Anthropology Magazine
Photo Essay / Decoded

The Perennial Power of Ritual

Rituals soothe, excite, and unite people throughout the world. But how exactly do they work, and what makes them so meaningful?

A rain dance won’t make water fall from the sky. Casting a spell won’t cure cancer. Tarot cards can’t really reveal the future. Yet rituals like these have persisted for thousands of years. In fact, ritual is just as common today as it was in the distant past. Even in the most secular societies, ritualization is everywhere: from military parades to gang initiations, and from knocking on wood to raising glasses for a toast.

When ethnographers ask people why they perform these ceremonies, the most common answer is some version of the following: “It’s just what we do. It is our tradition. It’s who we are.” Anthropologists who study rituals have found that these traditions survive because they fulfill primordial, deep-seated human needs and serve important functions for individuals as well as for society. So what are some of these functions?

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, where he directs the Experimental Anthropology Lab. He has previously held positions at Princeton University, Aarhus University in Denmark, and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, where he served as the director of the Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion. His research focuses on some of the things that make us human, such as ritual, sports, music, and group membership, which he studies through a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods. Xygalatas has conducted several years of ethnographic fieldwork in Southern Europe and Mauritius. He is the author of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living and over 100 articles published in journals and volumes across several disciplines. Follow him on Twitter @xygalatas, Facebook @xygalatas, and Instagram @xygalatas.

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