4. Ritual
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98 CHAPTER 4 Ritual Groups frequently devise ceremonies or performances that enact deeply held beliefs or values. These are rituals, and they make our inner experiences of traditions visible and observable to members of the group and often to outsiders . Have you been initiated into a club or other organization in an elaborate ceremony? That’s a ritual, one that marks your status as a full-fledged member of the group and tells the rest of the group as well as outsiders that membership is important—it makes you special, different from others who don’t belong to the group. If you have ever taken part in or seen a court trial, you have probably seen witnesses place their left hand on a Bible and raise their right and swear to tell the truth. That, too, is a ritual, which makes it clear to all involved that truth is both a sacred and secular principle that the US legal system venerates. Participating in that ritual implies that the witness, too, recognizes that truth is a founding principle of the law and agrees to uphold it, regardless of the witness’s faith or belief in the binding power of the oath. This ritual and the principle it symbolizes are so powerful that if a witness refuses to take part, his or her testimony may not be accepted, and if it is discovered that a witness has lied, he or she may be punished. Some rituals are long-standing parts of group behavior, but—as with traditions —it is possible for groups to create rituals that express important ideas. Rituals signify changes in state or status and frequently signal or celebrate important stages of life. Rituals are associated with birth, puberty, marriage, and death, and rituals establish our entry to or exit from different parts of life or group experience. Because they are sometimes so ceremonial, rituals are often filled with costumes, pageantry, and mystery. During a ritual, the world 99 Ritual changes, reality can be suspended, and traditions become real, tangible experiences that we can actively take part in. Folklorists study rituals because their complexity and dramatic qualities make them dense with meaning: they are significant expressions of a group’s traditions , beliefs, values, and identity. Because rituals are so important in making the process of folklore visible, we want to focus in depth on this complex category. In the following sections, we discuss how rituals reflect and create meaningful experiences for groups and we provide extended examples of a variety of rituals. What is Ritual? A ritual is a particular type of tradition that many folklorists study as a distinct category of folklore. Rituals are habitual actions, but they are more purposeful than customs; rituals are frequently highly organized and controlled, often meant to indicate or announce membership in a group.Most rituals bring together many types of folklore: verbal, such as chants, recitations, poems, or songs; customary, such as gestures, dances, or movements; and material, such as food, books, awards, clothing, and costumes. For example, one of our contributors , Mickey Weems, in “Gay Rituals: Outing, Biking, and Sewing” (see chapter 8, “Examples of Folklore Projects”), describes some of the ways that ritual actions, verbal expressions, behaviors, and objects help to define groups within the gay community. Generally, rituals are performances that are repeated and patterned and frequently include ceremonial symbols and actions. Perhaps most significant to our recognition of rituals is a frame that indicates when the ritual begins and ends (Myerhoff 1977, 200). Most rituals are stylized, highly contextualized, deeply symbolic activities that enable groups to acknowledge,exemplify,and/or act out certain traditional ideas, values, and beliefs. Family and community celebrations , sacred and secular ceremonies, and a variety of other structured performances include rituals. Rituals, then, require a set of beliefs and values that group members accept and want to have reinforced. The ritual works to teach their importance by emphasizing—even acting out—these values or beliefs. Like tradition in general, most rituals are simultaneously static and dynamic, with core features that are typically repeated and recognizable but with room for great variation, depending on the group. Rituals frequently employ symbols and metaphors to represent important concepts. Moving the tassel on the graduation mortarboard after a student receives a diploma, for example, symbolizes the graduate’s change in status. This small ritual acknowledges the emphasis LIVING FOLKLORE 100 that the group places on education and growing up and shows the appreciation of successfully completing the various...


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