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A ritual is a patterned, repetitive, and symbolic enactment of a cultural belief or value. Rituals usually work to enhance social cohesion, because their primary purpose in most cases is to align the belief system of the individual with that of the group. The more a belief system is enacted through ritual, the stronger it becomes; the less it is enacted, the weaker it becomes. For this reason, religious leaders often exhort their members to participate regularlyfor example, to come to church every Sunday and to prayer group every Wednesday night. If people stop going, that is, if they cease to enact the religions rituals, over time that religion will have less and less meaning for them. Rituals are most commonly thought of as religious, but they can enact secular beliefs and values as effectively as religious ones.

A common misconception holds that ritual is something that goes on only in primitive cultures, whereas in so-called modern, developed societies, citizens benefiting from scientific enlightenment lead rational, deritualized lives. But the facts suggest otherwise. Across cultures and throughout history, all human cultures use ritual as the physical and psychological means for dealing with the mystery and unpredictability of the natural, social, and cosmic realms. Rituals cultural roles are myriad; they include engendering belief, maintaining religious vitality, stimulating economic exchange, enhancing courage, effecting healing, and transforming individual consciousness, often in order to bring it into alignment with group values as well as to intensify individual and group investment in social structure.


Nine characteristics are integral to rituals myriad roles in human cultural life and constitute a sort of anatomy of ritual. They include:

  1. the symbolic nature of rituals messages;
  2. its embeddedness in a cognitive matrix (belief system);
  3. ritual driversrhythmic repetition and redundancy;
  4. the use of specific tools, technologies, and clothing;
  5. the framing of ritual performancestheir set-apartness from everyday life;
  6. order and formality;
  7. the sense of inviolability and inevitability that is established during ritual performances;
  8. the acting, stylization, and staging that often give ritual its elements of high drama, and the fact that it is performed; and
  9. often, a ludic dimensionthe inclusion of play within the ritual frame.

Symbolism Ritual sends its messages through symbols. A symbol, most simply, is an object, idea, or action loaded with cultural meaning. Symbols are multivocalthat is, many meanings can be brought together and expressed in one symbol (e.g., a cross, a U.S. flag, a swastika). Unlike symbols, straightforward verbal messages are intellectually analyzed by the left hemisphere of the human brain, enabling the recipient to accept or reject their content. Symbols, in contrast, are received through the right hemisphere of the brain as a gestaltthat is, they are felt in the body and the emotions; their meanings are often internalized without conscious awareness. Objects or procedures can function powerfully as symbols even if the conscious intent of their performers is instrumental, not symbolic. For example, a blood-pressure cuff both records blood pressure and symbolizes western technocratic medicine, specifically the value it places on objective information; the stethoscope a physician wears around her neck both enables her to listen to a patients breathing and symbolizes her authoritative status. When a Marine basic trainee is required to sleep with his rifle, he in-corporates its symbolic meaningsthey become part of his psyche through his body.

Because ritual works through symbols, the ritual process is fundamentally experiential, and the learning that takes place through ritual is experiential. Anthropological research on the difference between the experiential and didactic (explicit teaching) modes of learning has shown that experiential learning is by far the most powerful kind. Didactic learning can be intellectually rejected or easily forgotten, but experiential learning habituates the individual to specific patterns of behavior and response, and is much longer-lasting. It is no cultural accident that in contemporary society, as in the evolutionary past, skills, trades, and crafts, from tool-carving to eye surgery, have been taught experientially, through the process of apprenticeship.

A Cognitive Matrix A matrix (from the Latin mater, meaning mother), like a womb, is something from within which something else emerges. Rituals are not arbitrary; they come from within the belief system of a group. Each symbolic message that a given ritual sends manifests an underlying cultural belief or value embedded in that cognitive matrix. Sometimes these are made explicit in ritual, but quite often these deep beliefs that the ritual expresses are held unconsciously, rather than consciously. Rituals primary purpose is to symbolically enact and thereby to transmit a groups belief system into the psyches of its participants, aligning their individual beliefs and values with those of the group.

