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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Ritual action finds expression in a wide variety of
forms in both primitive societies and sophisticated
modern states. It can be either of a religious or secular
character, ranging (for example and in an increasing
secular sequence) from the Catholic High Mass through
coronation services and university degree ceremonies
to the ceremonial of the modern Olympic Games.
Action so diverse in inspiration and expression, yet
qualifying to be described as “ritual,” suggests the
existence of some common generic factor that should
be identifiable. It also suggests that such a factor may
stem from some deep-seated human need or represent
an instinctive response to situations embodying some
similarity of challenge. It is likely, however, in view
of the variety of grades of significance in the typical
examples cited, that some forms of ritual action may
represent a tradition of conventional behavior, care-
fully observed and valued but not awakening any deep
personal concern on the part of the participants.

In view of the variety and complexity of ritual action
current in the modern world, and the obvious antiquity
of its practice, an a priori definition of ritual is
hazardous. However, the following definition might
serve as a working formula, to be checked against the
empirical study of notable examples of ritual practice
which follows. Such a tentative definition is necessary,
since the subject has been comparatively neglected and
there are no clearly established conclusions to give
guidance. With this qualification, ritual may, accord-
ingly, be defined as action of an imitative or symbolical
kind designed to achieve some end, often of a super-
natural character, that could not be achieved through
normal means by the person who performs it or on
behalf of whom it is performed.

Ritual action, when encountered today or through
documents of the past, is invariably regulated by tra-
ditional prescription—indeed, its efficacy is usually
deemed to depend essentially upon its careful con-
formity to the traditional pattern.

The statement in the definition concerning the
imitative or symbolical character of ritual action may
justly be regarded as preempting a decision about the
essential nature of ritual; but it is made designedly,
in order to introduce the fundamental issue of the
origin of ritual. We shall presently consider the earliest
known evidence of ritual action; but the archaeological
record, though it starts at the dawn of human culture,
cannot reveal the actual origins of ritual which lie back
in a remote undocumented past. The original nature
of ritual, therefore, is inevitably a matter for specula-
tion only; though fortunately it can be informed spec-
ulation that can be checked against the most ancient
evidence. Thus it is reasonable to assume, from what
seems to be common experience, that a human being,
when intensely desiring that some particular thing
should happen, which he cannot actually achieve by
his own effort, will tend instinctively to imitate action
calculated to achieve what he desires, perhaps through
another agent. Such reaction will be familiar to most
spectators of a drama or athletic contest with which
they have become emotionally involved: the urge will
often be felt to assist action by some corresponding
gesture. It is a natural extension of such imitative action
in primitive minds to believe that the achievement of
desired results can be assisted by consciously imitative
action: for example, that the sprinkling of water on
the ground will help rain to fall; or the lighting of
fires in mid-winter, as was done by certain primitive


northern peoples, would strengthen the weakening sun
during the crisis of the winter solstice. The principle
involved may be described as that of imitative magic,
that like will produce like.

What appears to be the earliest evidence of such
ritual action dates from the Upper Palaeolithic era
(30,000-10,000 B.C.). It is provided notably by a strange
figure depicted on the wall of an inner cavern of the
Cave of the Trois Frères, in the département of Ariège,
France. The figure is anthropoid in form, but has the
attributes of a beast: the head is surmounted by the
antlers of a stag, with furry ears, owl-like eyes and a
long tongue or beard; the body is covered with a hairy
pelt and tail, and the genitals are those of a male
animal. The posture of the figure suggests the action
of dancing, and it is known as the “Dancing Sorcerer.”
This descriptive title indicates the interpretation that
has generally been given to it. It is taken to represent
a man, disguised as an animal, engaged in a ritual dance
in which he imitates characteristic movements of an
animal, for some specific purpose. There is other
Palaeolithic evidence of men, disguised as animals and
performing mimetic dances, to prove that the “Danc-
ing Sorcerer,” though the most striking, is not a unique
conception. Such dances were undoubtedly connected
with the chief economic activity of these peoples,
namely, hunting, and constituted a form of hunting
magic designed both to promote the fertility of the
animals and ensure successful hunts. Evidence of ritual
dances, in which men simulate animals, is found else-
where, in primitive, though chronologically later, cul-
tures; for example, in the plays of the ancient Greek
dramatist Aristophanes, where the chorus were dressed
as birds or beasts and mimed their movements, and
in the ritual imitating of kangaroos which was practi-
ced by men of the Kangaroo-tribe among Australian

