Why is human life so ritualistic and what do our rituals say about us?

A person is walking through an elaborate labyrinth that spirals all around them; light colored sand and ocean.
Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

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6.1 What are rituals?

Cultural anthropologists like to examine a society’s rituals because rituals can reveal a great deal about a community’s worldview, belief systems, and lived experiences, including the mythology and specifically creation mythology. The term “ritual” can be hard to define because rituals vary widely and are considered differently in different contexts. However, in this class, we can begin by defining rituals as: An act or series of acts regularly repeated over years or generations that embody the beliefs of a group of people and create a sense of continuity and belonging (Davis-Floyd, 8). Alternatively, a ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place or time, and performed according to set order (Stein and Stein, page 77).

Bronislaw Malinowski wrote that rituals give human beings a comforting sense of control during times of uncertainty, he wrote,

“To perform a series of rituals is to feel oneself locking onto a set of cosmic gears which will safely and inevitably crank the individual right on through the perceived danger to safety on the other side.”

Rituals can be personal to you or they can be communally shared. When a ritual is shared by a community, it usually builds a sense of cultural continuity. For example, if you were baptized in a church, and your parents and grandparents were also baptized, then it likely holds a great deal of meaning when you also baptize your children. This generational baptism links all of the family together and reinforces the family’s commitment to a certain set of values.

Here are some other examples of religious rituals that build a sense of community:

  • Takuhatsu: Takuhatsu is the word used to refer to almsgiving among Zen Buddhist monks (other Buddhist groups use different words). In most Buddhist traditions, the monks are believed to be servants of the community-at-large. In order to maintain their residency in a local monastery, the monks are expected to conduct religious ceremonies for the community, offer teachings, and serve. It is traditional for Buddhist monks to walk through the community and to beg for food (Carney 2016). This tradition allows the local community to earn good karma by giving a donation to the monks. Furthermore, this tradition maintains a relationship between the monks and the community because, if the monks aren’t serving the community properly, they will not receive any donations. This covenant between the religious leaders and the community is maintained where both rely on and support each other. In many modern American temples today, online fundraisers serve the same function whereby members are likely to give to a temple that is better serving the community.
  • Hare Krishna Mantra: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a modern religious movement that believes in the Hindu God Krishna’s power. This religion is quite popular in the United States and has a big following in Los Angeles, specifically. Members of this religious group put their faith in Krishna for salvation and usually live communally. This group believes that they can achieve enlightenment through a variety of lifestyle changes and rituals and they believe that their religious chant that starts with, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare…” can be chanted in order to elevate the mind. Members of this community further believe that one can offer good karma to others by chanting outside; the belief is that all people and animals who hear the chant will be blessed by good karma. So, you may see members of this group walking outside in their peach robes and chanting and now you can understand that they are seeking to give you some good karma.
  • Mortuary Temple Worship in Ancient Egypt: Ancient Egyptians had a similar creation myth as the Judeo-Christian Genesis myth in that darkness and chaos turned into life through the emergence of the “Island of Creation” from the primordial waters. This set the stage for mortuary temples, whose function was to provide a home for a deity and perform daily rituals and offerings to the deity so that the king (pharaoh) would have eternal life and so that Egypt and its people would have prosperity (David, 139). The ritual included taking the deity’s statue, washing and clothing it, and giving it food three times per day. Here we see how a society’s creation myth directly impacted daily rituals in the religious community.

6.2 Rituals Can Be Secular Or Religious

Rituals can be religious or they can be secular (non-religious). In both cases, these rituals commit people to a shared identity, reflect the community’s value systems, and create a sense of meaning and a sense of control. Here are some examples of each:

  • “The Pledge of Allegiance” is a secular ritual. This American tradition asks participants to verbally recommit themselves to serve the United States each time they participate in the ritual.
  • Weddings and funerals can be either religious or secular. Depending upon the particular details of each and the participant’s goals, these rituals can include religious elements or they can have no religious elements.
  • A graduation ceremony is typically a secular ritual. During this ritual (which we will discuss at length in a moment) participants receive a new social status based on academic achievement.

As you can see, some rituals are always inherently religious whereas other rituals can change depending upon the particular situation.