Because the belief system of a culture is enacted through ritual, analysis of ritual can lead directly to a profound understanding of that belief system. For this reason, anthropologists studying various cultures often have focused on interpreting the rituals of that culture as a primary way to gain a deep understanding of it. In Baseball Magic (2000) George Gmelch decodes the rituals of baseball players to reveal their tensions, anxieties, and value system. Likewise, W. Lloyd Warners (1959) analysis of Memorial Day, An American Sacred Ceremony, shows how Americans use the rituals of this day to celebrate the unity of the nation in the face of its diversity, providing important insights into American life.

Ritual Drivers: Repetition and Redundancy For maximum effectiveness, a ritual will concentrate on sending one basic set of messages, which it will rhythmically repeat over and over again in different forms. What is repeated in ritual can include: (1) the occasion for its performance (as in a ceremony that happens every year at the same time); (2) its content (as in a chant); (3) the form into which this content is structured (as in a church ceremony); or any combination of these. This redundancy enhances rituals efficiency in communicating whatever messages it is designed to send; the Mayan farmer who hears the shaman chant the names of the gods twenty times in one hour, several times a day, is not likely to forget them.

Rhythmicity has long been recognized by anthropologists as a key feature of ritual. Rhythmic, repetitive stimuli affect the human central nervous system, generating (especially in safe, relaxed settings) a high degree of limbic arousal, coordinating emotional, cognitive, and motor processes within an individual, and synchronizing these processes among the various ritual participants. This process of entrainment may be experienced as a loss of self-consciousness, a feeling of flow. Ritual entrainment can lead to transpersonal bonding, a sense of the unity and oneness of the group. This is a common experience at rock concertsas the audience begins to entrain with the rhythms of the music, the huge auditorium suddenly seems to shrink and be suffused with shared energy; individuals feel like organic parts of a pulsating whole. Mickey Hart, the drummer for the rock group the Grateful Dead, said of this process, Sometimes I felt that we were becoming a big noisy animal that made music when it breathed (Hart, Stevens, and Lieberman 1990, p. 144).

Use of Tools, Technologies, and Clothing All rituals employ specific tools and technologies to achieve their purposes: altars and candles, the shamans drum and rattle, the priests robes and communion cup, the diviners tea leaves and tarot cards, the wrapped Christmas gift. From the Navajo hogan to the Internet, ritual technologies both construct the spaces within which ritual happens, and assist in effecting the external and internal transformations it achieves. As noted above, the technologies of ritual often fulfill both utilitarian and symbolic functions. The candle both sheds light and opens the doorway between dimensions; the communion cup both holds liquid and evokes the Last Supper. In healing rituals, the healer often perceives the patient through the medium of the technology (herbs, smudging, rattling, sandpainting in traditional cultures; x-rays, EEG printouts, vital-sign monitors in modern hospitals). As with much of everyday social life, humans mediate their experience through the technologies they create. This technological mediation influences our perceptions of reality in myriad ways. The technologies employed in ritual play a particularly significant role in altering and mediating perception and experience because their uses in the heightened, set-apart, and formalized structures of ritual make them especially effective at achieving the neural entrainment of the participants, en face or at a distance, with the rhythms of the ritual and with the symbolic messages it sends. The production, sale, and exchange of ritual artifacts serve as major economic drivers in all societies (Malinowski 1948).

Framing Rituals are framed, set apart from everyday life, often in spaces reserved solely for their performance such as churches, temples, theaters, sports stadiums, or simply the space in front of a home altar. This ritual framing works to ensure that participants will keep their attention focused on a limited stimulus field, facilitating their entrainment with the rituals symbolic messages.

Order and Formality In ritual events, things are no longer casual, but precise. Order matters, and the feeling is formal. Participants must pay special attention to body movements to be sure they are behaving appropriately, as in church or at a formal dinner. Order and formalitythe careful sequencing of ritual performancesenhance the strength of this stimulus field and further work to set rituals apart from other modes of social interaction.

Inviolability and Inevitability Rituals establish an atmosphere that feels both inevitable and inviolatethe ritual must proceed to its conclusion through a pre-established sequence of events. Americans would find it hard to imagine, for example, stopping a graduation ceremony, interrupting the Pledge of Allegiance, or standing up in the middle of a church service to argue with the minister. Precise performance of ritual gives humans the feeling of setting into motion cosmic gearsan inviolable process that will inevitably propel the individual through danger to safety. Thus, ritual enhances courage. The anthropologists Sally Falk Moore and Barbara Myerhoff (1977) suggested that rituals insistence on repetition and order evokes the perpetual processes of the cosmos, thereby metaphorically implying that the belief system being enacted has the same permanence and legitimacy as the cosmos itself.