No means exist of knowing how the Palaeolithic
peoples explained the purpose and mechanism of their
magical dances, if indeed their minds were equipped
to make such an objective assessment of what they
probably did instinctively. But in view of the instinc-
tive nature of imitative gesture, as was noted above,
these Palaeolithic figures may reasonably be inter-
preted as showing that already, at this remote period,
ritual actions were being performed, based upon the
principle of imitative or sympathetic magic. Inspiring
such actions was undoubtedly the belief that assimila-
tion to an animal by wearing its skin and other items,
and by the miming of its movements, would decisively
affect some issue, such as a hunt, which greatly con-
cerned the well-being of the community.

The interpretation of this Palaeolithic evidence must
necessarily remain tentative; but it is consistent with
other archaeological data attesting to the practice at
this time of sympathetic magic in the well-known form
of cave-art. Moreover, it constitutes an intelligible
anticipation of a form of a ritual action which is strik-
ingly evidenced in the earliest written texts, namely,
the Pyramid Texts of Egypt. These Texts, which are
inscribed on the interior walls of the pyramids of cer-
tain pharaohs of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (ca.
2425-2300 B.C.), were designed to secure the safe pas-
sage of these monarchs from this world to the next.
To this end the Texts incorporate a mortuary ritual
which has proved of the greatest significance for the
history of religions. It constitutes both the earliest and
the classic example of ritual action based on the prin-
ciple of imitative magic. This mortuary ritual was
patterned on the legend of Osiris, which formed the
rationale of the rites. According to the legend, which
was of great antiquity, Osiris, a good king of Egypt
in the remote past, had been murdered by his evil
brother Set, and his body left to perish. It was found
by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who took action
to save it from physical decomposition. His body being
thus preserved against corruption, the dead Osiris was
revivified by the sun-god Atum-Rē and other deities.
The origin of this legend has been much discussed by
scholars, without any agreed conclusion being estab-
lished. But what is certain is that the Pyramid Texts
show that it was believed that a dead king could be
resurrected to a new life, if he were ritually assimilated
to Osiris. Consequently, a mortuary ritual was devel-
oped, according to which the embalmment of the
pharaoh reproduced ritually what was supposed to
have been done to preserve the corpse of Osiris. This
ritual of embalmment was followed by other rites
calculated to revivify the deceased as Osiris had been
revivified. The following passages illustrate the modus
of this ritual action, presupposing the
assimilation of the dead king to Osiris. The first takes
the form of an incantation addressed to the god Atum:
it was recited over the embalmed body of the dead
king (his name in this text was Unas), in order to
revivify him; it assumes that Unas is so essentially
identified with Osiris that he will participate in the
resurrection of Osiris through its ritual re-presentation:
“Recite: 'O Atum, it is thy son—this one here, Osiris,
whom thou has caused to live (and) to remain in life.
He liveth (and) this Unas (also) liveth; he (i.e. Osiris)
dieth not, (and) this Unas (also) dieth not'” (Pyramid
167a-c). In another passage Osiris is directly
reminded of the consequences of the assimilation of
the dead Unas with himself: “Thy body is the body
of this Unas. Thy flesh is the flesh of this Unas. Thy
bones are the bones of this Unas. (If) thou walkest,
this Unas walks; (if) this Unas walks, thou walkest”
(Pyramid Texts 193a-c).

