The field of ritual studies has expanded dramatically over the past 20 years. Rituals are analyzed in anthropology, sociology of religion, religious studies, and theology, and also in the study of literature, philosophy, theater, political science, and education, especially from the perspective of performance theory (Schechner 1977). Many disciplines have taken different theoretical approaches to this broad and complex topic, and thus a great variety of definitions have been proposed, no single one of which is adequate. For present purposes ritual will be defined as a formal and symbolic behavior that leads to the creation or recreation of an emotion in order to obtain or maintain a correct balance between persons and the world.
”Formal and symbolic behavior” speaks of the particular behavior included in ritual. Certain acts, gestures, utterances, and so on seem to be of a particular kind that sets them off from acts performed in other contexts and situations. This intuitive demarcation from other behaviors is the first step in any consideration of ritual. Analyses of ritual should begin by describing what is distinctive about it, rather than what makes it similar to other forms of social interaction. Symbolic behavior is generated from the word ”ritual” itself, which derives from the Indo-European root ri – like ”rhyme,” ”rhythm,” and ”river” – and signifies something like an ordered flow, governed by rules, repetitions, and conventions. As rule governed behavior, ritual is collective, repetitive, and stylized. It normally follows a pattern established on earlier occasions or by tradition and has since become ”holy,” having been instituted by the ancestors or ordered by a deity. Ritual is also formal in the sense that it distances participants from their spontaneous selves and their private motives. Formal gestures are fewer in number than informal ones and are more prescribed and impersonal. During the practice of ritual, participants observe rules, conforming themselves to what is prescribed for them. Bloch (1989) argues these formalized ways of behavior and communication normally have to be considered as a complex of primitive behavioral modes, like dance, song, and formulaic speech. These stylized behaviors tend also to be closely connected with traditional forms of social hierarchy and authority. In other words, using standardized forms of speech in which vocabulary, syntax, and intonation are reduced to a minimum, ritual reinforces power and the status quo. The most highly formalized of such behavior is perhaps religious ritual.
It is very difficult to discuss the sense of the symbolic in ritual. Ritual is particularly symbolic when it evokes a foundational myth. For instance, Turner’s (1967) mudyi tree and Rappaport’s (1999) rumbim each bring together in ritual multiple significations, ranging from the physiological to the ideological and the cosmic. The contemplation of representations in which ideological significations are emotionally present in association with the physiological constitutes an attempt to integrate and unify the whole of reality. This is capable of arousing great emotion.
The repetition, the invariance, and the formalization of ritual – producing rhyme, rhythm, phone, and music – allow a new interpretation of ritual as having an unconscious force from which an ancient emotion can emerge. Ritual’s strong link with the physiology of the body is important here. Ritual behavior is in fact a performance in which the value of the body is manifested through a multifaceted sensory experience. Like any other performance, ritual communicates on multiple sensory levels, involving imagery, dramatic sounds, and tactile, olfactory, and gustatory stimulation. All the communicative codes are involved. In this sense ritual is constructed in order to prioritize the body and to valorize knowledge through the performance of the body.
Why should ritual action accord primacy to bodily techniques in this way? We know in the first place that bodily movements can do more than words can say. It is through the ritual itself that one understands this, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. Thinking and communicating through the body precede and to a great extent always remain beyond speech. In this sense we can understand ritual as not opposed to rationality, but as inhabiting another level of rationality, constructed not by semantic truths, but established by experiential and expressive truths and emotional constructs. Indeed, the practical understanding and deep knowledge demanded by ritual operate best without concepts (e.g., through the gestures and emotions of the body and in the body). For instance, we understand the language of facial expressions, postures, gestures, and involuntary bodily changes first and best, just as a child understands the facial expression of its mother long before it understands verbal language (Vygotsky 1962). And this type of knowledge is in any case the deepest knowledge. Another example stems from the common experience we have when our familiar environment is disrupted: we feel suddenly uprooted, we lose our footing, we collapse, we fall. This experience is not solely metaphorical. Rather, the shock and disorientation occur in the body and the mind, and refer to a basic physiological and ontological structure – to our ”being in the world” (Binswanger 1963). In the same manner, in dance and music we may obtain the best knowledge of ourselves and we may recognize ourselves, for instance, as members of a community: we become emotionally a common body.
From this perspective, we arrive at the most important expression of the proposed definition of ritual: behavior that leads to the creation or recreation of an emotion.” Above all, ritual must be seen in its relationship with the emotional body.” Such emotion probably derives from the hypothalamus and the amygdala, the most ancient part of the brain. Newberg and D’Aquili (2000) reviewed a number of studies that apparently established links between sustained attention associated with the practice of ritual or meditation and electroencephalography (EEG) theta waves above the prefrontal cortex. The two authors confirmed these data and enlarged them using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). Results demonstrated significantly increased blood flow to the inferior frontal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortical regions when subjects were engaged in intense meditation or ritual.
