What is Ritual?
This is a hard question to answer … rather like “What is Art?”, “What is Beauty?” and “What is thought?”!
Some theories have been so all-encompassing as to include almost any human activity, while others have been so restrictive as to include only activity within the confines of a temple or church.
Some anthropologists have taken Ritual to mean only activity that happens repetitively. Others have included only the formal rituals of religions. The traditionalism of ritual is often emphasised, but at the expense of Creative Rituals.
Recently, anthropologists have been looking at definitions which emphasise the 'differentness' of ritual activity from mundane activity. That is, ritual as being activity which is seen as different from the everyday activities of gathering food, raising children, sharing information, manufacturing goods, etc., and which is deliberately set apart from those activities by some pre-agreed signals (e.g. a bell summoning the congregation to the Church for communion).
My own approach (The Technical Approach) holds that “Ritual” is really a set of psychological techniques for manipulating ‘projection’, ‘identification’, ‘introjection’ and ‘transformation’. Every human activity includes some such technique, but the more such techniques are present in an activity, the more likely people are to call that activity ‘ritual’.
The Technical Approach is the psychological equivalent of Catherine Bell’s approach of “Characteristics of ritual activity”. She identifies six sociological characteristics of human activity (Traditionalism, Formalism, Invariance, Rule-Governance, Performance, Sacral Symbolism). The more of these are present in an activity, the more likely people are to classify it as ritual. Working from the Technical Approach, I argue for a seventh sociological characteristic: Esotericism.
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