Cultural anthropologists examine rituals because they reveal the following:

  • Rituals embody the worldview, beliefs, passions of the group (Davis-Floyd 10). In other words, the motivating factors behind cultural traditions can be understood by examining ritual. Does the community value patriotism and allegiance? Does the community value self-sacrifice? Does the community value self-reliance, etc.?
  • Different rituals are designed to achieve different cultural outcomes. Whereas one community might engage in a ritual that is designed to worship their God, another community might engage in a ritual that is designed to reinforce a commitment to science.
  • Rituals demonstrate the structure and order of things within a particular worldview. For example: a society that doesn’t believe that women are equal to men will likely not allow women to lead in ritual. So, we can see the hierarchy of gender, humans/animals, humans/Gods in the structures of the ritual (Stein and Stein, pg 77–102).
  • Rituals also present economic and political opportunities that participants can use to their advantage. In this sense, a culture’s rituals don’t just demonstrate “how that culture is” (how people make sense of the world around them). Rituals also are — and have likely always been — important platforms that people actively use in order to reproduce or transform the relationships, ideas, and social structures that exist in their culture (see below).

To illustrate the last point, it will be useful to explore a case study.

6.3 Human Sacrifice As Ritual

When we study ritual, students often find themselves wondering about human sacrifices. Human sacrifices are a form of ritual that anthropologists and, specifically, archeologists examine at length. It’s important to understand that, in the grand scheme of things, very, very few societies practiced human sacrifices and, in spite of the fact that mainstream society likes to accuse people of sacrificing humans, many, in fact, did not. So, when you hear someone claiming that a community sacrificed people, please fact check before you believe it.

That being said, there have been some instances of human sacrifices throughout history. Let’s pause here to address that by taking a culturally-specific approach. Sacrifices are a form of ritual where the participants give up something that is enormously valuable to them (Sosis 167). Usually, but not always, the sacrifice is offered to a divine being. People who are not rich will sacrifice money or people who are hungry might sacrifice food and, often, the belief is that the sacrifice will bring the people more of what they need. We sacrifice what is valuable to us because that is what the divine beings also value; if you gave up a few dollars to your God while keeping $10 million at home, then the sacrifice wouldn’t actually have any meaning. Societies who sacrificed human lives did so precisely because of how highly they value human lives. The sacrifice only had meaning if it was viewed to be a valuable offering.

6.4 Rituals Establish Generationally Continuity

Durkheim argued that rituals build solidarity across generations (Summers-Effler, 135). In Durkheim’s view, when multiple generations re-commit themselves to their society’s values through prescribed ritual, the community’s identity is maintained.

Let’s examine 4th of July celebrations and apply Durkheim’s ideas to the holiday. Take a moment and search the internet for 4th of July posters from one hundred years ago (consider searching for the year 1918). Looking at these images, you can see many of the same elements that we incorporate into our own Fourth of July celebrations today (over 100 years later). You can see red, white, and blue. You can see stars and stripes. You can see Uncle Sam, fireworks (or, perhaps, explosions) and, often, guns. All of these symbols incorporate key American values: power, independence, patriotism. You might notice that, in many, violent imagery is central to our national identity. Each year, the country unifies in wearing red, white, and blue, spending the day celebrating liberty and community. Some celebrate in a more sarcastic tone while others celebrate quite genuinely, but in all of these cases the themes are the same and we recommit ourselves to an idea of a national identity together and we do this annually.

6.5 “Too Costly To Fake”

Anthropologist Richard Sosis is an American/Israeli anthropologist who is interested in examining the rituals that are dangerous, painful, or costly to a community. Sosis was inspired to study these elements of ritual while observing some orthodox Jewish people praying at the holy site called the Wailing Wall. In Sosis’ description, the climate near the Wailing Wall is very hot and sunny and the Orthodox Jewish people wear thick black clothing from head to toe. And yet, in spite of the risk of heatstroke, these religious people continued to pray for hours on end at the religious site. Sosis asked himself: why do some cultural groups engage in such difficult and/or costly practices?

Sosis argues that cultures with little power are inclined to require costly rituals in order to guarantee that all members are fully committed to the well-being of the group.

Sosis begins his argument by explaining the concept of a free rider. Consider this: in every society, it is in the best interest of the general population if all members contribute equally to the well-being of the society. On the other hand, it is in the individual’s best interest not to contribute while also benefiting from the contributions from the rest of the community. When everyone contributes, everyone needs to contribute slightly less. When one or a few members refuse to contribute, the remaining contributors must contribute more.

For example: imagine that you have five roommates. If each roommate equally contributes to chores in the home, then everyone only needs to complete 1/6 of the labor. But, it’s in your best interest not to contribute, and to preserve your energy and time while the other five roommates complete the chores. Then, you are at an advantage while everyone else needs to contribute 1/5 of the labor. A free rider is someone who benefits from contributions of the community without, themselves, contributing.