The definition of ritual suggested here is therefore partly dependent upon this result. The expression correct balance between per sons and the world” is the most interpretive part of the definition and provides the sine qua non for social life and survival. This interpretation is very broad in content and therefore not in contrast with other definitions, but it is also very narrow in the sense of a physiological and emotional experience. By stressing this fundamental data of ritual it is possible to surmount all the difficulties associated for instance with the so called “meaninglessness” of ritual (Staal 1975), which is the negative outcome of previous studies made by ritologists and anthropologists, who asked which type of functionality, communication, and expressivity were included in ritual.
In Durkheim, for instance, we find both a passive and an active notion of the relationship between religion and society: while religion is a system of ideas with which individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, rituals really strengthen the bonds between individuals and society. But is this reciprocity between society and religion all we can say by means of the concept of function? And is the concept of symbolic function sufficiently clear? We have gone from social functions and instrumental/non instrumental theories of ritual, to communication theories based on the idea that ritual is a particular form of social action with its own modalities of communicative and meta communicative framing; from expressive performative theories for which ritual is symbolic drama, to those based on the simple semiotic value of rite. In this perspective ritual is regulated only by formal rules and is comparable to syntactic or musical structures. This would mean that ritual actually is not a language, but something like” a language. In this sense the inner structure of ritual is not a structure based upon meanings, but constructed only on a complex of signs. Ritual, says Staal (1975), is like a bird song.
The most recent theories are no less important and problematic. Cognitivist” theories of ritual that turn to the psychological aspects of the representation of action ask whether the religious meaning of ritual can be reformulated in terms of the connections established by participants between representation of the ritual sequence and other types of religious assumptions. Meanwhile, ”ecological” theories, for instance, examine the new space time relationship in which ritual appears as the ground for anthropological spatial direction and bodily division. The construction of time in ritual is important because ritual provides grounds for the creation and recurrence of time as well as space. Further, such ecological theories posit an essential adaptive function of rite as a type of sanctification” of the environment in connection with the ecosystem. Burkert (1996) suggests that through manifold forms as functions of ritual behavior and cultural interpretations, religion can still be seen to inhabit the deep values of the landscape of life.” What should be stressed here is that religion – through ritual -not only relates to the social sciences, but also connects with the ecosystem, with naturalism, and with life and biology itself.
All these contributions can be understood in a renewed epistemological context if we sup pose that in the beginning religion was not a matter of reflection and consciousness, but one of simple biological and physiological arousal of human nature in front of the varieties of events and situations. If we consider the links between ritual and the autonomous nervous system, it is clear that by means of (especially) repetition and formalization the system is driven unconsciously to maintain or recreate a very particular ”primitive emotion.” Rite stirs up an emotion that does not really reach consciousness and self-awareness, but reaches deeper, into the most ancient and original point of consciousness, leading to an emotional balance, a habit that is not an emotion derived from a situation or routine. This is also the way to understand the ”serious” or non-empirical aspect of ritual.
In other words, language and consciousness are functions that are too developed for the subcortical structure of the brain. Ritual belongs to the primitive structure of humanity, dominated not by language but by physiological emotion. In this sense Langer (1969) was right to think about the ”pre-semantic” and ”pre-verbal” dimension of ritual. She suggested that rite belonged to a pre-linguistic world and carried out a dramatic emotional logic.
Can an emotion exorcise the fear of death? Using the definition of ritual advanced here, it is easier to see the ”synthetic” value of ritual and to write a new history of ritual in which it is possible to stress without contradiction its connections with social, religious, functional, biological, adaptive, and ecosystemic dimensions. This multimodality is explained by the fact that ritual arouses a deep, primitive emotion in which all is convergent.
- Binswanger, L. (1963) Being in the World: Selected Papers. Basic Books, New York.
- Bloch, (1989) The Past and the Present: The Collected Papers of Maurice Bloch. Billings, Worcester.
- Burkert, W. (1996) The Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Langer, S. (1969) Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Newberg, A. B. & D’ Aquili, E. G. (2000) The Neuropsychology of Religious and Spiritual Experience. In: Andresen, J. & Forman, R. K. C. (Eds.), Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps: Inter disciplinary Explorations of Religious Experiences. Imprint Academic, Thorverton, pp. 251 66.
- Rappaport, R. (1999) Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Schechner, R. (1977) Essays on Performance Theory. Drama Books Specialists, New York.
- Staal, F. (1975) The Meaninglessness of Ritual. Numen 26: 2 22.
- Turner, V. W. (1967) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti Structure. Cornell University Press,Ithaca, NY.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1962) Thought and Language. John Wiley, New York.
- Wilson, B. R. (1990) The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Wuthnow, R. (1998) After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. University of California Press, Berkeley.
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