Topic 3: Common Characteristics of Rituals
Rituals are part of our everyday lives and are found in different cultures around the
world. They are a patterned form of behaviour that is usually associated with some sort of
symbolic value to signify one’s beliefs (Miller & Van Esterick, 2007, p. 291). There are many
types of rituals. Rituals that are performed on a regular basis are known as periodic rituals and
this includes rituals that are performed for annual holidays such as Thanksgiving or seasonal
events such as harvesting. On the other hand, rituals that are performed occasionally, are known
as non-periodic rituals and this includes life-cycle rituals such as puberty ceremonies and rituals
that are performed for births, deaths, marriages, etc. (Miller & Van Esterick, 2007, p. 292).
Although various rituals are performed with different purposes, upon closer examination, it can
be said that rituals of all cultures around the world have common characteristics. Four
characteristics that are universally found in rituals include portrayal of various art forms,
celebration through ceremonies, religious devotion, and sacrifice.
Many cultures around the world manifest various aspects of art through their rituals. In
our society, tattoos are often simply a form of adornment whereas in many other cultures,
tattooing is a “ritualistic practice with powerful social and spiritual significance” (Guynup, 2004,
p. 1). They play a fundamental role in different cultures by marking the coming of age,
signifying tribal rank, and symbolizing relationships with spirits, deities, and ancestors (Guynup,
2004, p. 1). For the inhabitants of Bornea, tattooing is an initiation rite. Tribe members gather
together for a sacred ritual and begin with a sacrifice to ancestor spirits, before carrying through
with the process of tattooing. To mark the coming-of-age, an adolescent boy is sent alone to hunt a wild boar or monkey, and upon his successful return, he experiences a ritual in which he is
tattooed a full moon on his calves and a water serpent on his upper thigh (Guynup, 2004, p. 1).
The people of Bornea also make use of ritual tattoos to reward men of the tribe who are
successful in head-hunting raids to depict their skill and power. Likewise, ritual tattoos were also
used to recognize the success of women in skills such as weaving, dancing or singing (Guynup,
2004, p. 2). Likewise, the people of the Dogon, who live in West Africa, are known to be the
connection between heaven and Earth, and their rituals involve artistic forms of dance which
reflect harmony between the human spirit, land, and surrounding animal life (Rainier, 2003, p.
1). The dances involve the use of unique masks which are known to be among the world’s most
respected forms of tribal art. The design of the mask worn by the Dogon people connects the
worlds of the sun and Earth through the connection that is formed between the dancer and his
body (Rainier, 2003, p. 2). Thus, various forms of art such as body art and dance are a
fundamental characteristic of rituals, as they are used to symbolize the importance of ritual
Another aspect of rituals is the celebration through ceremonies. In many societies around
the world, rituals are held for individuals upon the entrance into one stage of life from another.
For example, the transition from a young boy to a man or a young girl to a woman occurs when
one enters puberty. Puberty rituals are celebrated through ceremonies to reflect the value and
status of a man or woman within their society (Miller & Van Esterick, 2007, p. 294). Likewise,
in Vanuatu, the Naghol, is a prominent land diving ritual that is done to bless the soil for the
assurance of fertile soil for a bountiful harvest of yam. Furthermore, it is also a ritual that
“underlies the foundation of tribal society” as when a young boy is ready to enter manhood, he undergoes an initiation by performing the land diving ritual amongst his community and elders
(Istvan, 2002, p. 1). These rituals are seen as a ceremony amongst the people of Vanuatu – the
day begins with drum beats and festivities that start early in the morning, including a play about
spirits, a village lunch, and music, followed by the land diving (Istvan, 2002, p. 1). Similarly, in
Mongolia, camels play an important role in the lives of the travelers in the Gobi desert as they
provide life’s necessities such as clothing and food. As a result, ancient rituals associated with
camels are quite common. A group of Mongolian herders were once faced with a problem when
a camel decided to reject her newborn. Ritually, a musician performs a ceremony in attempt to
coax the mother into nursing her baby – if the ritual is a success, it is said that the mother will
“weep with joy” (Lovgren, 2004, p. 1). Such ceremonies are significant in delivering the
message of “salvation, the loss of love and the struggle to win it back” (Lovgren, 2004, p. 1).
Ceremonies are therefore an important characteristic of most rituals, as they bring together the
people who are performing the ritual through a form of celebration.
Religious devotion is also another characteristic that is common among most rituals
around the world. A pilgrimage is a journey of some sort to a sacred place for the purpose of
religious devotion associated with a ritual (Miller & Van Esterick, 2007, p. 294). There are many
well-known areas of pilgrimage for each religion – for example, Jerusalem in Israel is an
important pilgrimage place for Jews, Christians and Muslims and Varanasi in India, for Hindus.
For the Islam faith, the most important spiritual centre is the Mecca,