Ritual: Religion

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Ritual: Religion

The comparative study of religion has generally focused on doctrine, on canonical texts and their interpretations. But what of religions without writing, much less canonical texts?

Evolutionary Anthropology

As E. B. Tylor noted in his seminal work, Primitive Culture (1871), "it is generally easier to obtain accurate accounts of ceremonies by eyewitnesses, than anything like trustworthy and intelligible statements of doctrine; so that very much of our knowledge of religion in the savage and barbaric world consists of acquaintance with its ceremonies" (1958 ed., vol. 2, p. 449). Such a division of religion into "doctrine" and "ceremony," into "belief" and "ritual," reflected an even more fundamental dualism in European thought between "mind" and "body." The unquestionably racist implications of the idea that, among "savages," ritual is more developed than doctrine is that their mental faculties are less developed than their physical ones.

Tylor and Frazer.

Tylor was one of the key figures in the institutionalization of the modern discipline of anthropology; indeed, in 1884, he was appointed to the first university post in anthropology in Britain, at Oxford no less. Tylor and his contemporaries looked to so-called primitive societies for insights into the origins of modern institutions, such as marriage, the family, the state, and property. These scholars relied heavily on the accounts of European travelers, few of whom were conversant enough in the languages and cultures of the peoples they described to provide accurate and detailed accounts of religious belief. Consequently, Tylor depended upon descriptions of ritual in his attempt to infer a generalized idea of "primitive religion" that he argued was centered on "animism," the belief that humans, but also animals and even inanimate objects, have souls. To support his theory, he cited legions of examples from around the world of "water worship," of "tree worship," of the sacrifice of objects, animals, and humans at funerals so that their souls might assist the deceased, and other ritual practices. Tylor's ultimate aim was to demonstrate that religion as a whole was a holdover from primitive misconceptions about the world. Thus he also used ritual to demonstrate the existence of primitive "survivals" in contemporary religious practice: "throughout the rituals of Christendom stand an endless array of supplications unaltered in principle from savage timesthat the weather may be adjusted to our local needs, that we may have the victory over all our enemies, that life and health and wealth and happiness may be ours" (p. 456).

Sir James Frazer shared Tylor's methods of argumentation as well as his opposition to Christianity. For Frazer, religions emerged from earlier forms of belief in magic, based on principles of analogy and imitation. The Golden Bough (1890) cited countless examples of rain-making and wind-making rites as illustrations of such principles of "sympathetic magic." Frazer's analysis revolved around the figure of the divine priest-king responsible for the rites ensuring the fertility and prosperity of the land, who had to be put to death once his powers gave signs of waning. For instance, he drew parallels between instances where divine kings in Japan or Mexico were prohibited from seeing the sun or touching the ground and similar interdictions in girls' puberty rites from around the world: "The uncleanness of girls at puberty and the sanctity of holy men are only different manifestations of the same supernatural energy" (vol. 2, p. 242). For Frazer as well as for Tylor, primitive rituals provided a code with which to decipher imperfectly articulated systems of belief.

Robertson Smith.

W. Robertson Smith's The Religion of the Semites (1889) aimed, like the work of Tylor and Frazer, to uncover the primitive roots of modern religion. However, he conceived of the relationship between ritual and belief in radically different terms. Premising that "the antique religions had for the most part no creed; they consisted entirely of institutions and practices" (1972 ed., p. 16), he concluded that ritual was prior not only to doctrine, but even to myth. Sacrifice, the most ancient of all rituals, addressed the relationship between the clan, its god, and its totem animal, all of whom were considered kin to one another. The god, as a member of the clan, was particularly concerned with maintaining harmony among fellow members. The original form of sacrifice was a holy meal for which the totem animal, whose flesh was otherwise strictly forbidden, was ritually killed and shared by the assembled clan and its god. The act simultaneously expressed and guaranteed the solidarity of the clan. If the theories of Tylor and Frazer were primarily intellectualist, attempts to use ritual as a key to primitive thought, Robertson Smith pioneered a more thoroughly sociological approach.