The Pyramid Texts do not describe the ritual acts


that accompanied these invocations, but of another
related ceremony graphic illustrations do exist. This
is the “Opening of the Mouth,” which was intended
to restore to the embalmed body its faculties of seeing,
breathing, and receiving food (a similar ritual was used
to animate cult-statues). The Pyramid Texts give the
formulae of the rites, mentioning various acts and the
implements used (Pyramid Texts 12c-14d), and in the
later Book of the Dead (ca. 1400 B.C.), which documents
the Osirian mortuary ritual when it had become
democratized, the ritual is depicted in a vignette; the
mummy of the deceased, held upright, is touched on
the appropriate parts of its face by a priest with a
curious sickle-shaped implement, while another
officiant recites the corresponding formulae. This par-
ticular ceremony, also, was supposed to reproduce
what had originally been done for Osiris.

An important concomitant of the ritual action, as
the Pyramid Texts show, was the recitation of a kind
of libretto that accompanied the performance of the
rites. Generally this speaking-part consisted of for-
mulae explanatory of the ritual action that was being
performed, and it contains much mythological refer-
ence, e.g., to the death and resurrection of Osiris. This
relation between the myth and the ritual is important,
and it will be discussed below.

The extant evidence gives no indication that the
Egyptians ever produced a “theology” of this mortuary
ritual, i.e., sought to explain how the gods concerned
in it had sanctioned such a means of enabling human
beings to obtain resurrection from death. The underly-
ing assumption of the rites seems to have been that
their proper performance alone would automatically
produce the desired results. And no reference was
apparently made to the will of the gods concerning
the applicability of the transaction to any specific
individual. The invocations addressed to the gods,
which accompany the ritual action, have rather the
appearance of commands and thus attest to the funda-
mentally magical character of the rites. It is also
significant that, whereas there is no mention in this
mortuary ritual of the moral qualifications of the de-
ceased, there grew up in conjunction with it a belief
in a post-mortem judgment that would determine the
eternal destiny of the individual. These dual themes
of the Egyptian mortuary cultus, namely of salvation
and judgment, resulted in the anomalous conception
of Osiris as both the savior and the judge of the dead.

Towards the end of Egyptian culture, about the
second century A.D., it would seem that some attempt
was made to represent pictorially the effect of the
mortuary ritual. It took the form of representing on
certain mummy-shrouds three figures interrelated in a
ritual transaction. The central figure is that of the
deceased in his ordinary attire, and he is shown as being
directed by the ancient mortuary god Anubis towards
an Osirian figure to his right. The theme of the depic-
tion is evidently that of the transformation of the
deceased into an Osiris, a concept that had long found
expression in the custom of adding the name “Osiris”
to the personal name of the deceased in funerary in-
scriptions and papyri.

The imitative factor in ritual, which is adumbrated
in Palaeolithic culture and forms the basic principle
of the Egyptian mortuary cultus, finds abundant
expression in other religions. The next examples are
representative of the variety of purpose which such
ritual action could serve. Thus the principle of magical
assimilation is clearly evident in the following ancient
Mesopotamian healing ritual. Its rationale was pro-
vided by the myth of the goddess Ishtar and her divine
lover Tammuz, whom she rescued from the under-
world. The rites concerned took place in the month
of Tammuz, when the death of Tammuz was annu-
ally mourned and the goddess was believed to be espe-
cially attentive. The directions given in the text deal
with the healing of a sick man, and they are based up-
on the supposition that Ishtar would save a man from
certain specific afflictions, if he were identified with
Tammuz. The following rubrics, dealing with the cru-
cial part of the ceremony, vividly present the ritual
action of assimilating the patient to Tammuz:

The sick man shall enter to the foot of the couch, his face
covered (and his gaze directed to the foot (of the couch).
With a rush (?) with seven knots touch him seven times.
As soon as he is touched, he has exchanged his own self
(ramân-¡u-u¡-pil). Then say: 'Ishtar, thy beloved, may he
go by thy side!' He should go forth from the foot of the
couch... clothed in a saḫḫû-garment, beat his arms seven
times to the right; seven times to the left turn himself, and
at the confessional kneel down and also say: 'Ishtar, at thy
confessional I kneel (before) thee: save thy man!'

pp. 55-56).

