Understanding Ritual

Ritual is one of the oldest human activities. It has often been relegated to a strictly religious category. Yet beyond Sunday services, public prayers and providing religious institutions with a reason for existing, it has provided women with solidarity, men with identity, adolescents with a purpose and nations with a coherent ideology. Ritual has the capacity to weld a community, tranquilize inquiring minds, incite aggression and inspire cooperation.

  Ritual action has a formal flavour to it. It follows structured and standardized sequences that are enacted at certain times and places. Depending on the rite, it may be repetitive and as such, channels emotion, guides belief processes and organizes groups. It is a performance. Ritual takes the inner, subjective world and integrates it with the outer, social reality. The power of ritual, then, stems not just from its social matrix but also from its psychological underpinnings.

  At the same time, ritual also deals with emotions. It has been said that people desire the theatrical. We have a legitimate need for expressing our emotions. In ritual, people derive satisfaction from their participation. It also channels the emotional expression. While the expression can take the form of joy or grief, inevitably there is an emotional bond that validates, consolidates and joins people together. Ritual creates an emotional state that takes the message incontestable because it is framed in such a way as to be seen as inherent in the way things are. It presents a picture of the world that is so emotionally compelling that it is beyond debate.

  Essentially, ritual can be defined as action wrapped in a web of symbolism. Symbols provide the content. Symbolization imbues specific action with heightened meaning. They have no single precise meaning, yet the complexity and uncertainty of the meaning of symbols are sources of their strength. Through ritual, beliefs about the individual, community, world and universe are acquired and reinforced.

  Ritual helps give meaning to our world in part by linking the past to the present and the present to the future. This helps with building confidence in our sense of self by providing us with a sense of continuity. It also gives us confidence that the world in which we live today will be the same world in the future. In essence, it evens the playing field.

  One of the typical problems people face is the frustrations of an indeterminate world. People respond by doing what they can to influence outcomes. Ritual is sometimes used to accomplish that. Sometimes, people just need a structure for behavior and their place in the world. So even though there are certain psychological and even physiological bases of ritual, understanding its political importance depends on recognizing the ways ritual serves to link the individual to society.

  Social rituals create a reality which would be nothing without them. For it is very possible to know something and then find words for it. Yet it is impossible to have social relations without symbolic acts. In other words, we communicate through symbols and one of the more important ways that symbolic understanding is communicated is through ritual.

  For example, in rites of passage, individuals receive prescribed guidelines on roles and functions within a society. In marriage, our society holds up a long term commitment between two individuals as a desired place in the community at large. The institution represents stability and buying in to the goals of the group. It follows that there are rewards by society to be married and sanctions against those who aren’t. These rewards take a host of forms, including tax benefits, group (including family) acceptance, status and career opportunities.

  In the past, families and extended families were joined in the process. In modern times, this ritual does not necessarily commit the respective families to the bond of the partners. Indeed, the status of husband and wife has been diluted with changing ethics and easy divorces. This is an example of changes in our attitude towards certain symbols. Yet our patriarchal system of having wealth continues to rely on marriage as part of its complex matrix of relationships and keeping track of what and who belongs to who and what.  

  All in all, ritual continues to permeate the landscape of our lives. Whether you are swearing in a political incumbent, on your knees in prayer, getting closure at a funeral, publicly announcing a lifelong commitment, joining a club, remembering fallen soldiers, celebrating a birth, casting a spell, enjoying cultural holidays, or burning a bra, you are engaging in a dynamic that defines us as human beings. Understanding ritual helps us understand ourselves. 


Helena Green is a Counsellor, Health Management Instructor, Caregiver and Writer.