From Evolution to Sociology

Émile Durkheim acknowledged the influence of Robertson Smith in his magnum opus, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). However, unlike his evolutionist predecessors, his goals were not to uncover the original form of religion (which he rightly considered an impossible task) but rather the very essence of religion, its universal features. He accepted key evolutionary assumptions, notably that he could rank human societies unambiguously from simpler to more complex, and that the simplest society would have the simplest religion. Scholarly consensus at the time identified native Australian societies as the simplest in existence. Durkheim was able to rely on the work of pioneer Australian ethnographers Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, whose description of the Arunta in The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) contained a wealth of detail on religion and especially ritual. Durkheim intended his analysis of this "elementary" case to demonstrate the centrality of religion to human society in all of its forms, including modern Europe. For Durkheim, religion incarnated society's conscience collective, a term that can be translated either as "collective consciousness" or as "collective conscience." If religious beliefs were expressions of this consciousness, then ritual imparted the conscience causing believers to internalize the deep-seated sentiments that made religious and moral ideas compelling. Rituals were, for Durkheim, sites of collective effervescence, moments when the very fact of congregating to perform set actions imparted special energy to the participants. These emotions generated by ritual gave credence to religious beliefs and moral dispositions. For example, mourning rituals were not simply expressions of an individual sense of loss; on the contrary, the rituals conditioned, if they did not create, the very sentiments they expressed. Last but not least, ritual was essential in maintaining the separation between the domains of the "sacred" and the "profane" that, for Durkheim, constituted the defining essence of religion.

Van Gennep.

Arnold Van Gennep's The Rites of Passage (1909) considered rituals from an entirely different vantage point, neither in terms of the ideas they expressed nor the sentiments they instilled, but rather in terms of shared formal properties of ritual process. Specifically, he argued that a wide variety of rituals from very different types of society effected "passages" in a literal or metaphorical sense from one state to another. Literal passages included leaving or entering a specific territory or passing a threshold when entering or exiting a dwelling. Metaphorically, they denoted the passage from one social state to another, specifically rituals of pregnancy and childbirth, of initiation, of marriage and betrothal, and of death. Such ceremonies, he suggested, all involved the same sequence of phasesrites of separation, of transition, and of incorporationso that the person or group could be separated from one initial state in order to pass into another. Van Gennep categorized the transitional phase in terms of the metaphor of the threshold (limen in Latin), as "liminal." His was undoubtedly the most fully "instrumental" of the early approaches to the study of ritual, an attempt to understand ritual in terms of what it accomplished instead of what it expressed.

From Theory to Ethnography

The development of anthropology as an academic discipline in the first half of the twentieth century effaced the distinction between ethnographic description and theorization that characterized the work of the evolutionists, as well as Durkheim and Van Gennep.

American approaches.

In the United States, Franz Boas and his students were especially critical of the speculative nature of their predecessors' theories. Working for the most part among Native Americans, they provided richly detailed accounts of rituals while deliberately avoiding presenting their own interpretations. Paul Radin, in The Winnebago Tribe (1923), devoted a large portion of his text to descriptions of ceremonies, translated as literally as possible from informants' accounts. In his discussion of fasting and the vision quest, he juxtaposed a variety of individual accounts in order to demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between "the actions and testimony of the religious man from that of the intermittently religious and the nonreligious man" (1990 ed., p. 229). However, another of Boas's students, Ruth Benedict, was able to find a means of interpreting ritual that avoided both intellectualist and sociological approaches. In Patterns of Culture (1934), she contrasted the Apollonian ethos of Pueblo culture with the Dionysian timbre of their neighbors, using examples largely drawn from ritual contexts. The vision quest and the Sun Dance among Plains cultures exemplified the extent to which they "valued all violent experience, all means by which human beings may break through the usual sensory routine" (p. 80). On the other hand, "There is nothing wild about [Pueblo dances]. It is the cumulative force of the rhythm, the perfection of forty men moving as one, that makes them effective" (p. 93). Rituals were an expression, not of individual ideas, but rather of the overall style of a culture, in the same way that Gothic architecture expressed the style of the later Middle Ages.

French approaches.

Unlike their American counterparts, French and British anthropologists were self-conscious heirs to the Durkheimian tradition, though in very different ways. In France, an important school of thought developed around the work of Marcel Griaule among the Dogon in West Africa. In Conversations with Ogotemelli (1948), he related a series of interviews with a knowledgeable elder who gradually exposed an intricate, secret cosmology to the anthropologist, providing interpretations of major Dogon rituals in the process. For Griaule and his school, the true, deep meaning of rituals lay in esoteric traditions of exegesis, fully known only to a few initiates, the most knowledgeable of elders. If nineteenth-century theorists had argued that rituals were the key to understanding religious ideas which "natives" were incapable of articulating, Griaule suggested on the contrary that highly articulate native intellectuals held the key to understanding the inner significance of their culture's rituals.