It’s important to note that the term “free rider” is often used politically to blame one group or another for the problems of larger society. So, when you hear this term being thrown around, look deeply into the speaker’s motivations and question the assumptions before buying into their claim.

Sosis continues his argument by explaining that, for cultural groups that exist in the minority, survival requires that all members contribute equally. Sosis explains that Jewish people exist as a minority group and that this leads the community to need to avoid the free rider problem. Examine, for example, the hugely powerful Catholic Church in contrast can more easily afford to have free riders due to the enormous church’s monetary and political power.

So, in Sosis’ view, communities with less power establish rituals that are extremely costly in order to identify which community members are genuinely prepared to equally contribute to the community’s survival. These types of costly rituals might include monetary cost, health cost, a time cost, or a dignity cost. To illustrate his point, Sosis uses an example from the animal kingdom:

“The only signal that can be believed is one that is too costly to fake, which [is referred to] as a “handicap”… For example, when the springbok antelope spots a predator it often “stots” — it jumps up and down. This extraordinary behavior puzzled biologists for years. Why would an antelope waste precious energy that could be used to escape the predator? And why would the animal make itself more visible to something that wants to eat it? The reason is the springbok is displaying its quality to the predator — its ability to escape, effectively saying, “Don’t bother chasing me. Look how strong my legs are, you won’t be able to catch me”. The only reason a predator believes the springbok is because the signal is too costly to fake. An antelope that is not quick enough to escape cannot imitate the signal because it’s not strong enough to repeatedly jump to a certain height. Thus, a display can provide honest information if the signals are so costly to perform that lower quality organisms cannot benefit by imitating the signal (Sosis, 168–169).“

You can watch an example of these antelope jumping high into the air here:
Springbok pronking

In this example, we see that the antelope could not afford to ritualistically jump if it were unable to subsequently escape attack. So, human beings design rituals that are, in Sosis’ view, “too costly to fake.” These rituals demonstrate that one’s commitment to the group is greater than commitment than personal preservation.

6.6 Rites of Passage

French sociologist Arnold Van Gennep first examined a particular type of ritual called a rite of passage (Welsch and Vivanco, 348). A rite of passage is a ritual that moves a person from one life stage to another life stage. Consider the following examples:

  • A graduation ceremony signifies that a person is no longer a student and is now a graduate, usually holding a degree that is intended to elevate professional status.
  • A wedding ceremony moves a couple from the status of “dating” to the status of “married;” this rite of passage forms a new family.
  • A funeral helps the community accept that a person is no longer a living member of a community and moves the passed-on individual into their new social status as deceased.

Arnold Van Gennep identified three stages of a rite of passage including:

  1. Separation (The phase in each rite of passage where the person going through a change is moved into a location away from the community.) (Turner, 94)
  2. Liminality (The middle phase where the ritual is taking place. In the liminal phase, a person is no longer a member of their old identity, but they are also not yet a member of their new identity; they exist between two states. The liminal phase is usually signified through some kind of dress that removes the person’s individual identity. For example, people in the liminal phase usually all wear the same clothing and remove personalized symbols).
  3. Reincorporation (After the initiate has completed the required ritual actions, they are allowed to return to society with their new status. In this phase, they are recognized as having a new identity and role in society). (Turner, 94)

For example: when a couple is preparing for their wedding ceremony, they typically wait for the ceremony to begin away from the guests who are arriving at their wedding or, in other words, they are separated from the community. Most cultures prescribe some kind of clothing that couples are expected to wear during the wedding ceremony. This establishes a sort of liminality during the actual ceremony whereby the couple exists in a space where they are no longer engaged but are also not yet married. Finally, after being pronounced married, the couple then celebrates with their guests in attendance as they are reincorporated and recognized as a new family unit.

We can analyze a graduation ceremony in the same way:

  1. First, the people graduating are separated from their friends and family; they typically sit in the center of the ceremony space and listen to an address.
  2. During the ceremony, all participants wear the same cap and gown which creates a sense of liminality.
  3. Finally, the participants are handed a diploma and are declared “graduates” and return to the community to be congratulated and recognized as having a new social position.

6.7 The Hajj

Let’s examine the Muslim pilgrimage called the Hajj to clearly illustrate the power of liminality.