Performance: Acting, Stylization, and Staging Like a play, ritual is performed, often giving it an element of high drama. The more dramatic ritual is, the more effectively it engages the emotions. These qualities enable ritual to command the attention of participants and audience, while at the same time serving to deflect questioning and the presentation of alternative points of view. A major part of rituals job is to imbue participants with a strong sense of the value, validity, and importance of the belief system being enacted; in so doing, ritual must also work to preclude challenges to that belief system. Those who manipulate and control ritual are powerful performers, from traditional shamans to Jerry Falwell and Adolf Hitler. Ritual experts have both total command of the belief system being enacted, and dramatic, often charismatic, flair. Their effectiveness rests on their ability to entrain groups, to reorder divergent individual cognition around the symbolic matrix they represent. Hitlers ability to accomplish this through ritual was so profound that within a few years he was able to restructure the cognitive system of an entire nation around the symbolic matrix of German dominance and Aryan supremacy, represented by one powerful symbol, the swastika. On a smaller scale, the continued survival of many indigenous cultures often depends in large part on the ability of their shamans to dramatically and inspirationally perform the rituals that enact and thus perpetuate their unique cultural values, beliefs, and sense of connectedness to place. When the shamans die without transmitting this cultural lore to apprentices who can carry on, the culture is well on its way to extinction, or at least profound alteration.

A Ludic Dimension In spite of its serious formality, ritual often has an intensely ludic (playful) dimension. In some cultures, such as the Mescalero Apache of New Mexico described by anthropologist Claire R. Farrer (1991), during their most sacred ceremonies a clown mimics and mocks the singers as they perform the ritual acts in the required sequence, while the watching participants laugh uproariously at his antics. The Mescalero do not feel that their laughter decreases the sacredness of the event; on the contrary, it increases it through the revitalizing energy that laughter brings to the cultures most deeply held beliefs. A parallel can be found in the rodeo clown. Rodeo bull riders ritually display the manly heroic virtues that their subculture holds dear; the clowns, whose task it is to divert the bulls while entertaining the audience, mock those manly traits even as they themselves exemplify them.


The primary effects of ritual include:

  1. the cognitive transformation of its participants that is rituals primary purpose;
  2. the cognitive simplification that ritual works to engender in its participants by rendering complex ideas more straightforward or unitary, which can generate habituation;
  3. the cognitive stabilization that ritual can achieve for individuals under stress, which can include the enhancement of courage;
  4. the preservation of the status quo in a given society; and
  5. rituals paradoxical effectiveness at facilitating social change.

Although not every ritual achieves each of these purposes, these are all part of the capacity of ritual as a symbolic form. Ritual is a powerful didactic and socializing tool. To grasp its inner workings is to have a choice in our response to the rituals that permeate our daily lives, and of which we are often unaware.

Cognitive Transformation Belief follows emotion. In general, people are far more likely to remember events, and to absorb lessons from those events, if they carry an emotional charge. Ritual generates that chargeit focuses the emotions on the symbolic messages it presents. This focusing process is enhanced by the rhythmic repetition of the rituals messages, which will often intensify toward a climax. If the ritual is successful, belief will be generated through the mapping-on process. And because of the emotions associated with that belief, neither the experience nor the belief will be forgotten.

For example, in Juan the Chamula (Pozas 1962), a Chamula Indian from highland Chiapas in southern Mexico describes a healing ceremony in which the shaman attempts to cure him of soul-loss through a long and elaborate ceremony. At the climax, the shaman twists the neck of a rooster and kills it, and Juan exclaims, suddenly I felt free! (p. 90). This experience of ritual healing constituted for Juan an important step in his cognitive reintegration into the cultural system he had left years ago, and to which he was now returning. As this example demonstrates, healers can use rituals ability to generate belief to map their interpretation of the illness into the mind-body of the patient. When these fuse, healing can be achieved, as the body responds to what the mind now believes.