British approaches.

Of the various national traditions, British anthropology was perhaps the most sociologically inclined. No doubt for this reason, early British ethnographic studies tended to focus on institutionseconomy, law, politics, and especially kinship. The notable exception was Gregory Bateson's Naven (1936), which centered on a transvestite ritual among the Iatmul of New Guinea; to honor a boy or a young man, his mother's brother dressed in grotesque female attire and symbolically offered himself to his nephew, while his paternal aunt proudly donned male attire. The book was an extraordinary experiment in analysis, exploring the cogency and limits of four different approaches to explaining the ritual: a "structural" analysis in terms of the cultural logic of different kin relationships; a "sociological" analysis in terms of the contribution of the ritual to maintaining solidarity within the community; an "ethological" analysis examining the emotional component of Iatmul culture, especially in gendered terms; and an "eidological" analysis in terms of patterns of dualistic thought among the Iatmul.

In the 1950s, other British anthropologists turned increasingly to studies on religion and ritual. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's experience of fieldwork among the Nuer of southern Sudan in the 1930s had led him to convert to Roman Catholicism. Years afterwards, in his study Nuer Religion (1956), he suggested that "Those who give assent to the religious beliefs of their own people feel and think, and therefore also write, differently about the beliefs of other peoples from those who do not give assent to them" (p. vii). This attitude was evident in the rich and complex analysis of Nuer sacrifice that accounted for about one-third of the entire book. Sacrifice was a means of communication between the sacrificer and kwoth, "God" or "Spirit," comprehensible only in terms of the complex Nuer representations of "Spirit" but also of "sin," especially when the purpose of sacrifice was to restore the moral imbalance in the relationship between Spirit and the believer that the commission of a fault had occasioned. The sacrificer identified himself in the most intimate way with the spear with which he transfixed the victim, but equally with the ox, the victim, itself, so that sacrifice ultimately represented a gift of the self to Goda relationship that Evans-Pritchard refused to reduce to a sociological, psychological, or ideological explanation.

Audrey Richards's Chisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Zambia (1956) was a pioneering study that focused centrally on women's performance, ideas, and attitudes. She paid special attention to the explanations of different sorts of participants, ritual specialists as well as initiates or their mothers, and showed how the ritual simultaneously expressed dogmatic cultural valuesthe deference of juniors to elders and of females to malesand unconscious tensions connected with the ambivalent attitudes about sex and marriage.

The 1960s

The 1960s saw the emergence of sharply divergent currents in American anthropology, with some anthropologists focusing on the elaboration of cultural meanings while others stressed the relationship of behavior to ecology, with the interaction of humans with their environment.

Ritual and ecology.

Marvin Harris was perhaps the most dogmatic of the latter, advocating a kind of analysis loosely inspired by Marx, which he labeled "cultural materialism." For Harris, ritual and ideology were epiphenomena of modes of production, a mechanism for adapting to specific environments. His most famous example was the "sacred cow" in India; in his analysis, he maintained that ritual prohibitions on eating beef (which did not in any case apply to the least privileged classes, including Muslims) were not instances of the irrational sway of religious ideology, but rather a highly efficient strategy for managing scarce resources, including manure needed for fuel, milk, and animal traction for plows.

Roy Rappaport's Pigs for the Ancestors (1968) analyzed the kaiko, a ritual cycle among the Maring of New Guinea, in terms of cultural ecology. The cycle began with the planting of a rumbim tree to signal a truce between warring groups. Some years later, the uprooting of the tree heralded the beginning of a year-long celebration whose climax involved a huge feast where most of the pig herd of the group was slaughtered and consumed, after which hostilities might resume. Rappaport included extensive discussions of the role of pork within the Maring diet, of the carrying capacity of the territory, of the balance between the human and the pig populations, and of warfare as a mechanism for controlling scarce agricultural resources. He concluded by comparing the kaiko cycle to a thermostat, an on/off mechanism for adjusting the relationship between different variables: human and pig populations, but also trade, marriage, and relations of alliance and hostility. Unlike some of his colleagues, Rappaport never dismissed the importance of cultural meanings out of hand, but instead bracketed consideration of meanings for the specific analytical purpose of examining the pragmatic functions of ritual.

