Taking off from a piece by Ted Gioia: 13 Observations on Ritual
and noting that we had a related Question in 2023 on Ceremonies...

I note that I prefer to separate public ritual from private ritual.
Recognizing the centrality of ritual studies in the history of anthropology,
we'll begin with material on the public aspect of ritual:

* * * * *

Wikipedia on Ritual

Ritual (from Cultural Anthropology)

What roles might the concept of ritual play in the study of contemporary society and culture? As one of the founding concepts of our discipline, ritual has long been a cornerstone of anthropological thought: from the works of Émile Durkheim through Gregory Bateson, Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner, countless classics have been built upon this infinitely perplexing and thus fascinating aspect of human life. In recent decades, however, ritual has undergone a rapid retreat from the forefront of anthropological consideration. Although ritual's role in the initial formation of anthropology does not grant it permanent immunity to transitions in scholarly interest, its recent departure also should not be casually interpreted as proof of irrelevance.

Does ritual exist? Defining and classifying ritual based on belief theory The Journal of Chinese Sociology

In 1909 a French academic book titled Les Rites de Passage was published. The author, van Gennep, contributed an analytical framework for the ritual called the "rite of passage." Van Gennep lived at the beginning period of anthropology-sociology, and was dedicated to finding the general structure of ritual. The discussion of rites of passage began with the difference and separation between the profane and the sacred, which was the generally recognized proposition at that time. Van Gennep found that individuals must go through an intermediate stage in which they cross between the profane and the sacred. In general, when a member of a society changes, such as through birth, adulthood, marriage, or death, people usually need to hold a ritual for them to mark the changes or transitions of an individual. Van Gennep called these rituals rites of passage, all of which were to "accompany a passage from one situation to another or from one cosmic or social world to another." Furthermore, van Gennep subdivided these rituals into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation (van Gennep 1960, 10-11).

...It is a pity that this advanced study did not attract scholars' attention until the publication of the English translation in 1960, which triggered the rebirth of the topic of "rites of passage" academia....

(And that was just about where I got on the Bus. Anthropology was abuzz with talk of "rites of passage" in the early 1960s)

Your everyday rituals do impact your life — just not how you might expect :NPR

...rituals play very important functions in human societies. They help individuals through their anxieties, they help groups of people connect to one another, they help people find meaning in their lives.

Amanda Zunner-Keating on Rituals

An act or series of acts regularly repeated over years or generations that embody the beliefs of a group of people and create a sense of continuity and belonging (Davis-Floyd, 8). Alternatively, a ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place or time, and performed according to set order (Stein and Stein, page 77).

Rethinking ritual: how rituals made our world and how they could save it Harvey Whitehouse 2024 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

All around the world and throughout known history, human beings have come together to dance, sing, chant, give thanks, mark changes in life, and celebrate communal achievements. These activities always entail the performance of special kinds of actions, often using unusual artefacts or displaying distinctive hairstyles, clothing, or body decorations. Each cultural group acts as a vast repository of unique rules for how to do these things.

...when we perform a ritual, we assume that the actions take the form that they do, not because they contribute via ordinary causation to some desired outcome, but simply because this is the time-honoured and conventional procedure, as dictated by tradition or magical stipulation or doctrinal authority. For example, being tapped on the shoulders by a ceremonial sword may be considered necessary to turn a commoner into a knight but nobody believes that there is a knowable causal pathway that leads from action to outcome. The ritual uses of swords comprise actions that are a certain way simply because it is the conventional rule (e.g. the proper way of knighting someone) and not because it makes sense in terms of normal understandings of cause and effect in the physical world. The assumption that causal reasoning does not apply is essential to the idea of ritual.

The Archaeology of Religious Ritual | Annual Review of Anthropology (paywalled)

Bell (1997, Ch. 5) identifies six characteristics that rituals and ritual-like activities exhibit to varying degrees. Bell is clear that these characteristics are not exhaustive, nor are the characteristicslimited to religious ritual. The characteristicsare as follows. Ritual, from this perspective, is more a process than an event (Bell 1992, Humphrey & Laidlaw 1994). Certain actions are, or become, ritualized; they become more formal, traditional, invariant, etc. That is, ordinary actions assume greater meaning and significance.


  1. Archaeologists often assume that ritual is a form of human action that leaves material traces, whereas religion is a more abstract symbolic system consisting of beliefs, myths, and doctrines. The dialectic between ritual and religion allows each to inform on the other.
  2. Some archaeologists view religion as primary, with ritual as a means of enacting the embedded meanings of religious belief. Others see ritual as primary; the specifics of religious belief systems are created to conform to rituals practices.
  3. Archaeologists who see religion as primary see the goal of the archaeology of ritual as the identification of underlying meaning of ritual acts. Studies of this sort often make extensive use of historical and ethnohistorical sources.
  4. Archaeologists who view ritual as primary investigate the ways that the experience of ritual served to create, reaffirm, or contest social orders, often viewed in terms of authority and subordination.
  5. Archaeologists have also productively studied ancient symbols as material objects, gaining insight into the function of symbols, if not the meaning of them.

