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verso journal


    16 · 11 · 2019



Rituals bring structure and provide a sense of security amidst the chaos of life. But what is and what is not a ritual? Verso sheds light on the human need for rituals with a few stops at fascinating examples in human history of personal and collective ritual practices.


In 1996 a team of German archaeologists happened upon a remarkable find in southeastern Turkey. Buried in a hill near the city of Urfa they unearthed hundreds of massive T-shaped pillars placed in circles. Carved into the stones were mysterious reliefs depicting lions, spiders, snakes, vultures, and scorpions. What were the pillars used for?

The temple is named Göbekli Tepe. It is the oldest known temple in the world, dating back 12.000 years. If that time frame doesn’t tell you anything, bear in mind that the invention of writing and the construction of Stonehenge were made some 6.000 years later. Not to mention the Gaza pyramids which were built 7.000 years later.

The complete lack of anything resembling written records on the site that could explain the belief system behind the carvings has made them almost impossible to decipher. Archaeologists and researchers know enough to make some reasonable guesses about what the pillars were used for, though.

First of all, since no telltale signs of settlements have been found, the site was probably not anybody’s home. Secondly, the carvings on the pillars are dominated by pretty scary creatures. Could it be that the people that lived in the area erected the T-shaped pillars to master their fears? The consensus among scholars is that Göbekli Tepe most likely was a large ceremonial site where people gathered for ancient religious rituals.

The fact that we have traces of ritualistic practices going back 12.000 years in time gives us a hint of how essential rituals are for humans.


Intuitively, most of us probably know what a ritual is. But how is it defined? Does an accurate description exist that can tell us what sets a ritual apart from, say, a custom or a habit?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ritual is "an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner”. However, that definition does not help us very much. Too dry and overly objective, it only gets to the criteria for defining a ritual. More interesting is to know what ritual does. As scholar Catherine Bell has pointed out, a ritual is a manifestation of difference. It affirms something as unique through formalized actions in a set place. Yet, it’s not the actions themselves that are ritualistic but how they are framed. For instance, raising a glass of wine is just an action. But raising a glass of wine in unison at a dinner table to make a toast is a ritual action. Rituals, in other words, bring order and purpose to the chaos of life and create a sense of belonging to the initiated. 


Rituals abound in collective as well as personal, sacred as well as secular form: from the inauguration of the Olympics, weddings, funerals, Christmas celebrations and Sunday congregations at the local church to individual morning routines and rituals at work. And they do not need to last for a set amount of time. Raising the glass to toast takes a few seconds, while a Japanese tea ceremony can last up to 4 hours.

Rituals are how people and cultures create and recreate their worlds. They are modes of storytelling that commemorates events that have special significance. Take, for example, 4th of July, the American National day. On this very day, parades and fireworks take place all over the country to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But it really is a reminder of the significance that the idea of independence and personal freedom has for the American identity.

On a more individual note, the handshake is a ritual believed to have originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon. Dancing is a ritual with its own unique rules and purposes depending on the culture. It can be a mating ritual but also serve religious purposes.

The custom of downing espresso in one swoop while standing when served in Italian cafes is a ritual that signals that you possess a piece of unique cultural knowledge. But more importantly, it manifests an Italian tradition, and in this very act, affirms it and keeps it alive. Some rituals only exist as legends to outsiders because of their secret nature. The ceremonies that are said to solidify members in secret societies like the Knights Templar, Freemasons or Yale University’s fabled Skull and Bones are examples of this.


So, why do humans engage in rituals in the first place?

Psychologists have identified three main reasons for our engagement in rituals.

Firstly, we use rituals in our daily life to push bad things away when we feel we challenge fate. For instance, knocking on wood is a small ritual to get rid of something negative, whether we are superstitious or not. The very physical gesture of knocking is a theatrical way of incapacitating bad things. It is almost as if we knock fate unconscious.

We also engage in rituals to regain a sense of control and diminish negative feelings after our worlds have been shaken up by, for instance, the loss of someone close. This form of ritual works by reducing grief through repetition. Psychologists mention cases of people repeating acts of someone close who has died to lessen their pain. It can be something as mundane as washing the car daily because that’s what the loved one used to.

The third reason we engage in rituals is to direct our attention to something for which we are grateful. Personal beauty or dinner rituals fall under this category. Raising a glass of wine to toast during dinner or engage in personal care are examples of this.


It gets particularly interesting when we take a look at the specific characteristics of personal rituals in sports. Here rituals can get seriously odd. Because many athletes perform rituals to prepare themselves before a game or a competition that make little sense in themselves.

NBA superstar LeBron James ritual is easy to grasp. He tosses hand-chalk in the air in front of the table officials. The message is: it’s time to play. LeBron’s ritual is clearly a form of communication aimed at his fans.

Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal’s ritual is a private way of collecting himself and his focus before a match. He always drinks from two water bottles, avoids touching the court lines with his feet and checks his socks to make sure they’re exactly the same height. Speaking of socks and rituals: Serena Williams insists on wearing the same pair of socks throughout a tournament.

Absurd as they might seem, rituals like these can, in fact, make a significant positive difference. Recent research in psychology shows that they heighten people’s trust in their abilities, inspire greater effort and improve performance. Personal rituals that are strange to outsider's impact thoughts, self-image and behaviors.


Beauty rituals are highly personal and sometimes as quirky as the rituals of athletes. Audrey Hepburn, for instance, proclaimed that the secret to her immaculate complexion was ”merely washing my face five times a day”. And Joan Crawford famously claimed to splash her face 25 times with ice-cold water after cleansing.

Beauty rituals can also be advanced. Cleopatra VII, that mythic seductress who ruled Egypt with a sharp intellect and fierce ambition, was an early beauty routine innovator. She knew that her fabled beauty was a valuable asset to make an impression on potential allies. One of the keys to keeping her skin radiant and otherworldly beautiful was to use milk, honey and oat. Today we know that oat is nourishing and anti-inflammatory. Evidently, the beneficial properties of oat were common knowledge in Cleopatra’s time as well.

To some, beauty rituals appear superficial and like a waste of time. But if look at what beauty rituals actually do on a deeper level we see that they offer us space and time to reconnect with ourselves. They slow down the tempo of life and acts as a stress-relief, making us more alert, content and happy. And what could be more desirable than that today?