Lecture 2: Ritual


  • The practice of religion is not only to be found in rituals; rituals are just one particular type of bodily place in which religiosity is practiced
  • Religion is practiced in the lives people lead, their daily activities, and in how they interact with other material things, such as texts, objects, and places
  • Maurice Bloch suggests that the study of religion would be better framed as the study of ritual
  • The term where ritual is helpful, however, is in the importance it puts on the practice of religion, the things that people do
  • Catherine Bell argued that the term ritual is itself misleading
  • According to Bell, by talking of ritual’ we are suggesting that ‘it’ is a thing with nature of its ow. Rituals are not things, nor do they do things, but people do rituals. Rituals are terms that refer to a diverse range of ways in which people behave and ac in the world. Ritual is used to describe very varied types of behaviour, helping us trying to understand things (activities) that other people are doing. The lens at ritual actions we focus less on the ‘ritual’ in themselves and more on the way in which the people doing ritual are
  • The term ritual is ambiguous, since rituals are not things that exist in themselves, but are ways of acting and behaving. Ritual is better described as ‘ritual action’ or, in Catherine Bell’s phrase, as ‘ritualisation’. Ritual is a way of thinking in action, working on creating a ‘sense of ritualisation’
  • Classical studies of ritual have analysed ritual with respect to meanings, symbols, communications, performance, society, repetition, and transformation. Each of these approaches gives us certain perspectives on some of the ways in which people perform rituals, but none explains ‘what rituals are about’
  • As with all other forms of action, ritual actions express and create relations of power between people

What is a Ritual?

  • Ronald Grimes suggests that ‘ritualizing transpires as animated persons enact formative gestures in the face of receptivity during crucial times in founded places’
  • Catherine Bell argues that ritualization is a matter of various culturally specific strategies for setting some activities off from others for creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the “sacred” and “sound”
  • Roy Rappaport said that ritual is the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterance not entirely encoded by the performance
  • Most of these writers agree that rituals are a matter of doing something performing actions, particular types of behaviour and engaging in that behaviour in certain ways.
  • Ritual actions ‘do’ many things, in different ways by those who participate in them
  • Ritual can be any type of behaviour: both those are obviously religious and also actions which have seemingly little to do with the respect of the religion
  • Bell suggests that there cannot be a definite and universal definition of ritual, since what is ritual depends on the local context
  • Most ritual behaviour is done unreflectively, out of habit without even thinking about whether there is any meaning and purpose behind the action
  • Ritual actions ‘do’ many things, in different ways, and of course are experienced in very different ways by those who participate in them (Ex. When someone attends a ritual event such as a wedding, their meaning, purpose, and experience of the event will be different from the other people who were present at the wedding)
  • The purpose of studying and analysing rituals is to try to understand the many ways in which ritual activity is performed and experienced, and the many things that are going on as a person (or a group of people) participates in a certain type of action
  • The types of actions we call ritual can be any type of behaviour: both that are obviously religious, and also actions which have seemingly little to do with what we expect ‘religion’ to be about
  • Ronald Grimes suggested that there are 16 different categories of ritual action

Ritual and Meaning

  • A basic assumption about ritual action is that it has some sense of meaning and purpose, even if that meaning is not exactly obvious. For example: We may hug our mother, shake hands with a friend, kiss a lover, or say ‘hello’ to our teacher. The performances of these greetings demonstrate that we are acting correctly according to our cultural traditions. It also expresses the relationships that exist between people, and the type of greeting (and how it is performed) shows the strength of the relationship
  • The study of ritual requires the search for these meanings and particularly in actions which have meaning, and particularly in actions which appear meaningless
  • Rituals are actions carried out for more than their functional purpose
  • John Beattie describes a distinction between ‘instrumental’ and ‘expressive’ actions in rituals
  • Instrumental actions are performed primarily for their practical value: to achieve some goal, to get something done
  • Expressive actions are performed for more than this obvious goal, they are done to express certain ideas, or maybe to act out in symbolic form (Ex. Through abstract representations)
  • Therefore, ritual actions are defined as different from other forms of action because they are never exclusively instrumental (actions performed to achieve some goal), since the meanings attached to them by people make the actions expressive (Ex. If I am driving my car to work in the morning, then that would describe a purely instrumental action: I need to travel the distance from my home to the office, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get there. However, as I drive my car I may be making some type of expressive statement. The car may be big and flashy, showing I am wealthy enough to afford a ‘good’ car, or otherwise it may be more modest or run-down)