The Archaeology of Ritual | Annual Review of Anthropology (paywalled)

The elevation of all things ritual is the legacy of both a long genealogy of anthropological research and the peculiar characteristics of the archaeological record. Rappaport (1999, p. 137) famously regarded ritual as "the basic social act," whereas Geertz (1973, 2005) approached it as the key to the inner workings of culture for both anthropologists and practitioners alike. Other theorists contend that ritual performance provides a window onto micropolitical processes and the interplay of domination and resistance (Bell 1992, 1997; Fogelin 2006)...

...some anthropologists have eschewed traditional definitions of ritual as encompassing the highly symbolic, communicative, and rule-governed or as actions transacting relations with suprahuman powers. If both the manufacture of a cooking pot and the sacrifice of an animal are constitutive of society, embedded in efficacious if arcane formulae, and are goal oriented (instrumental), then what is the point of calling the one technical and the other ritual?

...archaeologists have agonized over whether ritual can be defined at all and have debated how its traces can be accurately identified in the material record (see Fogelin 2007, Marcus 2007). Most would now agree that ritual does not constitute an essentialized thing but is best described as a quality or inflection of action that varies considerably from culture to culture (Kyriakidis 2007; Verhoeven 2002, 2011).

...As an instrumental act—to initiate, curse, propitiate, fertilize, bless, empower, etc.—ritual often brings vital forces directly into material being, which explains in part why it is especially prone to politicization (Bell 1992; Bloch 1992; Fowles 2013, pp. 54, 190; Swenson 2013).

...archaeologists increasingly argue that an examination of past ritual events provides one of the most effective means of interpreting material agency, plural subjectivities, identity politics, social memory, alternate ontologies, and ideological struggle in ancient societies.

The Palgrave Handbook of Anthropological Ritual Studies

$299.99 from the publisher...


Trance and Dance in Bali
(a classic film of ritual in action)

Some interesting commentary on the film by Fatima Tobing Roni, an Indonesian viewer:
The Western notion of a Self that is individual and autonomous is seen as being at odds with the Balinese notion of a Self that may be possessed by Spirits. It was a difference in viewing that the Balinese themselves made note of, for according to anthropologist Margaret Wiener, the Balinese referred to the Dutch as having "white eyes": meaning, with a bluish cast like an old person who has difficulty seeing, but also, meaning blind to the world of the divine...

...What is the process of conversion of a spiritual act such as trance into what Mead and Bateson saw as the objective recording of reality of the photograph or film?...

Wijaksuma's reading of the European view of Bali:

For us Bali is the place where everything is holy — we pray to the gods, as well as to the plants, the animals, and the flowers. That's our religion. But for them Bali is a paradise because they have a beautiful house, many servants, beautiful gamelan, a lot of food. And they have the girls with the bare breasts.
And Margaret Mead herself:

(It's worth noting that the film was partly funded by the Committee for Dementia Præcox [that is, Schizophrenia], withn the objective of demonstrating that Balinese culture itself was schizophrenic)

and this looks interesting:


And moving on to private ritual:

I (the cynical and standoffish outsider) am deeply suspicious of public, organized, collective ritual, so much of which seems to me empty form, (quasi-)spiritual play-acting, cosplay routines alleged and supposed to unite the participants by routines of manipulated symbols... from which the participants may draw something that I am missing and am prone to disparage. The reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the foofaraw around the singing of the National Anthem are cases in point. I find exploration of personal 'ritual' behavior much more interesting: the repeated actions in which one finds balance, comfort, solace —and which at their extremes may be pathological.

Public ritual performances are exercises in participation: displays of belonging, believing, being seen by others... and in perpetual danger of being formulaic, routinized, corrupted by hieratic meddling ...EMPTY mumbo-jumbo.

The problem with public ritual comes when priests involve themselves and liturgies and vestments come to seem essential to the Enactment: it becomes theatrical, dependent on formalized illusion and Men Behind the Curtain, manipulating Levers...

Collective ritual, whether sacred or secular, has for me an Orwellian mind-control sense, where myth and official version and lip-service, and go-along-to-get-along kneejerk belief, is the glue that holds the structure together. That glue has a heavy fraction of hypocrisy mixed in to its hierarchies of sanctity and We/They separation: the ickier parts of Culture and Society

This morning I started to read Paul Theroux' The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas and found this, describing what he saw from the train window as he left Boston, headed westward:

...repeatedly, American flags —the Stars and Stripes flying over gas stations and supermarkets and in numerous yards... The flags puzzled me: were these pious boasts of patriots or a warning to foreigners or decorations for a national holiday? And why, in the littered yard of that rundown house, was a pretty little flag flapping loyally from a pole? On the evidence here, it seemed an American obsession, a kind of image worship I associated with the most primitive political minds... (pg 8)
I got to wondering about my first exposures to ritual, and came up with some early memories. The very first datable memory was of VJ Day, August 1945 (a few weeks before my second birthday) when Brother John and I went to ring the church bell at noon (all of Cambridge's churches rang their bells in ritual celebration of the End of The War). Another ghost of memory reminded me of an illustration in a book, dimly recalled but quite clear, showing British bomber pilots touching a good luck talisman as they embarked on a WW II sortie. Gradually the book came back to me: its red cover, the fact that it was about a homing pigeon whose release with a message when the bomber went down led to the rescue of the crew... a few minutes of searching turned up the glorious tale of Winkie, the pigeon who won the Dickin Medal in 1943 (and lives on, stuffed, in a museum in Dundee) ...and the book's title came to me: Watching for Winkie, and sure enough I was able to find a copy via Amazon, and will soon be reunited with it.