Afterwards the officiating priest is directed to tear off
some hair from the forehead of the sick man and take
his girdle, and to cast them, together with an offering
of loaves and fine meal, into the river. This action had
undoubtedly an apotropaic intention.

The factor of assimilation is less realistically pre-
sented here than in the Egyptian mortuary ritual, and
it seems an even less convincing transaction. For the
goddess Ishtar appears to be misled into accepting the
sick man as Tammuz, unless, what seems to be very
improbable, the ritual assimilation was regarded as
effecting a mystical transformation so complete that
the sick man virtually became Tammuz in his devotion
to Ishtar. However that may be, it is evident the an-
cient Mesopotamians also believed in the efficacy of
ritual assimilation.

A notable Greek instance of ritual action of an


imitative kind merits a brief description, particularly
since it serves to introduce another aspect of ritual.
The famous Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised ini-
tiates a happy post-mortem existence, had as their
rationale the myth of the Rape of Persephone, the
daughter of the corn-goddess Demeter, and the quest
of the sorrowing mother for her lost daughter; for it
was explained that Demeter had instituted the
Mysteries at Eleusis as a token of her gratitude for her
kind reception there. Information about the actual rites
is scarce and imprecise; but there is evidence for
thinking that the initiates or mystae ritually imitated
or re-presented various traditional episodes of
Demeter's search for Persephone. Thus they fasted as
Demeter had done in her grief, they wandered about
at night with torches as she had done in seeking for
her daughter, they tasted of the kykeon, a mystic drink
for which Demeter had asked at Eleusis. The purpose
of such ritual acts can only be surmised; but it seems
likely that they fostered a sense of communion between
the mystae and Demeter. The acts, however, have a
further significance, for they point to another aspect
of ritual action, closely connected with that of the
imitative or sympathetic magic which has been distin-
guished as its original and basic principle. The ritual
actions of the Eleusinian Mysteries were known as
drōmena, “things done,” and they were evidently
regarded as necessary and efficacious. So far as the
evidence goes, it would appear that some of these
drōmena, possibly all, were designed to re-present the
original drama of Demeter and Persephone for the
purpose of renewing or perpetuating what was be-
lieved to be its original soteriological efficacy. The idea
that inspired such action is an intelligible one in terms
of primitive logic, and it may be defined as the “ritual
perpetuation of the past.” It was based on the belief
that some event in the career of a divine being, who
lived on earth long before, had generated a beneficial
efficacy of some kind, and that this efficacy could be
made available in the present by ritually re-presenting
the original event. The principle was clearly operative
also in the Egyptian mortuary ritual, since the rites
made essential reference to what had once happened
to Osiris: the ritual re-presentation of the acts that had
resurrected Osiris, when enacted on behalf of a dead
person identified with Osiris, was believed to generate
or reproduce the same effect in that person.

The two major rites of Christianity attest to the
vitality of what has been distinguished here as the
primordial form of ritual action, and also to the opera-
tion of the principle of the ritual perpetuation of the
past. These rites have, of course, been invested with
a high spiritual significance and divine authorization
has been claimed for them; but their basic phenom
enological pattern approximates to that evident in the
ritual practice of other religions.

The Christian rite of initiation, namely, baptism, in
its earliest presentation by the Apostle Paul, strikingly
exhibits the principle of ritual imitation and assimila-
tion. Paul's exposition is of such basic importance for
the study of ritual that it must be quoted in extenso.
It occurs in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the
Romans (verses 3-5), and was written about A.D. 54.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized
into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were
buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that
as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the
Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. For if
we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall
certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his


According to Paul, therefore, the Christian neophyte
was assimilated by baptism to Christ in his death. In
other words, baptism ritually re-presented the death
of Christ, and by descending beneath the waters of
baptism the neophyte was united with Christ in his
death. This ritual union or assimilation, in turn, quali-
fied the neophyte to participate with Christ in his
resurrection from death. The parallel which this pre-
sentation of baptism constitutes to the Osirian mortu-
ary ritual is obvious and very remarkable; however,
there is no evidence that Paul derived his conception
from the ancient Egyptian practice; the parallel is
significant as witnessing to the similarity of phenom-
enological pattern produced by two wholly inde-
pendent religious traditions.

