While the origins of many rituals are unknown, current research suggests that humans engage in social practices to ward off or deal with threats.
At the beginning of this month, one of the largest ritualistic celebrations in the world took place, which is the New Year. The details and specific practices of each celebration vary by area and culture: some cook peas and vegetables (Southeastern United States), others eat a grape for each stroke of the clock at midnight (Spain), and there are also those who burn effigies representing the previous year (Central and South America).
All cultures develop rituals, that is, symbolic practices that are repeated and that have a specific objective, although many times it is not possible to explain how they are carried out. Many rituals serve to reinforce a sense of community and common beliefs, but sheer diversity can also alienate and separate people, especially when rituals treasured by one culture are very foreign to another culture.
Most experts who study these practices consider that the most characteristic element of a ritual is its uncertain origin. But recently it has been speculated that before rituals became purely social and purposeful, they may have arisen in order to avert disaster.
According to the authors of several articles published in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Theater of the Royal Society, the rites may have served to perpetuate behaviors that people believed were vital to staying safe, even after the reason was forgotten, as the beginning of a certain behavior.
Ritualized ways to prepare certain foods or cleanse the body, for example, may have emerged as guidelines to prevent disease. Many rituals also serve as consolation to deal with traumatic situations and, once they become established as a common practice, they allow reinforce the sense of community of a group of people.
Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, new behaviors are being adopted in response to this threat; It is still too early, however, to know whether or not any of these behaviors will become ritualized. According to Mark Nielsen, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, this only happens when the social importance of the behavior trumps its practical use to prevent disease or disaster. This would be what distinguishes rituals from other cultural practices, such as cooking.
“When you learn to cook a dish, you follow a recipe, but once you have done it a few times, you are doing it your way”, he says. And he adds that this type of personal contribution does not usually occur in ritualized practices that are carefully repeated until “they lose their functional value and become realized for their social value”.
Confidence in repetition
In regions where natural disasters and disease are commonplace and the threat of violence and disease reigns, societies tend to be “tighter”, in the sense of having more rigorous social norms and less tolerance for deviant behavior explains Michele Gelfand, a psychologist at the University of Maryland. They also tend to be more religious, so ritualized behaviors are a priority.
According to Gelfand’s research, people respect social norms differently when faced with threats or perceive imminent danger. In 2011, after the release of the film Contagion (fiction of a global pandemic), Gelfand and her colleagues confirmed that people leaving the cinema felt more hostility towards those who break social norms.
When we are in sync or performing the same actions in a predictable way, as is often the case in rituals, a comforting sense of togetherness is created. And in the face of danger, group cooperation can be a matter of life or death. “The culture of the army is a clear example”, says Gelfand. The synchronized group movements of military forces prepare soldiers to act as a solid unit when facing extreme situations.
Rituals also serve to overcome other types of fear and anxiety. Martin Lang of Masaryk University in the Czech Republic finds rituals a comforting element given their degree of predictability. He and his team discovered, for example, that women on the island of Mauritius felt less anxious to give a public speech if they first repeated a prayer in a Hindu temple.
The human nature of rituals
Other primates have been shown to develop some practices that bear some resemblance to rituals, says primatologist Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who has studied the evolution of culture in orangutans. Like all animals, primates are born with instincts to avoid danger and illness, and can also learn to avoid risk after having a bad experience or by observing other members of their group.
However, researchers have found no evidence that nonhuman primates engage in actual rituals, van Schaik maintains. “They only exist in our cultures, and they arose in the unusual environment we created for ourselves”.
Van Schaik believes that many social rituals originated when humans began to inhabit larger and larger groups, especially when agriculture made it possible for large populations to live in the same place. “That decision exposed human beings to all kinds of violence, disasters and diseases, from internal conflicts to wars and infectious diseases that today could spread rapidly through entire towns”, he explains.
To prevent these catastrophes from occurring, human beings devise a particular operation. “Having a very social mentality, the most feasible thing was to interpret any negative manifestation or misfortune as something that someone (be it a spirit, a demon or a god) proposed to do to us because our behavior was reprehensible. Therefore, the reaction was to find a way to prevent these disasters from happening again”, adds Schaik.
Many religious rituals, for example, consider hygiene, sexuality or the way we treat food in close relation to the risk of disease, while others are linked to family issues that often lead to money conflicts. Not all rituals are effective because the source of the risk we are trying to control is not always known. “But some of them worked”, says van Schaik.
Rituals that arise in response to risk are sometimes maintained because of their close link to risk prevention. In the rural Indian state of Bihar, for example, where the rate of maternal and infant mortality in childbirth is very high, cognitive scientist CristineLegare of the University of Texas at Austin recorded 269 rituals associated with pregnancy and childbirth. “Most of them seek to avoid negative outcomes,” she explains.
A good part of these perinatal rituals, including the food that is prepared for the mother to eat during the Chhathi (a Hindu ritual that is practiced on the sixth day of birth) are fully compatible with current medical indications, Legare explains. “Many are harmless, but there are also rituals that are dangerous, such as bathing the baby immediately after birth or feeding him formula until a priest or imam blesses him to start breastfeeding, due to the scarcity of clean water”.
This confirms the robustness of some rituals, which while counterproductive, nonetheless take on social importance, says Legare, who studies these practices to learn how to promote healthy behavior in a respectful way. “It is important to keep in mind that for most people, the procedures of modern medicine are just as uncertain as the rituals”.
While traditional rituals have been successfully inherited over several generations, modern medical practices are relatively new. “When a doctor says, I am sorry, but there is nothing else we can do, that is probably true, but it is also very discouraging. That is why many people decide to look for alternative options”, she tells Legare.
The evolution of rituals
In the era of the pandemic, health indications, such as washing your hands, have, in a way, become a ritual. The authorities advise us how we should rub our hands and for how long, which gives us the peace of mind that after 20 seconds, we are already completely disinfected.
Other social practices, such as elbow salutes and air hugs, are also catching on. And wearing a mask (or choosing not to) has come to mean a test of loyalty to a social group, as well as a scientifically valid way to reduce the risk of disease transmission. We do not know if these practices will be maintained to the point that we completely forget the reason that led us to implement them, and they will consolidate as true rituals.
But our efforts to understand why this pandemic came, from religious explanations to the theory that humans have caused disease by damaging the environment, evoke the questions of our ancestors when they sought to know what they had done to deserve catastrophes.
Fortunately, says Gelfand, our questions have also fueled scientific research, putting us in a better position to prevent future catastrophes. “When everyone asks questions, we will achieve great learning”, says Gelfand.