Much of the effort to control supernatural spirits revolves around various rituals. There is ritual with a small ‘r’ which covers almost everything that humans do. This is standardized, repetitive, formalized, communicative behaviour. A hand-shake or a kiss of greeting are good examples. In much of the west, the bodily movements of greeting have taken a recognized form; to shake with the left hand, or kiss someone on the nose rather than the cheek, would be considered strange.
The handshake communicates friendship, trust, affection or the sealing of a bargain. It is a social ritual and if you examine your life you will find it is full of these actions. Such a general use of the word would also cover a great deal of low level repetitive obsessive behaviour associated with certain forms of mental illness (such as constantly washing one’s hands or brushing one’s hair).
Other people’s rituals almost always seem odd. Here is part of the account of a visiting anthropologist who wrote an article on ‘Body Rituals among the Nacirema’ (worth spelling backwards).
‘The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite… this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.
In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client… The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth man year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.’
What is real Ritual?
What turns these small ‘r’ rituals, including cleaning one’s teeth, into Ritual with a capital R, can be seen by looking at the difference between the Protestant and Catholic communion in Christianity. The Protestant communion is a ritual. The clergyman takes the bread and wine and gives it to a communicant who eats and drinks it ‘in remembrance’ of Christ’s sacrifice for us. It is a gesture of communication between the present congregation and Christ. Yet nothing spiritual happens or is changed.
In the Catholic communion, when the priest blesses the bread and wine a small miracle occurs. The bread becomes the flesh of Christ, the wine His blood. This is not just a way of speaking. It is really believed to happen, and hence it is called ‘transubstantiation’, that is the changing of substance. Some Catholics believe that if we took the wine after the blessing and put it under a powerful microscope we would find that it was no longer grape-juice, but had the DNA of Christ’s blood.
So Ritual creates a bridge between this material world and a spiritual dimension which is always there but normally invisible. It is like plugging a device into an electric socket and then being able to tap the energy which is ever present, though concealed. Once one is plugged in, it is possible to use the energy to have effects at a distance in space or time and to change this material world.
A hand-shake or kiss symbolizes or expresses friendship and equality. It may also inaugurate such friendship. So it can be both expressive and instrumental. Yet it has no particular link to the Gods, except in certain special Rituals where, for example, a person kisses the Holy Cross or takes an oath of allegiance to an overlord, followed by a kiss or handshake.
What Ritual can do is to bring together special words and actions in such a way that it automatically changes this material world. So there are Rituals to bring the rain, to make the crops flourish, to prevent sickness in animals, to cure sick children, to take the spirits off to the land of the dead, to make a woman fertile or to bring success in battle.
Where has Ritual gone?
After the Protestant Reformation in western Europe in the sixteenth century and the rise of a new scientific outlook around the same time, Ritual was supposedly banished. We have lots of ceremonies, processions and formalized behaviour. But the idea that spiritual power could automatically be released by saying words in a certain order or doing things in a formal way, for example beating a drum or lighting candles to bring rain, seemed to the reformers and rationalists both superstitious and un-scientific. This scepticism has persisted among many Europeans and Americans.
So while there are many ‘secular rituals’, public parades and much of what goes on in sport and entertainment, this is limited to this material world. This is the case even if it often gives people the slightly ‘out of this world’ feeling of true Rituals, what has been called ‘effervescence’ or excitement.
These secular rituals may have great power over us. Mass parades, Hitler’s rallies or the displays for Chairman Mao, when hundreds of thousands march and wave flags, obviously move people deeply. Fascism and Communism and all strong political ideologies love secular rituals since they help to control hearts and minds. Yet while they may have the psychological power of Ritual, they are not religious. They do not ask God to interfere and change this material world.
Both ritual and Ritual are immensely powerful and they shape our lives. They obtain their power because humans are deeply affected by symbols and standardized actions. Put up certain symbols, colours, signs and shapes, play the right music, orchestrate a specific set of actions (a goose step or swinging of arms), and an individual, especially if he or she is in a large crowd, will quickly be deeply transfixed.
Drama and ritual are therefore very closely linked. The Greeks knew this well when they talked about the purging, cathartic, transforming effects of plays. The same effects can be seen in many other forms of dance and drama around the world, for instance in Hindu societies or Japanese noh performances. As humans we find ritual and drama deeply influences much of our waking life and even our dreams. We are constrained in what we can do and what we can think by rituals because they create paths through time which force us in a certain direction.
