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Thinking about rituals

Updated Monday 5th February 2018

In this series, Professor Graham Harvey considers everyday habits alongside religious and ceremonial rituals and asks at what point does a repeated activity become a "ritual" in itself.

Ecce Agnus Dei during a Solemn High Tridentine Mass Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Darth malus under (PBD) licence "Ecce Agnus Dei" during a Solemn High Tridentine Mass

Rituals in everyday life

Once you alert to them, rituals are everywhere. Some are dramatic and involve large numbers of participants. Others are small everyday acts done repeatedly by individuals. Religion frequently involves doing rituals, but the worlds of politics, sport, education and many other areas of life can also be thoroughly ritualised. Scholars interested in rituals ask questions like: What is “ritual”? How is it different to other activities? Why do people do rituals? How do rituals affect those who do them?

A simple definition might begin with the terms “action” and “repetition” – combined with the assertion that rituals are repeated actions. This emphasises that rituals are things that people do: rituals involve the senses and movements of bodies. Repetition suggests that anything someone does more than once could be a ritual. Such activities can include participation in religious ceremonies, political rallies and sporting events where specific costumes, gestures, postures, sounds and other acts are expected and contribute to the atmosphere and experience. Rituals can also include more individual or familial actions to do with costume and food choice or with weekly routines.

Is repetition enough to require us to identify some activities as rituals? When someone does something for the first time and intends to do it again, perhaps even that first occurrence is a ritual too. However, the mere fact of repetition (or intended repetition) hardly deserves a big word like “ritual”. After all, we have many words for things we do more than once: like habit, routine, schedule, organisation, rehearsal, performance, system and even recipe. We also recognise that most rituals involve elements of improvisation rather than rigid conformity. So we need to be careful not to over-emphasise repetition.

Korean tea ceremony Creative commons image Icon Mai-Linh Doan under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Korean tea ceremony

Another key characteristic of rituals is that they are catalytic. They cause change. They do not always do so immediately: the fact that they need to be repeated tell us that! Sometimes rituals reinforce changes we’ve already made. By regularly wearing the same sort of clothes we reinforce our membership of and participation in groups or communities. By regularly eating particular kinds of food – or avoiding some foods or drinks – we make ourselves more like the people we want to be. And more like the people we want to be with. We repeat acts that shape our lives, dispositions, identities and relationships.

Cultural rituals and initiations

The changes caused by rituals are often recognised as significant and sometimes transformative. Naming ceremonies make newborns into members of families and communities. Weddings change people into couples. Funerals can change those who have died into ancestors (particularly venerable members of some societies) and aid mourners to adjust to their new reality. There are rituals which initiate people into new groups or roles.

Even in relatively ordinary circumstances we often use repeated actions to mark changes: we shake hands with colleagues when they are promoted and give them flowers when they retire. These life changes seem to require us to do things that have no purely practical purpose. That is, the mutual shaking of hands, in itself, does not make someone different. However, it is a culturally recognised way of indicating respect and can signal that we are paying attention to and give heightened significance to some changes of role or life.

Some initiations involve large gatherings, distinctive costumes, and the acceptance that someone or some group now has permission or authority to do new things. Examples include ceremonies in which people become religious, political leaders or university graduations. Such transitions into new statuses or roles gain added emphasis from rituals of increased formality and recognisable “fit” with accepted tradition. The putting on of robes, necklaces or other insignia are common examples.

Students at an Open University Graduation. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University Students graduating from The Open University

Rituals and enlightenment

Some of the changes made by rituals involve relationships between communities and the larger-than-human world. If we recognise that people who participate in religious, sporting, political or family rituals generally mesh more closely with those groups, we can also appreciate that rituals might have profound effects on our place in the world. Some rituals not only celebrate seasonal changes or acknowledge the shortening or lengthening of daylight at the solstices, but also orientate individuals and groups to their position in the cosmos.

Thus, some cultures have regular ceremonies to renew and re-affirm understanding of how people relate to the plants, animals, mountains, rivers, deities and/or ancestors whose lives are braided with human wellbeing. These and other rituals require participants to act as if the world really is as it should be – for example as if all beings lived in harmony. These rituals can affect the dispositions, imaginations and intentions of participants so that, after the ceremonies are over, people discover that they are now ready to live in ways that bring a better world into being.

Repeated bodily actions are a starting point for defining “ritual”. To them, we must add terms like participation, catalytic, affective, causing change or transformation, paying attention, heightened significance and formality. The degree to which these terms apply to specific acts is important, but they point to the mix of characteristics that define some activities as rituals.

 

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