Geertz The 1960s also marked the heyday of "symbolic anthropology," of a renewed interest in religion and symbolism, topics that for a long time, especially in the United States, had been marginalized in anthropology because they seemed intractable to scientific investigation. In an influential paper titled "Religion as a Cultural System" (1966), Clifford Geertz, the leading exponent of this approach, looked back to Durkheim when he postulated that "sacred symbols function to synthesize a people's ethosthe tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and moodand their actual world viewthe picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality are, their most comprehensive ideas of order" (1973, p. 89). Ritual served to integrate ethos to worldview by rendering the ethos intellectually reasonable and the worldview emotionally compelling. In this way it supplied "models of" as well as "models for" realitycompelling representations of the way the world really is and the way it ought to be.

Geertz had already applied this perspective in his monograph on The Religion of Java (1960). Though the overwhelming majority of Javanese identifed themselves as Muslims, Geertz identified three variantsabangan, santri, and prijaji associated with three distinct strata of Javanese society: peasants, merchants, and bureaucrats. Santri were more preoccupied with doctrine than with ritual, whereas both abangan and prijaji variants were primarily associated with ritual expression. The core of abangan practice was the slametan, a communal feast shared with neighbors (not to mention local spirits), which "concentrates, organizes, and summarizes the general abangan ideas of order, their 'design for living'" by stating "the values that animate traditional Javanese peasant culture: the mutual adjustment of interdependent wills, the self-restraint of emotional expression, and the careful regulation of outward behavior" (p. 29). Similarly, the mystical prijaji ethos and worldview were best expressed in shadow plays. Geertz went on to apply a similar approach to the politico-religious rituals of the Balinese theater state or, more prosaically, to cockfights.


The study of symbolism in ritual was already an important facet of British anthropology in the 1950s; in the 1960s, the next generation produced a dazzling array of detailed analytical studies of ritual, particularly in African societies, among which Victor Turner's work with the Ndembu of Zambia stood out as particularly rich and multifaceted. Turner was deeply interested in theater, and used the analogy of "social drama" as an analytical device even before he focused specifically on ritual as a means of presenting case studies of village conflict. The analogy lent itself particularly well to ritual performance, especially healing rituals, which simultaneously expressed and attempted to resolve specific conflicts generated by points of tension in Ndembu society. For the Ndembu, this tension revolved around conflicting principles of matrilineal descent and virilocal residence, whereby women were expected to live with their husbands; unstable communities were constantly being formed around men who would simultaneously strive to hold on to their wives and children while attracting their sisters and their sisters' children as well. Turner suggested that such conflicting principles were not only acted out in the course of rituals, but also deeply embedded in ritual symbolism. Key symbols in rituals connoted multiple and often contradictory meanings. For example, the milk tree central to Nkang a, the female rite of intiation, "stands for, inter alia, women's breasts, motherhood, a novice at Nkang a, the principle of matriliny, a specific matrilineage, learning, and the unity and persistence of Ndembu society" (1967, p. 28) Such meanings were clustered around two poles: an ideological pole, centered on the importance of group norms and values, such as matriliny; and a sensory pole, focused on emotional reactions to the body and bodily functions and fluids, such as milk. Loosely following Sigmund Freud, Turner suggested that such symbols were "a compromise between the need for social control, and certain innate and universal human drives whose complete gratification would result in a breakdown of that control" (p. 37).

Turner's concern with process as well as with symbols in ritual led him to explore a specific aspect of Van Gennep's scheme of rites of passage, the phase of "liminality." Liminality in rites of initiation was associated with the temporary breakdown of social distinctions among novices, their assumption of a status that was simultaneously lowly and symbolically charged, even potent. Turner associated such a state with "communitas," with the sentiment of common humanness, an antistructure in sharp contrast to the structured social relations before and after the ritual. If, for Turner, the dialectic between the ideological and sensory poles of symbolic meaning replicated the conflict between "self" and "society," then the dialectic between structure and communitas embodied a countervailing conflict between "selflessness" and "society."


