What is Ritual

This is actually is a very good question, what exactly is ritual? If you are looking for a definition it depends where you look as to what that definiton says.

  1. A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to set sequence.  (Wikipedia)
  2. A set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony.  (dictionary.cambridge.org) 
  3. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
  4. A prescribed order for performing a ritual ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or Church.
  5. A series of actions or type of behaviour regularly and invariably followed by someone.
    (3-5 – Oxford English Dictionary via – https://www.lexico.com/definition/ritual)

The Elements of Ritual

These are just a few examples there are many, many more; some very much of a muchness and others complex and convoluted. It isn’t how simple or complicated that makes it a ritual. It also isn’t whether it is done for sacred or secular reasons, whether it involves a whole group of people or just one person or whether it is part of a much larger ceremony or a stand-alone event.

There are certain elements that do need to be present to constitute ritual;

  • Regularity – it needs to be performed on a regular basis, the time-scale isn’t as important as the pattern; for example a group of friends who meet for coffee becomes a ritual behaviour if it follows a set pattern, it doesn’t matter if it is every Saturday morning or the morning of the last Saturday in each month. If it always follows the same pattern on a regular basis then it becomes their ritual for meeting for coffee.
  • Structure – a more formal ritual will follow a sequence containing the same elements; words, movements, objects, each time. If you change the wording or the sequence every time then it is no longer a ritual but becomes more of a gathering or get together.
  • Participation – everyone taking part in the ritual participates and contributes to the proceedings; they may not all play the same part but they behave each according to their role.
  • Location – a ritual will have at least a common theme running through it regarding the location; the group of friends from earlier always meet at a coffee house (it may not be the same one), for a wedding to be classed as legal in the UK it must always take place in a building that is either licensed for the purpose or designated as a place of worship. If your ritual is to celebrate the turning of the year you may decide that it takes place in a woodland or other place of natural beauty; again it may not always be the same one, but it will always be the same type of location.
  • There are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated into a ritual
  • Rituals are characterized, but not defined, by formalism, traditionalism, invariance, rule-governance, sacral symbolism, and performance