Ritual and ceremony are integral parts of how we define ourselves as a culture and as human beings. Anthropological evidence exists that seems to indicate that the earliest people who can be described as “human” believed in a power higher than themselves and developed rituals to show respect to that deity.
Gravesites of our stone-age Neanderthal cousins that date back at least 80,000 years or more show signs of detailed sacred beliefs and ceremonial practices.
Bodies were discovered decorated with paint and draped with ornaments. Flowers and herbs had been gathered and placed upon the bodies, and they had been buried along with food, utensils, and objects of power.
Each body had been consistently placed, seeming lovingly into their graves in a fetal position, as if waiting to be reborn; lying on their sides, with their heads pointing north, faces turned to await the rising sun.
Indeed to the ancient peoples of the world, the sacred was a part of their everyday lives. “Gods” or spirits were everywhere, permeating all things, and influencing every aspect of the world both seen and unseen.
Ritual and ceremony were the way that early peoples wrested some control over their world, and helped them to grasp the unfathomable. Ritual brought some sense out of the chaos and was used to unify and empower people.
There seems to be an innate human desire to connect with the sacred, to try to understand the mysteries of the cosmos, and ritual helps us to fulfill that need. Ceremonies help us express our emotions, celebrate love and new beginnings; and share our grief and losses.
Rituals in Everyday Life
The word “ritual” most often has religious connotations. But the secular use of the term “ritual” to describe behaviors has the same effect of providing comfort and identity. Rituals ground us and help us cope with stress and with change.
We all have our “morning rituals” that help get us prepared to face the day ahead, and our “evening rituals” to help unwind at the end of the day. These daily rituals are reassuring. In this respect, ceremony and ritual, whether religious or secular, create the opportunity to pause and reconnect to the simple joy of being alive.
To be sure, ceremony and ritual are an integral part of all major modern religions. Yet, secular society is replete with the trappings of ritual. Oaths of Allegiance, inductions into fraternal organizations, graduations, dedications, and coronations, The Presidential inauguration –even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – are all rituals. From courtrooms to the opening bell of the stock exchange, to the halls of Congress or Parliament -activities that are performed for the least of metaphysical purposes are filled with symbolic rituals.
Even the most mundane task can take on the aspects of ritual, in both name and significance. In our own home, we have our “laundry ritual,” where my husband, my daughter and I all converge at the same time in the same room every week to fold the laundry. My daughter gets to pick out the music we fold too, and that turns into a reverie of whirling and twirling clothes – to rival any tribal dance. It’s silly, and it’s fun, and we all look forward to this special family time together.
It’s Human Nature
Even the most atheistic amongst us have these kinds of daily rituals that I am sure they treasure. Why is it that even those that may have denied the existence of a higher power, still share this basic need for ritual? Experts say it is because routines help us define our days, add balance to our lives, and achieve a sense of well-being.
Anthropologist Victor Turner, generally recognized as the seminal authority on ritual and human development wrote, “Rituals reveal values at their deepest level…men express in ritual what moves them the most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see the study of rituals as the surest way to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies.”
Rituals give us the power to heal the world, to cleanse our own spirits and to touch upon the transcendent. Ceremonies and rituals play an essential role in all cultures, ancient and modern, Eastern or Western – they define a culture, and at the same time underscore a cross-cultural shared human experience. The expressions may be different; dancing, music, drumming, chanting, singing, or praying – but the goal is the same, to connect a people to the higher spiritual forces — and to itself.