This Pauline doctrine found dramatic expression in
the baptismal ritual of the Early Church. Special
baptisteries were constructed which enabled the
neophytes to descend into the water. They divested
themselves of their clothes, which symbolized a dying
to their former selves. On emerging from the baptismal
water, they were clothed in white robes, received a
new name and were given mystic food of milk and
honey, thus proclaiming their rebirth by baptism to
a new life in Christ. This initiatory rite has been held
by Christians to be absolutely essential to salvation,
for the subsequent formulation of the doctrine of Orig-
inal Sin implied that the unbaptized are wholly in a
state of spiritual perdition. The ritual of baptism,
accordingly, when properly administered (the correct
“form and matter” have been both carefully defined
and disputed), is believed to effect a transformation
of the neophyte which cannot be achieved in any other
way. Moreover, the wording of the baptismal service
clearly synchronizes the moment of spiritual rebirth
with the act of baptizing. Other requirements have


been incorporated into the rite of baptism, such as
attestation of faith in Christ and abjuration of the
Devil, with confession of sins; but these are ancillary
to the ritual action of baptizing in water, with the
accompanying formula pronouncing that the neophyte
is being baptized in the threefold name of the Trinity.

The other rite constitutes the central act of worship
in Catholic Christianity, namely, the Mass, Eucharist,
or Liturgy as it is variously known in the Western and
Eastern Churches. Historically, the rite derives from
the Last Supper or Passover that Christ partook with
his disciples before his Crucifixion. The earliest account
of its institution is given by Paul in his First Epistle
to the Corinthians (11:23-26), and dates from about
55 A.D. According to Paul's statement,

... the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took
bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said,
“This is my body which is [broken] for you. Do this in
remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after
supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you
proclaim the Lord's death until he comes


The later Gospels (except that of John) record the
institution of the rite with some variations of detail.

From its primitive form the rite gradually developed
an elaborate ceremonial setting such as is found today
in the Latin High Mass and the Greek Liturgy. But
the quintessence of the rite has continued to inhere
in the ritual re-presentation of Christ's original action
at the Last Supper: the blessing and breaking of the
bread and the blessing of the wine, accompanied by
the solemn recitation of his words of institution. The
repetition of this ritual action of imitation, each time
the Mass is celebrated, is held to reproduce the same
change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood
of Christ as occurred at the Last Supper. Moreover,
the development of the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the
Mass has meant that Catholic Christians also believe
that at each celebration of the Mass the sacrifice of
Christ, made through his crucifixion, is re-presented
to God. In other words, the Mass or Eucharist consti-
tutes the classic example of the ritual perpetuation of
the past; for it is believed that the proper performance
of the ritual, by a duly authorized priest, and with the
right intention, perpetuates, and makes available to
those assisting, the efficacy of the original Last Supper
and the sacrificial Death of Christ outside Jerusalem
about A.D. 30.

In this article, so far, an attempt has been made to
show that ritual originates in imitative action done in
the instinctive belief that like will (re)produce like. The
examples chosen by way of illustration have provided
evidence of the operation of the principle from the
Palaeolithic era down to modern times, though natu-
rally with varying degrees of sophistication. This aspect
of ritual, aptly denoted by the Greek word drōmenon,
a “thing done” to achieve some specific end, may
reasonably be regarded as constituting its essential
raison d'être. Characteristic also of this ritual action
is its reference back to some signal event of the past,
deemed to have a soteriological virtue, which can be
made a present reality by ritually re-presenting it
according to a prescribed form. There are, however,
other forms of ritual action which, though not con-
ceived as activity that automatically achieves some-
thing, usually of a soteriological kind, have had consid-
erable cultural importance and are still practiced
today. The following are some of the more notable