Even when we try to release ourselves from the power of ritual we are often trapped. The Quakers were amongst the most extreme anti-ritualists among religious groups. They tried to expel all formal, standardized, repetitive, behaviour from their lives, in language, gestures and in their worship. Their services have no music, no symbols, no apparent formality. Yet the stillness and simplicity becomes a sort of anti-Ritual ritual which is in some ways as compulsive and constraining as anything they were attacking. Anyone who tried to stand up and sell goods in a Quaker meeting would soon discover that there were ritual rules.
What are myths?
Most rituals contain a mythical dimension for they are based on a myth, or mythical stories are recited during them. So myth and ritual are inextricably linked. Yet our common understanding of myths makes it difficult for most of us to understand what they are.
People often describe other people’s beliefs as ‘just myths’. This assumes that myths are untrue, as if myth and factual truth are contradictory, or that they are to be distinguished from real history; ‘we know that Robin Hood never existed though there is a myth that he did’. In a fact-obsessed and scientific culture we use the word ‘myth’ in order to describe what people believe without foundation, or beliefs which we do not share.
Yet this strong opposition between ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ on the one hand and ‘myth’ on the other conceals something which is much more important. It fails to account for the strong hold which myth has in all our lives whether we are explicitly ‘religious’ or not. Myths are particular kinds of stories which cannot be judged by the simple criterion of scientific truth or falsehood. They are trying to say something beyond the level of ordinary truth.
The opposition between ‘myth’ and ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ disappears further when we consider modern science. Many cosmologists and astro-physicists now believe in the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe, or its successor String Theory. This concept is so abstruse and the information so complex that the theories cannot be subjected to all or many of the scientific proofs. They cannot be shown to be factually true. They are just a guess, a working model. So it is a paradox that our most rationalistic and scientific thinkers have surrounded themselves with an explanation of the origin of our universe and world which is beyond proof and perhaps a ‘myth’ in the wider sense.
In doing this, they are demonstrating one of the major functions of myths, one large category of which are myths of origin. The story of the Garden of Eden in Christianity, or the Sun Goddess who founded Japan, or many of the stories of the origins of drums or incest in a Nepalese village are like this. People do not usually ask whether they are literally true. They are ways of thinking about puzzling and irresolvable questions.
We still do not know how human life, or life at all, arose on this planet. We do not know why we have a sense of right and wrong. Myths give us complex accounts of such matters. Kipling’s Just So Stories, ‘How the Elephant Got Its Trunk’ or ‘How the Leopard Got Its Spots’ are myths in this sense. When we read them we do not ask whether they are true or false, they just make sense at a different level.
Another function of myth is as a charter or explanation of how things are as they are. Some people say that women are inferior because they came from Adam’s rib, that the Fascists are superior because they are descended from the ancient Teutons, that Communism will finally triumph because humans in their original innocent beginnings had no property. We live by myths of many kinds and manufacture them every day to justify the inequalities and injustices, or the surprises and changes, of our lives.
Myths try to explain the contradictions and mentally insoluble, irresolvable, tensions in our world. How is it that we seem to be both animals and non-animals? Many myths tell of the changing of humans into animals, vampire myths and were-animals. How do we seem both to be mortal, born to die, yet immortal? The death and re-birth of Christ, of King Arthur, myths of birth and re-birth in Hinduism, many myths tell us stories to help us think through these problems. This is obviously like much great literature and drama which puts forward these mysteries and irresolvable contradictions and states the arguments on both sides, then leaves us to decide the truth.
So myths and mysteries are closely linked. We can believe in fairies, hobbits, Harry Potter’s world, Father Christmas or the little spirits that steal children’s souls in the forests around the village in Nepal. Yet if pressed as to whether they are literally true, we would be sceptical. The room for half-belief, poetic belief, ‘as if’ belief is immense and most humans spend much of their time thinking in this way. Myths, like poetry and drama, only require a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to exercise their power over us.
What are symbols?
Basically symbols are objects, physical or immaterial (such as a sound), which stand for something else. Supposing you wanted to send someone a message to tell them that you were happy. You could do this by a direct method such as sending them a photograph of yourself laughing. In this case what you sent them, the representation of yourself, the photograph or thing which signified what you felt, is identical with the thing it represented or signified. A photograph is a wysiwyg. ‘What you see is what you get’. When you look at the photo, the link between the signifier (the photograph) and the signified (your face) is very strong, almost identical. It is nothing more nor less. The relationship is explicit, an exact matching. Some very elementary picture writing or ‘pictographs’ are like this. It is not symbolic.
Or you could show your friend a smiley face, not your own but a conventionalised one of the kind many people send as an e-mail. There is now some relationship between you, happiness and the smiling face, but the gap between what you want to represent and how you represent it is a little more distant. There is room for interpretation and your friend may need to be taught to recognize a couple of lines and a couple of dots as a smiley face and to realize that this stands for your happiness. Chinese writing is like this. For example, the word for ‘house’ is a picture of a house, but over the ages it has become distorted. We are still not in the land of real symbolism.
