In order to understand the relationship of humans to ritual, one must first understand the nature of humans: we’re basically jumped-up, unspectacular, middle-of-the-food chain animals that have a lot to worry about. Sure, we worry about different things these days – rent, healthcare, the wholesale collapse of our biosphere. We don’t worry about lions much anymore, but worry is in our DNA.
You could think of humans as playing a video game and discovering a cheat code – they jump right to the top without ever really having to get good at playing. You know who’s good at playing? Lions. Sharks. They came up the hard way, and they don’t worry overmuch about other predators.
We do, whether we need to or not. Paranoia and resource hoarding are part of our firmware. We’re great apes with anxiety.
god: i have made Mankind
angels: you fucked up a perfectly good monkey is what you did. look at it. it’s got anxiety
— you have won a ham (@jon_snow_420) October 28, 2015
At its most simplistic, ritual is just an action or series of actions intended to establish a little bit of control and make sense of a primordial world full of things that want to eat you. That’s as true now as it was 70,000 years ago. Using rituals isn’t something only superstitious people choose to do; they’re something we’ve done for as long as human intelligence has been developed enough to do them.
If you’ve ever been to a wedding or a funeral, you’ve participated in a group ritual. If you’ve ever performed an action that wasn’t strictly economical, chances are you’ve performed some kind of personal ritual. Rituals are ubiquitous all over the world for the entire latter half of our species’ observable history. You could say that ritual is as much an expression of human DNA as is the building of dwellings or walking upright.
Why? Well, because they work. The primary difference between secular and supernatural (or “woo”) ritual use appears to lie in the belief that correlation is enough without having to push for causation (which has yet to be established in any scientific way). The results, however, are the same: A person performing a ritual based solely on the fact that they believe performing the ritual will help them will generally have an improved result, as will someone who believes that it’s a gift beseeched and granted from Odin, or Jesus, or the spirit that dwells in the communal fire. Belief actually seems to play a nominal role in the efficacy of religion, which suggests a deeper connection to our fundamental nature.
It isn’t hyperbole to say that human beings need ritual. Unfortunately, most of us have been cut off from it in a meaningful way by the intervention of Judeo Christian religion, which did a fantastic job of hijacking this essential human need and bending it to its purposes. Conversely, there are quite a lot of charlatans and snake oil salespeople out there preying on our need for ritual, whether they’re misrepresenting the “power” of essential oils or taking advantage of the current fascination with tarot.
Rituals can be personal and individual, but they can also hold communities together by creating a shared experience. We ritualize love, life, and death together as a species. Weddings, funerals, births – the specifics may vary wildly, but almost all cultures have ritualized these events and many others beside. A personal ritual might soothe a broken heart, where group rituals are the mortar that binds human communities.
The beautiful thing is that we can take it back whenever and however we please. Because ritual has always belonged to all of us.
The next installment of this series on ritual will concern the hijacking of ritual, and the third installment will be all about reclamation from theosophy without swallowing any of the pseudoscience bunk eagerly proffered by the disingenuous.