1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ritual

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5786281911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 23 — RitualRobert Ranulph Marett

RITUAL (from Lat. ritus, a custom, especially a religious rite or custom), a term of religion, which may be defined as the routine of worship. This is a "minimum definition"; "ritual" at least means so much, but may stand for more. Without some sort of ritual there could be no organized method in religious worship. Indeed, viewed in this aspect, ritual is to religion what habit is to life, and its rationale is similar, namely, that by bringing subordinate functions under an effortless rule it permits undivided attention in regard to vital issues. This analogy - for it is safer to regard such applications of individual psychology to social phenomena as only analogies - may be carried a step further. Just as the main business of habit is to secure bodily equilibrium in order to allow free play to the mental life, so the chief task of routine in religion is to organize the activities necessary to its stability and continuance as a social institution, in order that all available spontaneity and initiative may be directed into spiritual channels. Such organization will naturally affect far more than the forms of worship; but these at least, to judge from the past history of religion, cannot but submit extensively to its influence. The nature of religion, as the sociologist understands it, is bound up with its congregational character. In order that inter-subjective relations should be maintained between fellow-worshippers, the use of one or another set of conventional symbols is absolutely required; for example, an intelligible vocabulary of meet expressions, or (since this is, perhaps, . not indispensable) at any rate sounds, sights, actions and so on, that have come by prescription to signify the common purpose of the religious society, and the means taken in common for the realization of that purpose. In this sense, the term "ritual," as meaning the prescribed ceremonial routine, is also extended to observances not strictly religious in character.

But, whilst ritual at least represents routine, it tends, historically speaking, to have a far deeper significance for the religious consciousness. A recurrent feature of religion, which many students of its phenomena would even consider constant and typical, is the attribution of a more or less self-contained and automatic efficacy to the ritual procedure as such. Before proceeding to considerations of genesis, it will be convenient briefly to analyse the notion as it appears in the higher religions. Two constituent lines of thought may be distinguished. Firstly, there is the tendency to pass beyond the purely petitionary attitude which as such can imply no more than the desire, hope or expectation of divine favour, and to take for granted the consummation sought, a deity that answers, a grace and blessing that are communicated. Only when such accomplishment of its end is assumed can efficacy be held to attach to the act of worship. Secondly, there is the tendency to identify such a self-accomplishing act of worship with its objective expression in the ritual that for purposes of mutual understanding makes the body of worshippers one.

The Magical Element in Ritual.- Exactly similar tendencies - to impute efficacy, and to treat the ritual procedure as the source of that efficacy - are typically characteristic of magic, and their reappearance in religion can hardly be treated as a coincidence, seeing that magic and religion would appear to have much in common, at any rate during the earlier stages of their development. In magic a suggestion is made orally, or by dramatic action, or most often in both ways together, that is held ipso facto to bring about its own accomplishment. A certain conditionality attaches to the magical operation, inasmuch as each magician is subject to interference on the part of other magicians who may neutralize his spell by a counter spell of equal or greater power; nevertheless, the intrinsic tone is that of a categorical assertion of binding force and efficacy. Again, in magic the self-realizing force is apt to seem to reside in the suggestional machinery rather than in the spiritual qualifications of the magician, though this is by no means invariably the case. On the whole, however, spells and ceremonies are wont to be regarded as an inheritable and transferable property containing efficacy in themselves. And what is true of magic is equally true of much of primitive, and even of relatively advanced, religion. Dr J. G. Frazer has pronounced the following to be marks of a primitive ritual: negatively, that there are no priests, no temples and no gods (though he holds that departmental, non-individual " spirits " are recognized); positively, that the rites are magical rather than propitiatory (The Golden Bough, 2nd ed. ii. igi). If we leave it an open question whether, instead of " spirits," it would not be safer to speak of " powers " (to which not a soul-like nature, but simply a capacity for exercising magic, is attributed), this characterization may be accepted as applying to many, if not to all, the rites of primitive religion. Thus the well-known totemic ceremonies of Central Australia afford a striking example of rites of a deeply religious import - in the sense that the purpose they embody is that of consecrating certain functions of the common life (see Religion) - yet almost wholly magical in form. They resolve themselves on analysis into (I) direct acts of magical suggestion, and (2) acts commemorative of the magical doings of mythical ancestors, the purport of which may be regarded as indirectly and constructively magical, on the principle that in magic to mention a thing's origin is to control it, to recount another's wonderworking is to reproduce his power, and so on. It is to be noted, however, that other Australian rites are found, notably those that accompany initiation in the south-eastern region, over which anthropomorphic beings having enough individuality to rank as " gods " undoubtedly preside; but even here, though traces of propitiatory worship may be discernible (the evidence being scanty and conflicting), acts of pure magic are decidedly to the fore. And what is true of the most primitive and unreflective forms of cult remains true of more advanced types which have become relatively self-conscious. There is little or no felt opposition between processes implying control and processes of a propitiatory character in the religion of the Pueblo Indians, which American ethnologists have been so successful in expounding, or, to mount to a still higher level, in the Vedic, Assyrian or Egyptian cults. The leading idea, we may even say, is that expressed so happily by a character in Renan's Le Pretre de Nemi: " L'ordre du monde depend de l'ordre des rites qu'on observe " (cf. A. Lang, Myt11, Ritual and Religion, 2nd ed. i. 251). As regards the most developed forms of religion, whilst the old procedure largely survives unchanged, its original intention is disowned by theologians, though it may be doubted if the popular mind is always strong enough to withstand the appeal of prima facie appearance.