The emotional affect generated by ritual can do much more than generate belief. Humans have two nervous subsystems, the excitation and the relaxation systems. Usually, when one is discharging, the other is quiescent. But their repeated stimulation may cause both to simultaneously discharge. Under conditions of stress, the sensations so produced are more likely to be those of calm, reassurance, and a sense of control. Under stable social and environmental conditions, this simultaneous discharge of both nervous systems produces an intensely pleasurable, almost orgasmic sensationindeed, both subsystems do simultaneously discharge during orgasm. This ecstatic state occurs in ritual when physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences of the symbolic messages become one. It may be very brief, experienced only as, for example, goose bumps popping out as the banner-bearing choir marches down the aisle on Easter Sunday, or a shiver down the back as you salute your national flag during a parade. It may happen only once during the ritual, or may be repeated at numerous focal points. Or this ecstatic state may be prolonged, as in meditation and religious trance or dance. In any case, these ecstatic sensations become experientially associated by ritual participants with the belief system enacted in the ritual. Charismatic Christian groups are filled with the Holy Spirit; !Kung bushmen trance-dancers with the boiling energy they call nlum. Biological research has established that during this state, high levels of endorphinsnatural pain-relieving, pleasure-producing chemicalsflood the central nervous system. This ritually induced experience of ecstasy is one of the most powerfully emotion-filled experiences available to humans. Once they experience this state (especially the prolonged version) during a ritual, they are likely to want more. This desire can be a powerful incentive to begin regular attendance at the ritual events that can induce and consistently reproduce these feelings.

Through the ritual drivers of rhythmic repetition, evocative style, and precise manipulation of symbols and sensory stimuli, collective rituals focus the emotions of participants on the calculated intensification of their messages. Ritual generates intense emotion, even ecstasy, in humans, and intense emotion, in turn, generates belief (dAquili, Laughlin, and McManus 1979).

Transformation for ritual participants can be both mental and physical. It can be external in the eyes of society, and/or internal in the psyche of the participant. Some kind of transformation can be said to occur in all types of ritualeven a simple ritual greeting opens a previously nonexistent channel of communication between two individuals, resulting in almost immediate entrainment of their bodily rhythms. Deep transformation for ritual participants occurs when the symbolic messages of ritual fuse with individual emotion and belief, and the individuals entire cognitive structure reorganizes around the newly internalized symbolic complex. Although this process may sound final, as if it could happen only once, it is not. Human neural structures are not made of cement; they are relatively fluid. As most religious adherents know from experience, belief waxes and wanes, and must be continually reinforced through ritual if it is to retain a significant role in shaping individual cognition and behavior. Each time a person attends a religious service or a political rally, he or she can experience this process anew, diving deeper and deeper into the symbolic constellations of belief of the religious or political system.

The most profoundly transformative of all rituals are initiatory rites of passage and religious indoctrinations. These break down the belief system of the initiate, then rebuild it around the beliefs and values of the groupa conversion experience. Whether the individual is converted to Islam or Christianity, or initiated into the army or a fraternity, the ritual process is very much the same.

Cognitive Simplification In any culture, ritual participants will differ from each other both in intellectual ability and in cognitive structure. Straightforward didactic communications must take these differences into account if their messages are to be understood. But ritual must work collectively, for the masses. Ritual overcomes this problem by working to reduce its participants, at least temporarily, to the same cognitive level, at which they will all see the world from within the confines of one cognitive matrix. An individual thinking at this level will tend to see the world in terms of black and white, interpreting others as either with her or against her (as do religious fundamentalists, for example). This sort of either/or thinking does not allow for the consideration of options or alternative views. The advantage of this reduction of ritual participants to univariate thinking is that a single ritual structure is now sufficient to communicate social norms and values to a wide variety of individuals. This process is most clearly visible in the performance of religious rituals such as the Catholic Mass, which can be deeply and equally convincing to individuals of all levels of cognitive complexity, or in the political rallies of totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany. Such cognitive simplification must precede the conceptual reorganization that accompanies true psychological transformation. The most common technique employed in ritual to accomplish this end is the rhythmically repetitive bombardment of participants with rituals symbolic messages.

