“Ritual” is another of those terms in folklore studies that has a wide array of meanings outside our discipline, so it’s crucial to disambiguate these meanings. Otherwise we end up with as a term as empty as myth!
As I described in my post about why it’s worth having a folklorist blogging at Patheos, folklorists study the spectrum of traditional culture from sacred to secular, and we do this in part by tuning in to rituals.
We define ritual as a type of traditional repeated behavior with symbolic weight. However, as Hagar Salamon and Harvey E. Goldberg point out:
Repetitiveness is relative, however, for some rituals may take place only once a year, or once every several years (inauguration of a head of state), or at much longer intervals (the coronation of a monarch). These examples point to another side of the standardization of behavior, namely the existence of norms that define rituals in a detailed and strict manner and establish public expectations of correct performance (122).
In other words, rituals carry with them the understanding of how to do them correctly or incorrectly. Granted, one could be a passive bearer of a ritual, and thus have a sense of what it’s about but not be able to properly execute it. And when we talk about rituals as “repeated” behaviors, we have to keep in mind that the intervals at which they’re repeated can vary greatly.
The fact that rituals must have symbolic meaning helps distinguish them from other realms of human behavior in which repetition is key. I follow Salamon and Goldberg in defining symbol as “a sign, something that represents (or ‘re-presents’) something else” (127). Every time I brush my teeth or put my car in gear, there’s not necessarily a symbolic aspect; the act represents itself, without a deeper meaning. Those acts are purely functional. What you see is what you get (yes, we could argue about the symbolic value of tooth-brushing in a culture like the U.S. where displays of medical care do carry meaning, and where teeth are viewed as symbols of beauty and morality, but let’s not).
In contrast, repeated acts like singing someone happy birthday or saying “bless you” when someone sneezes are imbued with meaning. These acts convey information about the individuals and cultures where they’re common. They “do” something in the world other than what the act seems to be accomplishing on the surface (e.g. being polite).
How do rituals “do” things? One important component here is the concept of sympathetic magic. It’s the principle by which rituals, through causation or correlation, are perceived to have an effect on the world or the people in the world. It isn’t strictly rational, empirical, or scientific in nature, which has led to a lot of judgey scholarship in centuries past, making out non-Westerners to be primitive, ugh. But there’s an inner logic to rituals that employ sympathetic magic, even if that logic doesn’t mesh with science-y logic.
However, the truth of the matter is that ritual functions on symbolic and cultural levels. It doesn’t have to be proven to work in order to be effective. Whether that makes it akin to the placebo effect, or just a quirk of culture, doesn’t matter.
We study ritual because it’s meaningful to the people participating in it. Whether we’re talking about religious rituals like Passover or the call to prayer, or secular rituals like knocking on wood or taking a moment of silence for someone who’s passed, rituals are moments of cultural significance. Rituals occur on a large scale, as when an entire nation observes them (think of the pomp and circumstance of funerals for nationally-beloved figures) but rituals are also present in tiny folk groups like families.
One thing I’ll note before wrapping up is that we distinguish between ritual and rite of passage in folklore studies. More on that shortly!
Ritual is a category of human behavior that encompasses many actions on different scales (both spatial and temporal). Are there any rituals you observe, religious or secular, personal or on a societal scale?
Salamon, Hagar and Harvey E. Goldberg. “Myth-Ritual-Symbol,” In Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, eds. A Companion to Folklore. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2012. 119-135.