In a future chapter, we will discuss the beliefs of the world’s major religions and we will discuss the basic tenants of Islam at that time. But for now, it’s important that you understand that Islam’s prophet Muhammad told his followers that every Muslim person needs to complete a pilgrimage, or physically travel to a holy site. Please search the internet for a photo of the Hajj and note the overwhelming white color which shows us the uniform clothing worn by most participants.

The Hajj is considered to be a transformational journey; it is an important part of the Muslim experience. Because, in Islam, all people are equal in the eyes of God, all people participating in the pilgrimage are expected to wear the same white clothing. During the pilgrimage, no one is perceived as poor or rich, or better, or worse. Instead, they achieve liminality by removing all insignias of status and allow everyone to present themselves as equal.

6.8 Victor Turner

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner lived from 1920–1983. Turner was a symbolic anthropologist who specifically specialized in rituals and rites of passage. Turner advanced Van Gennep’s understanding of the three stages of rites of passage (Kertzer).

Victor Turner argued that the power of a ritual comes from the drama of the ritual (Davis-Floyd, 14). You may already understand this argument because, probably, the more dramatic a ritual feels to you, the more meaningful it feels. For example, if you sit in the back of a church, temple, mosque, or any other venue where rituals occur, and roll your eyes during ceremonies while texting on a phone, then those rituals probably don’t mean very much to you. But, if you attend a ritual at one of these venues during a time of personal crisis or loss, you may find a great deal of meaning in it. And on this occasion, you may cry and feel more connected to your religious beliefs. Human beings strive to create meaning through ritual, and the power of the ritual comes from the drama.

Allow me to illustrate this using a local example. A partnership between the evangelical churches of Acton and Aqua Dulce hosts a play every Easter Sunday that tells the story of Christ’s resurrection. This event begins before sunrise at Vasquez rocks. The actors portray Jesus’ torture and crucifixion. As the sun rises over the striking scenery, the audience witnesses Jesus’ resurrection. All the participants have to wake before sunrise in order to attend which would inevitably cause them to feel quite tired and therefore more emotional. Imagine how powerful the drama is during this event!

This is a very popular cultural event in the area and I would not be surprised if at least some of you have attended this event. If you have attended the event or are members of any of these churches, please text me right away because I would love to hear further thoughts about this event!

Turner proposed that as a person experiences the liminal phase of a rite of passage, they take on the following characteristics:

  • Necessarily ambiguous
  • “Betwixt and between” identities
  • “Neither here nor there”
  • No status, no insignias
  • Seems to possess nothing; naked
  • Groups become homogenized, builds camaraderie (Turner, 96))

Perhaps you can recall rites of passage in your own life. We encourage you to take a moment to do so, and try to identify the liminal phase within the broader event, using the attributes listed above. After all, if rites of passage are common in most societies as a way of marking when a person changes their social role, it is very likely that your society features them too, particularly since there exist so many social roles that a person can have over the course of their life!

If you have experienced a graduation ceremony at some point in your life, the attributes of liminality listed above should not be hard for you to imagine, as these ceremonies provide great examples of rites of passage. During the liminal phase of a graduation ceremony, a participant is no longer a student but is not yet a graduate; that status is only attained at the end of the ceremony. In this sense, they are “betwixt and between” identities. These events — which usually occur in special spaces that are not part of the daily routines of soon-to-be graduates (“Neither here nor there”) — often feature long black gowns that participants must wear, covering the entire body except the face and hands. These gowns serve to mask differences between people undergoing the ritual such as their sex or their style of dress, which often signals social identity and socioeconomic status. In this way, the special clothing used in a graduation ritual creates a sense of ambiguity (“Necessarily ambiguous”) while removing typical indicators of status that normally reinforce social distinctions (“No status, no insignias”; “Groups become homogenized”). Further, although participants are usually not literally naked during graduations, they could be seen as naked in the sense that all of the objects that usually cover them are absent because they are hidden by the graduation gown (Possesses nothing; naked). Finally, these events often create a lasting impression among graduates of a shared experience (Groups become homogenized, builds camaraderie). For all of these reasons, Turner would argue that there is an important connection between graduation events and other rites of passage that human societies have conducted for tens of thousands of years.

Victor Turner also argued that challenging rituals serve the function of building communitas within a group (Turner, 94–165). We define “communitas” as the feeling of camaraderie that binds together people after going through a trial or tribulation. If you have ever worked in retail, for example, then you are familiar with the way that the stress of working through the holiday season can bond coworkers together on an unexpected level. This is a feeling that often manifests through sleep-away camp or military training. By struggling together, people feel a stronger bond.

