Patterned rituals and Vedic chants

This book is interesting:
Staal, F. (1996). Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. (zotero link)

A book by a Dutch mathematician and philosopher on Vedic rituals. He takes a linguistic approach, based on the early work of Pāṇini on generative grammar around 4th century BCE. He notes the patterned, recursive structure of rituals, proposes that this structure is therefore syntactical (but without semantics), and could therefore be a precursor of language. He also compares ritual with western musical structure.

I’m sure there’s problems with this… There’s also the debate about whether ‘music’ or ‘language’ came first, or whether they grew together, but I suppose these debates are always based on present day, geographically situated ideas about what these categories are, in ways that don’t apply elsewhere in the world and are unlikely to apply in prehistory. I’d be interested in what others think of this… But still it’s interesting to think of the cyclic patterns of life as being recursive, how those patterns are also carried through ritual, and how these patterns could be reflected in recursive linguistic structures too.


This sounds incredible. I’m in the middle of a very dense work period but I’d definitely be up for working on this !

As said, the debate about whether music/language first came about is (like “many” aspects of human evolution) vastly beyond our present understanding. But, beyond some of the brilliant research in this specific area, it relates to exciting research in neuroscience, genetics, paleogenomics and art history (there is also Oliver Sack’s 2007 book).

Overall, the idea of looking at behavioral patterns from an algorithmic / pattern-related angle is sort of mesmerizing. When I discovered the term “recursion” was used in ethology, I was surprised to find that it meant “returning to previously visited areas”, which is not broad or abstract enough for what you’re aiming for here. But still, an interesting angle in order to try and look from beyond the fence of our situated ideas !

Thanks for all these pointers @benjamin! I’ve also heard of Stephen Mithen’s book “the singing neanderthals” but haven’t really read into this area yet.

Back to Staal’s book, I’ve been looking up information about Vedic chants and the patterned structures are really fascinating. Vedic chant - Wikipedia . An amazing example of advanced algorithmic music that I wasn’t aware of at all. I would love recommendations for more reading / listening around this and related topics!