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  Rituals (from Latin ritualis, ‘following solemn procedure’) are stylized, formulaic patterns of behaviour frequently conducted in a religious context. Participants often see them as celebrating, maintaining and renewing the world. Rituals both assert and renew basic social values; they deal with relationships between individuals, and between humans and the environment, including the supernatural world. They have, therefore, psychological, social and symbolic dimensions.

Early anthropologists generally assumed that rituals were concerned with beliefs and religious sentiments, that they were attempts to influence supernatural forces. A phenomenological perspective sees such religious ideas as heightening personal experience: the experiential realm of ritual derives its intensity from collective participation.

Anthropologists study three levels in ritual: indigenous interpretations, which often reflect ideals; actual behaviour; and the relationship of ritual elements and symbols. Ritual is seen as a grouping of symbols (including objects, sequences of movement, gestures and costumes) which have to be understood in relation to each other. The nature of symbols allows for the existence of a multiplicity of interpretations of meaning.

Although those who practise rituals generally understand them in relation to supernatural ‘other worlds’, anthropologists and social scientists also interpret them in relation to society, focusing on the interaction between ritual and society. Debate about the meaning of rituals has led to an emphasis on ritual as a system of communication: they express values in dramatic form and communicate them to spectators as well as participants. Functionalist analysis examines the underlying and instrumental purposes of ritual, for example the way in which ritual acts reinforce collective sentiments, or the way ritual is used to challenge or negotiate with those in positions of power. In political terms, ritual tends to underline differences in status, validating respect for the status quo by reference to tradition. In such circumstances, ritual often symbolizes the power of political authority. Even where it threatens to subvert the authority of political and social systems, it ultimately tends to validate it. For example, during the harvest first-fruits festivals of some Bantu kingdoms in southern Africa, the king was publicly humiliated and the world of established authority was turned upside-down for the duration of the ritual but afterwards social order returned immediately to normal.

Religious ritual is an expression of one\'s religious identity (for example when a Christian makes the sign of the cross or a Muslim bows to pray in the direction of Mecca). It is a way of reinforcing one\'s convictions and controlling one\'s relationship with the divine. Rituals are used to regulate time (as in worship), as a way of giving meaning and order to daily life (by sanctifying it for God), and to change states of being (for example in ceremonies of initiation, purification or passage). In some religions ritual is thought actually to affect the change in status during a rite of passage: the new-born child is accepted, the journey is made from childhood to adulthood, two people marry, a soul departs from this life or incarnation to another.

Ritual in religion is also used to establish the presence of the divine, for example in the commissioning of a new temple idol, in the consecration of a mosque or synagogue, or in the Christian eucharist. Ritual can be used as a form of magic, that is as a way of controlling supernatural (or even natural) forces, as in exorcism, healing or rain-making. It is crucial in matters of purity and taboo, for instance in the mikva or ritual bath whereby an orthodox Jewish woman cleanses herself after menstruation, or in the innumerable ceremonies, worldwide, surrounding childbirth.

The idea that ritual is a form of magic is picked up in the Judaeo-Christian prophetic tradition: it is believed that by performing acts proleptically, or symbolically, one can actually make things happen or bring them closer. In the Protestant tradition, the faith of the participants is necessary to make ritual effective; in Catholic canon law, by contrast, sacraments are held to have validity ex opere operato, ‘by virtue of having been performed’. In many religions, to be valid a ritual must be performed by a member of the priestly order or group, and must follow a specific formula down to the last detail. (In ancient Rome this was sometimes carried to ludicrous lengths: in the time of the stammering Emperor Claudius, who also served as High Priest, some ceremonies had to be repeated as many as a dozen times, from the beginning, until they were word-perfect.) DA EMJ CL

See also interpretative anthropology; political anthropology; prayer; sacraments.Further reading M. Bloch, From Blessing to Violence; , Joan La Fontaine (ed), The Interpretation of Ritual; , V. Turner, The Ritual Process.



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