The order and precision of ritual, combined with its repetitious nature, can be highly effective at habituating individuals to doing things one way only. Physicians have described how their learning process was channeled into a narrow riverbank in which the water can only flow one way; one said, You do it, and you do it, and you do it some more (Davis-Floyd and St. John 1998, p. 54). Habituation to this one way can be efficient; it can also preclude openness to new and perhaps better ways.

Cognitive Stabilization When humans are subjected to extremes of stress, they are likely, at least temporarily, to retrogress cognitively into a dysfunctional condition in which they become panic-stricken, unreasonable, or simply out of touch with reality. Whenever the danger of such retrogression is present, ritual plays a critical role, because it stabilizes individuals under stress by giving them a conceptual handle-hold to keep them from losing it. When the airplane starts to falter, even those who do not go to church are likely to pray! The simple act of rhythmically repeating, Dear Lord, please save us, can enable terrified passengers to avoid the panic behavior that might increase the likelihood of disaster.

Ritual stands as a barrier between cognition and chaos by making reality appear to fit accepted cognitive categoriesthat is, by making the world look the way it ought to. In other words, to perform a ritual in the face of chaos is to restore conceptual order. Even a small semblance of order can enable individuals to function under the most chaotic of conditions. The earthquake victim sweeps off her front steps when the entire house lies in ruins around her. This behavior is not as irrational as it seems at first glance. Those steps represent one ordered cognitive category, and for the householder, to make them clean is to ground herself in a little piece of the known and the familiar. From that cognitive anchor, she can then begin to deal, a little at a time, with the surrounding chaos.

To perform a series of rituals is to seek to induce a particular outcome, often involved with creating a sense of safety in the presence of danger. The Trobriand sea fisherman who makes elaborate offerings and incantations in precise order before embarking into perilous waters believes that, if he does his part correctly, so must the gods of the sea do their part to bring him safely home. For the same reasons, the batter turns his cap backwards and clutches his rabbits foot before he steps up to the plate. And the Bolivian tin miner, before descending into the hot and dangerous mines that he thinks of as the devils territory, makes an offering of candy or tobacco to the devil so that the devil will be obliged to reciprocate by protecting him. In such cases, the rituals provide a sense of control that gives individuals the courage to act in the face of the challenge and caprice of nature. But the inevitability of ritual can be a double-edged sword: Rituals do not always work, and the sense of confidence they generate can be a false one. Nevertheless, that sense of confidence does facilitate action in the face of fear.

Ritualsfrom prayer, to carefully setting the table, to lighting candles for loved ones in dangerprovide their participants with many such cognitive anchors. Ritual thus has high evolutionary value; it was a powerful adaptive technique our hominid ancestors most likely utilized to help them continue to function at a survival level whenever they faced conditions of environmental or social stress. Groups that believe together can act together to meet and overcome crises and danger. When belief is not shared, joint action is much more difficult to achieve. Even warring armies often rely on a number of shared beliefs, symbols, and ritualsthe Red Cross or Red Crescent of medical facilities, the white flag of truce, the process of formal surrender. These are rituals of stabilization that can work even in the face of the mayhem of war.

Preserving the Status Quo Through explicit enactment of a cultures belief system, ritual works both to preserve and to transmit that belief system, and so becomes an important force in the preservation of the status quo in any society. Thus one usually finds that those in power in a given social group strive to maintain control over ritual performances. They utilize rituals tremendous power to reinforce both their own importance and the importance of the belief and value system that sustains them in their positions.

Effecting Social Change Paradoxically, ritual, with all of its insistence on continuity and order, can be an important factor not only in individual transformation but also in social change. New belief and value systems are most effectively spread through new rituals designed to enact and transmit them. Even if a ritual is being performed for the very first time, its stylistic similarities with other rituals make it feel tradition-like, thus giving entirely new belief systems the feel and flavor of being strongly entrenched and sanctioned by ancient practice. Moreover, entrenched belief and value systems are most effectively altered through changes in the rituals that enact them. Indeed, ritual represents one of societys greatest potentials for the kind of revitalization that comes from internal growth and change in response to changing circumstances.


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Robbie Davis-Floyd

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