Commemorative ritual, which is practiced to pre-
serve the memory of some notable event, is a well-
known form in both religious and secular life. A
celebrated religious example is the Jewish Passover.
The origin of the rite is graphically described in the
Book of Exodus (12:1ff.): the ritual killing and eating
of the lamb is explained as perpetuating the memory
of the apotropaic action that the Israelites were
commanded to take by Yahweh on the night that he
passed over Egypt, slaying the first-born of the
Egyptians. The eating of unleavened bread, as part of
the Passover ritual, is accounted for by the fact that
the Israelites fled so hastily from Egypt that they had
no time to leaven the dough for their bread. This
elaborate and carefully articulated account of the ori-
gin of the Passover is particularly interesting, because
it provides an historicized interpretation of two ancient
rituals of which the original meaning had probably
been forgotten; for the evidence indicates that the
killing of the Passover lamb derived from a primitive
pastoral custom of sacrificing the first-born of the herds
as an apotropaic act, while the ritual eating of un-
leavened bread originated in another apotropaic cus-
tom of refraining from the use of leaven made from
last year's corn in bread produced from the new corn
of the next harvest. Examples from many other reli-
gions could be cited of historicized interpretations of
primitive rituals.

Another form of ritual action found in many religions
is that of the substitutionary sacrifice, in which a victim
is killed, or in some other way disposed of, instead of
another person or persons. Two examples may be cited
for illustration. In ancient Rome, on the Ides of May,
puppets representing old men bound hand and foot,
which were called Argei, were solemnly thrown by
Vestal Virgins from the Pons Sublicius into the river
Tiber. The exact meaning of the rites is unknown, but


it is probable that the Argei substituted for human
victims once offered to the river-god in compensation
for the building of the bridge. In ancient Hebrew
religion the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement
formed an elaborate ritual scheme of substitutionary
sacrifice. One of its most striking rites concerned the
scapegoat; the Book of Leviticus (16:20-22) gives de-
tailed instructions for the ritual transference of the sins
of Israel to this goat: “Aaron shall lay both his hands
upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him
all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their
transgressions, all their sins: and he shall put them upon
the head of the goat, and send him away into the
wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness.”

In ancient India, Brahmanic speculation came to
evaluate the ritual action of sacrifice as providing the
very basis of cosmic existence. According to the
Purusha-sūkta, the universe had been formed from the
body of a sacrificial victim Purusha, conceived of as
a giant primordial Man. This primeval sacrifice was
the prototype of all sacrifices which continuously
renew and sustain the cosmos. In process of time,
doubtless due to the sacerdotal interests of the
Brahmins, the ritual of sacrifice was imagined as
generating its cosmic power ex opere operato, being
thus wholly independent of the gods.

The idea of the cosmic significance of ritual action
has been much emphasized by certain scholars who
believe that many primitive peoples annually per-
formed ceremonies designed to renew or maintain the
world-order for the ensuing year. In support of this
view, the akitu or New Year Festival, celebrated in
ancient Babylon, is usually cited, especially since the
enûma elish or Babylonian Creation Epic was solemnly
recited during the ceremonies. However, closer study
of the festival shows that its real theme was the ex-
planatory commemoration of the lordship of Marduk,
the tutelary god of Babylon, over the other Mesopo-
tamian gods, together with the propitiation of Marduk
who was believed to determine the fate of the state
at this time for another year. But, even if the idea of
cosmic renewal at such festivals is thus problematic,
special rites, performed at critical points in Nature's
year, have had an important role in the cultural life
of many peoples. A notable example is the great annual
sacrifice which the emperor of China used to perform
to Shang Ti, the supreme Deity, at the winter solstice
on behalf of the people. The ceremonies, which took
place at the Altar of Heaven, near the Temple of the
Prosperous Year in Peking, were an elaborate complex
of ritual action, including such striking acts as the
placing of a sceptre of blue jade before the shrine of
Shang Ti, in token of his cosmic supremacy. However,
in ceremonies of this kind, in which sacrifice was
offered to a deity for some specific purpose, the
accompanying ritual action was ancillary to the sacri-
fice and was not a drōmenon, in the sense of effecting
something by its own enactment as in the rituals previ-
ously examined.