This proneness to impute efficacy to ritual is immensely reinforced by another social proclivity, more or less distinct in its ultimate nature, which causes the rite to rank as a divine ordinance or command. Naturally if the god manifests himself by means of certain forms, if he is reputed to have founded or revealed them, or if he has been known to evince displeasure at departures from them, there is strong reason to think that such forms are efficacious, and that in a sense of themselves, namely, by being what they are. At the sociological level of thought this divine sanction has to be treated as the echo of a social sanction which ratifies and protects religious custom. In early society the influence of what Walter Bagehot (in Physics and Politics, 9th ed. p. 102) calls the " persecuting tendency " in enforcing custom is on the whole not markedly in evidence. The fact is that imitation in a homogeneous group produces such unanimity that, with the help of some education, notably the instruction given at the time of initiation, all nonconformity is nipped in the bud. Of the Central Australian ceremonies we read that they " had to be performed in precisely the same way in which they had been in the Alcheringa (lit. ` dream-time ' = age of mythical tribal ancestors) . Everything was ruled by precedent; to change even the decoration of a performer would have been an unheard-of thing; the reply, ` It was so in the Alcheringa,' was considered as perfectly satisfactory by way of explanation " (B. Spencer and F. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 324). Here we perceive the social sanction of public opinion insensibly merging in a supernatural sanction. The tribe is a religious partnership with a divine past with which it would not willingly break. As Mr Lang well puts it, " Ritual is preserved because it preserves luck " (loc. cit.). Given an intrinsic sacredness, it is but a step to associate definite gods with the origin or purpose of a rite, whose interest it thereupon becomes to punish omissions or innovations by the removal of their blessing (which is little more than to say that the rite loses its efficacy), or by the active infliction of disaster on the community. In the primitive society it is hard to point to any custom to which sacredness does not in some degree attach, but, naturally, the more important and solemn the usage, the more rigid the religious conservatism. Thus there are indications that in Australia, at the highly sacred ceremony of circumcision, the fire-stick was employed after stone implements were known; and we have an exact parallel at a higher level of culture, the stone implement serving for the same operation when iron is already in common use (Spencer and Gillen, ib. 401; cf. E. B. Tylor, Early History of Mankind, 3rd ed. p. 217).