I also realized that my family of origin was TIED to the weekly ritual observance in the Sweet and Gorgeous Church (where the bell was, and where my father conducted the Sunday services)

Church of the New Jerusalem, Cambridge
(the Sweet and Gorgeous in 2007, among Harvard buildings)
...and I remembered the setting in detail, replete with church-like smell and the texture of the kneeling furniture and the padding of the pews, and which pew was OUR pew, and the parameters of my mother's church attire, and the organ and two kinds of music: the hymns, and the display of the organist's artistry. There were responsorials and unison performances of liturgical texts, some of them ritual prayers, others affirmative of commonly-held convictions. And there was the Sermon, from which I was excused, and so was not a party to whatever it was that my father SAID to the congregation. And who WERE those Swedenborgians who turned up every Sunday? What did they come for?
Any repeated action is on its way to becoming a ritual. All it needs is semiotic content (being invested with meaning), not unlike Terry Pratchett's formula for Belief (see Small Gods for the clearest exposition) as the lifeblood of the gods: the more believers, the more powerful the god, and conversely.

Ritual is where you find it

Fact is, ritual is all around us, expressed in architectural styles, in the procedures for the naming of boats, in the yellow line down the middle of the road, in the shape of the mailbox, in the finer points of household display (in and out), in the shopping lists and the shopping itself, and surely in one's cherished daily routines. We take comfort in the measured exercise and performance of those things, in their orderliness and adherence to the convention, and we're acutely able to detect departures from the expected forms.

A lot of what we do has substantial ritual content: there are procedures that are just right, how xxx ought to be done; some are trivial, some are vitally important. And some are annoying to others who may be in the vicinity of the performance of some personal ritual: they may not grasp the centrality to you of the rituals you enact. I reviewed my own morning rituals, discovering how very elaborate they are, how idiosyncratic, and how essential they seem to be to my own satisfaction. The morning ritual is choreographed, and one is persnickety in the extreme and to a fault. And there's no audience.

The Hidden Powers of Everyday Ritual | The MIT Press Reader (Bradd Shore)

A "ritual" comes into being when ordinary behavior is repeated until it begins to harden into recognizable action patterns we call "routines." Routines are efficient ways of getting jobs done by creating sets of automated, repeatable actions. Routines simplify our lives by offloading complex actions from working memory, so we do them without much cognitive effort. Our morning grooming routine gets us ready for the day. Our house-cleaning routines simplify keeping our living spaces in order by turning a series of actions into a semi-automatic action set. Routines are behavior on automatic pilot.

But once our acts have crystallized into a fixed routine, they may keep evolving, taking on symbolic significance and adding layers of meaning to our actions — this is called "ritualization." We can think of rituals as routines with a significant symbolic load.

...Watch any video of people dancing ecstatically or a crowd chanting rhythmically. You are watching agency reversal in action.

In an ecstatic ritual performance, the power of the rhythmic action reverses the experience of who's doing the action. Dancers may begin by feeling that they are dancing, but as the pulse of the action intensifies, there comes a point of reversal, when the dance starts performing the dancer. The ritual takes over. In intense sports, such reversal is known as an experience of "flow." While only an especially intense ritual produces the total reversal we know as trance, where the performer is carried away, all ritual conveys some degree of agency reversal.

As a socializing mechanism, agency reversal can create a powerful bonding experience among performers. Military ritual comes to mind. In religious rituals, agency reversal is the closest humans come to a sense of contact with a transcendent agent...

...Something done once is just an act. Done twice, it is a repeat. But beyond that lies the endless expanse of ritual. "This is what we do together." "We always do that." "We used to eat here." "This is who we are."

...And finally, there are the miraculous powers of individual rituals, which can provide a surprising sense of peace and comfort in the face of sorrow, loneliness, or stress. Consider the power of an evening cup of tea enjoyed in a favorite teacup. Quickly, "a cup of tea" becomes "my cup of tea" as you take a simple act to heart. Ritualization is a potent stabilizing agent, a simple salve for a stressful time if only we are mindful of how we use its powers.

'Personal ritual' can be thought of as balm to the spirit and even as an expression of joy, but not so far away in semantic space is 'obsession', in the pathologic extreme of OCD.


(these don't have much to do with ritual)
(ummmm... but....)

Parmesan roast cauliflower

Whole roast cauliflower

Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton

Sitting down like a shishi lion

Zen Master Gu Ja