Ritual and Symbolism

Simpler technology peoples are no mean technicians. They can perform many activities of social life and social labour. They can sow, reap, build and create. They possess a wide knowledge of plants and animals, can use and make metal implements and pottery. However, there are limits to what can be achieved with simpler technology. Hence they cannot prevent crop failures, cannot guarantee to feed themselves securely, and cannot prevent starvation and disease.

originally it was thought that the concepts of imitation and contagion, which are inter-related with primitive man’s concepts of religion, supernatural and magical ideas, were his sole motives in his life of rituals and taboo. However, primitive man is not so illogical as this. Unlike modern religious and mythical preoccupations, primitive man does not regard the supernatural and natural worlds as dichotomies. In his need to supplement all known ways of dealing with the external world primitive man makes use of whatever forces there are that he cannot handle in a practical way. Thus, as a result, he does not divide his world into natural and supernatural, especially if in his use of these forces he recognises them as part of his natural world.

There is a strong belief that symbolic activity is very effective when it expresses deep and passionate desires. In other words a symbol represents something. Symbolism as a means of expression can be powerful and dramatic, and that belief in symbolism can be effective in the reinforcement and supplementation of what people do. What they do as practical people is that according to their ability, with their known ways and means, is organise their life in their society.

Symbolic rites are not ineffective – ritualism and symbolism, art, and religion being related. Symbolic ritual has strong psychological and social consequences. The ritual conveys to the participants ideas and feelings of putting heart and luck into their efforts. The symbolic rituals serving to order and co-ordinate their everyday practical activities. One of the main functions of this aspect of primitive religion is that it expresses certain important social sentiments, today they are called ‘values’. These sentiments are such concepts as the need for mutual support and solidarity between community members. Further to this, unless enough people held and acted on these values the society would not survive. The performance of ritual keeps constantly in the minds of the participants these sentiments. Ritual reinforces the ideas and aim of securing the maintenance of the social order.

Rituals are all stereotyped modes of behaviour, being highly traditional, organised and formalised. These rites are primarily concerned with the issues of agriculture, marriage, birth, death, tribal feasts and initiation festivals. The significance of rituals are that they are essentially public, and overtly collective activities. As can be seen in clan feasts and harvest festivals. They are occasions of reunions, community gatherings, times of happiness and social harmony. Rituals take place in an atmosphere of fellowshio and benevolence. These activities help bind people together, to raise them above the subjective concepts of individual and self, so that the participants lead a life superior to that which they would if they pursued their own individual ideas.

Beliefs and myths, embodied in ritual, symbolise life. Rituals organise that life and regulate its workings. Ceremonial gatherings lend a solemn and collective expression to those social sentiments within the community. This religious activity and faith fix and enhance all the valuable attitudes of the participants. These sentiments of value to the social group are affirmed, strengthened and renewed by ritualistic experiences, and instil a reverence for tradition, harmony, courage, and confidence. Encouraging them in their struggles with difficulties, with their efforts to control their environment. These beliefs and the accompanying feelings are embodied in the cult of the ceremonial activities – and as such are of great social value.

Levi-Strauss stated, in his book Totemism, that symbolism exists in order to maintain the social order, that it gives society a sense of permanence and solidity. That this is based upon individual sentiments and that the efficacy and expression of symbols demands a collective expression that is fixed upon concrete objects – hence there is a definite place assigned to symbols within the ideas of the community. This structural outlook attempts to argue that symbolism is the means that gives society permanence – but if society is in a constant state of flux and change, then symbolism can only be part of an attempt to maintain the status quo – disregarding that symbolism can also play a role in the pressures for social change.

Max Gluckman in discussing the analysis – Essays on the Ritual of Social Relations – of Van Gennep’s  Rites of Passage, gives another insight into the rituals and symbolisation, recognising the developmental nature of society.  Rituals deal with movements, hence they are reflective of social changes, and that these rituals exhibit a common order. Hence we have the concept of separation, a marginal period, followed by an aggregation. This aggregation being either anew order or a re-aggregation of the old order. These concepts have been expressed as rites of separation, rites of transition, and rites of incorporation.

Van Gennep stated that changes in social relations that involve movements between groups, or alterations in status, in semi-civilised societies with their conceptions of magico-religious bases for groups, disturbed not only the life of the individual but also the life of society as well. Thus the functions of the rites of passage was to reduce the harmful effects of these disturbances. The interpretation put  on the rituals by Van Gennep was not based upon a construct that bore no relationship to reality, but expresses the relationship between the activity of ritual and the ends towards which it was directed. That is the inter-relationship between social necessities and social action.


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