Inside Story

Threshold moments

Is it any surprise that we cling to old rituals and invent new ones?

Nick Haslam Books 16 September 2022 1274 words

Social glue: the Band of the Grenadier Guards during the procession of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin to Westminster Hall. Stephane De Sakutin/PA Wire

There is something special about doorways. Around the world they are accessorised with symbols and customised with ceremonies. In ancient Rome, doors were adorned with wreaths and anointed with oil and wool during weddings, and hung with cypress branches for nine days after a death. Following the birth of a child, three men impersonating deities attacked the threshold with an axe, a pestle and a broom to ward off evil. Less ancient rites, recommended by wellness influencers, instruct modern homeowners to blow cinnamon through their front doors to ensure prosperity, or at least to create the illusion of baking.

The same strange theatre takes more idiosyncratic forms. In his famous Life, James Boswell recounts how Samuel Johnson would approach every door with “anxious care,” counting out a precise number of steps before taking a great lunging stride across the threshold, always leading with the same foot. Others noted how Johnson “whirled and twisted about to perform his gesticulations” before dramatically entering a house, abandoning his blind housemate Mrs Williams to grope around on the front steps.

Welcome to the world of ritual, where apparently odd and excessive actions are saturated with meaning and obligation. Literal thresholds feature in some cases, but more often the thresholds are figurative: portals between stages of life, social positions, and states of mind, health or sacredness. In his new book, Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, the anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas provides a compelling account of the cultural and psychological dimensions of these practices. In the process he reveals a new kind of interdisciplinary science, far from the armchair speculations of an earlier generation of scholars.

Having made a lifelong study of ritual, Xygalatas has come to view it as a fundamental part of human nature. Although ritualistic actions can be observed among birds and mammals, including the scrotum-grasping rites of male baboons, humans alone are “the ritual species.” Archaeological evidence suggests that rituals were enacted by early hominids 400 millennia ago. They serve important psychological and social functions, Xygalatas argues, deepening group solidarity, providing a sense of control over uncertainty, and contributing to wellbeing. We have a profound and innate need for ritual; and by some accounts obsessive-compulsive disorder, which troubled Dr Johnson, is a pathological expression of that urge.

Rituals, to Xygalatas, are “traditions that involve highly choreographed, formalised and precisely executed behaviours that mark threshold moments in people’s lives.” Their key elements are rigidity, repetition and redundancy: ritualistic acts must be performed in a strictly prescribed way, repeatedly, and longer or more frequently than seems practically required.

How rituals produce their effects is causally opaque: people who perform them rarely have an explicit understanding of the mechanisms that connect ritualised acts to desired outcomes or even of the goal of those acts. Instead, they answer the “why” of ritual by appealing to tradition. We have always done it this way.

Although the goals and modes of influence of rituals may be obscure, their functions are not. Xygalatas emphasises two main types, one to do with taming uncertainty, the other with fortifying group cohesion as a form of “social glue.” In the former case, rituals attempt to exert control over a capricious world and reduce anxiety by creating a sense of predictability and order. Ritual flourishes in societies that face greater threats and in zones of everyday activity where uncertainty reigns, such as sport and gambling. Studies find that ritualistic behaviour increases when fear is triggered, and that ritual performance is effective in diminishing it.

Xygalatas gives more attention to the social functions of ritual. He argues that collective rituals reinforce solidarity, mark group identities, and generate strong and enduring feelings of belonging. They demonstrate the loyalty and trustworthiness of group members, especially when rituals are onerous and costly, and promote generosity and mutual helping. Research shows that engagement in rituals has an array of benefits for individuals, from enhanced fertility to tighter and more supportive social networks to better mental and physical health.

These benefits may be especially strong for the extreme rituals that generate what Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” Xygalatas shows how participation in high-intensity rituals, which often involve extravagant pain and are more common in societies facing severe threats, helps to expand people’s sense of self and fuse their personal and group identities. The active embrace of shared suffering is uniquely powerful in strengthening social bonds and in healing the sick and downtrodden, who tend to seek out the harshest ordeals and derive the greatest benefit from them.

Xygalatas illustrates his ideas with many vivid descriptions of rituals, including examples from his own research. This research will be eye-opening for readers who have learned about ritual from ethnographies or journalistic sources. Xygalatas advocates for a new “ritual science” that combines the best aspects of anthropology, psychology and cognitive neuroscience and avoids their weaknesses. Anthropology contributes the virtues of thick description and direct observation in the field, but without the tendency towards theoretical obscurity. Psychology contributes the experimental method and quantification, but its tendency to wrench behaviour from its context is jettisoned. Neuroscience offers a systematic way to examine the embodiment of ritual, but without the reductionist conclusion that ritual is, in essence, merely a set of brain processes.

Aspirationally at least, this synthesis offers a rigorous way to investigate ritual in the field. Xygalatas describes at length his studies of fire-walking rituals in Spain and body-piercing kavadi rites in Mauritius, both conducted onsite with full community engagement. Participants in these studies wore monitors that tracked their heart rate and other physiological signs, and were found to experience extreme levels of arousal, stress and pain while performing the rituals.

More surprisingly, perhaps, people who wore the same devices while observing the fire-walkers showed very similar, synchronised patterns of arousal, with greater similarity the more socially close they were to the walker. Related studies have examined shifts in hormonal activity among participants in wedding ceremonies. Not only is ritual embodied in the physiology of individuals, but that embodiment is embedded in social relationships.

Before reading a book like this one, many of us might be inclined to see rituals as pre-modern oddities and superstitions, things we would need a passport to observe firsthand. Xygalatas makes us ponder the persistence of ritual in our secular times and helps readers recognise that it is all around us.

The ceremonial accession of a new British monarch, and the outrage at people who dare to puncture the membrane of solemnity that surrounds it, make this fact salient in a once-in-a-generation way. If, as Xygalatas maintains, “rituals fulfil primal human needs,” it should be no surprise that we cling to old ones and invent new ones, like the recent Japanese divorce ritual of writing marital grievances on pieces of paper and flushing them down the toilet.

But ritual is also expressed in so many more everyday forms. If rigidity, repetition and redundancy are its hallmarks, we can see it in the choreographed way our football seasons approach their crescendo, in the coming wave of graduation ceremonies, and in any number of celebratory events.

Traces of the same elements can be seen in how we write reference letters, format papers, make apologies, order meals, start conversations, run meetings, and so on and on and on. What justifies itself as efficient, rational and modern often retains a whiff of ritual incense. And, as Xygalatas might say, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can’t escape ritual, and if we could, we might find ourselves more alone, anxious and alienated than we are already. •

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living
By Dimitris Xygalatas | Profile Books | $56.50 | 320 pages