Rituals motivate and move us. Through ritual we build families and community, we make transitions and mark important events in our lives, we express ourselves in joy and sorrow, and perhaps, most importantly, we create and sustain identity.
They come in every shape and colour. From solemn Roman Catholic High Mass to flamboyant Gay Pride celebrations. From shamanic rites practiced by the Huichol Indians of Mexico to modern-day self-help rituals.
From Swedish girls dancing around the maypole on Midsummer's Eve – believed to be a magical time for love - to ethnic Chinese Thai piercing their cheeks with blades and swords to bring good fortune during Phuket’s bloody Vegetarian Festival.
While some may dismiss the practice as old fashioned, the act of ritual is an essential part of the human condition that remains with us today, simply, because it seems to work.
Unlike habits which are often mindless, rituals are generally mindful – a series of actions carried out for a specific purpose.
Ritual and communal identity
Our ancient ancestors used the bond of ritual to create ties of kinship necessary for survival in a world rife with dangers.
Ritual formed structure and hierarchy and helped define their place in the world, which in turn led to early forms of worship such as totemism, animism and paganism.
The oldest known acts of human ritual date back 70,000 years to a cave in the Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, known locally as the “Mountains of the Gods”.
Here, in 2006, archaeologists discovered evidence of Stone Age humans making sacrificial offerings of spear heads to a stone python. According to the creation myths of the local Sanpeople, man is descended from the python.
As modern religions emerged, ancient rituals were absorbed into new forms. Religious leaders understood that communal identity is created and consolidated through shared experiences.
Ceremonies are often joyous occasions – who doesn’t love a big birthday party or a wedding?
In increasingly secular times, we may no longer need ritual for our physical survival, but what of our mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing?
“While there has been a move away from religious ceremonies, people still need ritual to mark major points in their life,” says Dally Messenger, one of Australia’s first civil celebrants, and author of the book Ceremonies and Celebrations.
“Ceremonies are an expression of culture,” he adds, “mechanisms which express and generate love, forge and declare the bond between individuals, and establish and identify community.”
Ceremonies are often joyous occasions – who doesn’t love a big birthday party or a wedding? Others, such as funerals, see us deal with a deep sense of loss, yet a ceremonial farewell allows us to share our grief.
Gathering together for ceremonial rituals also connects us to our history. Each year the French unite in massive festivities to celebrate Bastille Day and the emergence of the modern nation and its worthy ethos: “Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights.”
And, of course, ANZAC day was established to honour the forging of an Australian identity and the qualities of endurance, initiative, courage and mateship, seen as definitive aspects of what it is to be Australian.
Rites of passage
Rituals are fascinating because they reflect the diversity of the human experience. What seems quite normal to one culture is utterly bizarre to the next.
Imagine making your 13-year-old son wear gloves packed with hundreds of angry bulletants for 10 minutes – you would get arrested for child abuse, but for the Satere-Mawe tribe of the Amazon, it marks an important coming-of-age ritual.
Before marriage, the women of theWest African Fulani Tribehave their mouth and lips tattooed. It won't magically transform them from a girl into a woman – nor will the Satere-Mawe's ants make a man of the boys – but both share the importance of intention. The cultural or personal significance is what makes it so effective.
“Many young people feel they are on their own, they don’t belong, they are not supported. The reason? That the community has never told them that they belong – in the serious way known as a ceremony.”
Coming-of-age rituals are particularly powerful in creating identity, as they signify the move away from childhood and into adulthood.
There is a sense of before and after, that life has been touched by the experience and given deeper meaning. The more intense the experience, the greater the bond created – which is why sharing traumatic initiation rites is believed to strengthen community ties.
Speaking of Australian youth today, Messenger believes, “Many young people feel they are on their own, they don’t belong, they are not supported. The reason? That the community has never told them that they belong – in the serious way known as a ceremony.”
Rituals and the modern self
While communal rituals give us the comfort of familiarity, solidarity and shared experience, personal rituals can also create a feeling of connection in the grand scheme of things.
According to psychiatrist and author Abigail Brenner, “The simple act of participating actively in our own lives is a giant step toward taking back personal responsibility for how we choose to live, with who we choose to share our experiences and for how we choose to define ourselves in our community and in our world.”
The need for personal rituals in increasingly fragmented societies may be greater than ever. Facebook is full of posts such as “7 ways to be happier” or “10 ways to get what you want in life”.
We can customise our own rituals according to our needs, whether it's finding inner peace, getting a good night’s sleep, attracting a soul mate or achieving important career goals.
Rituals and performance
Chris Attwood, co-author of the book Your Hidden Riches: Unleashing the Power of Ritual to Create a Life of Meaning and Purpose, claims that rituals are the key to success. He says they allow us to “perform at our best when we need to, stay calm when we’re under intense pressure, and create a sense of balance in our lives”.
Top sports players are well known for pre-match rituals. Serena Williams always bounces the ball five times on her first serve and twice on her second. She wears the same pair of socks for the duration of a tournament. She has even blamed losing on not following her ritual.
Superstition? No one would claim that well-worn socks lead her to victory - she is a supreme athlete who gives it everything she’s got - but her sock ritual no doubt helps to put her in a winning mindset.
Research by sports psychologists shows superstitious rituals improve performance. In experiments, golfers who were given a “lucky” ball performed better than those given an ordinary ball. Having a “lucky” ball was believed to enhance people's confidence in their abilities and motivate greater effort.
Actors are known for rituals, too. On the first day of set, Colin Farrell always wears his lucky boxer shorts which are covered in shamrocks.
From socks to shamrocks to stinger ants, love of God to love of self, private acts of gratitude to communal acts of grandeur, rituals are a fundamental part of what makes us human, and have as much relevance today as they ever did.