Part of the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard in Whitehall, London.

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.

The field of ritual studies has seen a number of conflicting definitions of the term. One given by Kyriakidis (2007) is that Ritual is an outsider's or "etic" category for a set activity (or set of actions) which to the outsider seems irrational, non-contiguous, or illogical. The term can be used also by the insider or "emic" performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community; in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it; either in public, in private, or before specific people. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between religious or social states.

The purposes of rituals are varied; with religious obligations or ideals, satisfaction of spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners, strengthening of social bonds, social and moral education, demonstration of respect or submission, stating one's affiliation, obtaining social acceptance or approval for some event—or, sometimes, just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, atonement and purification rites, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, coronations and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school "rush" traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, Halloween parties, veterans parades, Christmas shopping and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposia, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritualistic in nature. Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying hello may be termed rituals.

In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety; it is a symptom of obsessive–compulsive disorder.


Ritualistic behavior in animal kingdom and early human prehistory

Ritual actions are not characteristic of human cultures only. Many animal species use ritualized actions to court or to greet each other, or to fight. At least some ritualized actions have very strong selective purpose in animals. For example, ritualized fights are extremely important to avoid unnecessary strong physical violence between the conflicting animals.

According to Joseph Jordania, the initial function of ritualistic behaviors in human evolutionary prehistory was to achieve the altered state of consciousness in hominid brain, in order to transform individual hominids into a group of dedicated individuals with a single collective identity. In this state (which Jordania calls battle trance) hominids did not feel fear and pain, they were religiously dedicated to group interests, were not questioning orders, and could sacrifice their lives for the common goal[1]. This state was induced by ritualistic actions: loud rhythmic singing, clapping and drumming on external objects, dancing, body and face painting, and the use of specific cloths. The same kind of ritualistic actions are still widely used in order to achieve the psychological unity of participants in various religious practices, as well in military forces to prepare soldiers for the combat situations[2][3]

Ritual actions

There are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated into a ritual. The rites of past and present societies have typically involved special gestures and words, recitation of fixed texts, performance of special music, songs or dances, processions, manipulation of certain objects, use of special dresses, consumption of special food, drink, or drugs, and much more. Religious rituals have also included animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, and ritual suicide. Ritual lamentation—song performed with weeping—in many societies was regarded as required to ritually carry the departed soul to a safe afterlife (Tolbert 1990a, 1990b; Wilce 2006).

Religious rituals

In religion, a ritual can comprise the prescribed outward forms of performing the cultus, or cult, of a particular observation within a religion or religious denomination. Although ritual is often used in context with worship performed in a church, the actual relationship between any religion's doctrine and its ritual(s) can vary considerably from organized religion to non-institutionalized spirituality, such as ayahuasca shamanism as practiced by the Urarina of the upper Amazon.[4] Rituals often have a close connection with reverence, thus a ritual in many cases expresses reverence for a deity or idealized state of humanity.

Social functions

The social function of rituals has often been exploited for political ends. Alongside the personal dimensions of worship and reverence, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society.

Social rituals have formed a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. The earliest known undisputed evidence of burial rituals dates from the Upper Paleolithic. Older skeletons show no signs of deliberate "burial," and as such lack clear evidence of having been ritually treated. Anthropologists see social rituals as one of many cultural universals.

Rituals can aid in creating a firm sense of group identity. Humans have used rituals to create social bonds and even to nourish interpersonal relationships. For example, nearly all fraternities and sororities have rituals incorporated into their structure, from elaborate and sometimes "secret" initiation rites, to the formalized structure of convening a meeting. Thus, numerous aspects of ritual and ritualistic proceedings are engrained into the workings of those societies.

Anthropological studies

Of particular interest to anthropologists has been the role of ritual in structuring life crises, human development, religious enactment and entertainment.

Among anthropologists, and other ethnographers, who have contributed to ritual theory are Victor Turner, Ronald Grimes, Mary Douglas, and the biogenetic structuralists. Anthropologists from Émile Durkheim through Turner and contemporary theorists like Michael Silverstein (2004) treat ritual as social action aimed at particular transformations often conceived in cosmic terms. Though the transformations can also be thought of as personal (e.g. the fertility and healing rituals Turner describes), they become a sort of cosmic event, one stretching into "eternity."

See also


  1. ^ Joseph Jordania, Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution, Logos, 2011
  2. ^ William McNeil, 1995. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  3. ^ Jonathan Pieslak. 2009. Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Indiana University Press
  4. ^ Dean, Bartholomew 2009 Urarina Society, Cosmology, and History in Peruvian Amazonia, Gainesville: University Press of Florida ISBN 978-081303378

Further reading

  • Durkheim, Émile. (1912) The Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life.
  • Durkheim, E. 1965 [1915]. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: The Free Press.
  • Malinowski, Bronisław. (1948) Magic, Science and Religion. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Gennep, Arnold van. (1960) The Rites of Passage. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Douglas, Mary. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo". London: Routledge.
  • Turner, V.W. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Harmondsworth: Penguin. —. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
  • Turner, Victor W. (1969) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
  • Erikson, Erik. (1977) Toys and Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience. New York: Norton.
  • D'Aquili, Eugene G., Charles D. Laughlin and John McManus. (1979) The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. (1987) To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lawson, E.T. & McCauley, R.N. (1990) "Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Staal, Frits (1990) "Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning". New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
  • Tolbert, E. 1990a. Women Cry with Words: Symbolization of Affect in the Karelian Lament. Yearbook for Traditional Music, 22: 80–105. —. 1990b. "Magico-Religious Power and Gender in the Karelian Lament," in Music, Gender, and Culture, vol. 1, Intercultural Music Studies. Edited by M. Herndon and S. Zigler, pp. 41–56. Wilhelmshaven, DE.: International Council for Traditional Music, Florian Noetzel Verlag.
  • Bloch, Maurice. (1992) Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. (1994) The Beginnings of Ritual Studies. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Bell, Catherine. (1997) Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rappaport, Roy A. (1999) Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Perniola Mario, Ritual Thinking. Sexuality, Death, World, foreword by Hugh J. Silverman, with author's introduction, Amherst (USA), Humanity Books, 2000.
  • Silverstein, M. 2003. Talking Politics :The Substance of Style from Abe to "W". Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press (distributed by University of Chicago). —. 2004. "Cultural" Concepts and the Language-Culture Nexus. Current Anthropology 45: 621–652.
  • Seijo, F. 2005. The Politics of Fire: Spanish Forest Policy and Ritual Resistance in Galicia, Spain. Environmental Politics 14 (3): 380–402
  • Wilce, J.M. 2006. Magical Laments and Anthropological Reflections: The Production and Circulation of Anthropological Text as Ritual Activity. Current Anthropology 47: 891–914.
  • Fogelin, L. 2007. The Archaeology of Religious Ritual. Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 55–71.
  • Kyriakidis, E., ed. 2007 The archaeology of ritual. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology UCLA publications
  • Bax, Marcel. 2010. 'Rituals'. In: Jucker, Andeas H. & Taavitsainen, Irma, eds. Handbook of Pragmatics, Vol. 8: Historical Pragmatics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 483–519.
  • McCorkle Jr., William W. (2010) Ritualizing the Disposal of Dead Bodies: From Corpse to Concept. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

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