A ritual is a prescribed set of actions, often thought to have symbolic value, the performance of which is usually prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community by religious or political laws because of the perceived efficacy of those actions.
A ritual may be performed at regular intervals, or on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community; in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it; either in public, in private, or before specific people. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between religious or social states.
The purposes of rituals are varied; they include compliance with religious obligations or ideals, satisfaction of spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners, strengthening of social bonds, demonstration of respect or submission, stating one's affiliation, obtaining social acceptance or approval for some event — or, sometimes, just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.
Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, oaths of allegiance, coronations, and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school "rush" traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, Halloween parties, veteran parades, Christmas shopping and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposia, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritualistic in nature. Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying "hello" are rituals.
In any case, an essential feature of a ritual is that the actions and their symbolism are not arbitrarily chosen by the performers, nor dictated by logic or necessity, but either are prescribed and imposed upon the performers by some external source or are inherited unconsciously from social traditions.
Due to their symbolic nature, there are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated in a ritual. The rites of past and present societies have typically involved special gestures and words, recitation of fixed texts, performance of special music, songs or dances, processions, manipulation of certain objects, use of special dresses, consumption of special food, drink, or drugs, and much more. Religious rituals have also included animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, ritual suicide, and ritual murder. Ritual lamentation -- song performed with weeping -- in many societies was regarded as required to ritually carry the departed soul to a safe afterlife (Tolbert 1990a, 1990b; Wilce 2006).
Ritual serves diverse purposes including, but not limited to:
In religion, a ritual can comprise the prescribed outward forms of performing, the cultus or cult of a particular observation within a religion or religious denomination. Although ritual is often used in context with worship performed in a church, the actual relationship between any religion's doctrine and its ritual(s) can vary considerably from organized religion to non-institutionalized spirituality, such as ayahuasca shamanism practiced by the Urarina of the upper Amazon. Rituals often have a close connection with reverence, thus a ritual in many cases expresses reverence for a deity or idealized state of humanity.
Rituals have formed a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. The earliest known undisputed evidence of burial rituals dates from the Upper Paleolithic. (Older skeletons show no signs of deliberate 'burial', and as such lack clear evidence of having been ritually treated.)
Alongside the personal dimensions of worship and reverence, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society. This function can be exploited for political ends, though it lies at the heart of most sociological understandings of religious ritual.
Rituals can aid in creating a firm sense of group identity. Humans have used rituals to create social bonds and even to nourish interpersonal relationships.
Anthropologists have found rituals performed across the globe, in every conceivable culture. In its most basic elements ritual is one of many cultural universals, yet cross-cultural variation in form, content and social function is often great. Of particular interest to anthropologists has been the role of ritual in structuring life crises, human development, religious enactment and entertainment. Among anthropologists, and other ethnographers, who have contributed to ritual theory are Victor Turner, Ronald Grimes, Mary Douglas, and the Biogenetic Structuralists. Anthropologists from Emile Durkheim through Turner and contemporary theorists like Michael Silverstein (2004) treat ritual as social action aimed at particular transformations often conceived in cosmic terms. Though the transformations can also be thought of as personal (e.g. the fertility and healing rituals Turner describes), even an apparently secular goal like uniting the warring states during the American Civil War (Lincoln's Gettysburg Address [for an semiotic-anthropological analysis, see Silverstein 2002] becomes a sort of cosmic event, one stretching into "eternity".
Nearly all fraternities and sororities have rituals incorporated into their structure, from elaborate and sometimes "secret" initiation rites, to the formalized structure of convening a meeting. Thus, numerous aspects of ritual and ritualistic proceedings are engrained into the workings of the societies.
In psychology, the term ritual refers to a repetitive, systematic behavioral process enacted in order to neutralize or prevent anxiety and is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
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Wilce, J. M. 2006. Magical Laments and Anthropological Reflections: The Production and Circulation of Anthropological Text as Ritual Activity. Current Anthropology 47:891-914.