An important attempt to discern a common “culture-
pattern” in the annual agricultural festivals of the
ancient Near East was put forward in 1933 in a collab-
orative work entitled Myth and Ritual, edited by
S. H. Hooke. The thesis won considerable support and
is still influential in some quarters; but it has also
encountered much criticism. According to its expo-
nents, the “pattern” found its expression in an annual
festival, in which a sacred king represented the ritual
life-cycle of a vegetation deity. Upon the solemn
enactment of this ritual each year it was believed that
the prosperity and well-being of the land and people
depended. The ritual drama, which is supposed to have
been performed at the New Year festival, had five
successive episodes: the representation of the death and
resurrection of the god; the recitation or symbolic
representation of the myth of creation; the ritual com-
bat, depicting the triumph of the god over his enemies;
the sacred marriage; the triumphal procession of the
god, followed by a train of other related deities. The
ritual-pattern, assumed here, is an intelligible one; but
nowhere in the extant documents is there evidence of
its existence as an integrated whole in any ancient Near
Eastern religion. The “pattern” has, in fact, been
pieced together from ritual episodes found in various
religions of this area. Certainly fertility and harvest
rituals were connected with vegetation gods such as
Tammuz, Attis, Adonis, Osiris (in one aspect of his
being), and Baal, which were related to the annual
life-cycle of vegetation, and in some places a divine
or sacred king played an important part in them. But
kingship seems to have varied much in the ancient
Near East, and only in Egypt is there sufficient evi-
dence for understanding what royal divinity meant;
unfortunately it is in Egypt that certain crucial epi-
sodes of the supposed ritual-pattern do not appear.

There are many other areas of human life and
activity which, both in the past and the present, have
been controlled by ritual action primarily concerned
with the safety and well-being of the community. For
example, death and funeral customs among many peo-
ples have an essentially apotropaic function. Death
being instinctively feared, the dead are regarded as
dangerous and their departure from among the living
must be expedited; moreover, contact with them causes
contagion. Consequently, much funerary ritual has
been designed to protect the living, and to purify those
whose contact with the dead has rendered them un-
clean and potentially dangerous. Birth also has gener-
ally been regarded as making those involved, namely,
the mother and child, ritually unclean, probably be-


cause of their involvement with blood, the “life-
substance.” Hence in many religions, including
Christianity, both mother and child have to be purified
by a prescribed ceremony before they can be received
back into the community. It may also be noted that
among many peoples adolescents have to undergo a
rite de passage before being admitted to adult mem-
bership of the community. The rituals practiced by
some primitive peoples are elaborate, and often involve
severe ordeals. Their performance changes the status
of the individuals concerned; but the modus operandi
seems rather to consist of tests of fitness and the
imparting of knowledge of the mores of adult life than
of a magical transformation into another state of being.

Ritual has often taken the form of the solemn per-
formance of the practical activities of life in the service
of deities. For example, in ancient Egypt the daily
tendance of the cult-image in temples included toilet
ceremonies, probably modelled on those of the
pharaoh; in most religions, where the presence of deity
is located in a cult-image, worship has included the
daily offering of food, flowers, unguents and the burn-
ing of incense before the image—actions obviously
calculated to please the god as if he were a human
potentate. In China, and to a lesser degree in some
other lands, a traditional system of ritual action, relat-
ing to both religious and secular life, has been regarded
as constituting a pattern of correct behavior funda-
mental to the well-being of the individual, the family
and society. Confucius laid the utmost importance on
ritual (li). In his Analects (xii:1-2), he equates goodness
(jen) with submission to ritual, defining it as “To look
at nothing in defiance of ritual, to listen to nothing
in defiance of ritual, to speak of nothing in defiance
of ritual, never to stir hand or foot in defiance of
ritual.” This ritual is embodied in three books of rites,
the Li Chi, the I Li, and the Chou Li, which attest
to the Chinese conception that the harmonious balance
of the universe depended upon a complex of rela-
tionships in heaven and earth which had to be main-
tained by the proper performance of the requisite