Like her colleagues, Mary Douglas was initiated into the ranks of British anthropology through fieldwork in Africa. However, in her most important work on ritual, she turned from the particulars of her field experience to the elaboration of a more general model. In Purity and Danger (1966), she focused on ritual concerns with purity and pollution. As a central case, she analyzed Hebrew dietary prohibitions as detailed in Leviticus, pointing out that the logic of the prohibitions rested on a scheme of classification that identified species as in one way or another typical or atypical. Anomalous animals, such as fish without scales, were deemed unclean. She argued that such preoccupations with cleanness (defined ideologically and not hygienically) corresponded with attempts to maintain group boundaries between insiders and outsiders as sharply as possible.

In Natural Symbols (1970) she pursued the relationship between ritual, ideology, and social organization. She proposed a two-dimensional scheme for classifying types of societies, with one axis representing "grid" and the other "group." The "group" dimension referred to the extent of the emphasis placed on "insider" or "outsider" status; "grid" referred to the extent to which interpersonal relations were defined in terms of set, ascribed categories. Societies with high grid and high group had a firm commitment to ritual practice and place a higher priority on the group than the individual; societies that scored low on both counts (modern industrial societies among others) tended to de-value ritual in favor of personal expression. But it was possible to have one without the other. She furnished examples from Central African societies that placed high value on group membership but whose fluid role structure rated low in terms of "grid"; such societies, she suggested, were obsessed with their vulnerability to outside agencies of evil, notably witchcraft, and their ritual observances centered on the identification and expulsion of such threatening forces.

Practice and History

In France during the 1960s, anthropological concerns with symbolism, spearheaded by Claude Lévi-Strauss, were far more centrally concerned with myth than with ritual.


Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), a critique of French structuralist but also British functionalist approaches, proposed an alternative approach that devoted considerable attention to the analysis of ritual. As the title of the book suggests, Bourdieu stressed the importance of the domain of practical activity, understood in terms of "habitus," taken-for-granted predispositions that were neither consistently verbalized nor unconscious in any deep sense. Such predispositions included, for example, bodily gestures, modes of interpersonal interaction, and the organization of space and time. "Rites, more than any other type of practice, serve to underline the mistake of enclosing in concept a logic made to dispense with concepts; of treating movements of the body and practical manipulations as purely logical operations; of speaking of analogies and homologies when all that is involved is the practical transference of incorporated, quasi-postural schemes" (p. 116).

Ritual in historical time.

In recent years, anthropologists have grown increasingly self-conscious about the historical contexts in which they conduct their research and correspondingly wary of abstracting cultures from particular places and times with specific antecedents. For example, Maurice Bloch's analysis of circumcision ritual among the Merina of Madagascar paid particular attention to historical accounts to demonstrate how a family ritual was transformed into an expression of the central power of the state in the late eighteenth century and back again, in the twentieth century, into a family performance with increasingly anti-Christian and antielite overtones. While elements of the symbolism may have been invariant and placed constraints on the uses to which the ritual might be put, it was equally clear that the meanings of specific performances were highly subject to the agency of particular actors. Jean Comaroff's account of ritual in Zionist churches among the Tshidi of South Africa explicitly integrated a focus on practice with attention to historical context, arguing that the sometimes disjunctive synthesis of precolonial Tswana and of Protestant Christian imagery is a form of resistance to the social and cultural hegemonies that marginalize adherents.

Talal Asad has gone so far as to historicize the very concept of "ritual," pointing out that in eighteenth and nineteenth century editions of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica the term specifically referred to instructions for performing the divine service. It was precisely early anthropologists such as Tylor, Frazer, and Robertson Smith who introduced the concept of ritual as symbolic behavior, in other words as a form of practice that called for decoding, for interpretation, especially by an outsider. Using the Rule of St. Benedict as a paradigm, Asad advocated a return to the earlier meaning of ritual as a prescription for action: "Ritual is therefore directed at the apt performance of what is prescribed, something that depends on intellectual and practical disciplines but does not itself require decoding" (p. 62). While many anthropologists balk at so far-reaching a critique, contemporary accounts of ritual demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to issues of agency, gender, power, and the capacities of ritual performers to understand and interpret their own actions in modern contexts.

See also Anthropology ; Myth ; Sacred and Profane ; Theater and Performance .


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. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.

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Radin, Paul. The Winnebago Tribe. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Originally published in 1923.

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Smith, William Robertson. The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 1972. Originally published in 1889.

Spencer, Baldwin, and F. J. Gillen. The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1968. Originally published in 1899.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1967.

. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Chicago: Aldine, 1969.

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Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960. Originally published in 1909.

Robert Launay