Ritual – What is it, concept, origin, function, types and rites

We explain what a ritual is, its origin, function, current forms and what types exist. Also, differences between ritual and rite.

Rituals are inscribed in a specific cultural creed, ideology, or tradition.

What is a ritual?

A ritual (sometimes called a rite) It is a set of ceremonial actions that are carried out repeatedly, and that have a symbolic value or representative. These are actions inscribed in a creed, an ideology or a specific cultural tradition.

Its realization serves to generate a feeling of bond in the community, reinforce the authority of those who lead or execute it, or simply link the attendees to the same notion of spirituality, mysticism or socio-political commitment.

Rituals normally involve a specific way of being carried out, which is repeated year after year and which implies a certain level of ceremoniality, that is, they are usually solemn, formal and led by a hierarchical figure, such as a priest, a leader. political or social, and so on. This type of activities are common to all human societies and they are one of the features that distinguish them from animals.

The origin of rituals, therefore, is ancestral, and was probably linked to initiation ceremonies or fertility rites, which sought to reproduce within human culture the eternal circuit of the seasons and cycles of nature. . In fact, rituals and myths are two of the fundamental components of all forms of religion known.

However, rituals are not just a thing of the past. Numerous forms of ritual behavior continue to take place in contemporary society. Some are inherited from past times and ancient traditions, and others are typical of the complex web of meanings of modern civilization: sports ceremonies, religious rites, political traditions, can all be examples of this.

In any case, every form of ritual always depends on a much larger system of senses and associations, which gives it its transcendent meaning. Otherwise, it would be just empty actions, repeated meaninglessly over and over again.

Types of rituals

ritual types
Outside of the religious there are also rituals.

We can identify different types of rituals, depending on the area of ​​the culture in which they are inscribed or the logic that governs their actions. Thus, we can talk about:

  • Imitative rituals. They are those that symbolically reproduce some important event in the history of humanity, or even some mythological story, for example, the supposed events of the creation of the universe. In them small acts are carried out that imitate that greater referent.

A good example of this is the reproduction of the Stations of the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth in some Catholic Christian populations, in which a Nazarene plays the role of Jesus Christ, dressed in purple, to revive the religious feeling among the faithful. The same happens in communion, when you drink red wine and eat a host in commemoration of the last supper of Jesus Christ with his apostles.

  • Sacrificial rituals. They are those in which an act of atonement or spiritual or moral purification of the community is carried out, through the death (real or symbolic) of a third party. The latter can be an animal or a person (as in ancestral religions in which ritual bloodshed was carried out), or it can be food, preparations or fruits, which are then burned, consumed, buried or left to the open air until decomposition.

An example of these sacrificial rituals is the offerings of liquor, coca leaves, tobacco and other ingredients that are made to the Pachamama in the South American regions of Inca tradition. These offerings can be buried at the foot of the image of a llama, or left in containers at its feet, and serve to ask Mother Earth year after year for a lush harvest and a fertile womb for the young women.

  • Initiation and passage rituals. They are those that mark in the life of a person the beginning of a vital stage or the transition to new ones, leaving behind one lifestyle and adopting another. These rituals are usually done individually or in small groups, and with the active participation of the community, which celebrates or accompanies the person who stars in them. They are rituals that create a sense of belonging in the individual and that give them a sense of closure of one life cycle and the beginning of another, useful to face changes in life.

A good example of this is the rituals for entering puberty and sexual maturity that are still carried out, generally around the age of 15 or 16. Another common occurrence is Christian First Communion and Confirmation, marking the formal entry into the religious community of a new parishioner.

  • Positive or negative rituals. They are those that enable (positive) or prohibit (negative) entering a space, the use of an implement or contact with any material, according to a specific mystique that considers it “immoral”, “improper”, and so on. This type of ritual allows to control social behavior and establish certain values ​​in the community, either through officialization or censorship.

An example of a positive, empowering ritual is the cutting of the red ribbon to inaugurate a newly constructed building, or the breaking of a bottle in the hull of a ship that will make its first voyage. On the other hand, an example of negative ritual is constituted by funeral ceremonies, which provide the relatives of the deceased with a form of closure, to elaborate the mourning and “let go” of whoever they wanted in life.

Ritual and rite

Although in many informal or colloquial settings they are often used synonymously, the terms rite and ritual do not really mean the same thing. Strictly speaking, the word “rite” refers to the formal and methodical actions that are carried out within a religious system or symbolic.

The term comes from the Latin ritus, with which religious ceremonies were named. Therefore, “ritual” is everything related to the rite, as evidenced by the origin of the word in Latin ritualis, that is, “related to religious activities.”

It is easier to understand this distinction if we think about it in the following way: rites are the ceremonies that a tradition or religion contemplates, while rituals are the specific steps that are carried out to carry out those ceremonies. The first is, let’s say, the path dictated by tradition, and the second is the steps we take to travel it.