The antiquity and ubiquity of ritual witness to the
fundamental character of the need in human nature
to which it is the practical response. A. N. Whitehead
placed ritual first among the four factors or aspects
which he distinguished as exhibited by religion in
human history: “These factors are ritual, emotion,
belief, rationalization” (Religion in the Making, p. 8).
He also sagely observed that “Mere ritual and emotion
cannot maintain themselves untouched by intellectu-
ality.... Men found themselves practising various
rituals, and found rituals generating emotions. The
myth explains the purpose both of the ritual and of
the emotion” (op. cit., p. 13). The evidence, unfor
tunately, does not exist to prove this reasonable but
a priori assumption of the chronological priority of
ritual to myth. The earliest extant evidence, which has
been cited here, namely the Pyramid Texts, shows that
ritual action was already accompanied by the recita-
tion of explanatory formulae. How the two evolved
in the undocumented period that went before is a
matter for surmise only; however, as the example of
the Hebrew Passover indicates, some primitive rituals
have subsequently been given historicized explanations.
There also exists, in this connection, a quaint but
significant Mesopotamian text dealing with toothache:
before the ancient dentist could begin his practical
operations, he had to recite a myth in which the origin
of the worm believed to cause dental decay was traced
back to the creation of the world.


E. Bendann, Death Customs (London, 1930). H. Bonnet,
Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte (Berlin,
1952). S. G. F. Brandon, Creation Legends of the Ancient
Near East
(London, 1963); idem, History, Time and Deity
(Manchester, 1963); idem, The Judgment of the Dead
(London and New York, 1967-68); idem, “The Ritual Per-
petuation of the Past,” Numen, 7 (Leiden, 1959); idem, “The
Ritual Technique of Salvation in the Ancient Near East,”
The Savior God, ed. S. G. F. Brandon (Manchester, 1963);
idem, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (London and
New York, 1970); idem, Man and God in Art and Ritual
(New York, 1973). E. Ebeling, Tod und Leben nach der
Vorstellungen der Babylonier,
Band I (Berlin and Leipzig,
1931). M. Eliade, Le mythe de l'éternel retour (Paris, 1949);
idem, Traité d'histoire des religions (Paris, 1949). J. G. Frazer,
The Magic Art (The Golden Bough), 3rd ed., 2 vols. (London,
1936). G. Furlani, Riti babilonesi e assiri (Udine, 1940).
T. H. Gaster, Thespis (New York, 1950). J. Harrison, Ancient
Art and Ritual,
5th ed. (London, 1935). S. H. Hooke, The
Origins of Early Semitic Ritual
(London, 1938); idem, ed.,
Myth and Ritual (Oxford, 1933); idem, ed., Myth, Ritual
and Kingship
(Oxford, 1958). E. O. James, Christian Myth
and Ritual
(London, 1933); idem, Myth and Ritual in the
Ancient Near East
(London, 1958); idem, Seasonal Feasts
and Festivals
(London, 1961). G. E. Mylonas, Eleusis and
the Eleusinian Mysteries
(Princeton, 1961). For Pyramid
see K. Sethe, Die altägyptischen Pyramidentexten
(reprint Hildesheim, 1960). C. H. Ratschow, Magie und
(Gütersloh, 1955); Sources orientales, Vol. VII,
Le monde du sorcier (Paris, 1966). D. H. Smith, Chinese
(London, 1968). P. J. Ucko and A. Rosenfeld,
Palaeolithic Cave Art (London, 1967). A. van Gennep, Les
rites de passage
(Paris, 1909). A. N. Whitehead, Religion
in the Making
(Cambridge, 1927). R. C. Zaehner, Hinduism
(London, 1962).


[See also Christianity in History; Creation; Death and
Mimesis; Myth;Religion, Origins of; Sin and