Ritual and Symbolism

  • John Beattie argued how ideas are founded on symbolist approach to religion and ritual
  • The importance and significance of ritual is that they ‘work’ through symbols
  • Therefore, ritual may be seen as ‘symbolic action’, and symbols are the heart of rituals
  • Symbols are things (material, and sometimes non-material items) that represent more than their material properties
  • Victor Turner defined symbols as the “ lowest unit of ritual”
  • A special sound such as a word or a piece of music may also be symbolic, in that it has a significance which goes beyond the sound itself
  • Symbols are thus items which have meaning and associations which are not basic to their physical properties
  • Associations between the objects and the ideas are random in the sense that they are culturally determined. Because they are random, the meanings or significances behind symbols may not be immediately obvious
  • Theory of Archetype: Is based on assumptions that there are some fundamental symbols with meanings and associations shared by shared by all humans
  • No symbol can only mean one thing, instead it can have many different meanings all of which are culturally determined and can only be understood in the context of the specific culture (Ex. Some symbols are considered to be specifically religious such as a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David, since they are used primarily to represent ideas related to religious things. The same symbol, however, can also represent other ideas, some which may not be specifically religious, or at least not in a narrow definition of religion as being concerned with spirits or gods)

Rituals and Communications

  • Rituals are often a means of communicating messages to participants. Through the performance of a ritual activity, those involved may come to be aware of some idea or concept or viewpoint (Ex. A feast where people involved become aware of the idea or concept of the ritual being performed)
  • There are familiar rituals within western cultures such as marriages, funerals, and Thanksgiving, or Christmas. All of these involve a stress (in different ways) on the idea that the family group should be together
  • Maurice Bloch suggested another way to view the relationship between rituals and communications
  • Argues that ritual is type of language
  • There are no words and so rituals are harder to disagree with
  • Put simply, “you cannot argue with a song” or any other ritual performance, short of stopping the ritual itself
  • This, therefore, makes rituals quite distinct type of action, which sets apart the experience from other aspects of life. At the same time, however, rituals are quite stable activities, since it is harder to make changes with an already existing ritual. They are transferred through time in a form more unchanged than a spoken language

Ritual and Performance

  • Rituals require action because they are a form of behavior that is done
  • Ritual actions won’t happen simply by thinking about it. Someone has to do something, people have to take part in it, and engage in it on a personal level
  • Ritual action therefore is performative, involving people doing things (either consciously or unthinkingly), doing activities in a particular way
  • The performance of ritual may involve special types of behavior. A participants may be expected to assume a certain attitude or to speak in a certain way, or to do certain actions
  • However there is no particular script, and instead participants are expected to improvise, but in doing so they must behave (and perform) appropriately
  • All ritual actions involve a measure of performance, but it does not require a theatrical genius to perform a ritual, meaning it can be performed by normal people

Ritual and Society

  • Emile Durkheim argued that religion has a binding role for societies because it brings people together
  • Ritual actions do not only involve people in relationships with each other, the performance of ritual actually creates those relationships
  • This argument suggests at its most simple level that regular attendance at a religious ritual (Ex. Men going to mosque each Friday) creates a sense of togetherness- through meeting others at the same place each one enters into relationships that would not otherwise have existed
  • Such an argument is so simple that it is both thoughtful and unimportant
  • It is true that some rituals may encourage this sense of solidarity
  • But the argument also serves to underestimate the significance of the social dimensions of ritual activities. Not all rituals have a binding effect, ritual actions can also set up divisions and oppositions

