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Anthropological Aspects of Ritual

Ritual and the Divine.

The 19th Century pioneers of cultural research, such as Friedrich Max Müller, Edward B Tylor, William Robertson Smith and James Frazer, defined culture in terms of Myth and Rite. In their view of the world, “Rite” was the obvious primitive counterpart of Christian worship back in Europe, and “Myth” the obvious counterpart of the Bible.
Over the following century, the definition of “Rite” has been gradually expanded:- first to include rituals that are not associated with myths, then to include cultural activity such as theatre that is associated with myth, but is not considered sacred. The definition was expanded further with the publication in the 1960s of Max Gluckman's book “Essays on the ritual of social relations”, in which all manner of social etiquette is regarded as ritualistic.
This erosion of the meaning of the term "Rite" continued, with the inclusion of private rituals (first described as ritualistic by Sigmund Freud in 1907) into the anthropological definition.
In the last decade it has become clear that, by one definition or another, almost all of human activity can be classed as “Rite”, thus rendering the term meaningless. It would appear in many ways that the classification of activity into “Rite” and “Other” is a prejudice of western thought, rather than a fundamental human trait.



Characteristics of Ritual.

Notwithstanding, the word “Rite” clearly means something to most people. The anthropologist Catherine Bell finally reframed this whole discussion by proposing 6 characteristics of ritual like activity. Now the question is no longer “Is it Ritual”, but “How ritually is it?”
The 6 characteristics are: Traditionalism, Formality, Invariance, Rule-Governance, Performance and Sacral Symbolism. The more of these characteristics are associated with a particular activity, the more likely ordinary people are to describe that activity as Ritualistic, and to experience it as consciousness-altering.
After looking at these characteristics from a psychological standpoint, examining how ritual activity might affect people unconsciously, I would add a 7th characteristic: esotericism: an association with the mysterious.
Thus, in designing a ritual, it is a good rule of thumb to assess the design in terms of these characteristics. The more one can refer to distant tradition, include formality, appeal to recent precedent, involve rules, include an aspect of performance or symbolic act, and incorporate overt sacred symbols, the more likely participants are to experience the ritual as transformative, meaningful and effective.

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