Folk Beliefs and Rituals

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Folk Beliefs and Rituals

The term folk, implying informality, lack of sophistication, and lack of skill, is, quite rightfully, contested by scholars sensitive to conventional constructions of the beliefs and practices of women and lower status men. The terms folk religion, common religion, popular religion, customary religion, practical religion, domestic religion, peasant religion, local religion, and the "little tradition" are all used, sometimes interchangeably, often ambiguously, by anthropologists and historians of religion. The literature suggests no consensus about who the folk of folk religion are. For example, William Christian stresses the agricultural identities of those who engage in folk religion; anthropologist George Foster defines folk religion as an urban phenomenon; and for fellow anthropologist Robert Redfield the folk of the little tradition are the unreflective masses. Nor is there consensus regarding the content of folk beliefs and practices. Anthropologist Edmund Leach, for example, stresses concern with the life here and now. Social scientists Michael Hornsby-Smith, Raymond Lee, and Peter Reilly describe the magical or superstitious nature of folk practices, and anthropologist Eric Wolf sees folk beliefs as utilitarian and moralistic but not ethical or questioning.

This profusion of terms and conceptualizations suggests that the label folk has a great deal to do with who is doing the labeling and in what context. For the purposes of this entry, folk beliefs and ritual practices are defined as the beliefs and practices of individuals, families, and communities as they are expressed and enacted in situations outside of the control of formal religious or political authorities. This does not mean, however, that folk practices and beliefs are never coercive. Quite to the contrary, formal authorities sometimes provide a means of escape for women or girls whose legal or sexual autonomy is constrained by folk practices such as genital mutilation or clitoridectomy.

Folk beliefs and ritual practices shape sex, sexuality, and gender in myriad ways in a multitude of cultural contexts. It is not possible to identify universal themes and patterns in this regard. In this entry, the presentation of examples of folk beliefs and ritual practices is organized around the axis of life cycle rituals not because this organizational paradigm is in any manner inherently a folk paradigm, but rather because life cycle rituals tend to be the occasions of particularly obvious opportunities for expressing and constructing gender, sex, and sexuality.

Folk beliefs and rituals are particularly potent shapers of gender and sexuality because they are understood or experienced as "authentic": traditional, timeless, organic, and heart-felt. Part of the power of folk practices is that they are not perceived as invented or imposed (even if actually they are). Thus, they tend not to be easily resisted or contested, but rather taken-for-granted as simply "our way of doing things."


Folk practices at birth and during infancy generally aim at safeguarding the life and health of the newborn, clarifying the infant's gender identity, and constructing the infant as a socially appropriate member of the family and community.

An excellent example of these concerns is found in the beliefs and practices surrounding burial of the placenta in premodern Karelia (the area along the Finnish-Russian border). The placenta and cord blood were considered to be charged with supernatural power and thus were considered particularly effective in safeguarding the child against harmful influences and sicknesses. The afterbirth often was ritually treated in a gender specific manner. A baby girl's afterbirth was hung in the attic from the main supporting beam of the house while reciting: "As this home is renowned, the dwellers renowned, may this maiden be renowned, may she grow attractive …" For a boy the afterbirth typically was buried in the eastern corner of the cowshed while the following was chanted: "The Eastern Christ, nourisher, heavenly, give a good lot, health, brains, ability, honor to this suitor …" According to Marja-Liisa Keinänen, these rituals reflect and shape a girl's loose connection with her farmstead since she will move to her husband's house upon marriage. The incantation stresses that potential marriage partners will hear of the girl's attractiveness. For boys the placenta is rooted in the house where he will remain upon marriage, and the incantation emphasizes his intelligence and honor.


As children approach puberty, folk beliefs and practices often turn toward more firmly establishing the child's social gender and sexual identity.

Among the Navajo, women occupied a place of importance and respect: Descent was determined through the maternal line, and residence typically was matrilocal. Reflecting these patterns, a young girl's first menstruation was a cause for rejoicing because it indicated that she was ready to bring forth new life; menarche was the fulfillment of the promise of the attainment of reproductive power. Physiological maturity alone, however, was not seen as sufficient for the fulfillment of this process. The girl must also be ritually transformed before she takes her place as a woman. During the four day ritual sequence known as Kinaalda (first menstruation), songs were sung linking the particular girl and her house with the primordial first woman and first house. The girl was dressed in ceremonial clothing and jewelry in order to make her over in the image of Changing Woman, a deity associated with primordial creation and reproduction. Older women known for their good character vigorously massaged the girl in order to mold her. Later on the girl greeted a series of visitors, ran a race toward the sun, and ground corn for an enormous sun-shaped ceremonial cake that is served on the last day of the ritual sequence. The latter ritual was part of an explicit desire to make her industrious in later life, but also serves to infuse profane work activity with sacredness. According to Bruce Lincoln, the identification of the initiand with the mythical Changing Woman is the most important theme of the Kinaalda sequence. Through dressing the girl in the garb of Changing Woman and other ritual acts, the community and the initiand come to understand that all fertility—of people and of crops—depends on her.