Or you could send them a short note saying ‘I am very happy’. Now, if you examine those letters, they are absolutely arbitrary. There is no possible relationship between the letters ‘h a p p y’ and the human emotion of happiness. The letters are abstract and arbitrary symbols, which have been joined together. When the reader sees them, having been taught how to decode them, they can be interpreted as symbols pointing towards the idea of happiness.
So symbols get their power from their arbitrary and abstract nature. When we decipher them, they can affect us deeply. When a persecuted Christian saw the sign of a fish on a wall, he or she could read into it the Greek letters for fish, which could be read as the first letters of words in the phrase ‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Saviour’. Yet others just saw a picture of a fish. When the police arrive to examine a murdered man in southern Italy and find a prickly pear lying in his lap as if by accident, they know it is a mafia killing. Or when you see a blue poster in a window at election time in Britain you believe that the people inside will probably vote Conservative. Yet there is no intrinsic relationship between prickly pears and the mafia, or blue and the Conservatives.
Each culture has its symbols and this is particularly true of colours. White is the symbol of death in Asia, black is that symbol in Europe. Red is the royal colour in China, gold in many parts of the world. Why the important colours in much of Africa should be brown, white and red has been widely discussed. Can it be related to their prominence in human life in the form of milk, blood and faeces? Whatever the reason, colours, sounds, shapes, all carry powerful meanings as we all know too well with the swastikas of the Nazis, who perverted a benevolent eastern symbol into one of power and hate.
Symbols are enormously powerful because although there is a commonly understood element to them, each of us can also read our own meanings into them and respond in different ways. They gain even more power when placed together in a series. When they are carefully constructed into a ritual or work of art we are enchanted and overwhelmed.
So religion is largely about the use of these apparently arbitrary symbols which we usually interpret at a level below our consciousness. We are symbol-producing and symbol-consuming creatures. We are able both to explore and communicate very deep truths, particularly in the most abstract symbolic forms such as music, art and mathematics. Yet we are also trapped, confused and led astray by symbols and our minds seduced by their power.
What are taboos?
Symbols are often associated with boundaries and these boundaries are in turn enforced by taboos. So what are ‘taboos’? The word ‘taboo’ came into our language from the Pacific island term tapu meaning a combination of secret and forbidden. It is a useful word for us since we find that much of our life seems to be broken up into things we can and can’t do. It is good to have a short-hand way to speak of apparently meaningless or unexplained prohibitions as ‘taboos’.
We classify certain things as safe, decent, acceptable and clean, while others are dangerous, indecent, unacceptable and dirty. Of course what we classify in these boxes is very culture-specific, as are our reactions to breaking taboos. In some societies to eat the brains of another human being would be taboo, in others, not to eat them when offered would be taboo. In some, for an older male to have sex with a young boy is taboo, in others not to do so if he is in a position of initiating the youth would be shameful.
Many taboos seem to be centred on periods of ambiguity, ambivalence or in-between positions. So there are many taboos at the turning points of life, at birth, at marriage and particularly at death. There are also taboos associated with the intersections between our body and the outside world. There are many taboos linked with menstruation, with faeces and urine, breaking wind, burping and spitting.
Certain bounded groups, for example Indian castes, some Orthodox Jews, gypsies, are particularly concerned with trying to keep certain categories apart. They are anxious about the ritual pollution or degrading danger that occurs for instance if we mix milk and blood, eat the flesh of certain animals or have sex with the wrong person or at the wrong time. These groups have taboos in the strong sense, Taboos with a capital letter. That is to say that if you break a Taboo, something serious will happen unless you purify yourself.
In my Nepalese village, if you come into contact with death, or touch an unclean (lower caste) person, you have to go through a little purification ritual with water in which gold has been dipped. In tapu, even if you did not mean to offend, danger is there and you will be punished. The ‘incest taboo’ is one of the most famous of these precisely for this reason. To commit incest is to break boundaries, to mix up blood. The Gods will punish you, even if you are not aware that you are breaking a taboo, as in the case of Oedipus who unknowingly married his mother.
On the other hand, most of us use the word in a much looser sense, just meaning that one should not do something. I might tell you that it is ‘taboo’ to walk on the grass in King’s College, Cambridge, it is ‘taboo’ to spit in the street, it is ‘taboo’ to wander around naked in public. Yet, if we do any of these things, though there may be social or even legal consequences, there is no particular spiritual danger.
