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A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value, which is prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community.

A ritual may be performed at regular intervals, or on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community; in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it; either in public, in private, or before specific people. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between religious or social states.

The purposes of rituals are varied; they include compliance with religious obligations or ideals, satisfaction of spiritual or emotional needs of the practitioners, strengthening of social bonds, demonstration of respect or submission, stating one's affiliation, obtaining social acceptance or approval for some event — or, sometimes, just for the pleasure of the ritual itself.

Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized cults and religions, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, oaths of allegiance, coronations, and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school "rush" traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, halloween parties and veteran parades, Christmas shopping, and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposia, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritual in nature. Even trivial actions like hand-shaking and saying hello are rituals.

In any case, an essential feature of a ritual is that the actions and their symbolism are not arbitrarily chosen by the performers, nor dictated by logic or necessity, but are, at least in part, prescribed and imposed upon the performers by some external source.

Ritual actions

Because of their symbolic nature, there are hardly any limits to the kind of actions that may be incorporated in a ritual. The rites of past and present societies have typically involved special gestures and words, recitation of fixed texts, performance of special music, songs or dances, processions, manipulation of certain objects, use of special dresses, consumption of special food, drink, or drugs, and much more. Religious rituals have also included animal sacrifice, human sacrifice or ritual suicide, and other forms of ritual murder.


Ritual serves diverse purposes including:

  • Worship
  • Ritual purification with the aim of removing uncleanliness, which may be real or symbolic.
  • Atonement
  • Dedication
Urarina shaman B Dean

Urarina shaman, 1988

Religious ritual

In religion, a ritual can comprise the prescribed outward forms of performing, the cultus or cult of a particular observation within a religion or religious denomination. Although ritual is often used in context with worship performed in a church, the actual relationship between any religion's doctrine and its ritual(s) can vary considerably from organized religion to non-institionalized spirituality, such as ayahuasca shamanism as practiced by the Urarina of the upper Amazon. Rituals often have a close connection with reverence, thus a ritual in many cases expresses reverence for a deity or idealized state of humanity.


Outside worship and reverence, rituals can have a more basic sociological function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society. Ritual thus is as much political as religious in orientation.

Rituals have formed a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years. The earliest known evidence of burial rituals dates from around 20,000 years ago. (Older skeletons show no signs of deliberate 'burial', and as such lack clear evidence of the materialization of ritual.)

Rituals can aid in creating a firm sense of group identity. Humans have used rituals to create a social bond and alleviate the isolation that can be felt otherwise.


Nearly all fraternities and sororities have secret rituals incorporated into their structure. Many were founded in college and university societies resistant to the idea of a fraternal organization. Thus, numerous aspects of ritual and ritualistic proceedings are engrained into the workings of the societies.


In psychology, the term ritual sometimes refers to a specific action or series of actions that a person performs in a given context which otherwise has no apparent reason or purpose. The term may refer especially to compulsive behaviors of people afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Further reading

Roy A. Rappaport (1999) Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Victor Turner (1969) "The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure" (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company)

See also

de:Ritual es:Ritual he:פולחן nl:Ritueelpt:Ritual ru:Ритуал simple:Ritual sr:Ритуал sv:Ritual

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