In contemporary American society, male initiation as a folk practice often takes place away from the watchful eyes of elders. Hazing rituals of various sorts are among the most common forms of male initiation. These rituals may take place in the context of younger boys joining high school or college sports teams, or young men joining college fraternities, during boot camp, and in prison. During these rituals, boys and young men may be dressed as women (made to wear a bra and panties), treated like women (forced to perform sexual acts on the older males), beaten or paddled while being commanded to keep quiet and refrain from expressing pain, and symbolically and ritually instructed in the gender hierarchy of the given institution.

It seems that the core beliefs underlying these practices are that male society is hierarchical, that subordinate men are female-like, that harsh physical treatment is necessary to turn boys into men, and that adult (initiated) men must be prepared to keep men's secrets and pass on gender expectations to the next crop of initiands.


Marriage practices continue the pattern of enforcing and reinforcing proper gender roles and sexual behavior both through instructing the bride and groom regarding social expectations (including the expectation to produce legitimate children) and through presenting the bride and groom to the wider community in their roles as appropriately gendered adults.

In modern Israel most of the Jewish wedding sequence is governed by the state (which registers marriages and can refuse to register inappropriate couples), the rabbinate (that has a monopoly on officiating at Jewish wedding ceremonies), and the fashion industry (that determines what sorts of dresses and other accoutrement are stylishly appropriate). Still there is one folk ritual sequence that continues to thrive, often in the face of opposition from the Rabbinate.

According to Jewish law brides must immerse in the ritual bath before the wedding in order to achieve a state of menstrual purity. In traditional Jewish North African societies it was customary for the bride to immerse in the ritual bath in the company of female relatives and friends, who then held a party for the bride. In Israel today this practice has disappeared among some communities but spread to other communities. At the parties after the bride immerses in the presence of a bath attendant, women sing, dance, perform skits (often poking fun at men), and eat sweets.

The various participants in this ritual sequence tend to interpret it rather differently. For the most part the bride has a passive role: Her body is supervised and prodded by the bath attendant and, often, the future mother-in-law. During the parties, guests and relatives make frequent comments—almost always favorable ones—regarding her physical appearance.

An elderly Moroccan rabbi in Jerusalem (Sered 1999) explained that the cakes and singing were a public acknowledgement that the groom's family was satisfied with the bride. The rabbi went on to explain the final part of this ceremonial sequence, application of henna dye to the hands of the bride:

"HeNnaH stands for Hala (a ritual performed when baking bread), Niddah (laws of menstrual purity), Hadlaka (lighting Sabbath candles). These are the three (ritual acts) that are necessary for the bride (to know). I heard this from an official source. They teach the bride. They put on her hand the color so that she will look beautiful for the groom. The kind of color you buy at the pharmacy to cover gray hair. All of the female relatives. They put it on her hand as a stamp that she has entered the correct Jewish life. It means that you have entered the burden of keeping the commandments."

In this ritual sequence, proper gender and sexual roles and identity are symbolically stamped onto the body of the bride in the presence of an audience com-prised of both her own family members and family members of her future husband.


Death tends to be the least gendered ritual sequence, and folk beliefs regarding deaths and funeral practices tend to emphasize concerns other than gender and sexuality. In death gender roles and sexual behavior often recede in importance.

In rural Portuguese villages women follow the funeral procession and attend mass, while the public roles are performed by men. Close female relatives of the deceased may scream loudly when the coffin is lowered into the grave, while men are not expected to shout. More important than these specific acts, however, are beliefs and expectations that women keep closer ties to the dead both by caring for the sick and dying, and by performing a large number of rituals aimed at preserving the bonds between the living and the dead.

These kinds of expectations are common in much of the world, particularly in Mediterranean societies. While the practices do not generally have the kind of gender-constructive significance that other life cycle rituals have, it is not always the case that gender and sexuality disappear after death. Muslim folk beliefs, for example, elaborate upon a highly sexual and gendered paradise.

see also Folk Healers and Healing.


Eliade, Mircea. 1987. "Folk Religion: An Overview." In Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. New York: Macmillan.

Foster, George. 1953. "What is Folk Culture?" American Anthropologist 55(1): 159-173.

Gemzoe, Lena. 2000. Feminine Matters: Women's Religious Practices in a Portuguese Town. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Harrell, Steven. 1986. "Men, Women, and Ghosts in Taiwanese Folk Religion." In Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols, ed. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harrell, and Paula Richman. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herdt, Gilbert H. 1981. Guardians of the Flutes: Idioms of Masculinity. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Herdt, Gilbert H. 1987. The Sambia: Ritual and Gender in New Guinea. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Hornsby-Smith, Michael; Raymond Lee; and Peter Reilly. 1985. "Common Religion and Customary Religion: A Critique and A Proposal." Review of Religious Research 26(3): 244-252.

Keinänen, Marja-Liisa. 2003. Creating Bodies: Childbirth Practices in Pre-Modern Karelia. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Leach, Edmund. 1968. Dialectic in Practical Religion. Cambridge: University Press.

Lincoln, Bruce. 1981. Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies in Rituals of Women's Initiation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Redfield, Robert. 1956. Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sered, Susan. 1999. "Talking about Miqveh Parties, or Discourses of Gender, Hierarchy and Social Control." In Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law, ed. Rahel Wasserfall. Hanover, MA: Brandeis University Press.

Wolf, Eric. 1966. Peasants. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

                                             Susan Starr Sered