6.9 Audrey Richards

Another anthropologist, Audrey Richards, addressed a rite of passage for women among the Bemba people of Zambia. Richards focused on a coming-of-age rite of passage called Chisungu, during which girls performed 18 different ceremonies in order to move themselves from childhood into adulthood (Guest, 377–378). This ritual takes place after the girls’ first menstrual cycle and is intended to prepare her for marriage (Ibid).

Throughout Chisungu, young initiates are taught the sacred stories and songs of their culture by elder women which allows the young girls to carry on the cultural traditions for their communities (Ibid). Alongside this cultural knowledge, the girls are also expected to demonstrate prowess in hoeing, sowing, and gathering firewood as these are all tasks that fall on the shoulders of women in their society (Lancy, 334).

The Chisungu ritual is largely designed to move the young girl into a stage of womanhood so that she can become eligible for marriage and sex. As a result, the rituals incorporate a variety of sexual symbols (Lancy, 311). The young women who are transformed in this community engage with the powerful cultural symbols that encompass their culture’s larger value systems (Turner, 103).

6.9 Birth As Ritual

Birth is a rite of passage for both parent and child as, from a cultural perspective, all parties enter new life stages and new social statuses upon completion of the birth.

American Anthropologist Robbie E. Davis-Floyd examined the ritualistic elements of pregnancy and childbirth in the United States in her book titled, Birth As An American Rite of Passage. Davis-Floyd argues that our belief systems are reinforced through symbolic ritual and that these symbolic rituals serve the function of translating a society’s value systems into an emotional reality for the participants. In other words, we feel the value system of our society when we engage in ritual.

Davis-Floyd argues that pregnant women are expected to attend and cooperate with highly ritualized OBGYN appointments: in these appointments women are expected to sit, exclusively, in a particular chair, often women are required to wear a particular hospital gown, etc. This serves the function of enculturating the pregnant woman into the larger parenting and body ritual value systems of the culture. Davis-Floyd further explains that effective rituals need to convey one, simple message and they do this by repeatedly conveying the messaging over and over again. She highlights that rhythmicity, redundancy, and repetition are key elements in an effective ritual.

Furthermore, Davis-Floyd asserts that rituals form a certain perception of reality for all participants to accept and then requires that all participants reason within that specific concept of reality. This is achieved in order to assure that the diversity of intelligence and experience does not cause the individual participants to question the logic behind the ritual. In order to achieve a unified and simplistic worldview throughout, the ritual participants re-construct their world in a binary sense (black and white, either/or) so that it can be similarly grasped by people of all levels of intelligence.

Davis-Floyd makes the point that medical training is, itself, a ritualistic process whereby doctors are put through strenuous training and rote memorization designed to prevent them from questioning the medical structures within which they work. At the same time, women in labor are reduced to a vulnerable state during which the pain prevents critical thinking. These two elements combined rely on the comfort and control that ritualized practice can offer.

Finally, in her work, Robbie E. Davis-Floyd makes the fascinating argument that pregnancy and birth need to be ritualized and medicalized in order to construct a sense of control over a natural process that is, in reality, outside of our complete control.

6.11–6.13 Examples of Rituals

Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following material:

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Bibliography

Carney, Eido Frances. “Zen and the Art of Begging.” Tricycle, 7 Feb. 2016, tricycle.org/magazine/zen-and-art-begging/.

David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Facts on File, Inc. 1998.

Davis-Floyd, Robbie. Birth as an American Rite of Passage. Univ. of California Press, 2010.

Gennep, Arnold van, et al. The Rites of Passage. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Guest, Kenneth J. Cultural Anthropology: a Reader for a Global Age. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.

Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Richards, Audrey Isabel. Chisungu. 1956.

Rooyin, Ali. “Liminality in Hajj’s Rituals (The Comparative Analysis of Hajj’s Rituals and Features of Expedition Theater).” University of Tehran, jfadram.ut.ac.ir/article_69005_en.html.

Sosis, Richard. “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual.” American Scientist, vol. 92, no. 2, 2004, p. 166., doi:10.1511/2004.46.928.

Summers-Effler, E. Ritual Theory. In: Stets, J.E., Turner, J.H. (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions. Springer. 2006.

Turner, Victor. Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Routeledge, 2017.

Welsch, Robert Louis, and Luis Antonio Vivanco. Asking Questions about Cultural Anthropology: a Concise Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2019.

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About

This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College, edited by Sarah Etheridge. Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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