The Interpretation of Ritual.-A valuable truth insisted on by the late W. Robertson Smith (Religion of the Semites, 17 sqq.) is that in primitive religion it is ritual that generates and sustains myth, and not the other way about. Sacred lore of course cannot be dispensed with; even Australian society, which has hardly reached the stage of having priests, needs its Oknirabata or great instructor " (Spencer and Gillen, ib. 303) . The function of such an expert, however, is chiefly to hand on mere rules for the performance of religious acts. If his lore include sacred histories, it is largely, we may suspect, because the description and dramatization of the doings of divine persons enter into ritual as a means of magical control. Similarly, the sacred books of the religions of middle grade teem with minute prescriptions as to ritual, but are almost destitute of doctrine. Even in the highest religions, where orthodoxy is the main requirement, and ritual is held merely to symbolize dogma, there is a remarkable rigidity about the dogma that is doubtless in large part due to its association with ritual forms many of them bearing the most primeval stamp. As regards the symbolic interpretation of ritual, this is usually held not to be primitive; and it is doubtless true that an unreflective age is hardly aware of the difference between " outward sign " and " inward meaning," and thinks as it were by means of its eyes. Nevertheless, it is easier to define fetishism (a fetish " differing from an idol in that it is worshipped in its own character, not as the symbol, image or occasional residence of a deity," New English Dictionary, Oxford, 1901) than it is to bring such a fetishism home to any savage people, the West African negroes not excluded (cf. A. B . Ellis, The Tshi-speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of TV. Africa, 192). It is the magic power, virtue or grace residing in, and proceeding from, the material object - a power the communicability of which constitutes the whole working hypothesis of the magico-religious performance - that is valued in those cases where native opinion can be tested. Moreover, it must be remembered that in the act of magic a symbolic method is consciously pursued, as witness the very formulas employed: " As I burn this image, so may the man be consumed," or the even more explicit, " It is not wax I am scorching; it is the liver, heart and spleen of So-and-so that I scorch " (W. W. Skeat, Malay Magic, 570) ,where appearance and reality are distinguished in order to be mystically reunited. Now it is important to observe that from the symbol as embodying an imperative to the symbol as expressing an optative is a transition of meaning that involves no change of form whatever; and, much as theorists love to contrast the suggestional and the petitionary attitudes, it is doubtful if the savage does not move quite indifferently to and fro across the supposed frontier-line between magic and religion, interspersing “bluff” with blandishment, spell with genuine prayer. Meanwhile the particular meanings of the detailed acts composing a complicated piece of ritual soon tend to lose themselves in a general sense of the efficacy of the rite as a whole to bring blessing and avert evil. Nay, unintelligibility is so far from invalidating a sacred practice that it positively supports it by deepening the characteristic atmosphere of mystery. Even the higher religions show a lingering predilection for cabalistic formulas.

Changes in Ritual.—Whilst ritual displays an extraordinary stability, its nature is of course not absolutely rigid; it grows, alters and decays. As regards its growth, there is hardly a known tribe without its elaborate body of magico-religious rites. In the exceptional instances where this feature is relatively absent (the Masai of E. Africa offer a case in point), we may suspect a disturbance of tradition due to migration or some similar cause. Thus there is always a pre-existing pattern in accordance with which such evolution or invention as occurs proceeds. Unconscious evolution is perhaps the more active factor in primitive times; imitation is never exact, and small variations amount in time to considerable changes. On the other hand, there is also deliberate innovation. In Australia councils of the older men are held day by day during the performance of their ceremonies, at which traditions are repeated and procedure determined, the effect being mainly to preserve custom but undoubtedly in part also to alter it. Moreover, the individual religious genius exercises no small influence. A man of a more original turn of mind than his fellows will claim to have had a new ceremony imparted to him in a vision, and such a ceremony will even be adopted by another tribe which has no notion of its meaning (Spencer and Gillen, ib. 272, 278, 281 n.). Meanwhile, since little is dropped whilst so much is being added, the result is an endless complication and elaboration of ritual. Side by side with elaboration goes systematization, more especially when local cults come to be merged in a wider unity. Thereupon assimilation is likely to take place to one or another leading type of rite—for instance, sacrifice or prayer. At these higher stages there is more need than ever for the expert in the shape of the priest, in whose hands ritual procedure becomes more and more of a conscious and studied discipline, the naïve popular elements being steadily eliminated, or rather transformed. Not but what the transference of ritualistic duties to a professional class is often the signal for slack and mechanical performance, with consequent decay of ceremonial. The trouble and worry of having to comply with the endless rules of a too complex system is apt to operate more widely—namely, in the religious society at large—and to produce an endless crop of evasions. Good examples of these on the part alike of priests and people are afforded by Toda religion, the degenerate condition of which is expressly attributed by Dr W. H. R. Rivers to “the over-development of the ritual aspect of religion” (The Todas, 454–55). It is interesting to observe that a religion thus atrophied tends to revert to purely magical practices, the use of the word of power, and so on (ib. ch. x.). It is to be noted, however, that what are known as ritual substitutions, though they lend themselves to purposes of evasion (as in the well-known case of the Chinese use of paper money at funerals), rest ultimately on a principle that is absolutely fundamental in magico-religious theory—namely, that what suggests a thing because it is like it or a part of it becomes that thing when the mystic power is there to carry the suggestion through.

