haka peruperu are performed by New Zealand sports teams before (and sometimes after) matches, by the armed forces of New Zealand in military ceremonies such as funerals, and by traditional groups performing in communities and for foreign dignitaries.