We are not polluted by walking on the grass, nor is the grass polluted by our feet. Our children will not become sick, our animals will not die, if we do these things. Nor will we expect to be sent to Hell for them. We have broken a rule which we do not necessarily agree with, or even see the point of. There is no particular moral or spiritual danger. Indeed, as a child, you and your sister Rosa particularly delighted in the breaking of taboo and insisted on walking over the grass with me (a Fellow, so above taboo), whenever you could.
This is because Taboo in the strong sense only works with people who have a particular idea of a world divided into strong areas of purity and impurity, of safety and danger, even of the sacred and the profane. Many of us think of the world as being roughly level and uniform in spiritual terms. There are clean things and ‘matter out of place’ or dirty things. But the boundaries between things are not so rigid. When we come into contact with the pollution of death, we do not have to destroy everything associated with the dead person, as happens with gypsy caravans or in some Hindu funerals.
What is sacrifice?
It is not easy to communicate with God or the gods and it is even more difficult to spur the Divine into action. The most obvious way to try to compel them is to offer them a gift or bribe, to which they should reciprocate.
Obviously this gift should be of something we really value. So in societies which herd animals, the sacrifice is usually one of these precious beasts, a cow, buffalo, sheep or cockerel. So Christianity, which came out of the nomadic herding societies of the middle east, was built around the sacrifice of sheep, culminating in the gift of God’s own son, the ‘Lamb of God’. In rice growing cultures such as Japan, the sacrifice is of rice or rice wine.
The sacrifice has two elements. There is the gift, the physical object which is placed on the altar, and there is the spirit which it contains. So in a Nepalese village a cock, sheep or buffalo is sacrificed and the blood placed on the shrine. The gods drink the blood, but what they really consume is the spirit of the gift, the essence or soul of the sacrificed object. When they receive this they are pleased and return a favour or protect the worshippers.
In Christianity the sacrifice was shifted from actual animals to a symbolic sacrifice of God’s own son. Yet this began to be taken very literally and the Protestant Reformers reacted to what was considered an over-emphasis on the outward form. They said it was no good burning candles, burning incense or sacrificing money. What God really wanted was an internal offering. So the idea spread that the way to please God was to give up sinful behaviour. ‘The sacrifices of [for] God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.’ Better an obedient and disciplined heart and strong intentions to be good than the smoke of burnt offerings and streams of blood.
So, over much of the world, religion has been internalised. Yet sacrifice has not gone away. Many people still give up things for Lent, or abstain from this or that because they feel that it will somehow do them not only physical but also spiritual good. Being a vegetarian, weight-watching, giving up time and money to charities, all these are forms of sacrifice. Even in a world of consumerism and pleasure seeking, there is a strong Puritan streak in many people.
Furthermore, the notion of ‘sacrifice’ and its value varies enormously from culture to culture. Many British War Memorials to those who were killed in the two world wars speaks of their ‘sacrifice’. Have a look at what is written on such memorials when you travel around elsewhere. In France it will be ‘glory’, and in Japan you will find no such memorials with lists of names at all.
Why does ritual matter?
Almost all of our life revolves around patterns and rhythms of repetitive, standardized, behaviour. This feature of humanity has often been co-opted in the service of politics or religion. When the power of ritual is harnessed, whether it is in the formal language of prayers or political speeches, or in the compulsive movements of our bodies when praying or marching, our minds are constrained.
Rituals give us confidence, unite us to others, and help us through our most difficult times such as grieving or death. They help to re-arrange social relations as at a wedding, or re-order our social networks as at a funeral. A life without ritual would be inconceivable. It would make it patternless and meaningless. Yet we should remember that there is a price to pay for the power of ritual.
I have often wondered why no-one has ever suddenly stood up in the middle of the famous Christmas Carol Service at King’s College, Cambridge in order to proclaim their particular view of life, drawing the attention of the millions of listeners around the world to some cause. Yet as I sit through the service I feel the huge weight of solemnity and ritual which makes it difficult even to cough or shift in my seat. Rituals act on us through our body and senses so that they become entrenched in our way of life and leave us little control. We cannot easily escape from their power.
This is as true of secular rituals as it is of those clothed in formal religion. During the Cultural Revolution in China there were numerous ‘rituals’ to worship Chairman Mao. People conscientiously observed them, like the rituals of ‘Asking for Instructions in the Morning’ and ‘Reporting Back in the Evening’ during which millions recited quotations from Mao’s works, holding the ‘little red book’ pressed to their breast. Chinese friends now say that they were often embarrassed and sceptical at the time, but could not resist the group pressure.
So all we can do is to celebrate rituals, but at the same time try to stand back and examine the ways in which we are constrained, brain-washed as it were, by ritual power. Freedom of a sort comes from understanding and controlling the rituals we perform and are involved in.