The Classification of Rites.-More than one basis of division has suggested itself. From the sociological point of view perhaps the most important distinction in use is that between public and private rites. Whilst the former essentially belong to religion as existing to further the common weal, the latter have from the earliest times an ambiguous character, and tend to split into those which are licit—“sacraments,” as they may be termed—and those which are considered anti-social in tendency, and are consequently put beyond the pale of religion and assigned to the “black art” of magic. Or the sociologist may prefer to correlate rites with the forms of social organization—the tribe, the phratry, the clan, the family and so on. Another interesting contrast (seeing how primary a function of religion it is to establish a calendar of sacred seasons) is that between periodic and occasional rites—one that to a certain extent falls into line with the previous dichotomy. A less fruitful method of classing rites is that which arranges them according to their inner meaning. As we have seen, such meaning is usually acquired ex post facto, and typical forms of rite are used for many different purposes; so that attempts to differentiate are likely to beget more equivocations than they clear up. The fact is that comparative religion must be content to regard all its classifications alike as pieces of mere scaffolding serving temporary purposes of construction.

Negative Rites.—A word must be added on a subject, dealt with elsewhere (see Taboo, Genna), but strictly germane to the matter in hand. What have the best, if not the sole, right to rank as taboos are ritual interdictions (see M. Mauss in L’Année sociologique, ix. 249). Taboo, as understood in Polynesia, the home of the word, is as wide as, and no wider than, religion, representing one side or aspect of the sacred (see Religion). The very power that can help can also blast if approached improperly and without due precautions. Taboos are such precautions, abstinences prompted, not by simple dread or dislike, but always by some sort of respect as felt towards that which in other circumstances or in other form has healing virtue. Thus the negative attitude of the observer of taboo involves a positive attitude of reverence from which it becomes in practice scarcely distinguishable. To keep a fast, for instance, is looked upon as a direct act of worship. It must be noted, too, that, whereas taboo as at first conceived belongs to the magico-religious circle of ideas, implying a quasi-physical transference of sacredness from what has it to one not fit to receive it, it is very easily reinterpreted as an obligation imposed by the deity on his worshippers. The law observed by a primitive religious community abounds in negative precepts, and if early religion tends to be a religion of fear it is because the taboo-breaker provides the most palpable objective for human and divine sanctions. In the higher religions, to be pure remains amongst the most laudable of aspirations, and, even though the ceremonial aversion of a former age has become moralized, and a purity of heart set up as the ideal, it is on “virtues of omission” that stress is apt to be laid, so that a timorous propriety is too often preferred to a forceful grappling with the problems of life. There are signs, however, that the religious consciousness has at length come to appreciate the fact that the function of routine in religion as elsewhere is to clear the way for action.

Bibliography.—A comprehensive study of ritual as such from the comparative standpoint remains yet to be written. Some leading ideas on the subject are struck out by E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture9 (1903), ch. 18 ; and A. Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion2 (1899) whilst the whole of J. G. Frazer’s vast collection of facts in The Golden Bough2 (1900) illustrates ritual, more especially on its magical side ; see also W. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889). A very valuable work of restricted range but embodying a method that might fruitfully be applied to the whole subject of ritual is H. Hubert and M. Mauss, “Essai sur la nature et sur la fonction du sacrifice” in L’Année sociologique, ii. ; in close connexion with the above should be studied S. Levi, La Doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brâhmanas (1899) ; W. Caland and V. Henry, L’Agnistoma, description complète de la forme normale du sacrifice de Soma dans le culte védique (1906); see also H. Oldenberg, Die Religion des Veda (1894) ; A. Hillebrant, Ritual Litteratur: Vedische Opfer and Zauber (1896). Admirable descriptions of Australian ritual are to be found in B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). On North American rituals very excellent studies exist in A. C. Fletcher, “The Hako: A Pawnee Ceremony,” in 22nd Report of Bureau of American Ethnology; see also various papers by the same authoress in Peabody Reports; likewise in J. W. Fewkes, “Tusayan Katchinas,” in 15th Rep. of B. of A. Eth.; and id., “Hopi Katchinas,” in 21st Rep.; M. C. Stevenson, “The Zun̂i Indians,” in 23rd Rep.; cf. F. H. Cushing, “Zun̂i Fetiches,” in 2nd Rep. The following works pay special attention to ritual features: L. R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (1896–1907); A. Moret, Le Rituel du culte divin journalier en Égypte (1902); A. de Marchi Il culto privato di Roma antica (1902).  (R. R. M.)