Ritual and Repetition

  • Any action is carried out time after time, then that often leads to it being classified the action as a ritual, simply because it is repeated so often, and so mechanically
  • Edmund Leach argued that the repetition of ritual elements is a function of the way in which ritual are communicative. The more something is said in the ritual the more chance it will get through to the participants
  • Claude Levi-Strauss argued that the meaning of the ritual is transmitted through the relations between symbols and ideas in the ritual and so the frequent repetition of symbols, also means a repetition of the structural relationship between the symbols (Ex. Symbols we find in rituals representing the concepts of nature and culture, non-human and human)
  • Sigmund Freud argued that rituals are similar to, and derived from the actions of neurotics who have fixed patterns of behaviour which they repeat again and simply a collective neurosis (distress), demonstrating an unhealthy state of mind
  • People find comfort from the pressures of the world in ritualistic behaviour
  • Harvey Whitehouse stated how there is an important connection between the structure and function of ritual action and psychological mechanisms
  • He emphasized the relationship between the repetitiveness of ritual and cognitive (mental actions of processing or requiring knowledge) psychological approaches to the way in which the human brain structures experiences as memories
  • According to Whitehouse, it is necessary for rituals to, first, ‘take a form that people can remember’, and second, ‘people must be motivated to pass on these beliefs and rituals. This works through two types of ritual practices, imagistic mode and doctrinal mode
  • Imagistic Mode: Relies on high intensity ritual practice- such as traumatic and violent beginning rituals, overjoyed practices of various cults, experiences of collective possession and altered states of consciousness, and extreme rituals. This type of ritual actions lead to high level of memory retention, in which Whitehouse argues that it is important so that the participant(s) remember the detail of the event
  • Doctrinal Mode: Relies on far more routine and mundane ritual actions, that is, rituals which are performed on a daily or weekly basis and involve very regular repetition. For Whitehouse, this type of repetition creates a different type of memory

Rituals and Transformation

  • Participants in a ritual may make the world actually change
  • Rites of passage can be any ritual which involve major transformations in some way or other
  • Such rituals most usually occur at important times within a person’s life, and so in many cultures there are rites of passage associated with birth, child bearing, and the beginning of adulthood
  • Rituals of circumcision (Ex. Surgical removal of a body parts) are also considered transformation (Ex. When a boy is circumcised, he undergoes a lot of pain as his foreskin is cut off, which once done marks a very obvious and irreversible change to his penis)
  • Marriage services are also clearly transformative. The married couple are not obviously different after the ritual from how they were at the stat. But by going through the ritual their views of themselves become transformed, as do other people’s views of them
  • Arnold Van Gennep's work, “Rites of Passage”, was highly influential in the area of ritual studies
  • He suggested that ritual actions often work in significant ways to transform people’s concepts of time, space, and society
  • Rituals very often help to divide up time and create a sense not only of the passage of time, but also its measurement through the celebration of New Year feasts as well as personal temporal events such as birthdays and anniversaries
  • Most significant argument, is his threefold scheme he presented as being the basic structure of all rites of passage
  • He argued that all rituals which involve transition have three important stages including Separation, Liminality and Incorporation
  • Separation: Between the participants and the world in which them normally live 
  • Liminality: May last a long time, or a short time, a vital part of transformation
  • Incorporation: Gives an indications of the new role that the participants are to take on
  • For Gennep and Turner, there is no fixed limit on how long each stage should last. A stage may be very brief and hardly noticeable, and indeed two stages may merge together so the differences between them cannot easily be separated
  • Victor Turner pursued the concept of the threshold, he stated that it may also be marked in more abstract ways, by creating a sense of difference, this is often achieved by making use of behavior and ideas which show a discontinuity with how things are normally meant to be

Rituals and Power

  • Catherine Bell and Tala Asad both argued that the term ritual is used as an explanation, not a description
  • That is when we call something a ritual we then  begin to think we understand what it is since it brings to mind the analytic concepts that I discussed earlier
  • Maurice Bloch shows how the same rituals have, over the process of 150 years been used in a variety of ways in which participants have related to them have been adapted to changing political circumstances
  • Catherine Bell discussed how the process of setting some behaviour off as ritualised, the creation of the sense of ritualization, is itself a way of expressing power relations
  • What we mean by the term individuals and groups through which the participants engage with and also construct particular types of meaning and value

Not only do rituals express authority, the process of performing rituals- or doing things with that sense of ritualization is a means by which people construct relationships of authority and submission

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