Fluid | Fixed

From Rituals to Symbols

Rituals find their place in every aspect of our daily life. Some of these rituals are derived out of our patterned behavior (mindless routine) but many of them are consciously contrived. Each ritual system will have its own governing factors, which determine its nature, format and objective. This article mainly focuses on those rituals largely concerned with non-secular ideology.

What is a Spiritual ritual?

A spiritual ritual is a prescribed routine that will often involve gestures, words and objects, designed to influence transcendental entities and/or forces on behalf of the performers’ goals, interests and beliefs.[1] These rituals can be elaborate functions comprising of smaller individual rites or they can be as simple as a short prayer. Whatever the complexity, the real power lays in the performers’ belief. For without this, the ritual is just an empty script.

Some of the more prevalent transcendental concepts:

Ritual Purpose

If ‘religion’ is the paradigm by which we define our place in the world, then the ritual is the mechanism by which we interrelate and connect with it. This relationship can be defined by its underlying objectives of which there are two main categories; cohesion and, petition & benediction.

Cohesion: The purpose is to solidify and reinforce the individuals own spirituality as well as (when applicable), the social aspect of the spiritual community as a whole. This is accomplished through veneration, systemization and formalization.

Petition & Benediction: This purpose is self-explanatory; the objective is to request a favor, which can be spiritual or materialistic. Depending on the type of petition, this favor might require a sacrifice as a part of the ritual. After being favored, a ritual expression of gratitude will complete the circle. Examples are purifications, invocations, salvations, prays, spells and some divinations.

Another Viewpoint — Social anthropologist, Victor W. Turner introduces a concept called social drama. This is a process arising from situations of discord within society. Within these social dramas there are four phases of which the third is the ritual. In this stage, the ritual acts as an adjustive and redressive mechanism.[2] For more information on Turner’s processual symbolic analysis, check out Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):1-25, (1991).

Spells and Prayers

For the most part, spells and prayers are just singular rituals. They are rudimental units that can stand alone or be integrated into a larger ceremony. Spells may use words, formulas, or objects, each believed to attribute its own "power" or act as a focus thereof, separate from the performer. It is through the manipulation of these characteristics that the objective is achieved.

The prayer only utilizes specially formulated words but these words do not contain power, only focus. They are used to communicate with a transcendental being, which is often a god or goddess, but might also be a deceased loved one.

How does one manipulate the perceived power?
Does it follow the laws of physics?
Do we know all the laws of physics?

Personal comments — If the theory behind the spell is true, then that must mean that the power contained in the objects, must have some sentient qualities in order to be manipulated in a non-rational and often unrelated manner. I remain skeptical about this concept of universal animism but I have not totally discounted it either.

Nevertheless, interestingly enough, this animism is still being considered within the natural science community. In fact quantum physicist, E. H. Walker speculated that all things in the universe may have a discrete consciousness; discrete being the operative word here.

Signs and Symbols

Signs generically denote an existence or presence of something not immediately evident or obvious. This allows for a whole range of forms, each having their own discriminatory use; for example a road-sign may indicate a hidden danger. Signs are mostly indicators or pointers while symbols are representations. The ritual will use both but it is the symbol that is the most prevalent. The spiritual ritual requires the use of symbols extensively, because of its inherent transcendental and metaphysical nature.

Symbols are anything that represents something else either by association, resemblance, or convention. Quite simply, they are allegorical storage units. Symbols are used and shared in order for us to communicate and construct an archetype of the ambiguous and the abstract. Symbols are multi-interpretive; therefore, to avoid misunderstanding, the symbol needs to be in context and the partaker needs to have a working knowledge of this context. It is very important that what is attempted to be shared with the "symbol" is what is perceived conclusively. When successful, the symbol, itself, becomes a ritual.


What does this aniconic ideogram mean to you?
What do you perceive as the context?

Something to contemplate …
If you had to design or choose a symbol to represent "truth", what would it be?


It can get a bit confusing, so here are a few terms that one may see when dealing with symbols.

Semiotics- is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and comprising semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.[4]

Icon- is any picture, image or representation. Iconic icons are those that have some perceivable likeness to what they denote while aniconic icons don’t.

Ideogram- is a graphic symbol that represents an abstract idea or concept.

Pictogram- depicts a picture or icon representing a word or idea, for example a hieroglyph.

Logogram- is a symbol representing a word without expressing or limited to its’ specific pronunciation or spelling. For example: 5 can mean fem, cinco, cinq or vijf.

Sigils- are signs or images that are considered magical.

Personal comments
Spells — I feel there is a certain value to performing spells, but NOT as an instant "recipe for success". Much of the success depends more on the performers, the partakers and their intentions.

I think the real power lies in the performer and less in the objects, which, to me, are just symbols or tools. What ever power that may exist in these objects (and words), it is attributed to them by their user -Hence, why I do not do spells. My thinking is: "why look to something else, if I have the power?" Is not my ‘power’ sufficient enough? So, rather than depend on a spell, I believe in myself. I guess you could say - I am my own spell.

As for Rituals - They always provide me with a sense comfort and security, be they spiritual, physical or social. They do this by their very nature, through repetition, in their mundanity, and by the fact they are in my direct control … when so much in the world is not.


[1] The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual Ithaca –Victor W. Turner (p.183).
[2] Schism and continuity in an African society: A study of Ndembu village life –Victor W. Turner (p. 37-39 p. 91)
[3] The Dancing Wu Li Masters –Gary Zukav (p. 63)
[4] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Dramas, fields and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society –Victor W. Turner
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1):1-25, (1991); Ritual, Anti-Structure, And Religion: A Discussion Of Victor Turner’s Processual Symbolic Analysis –Mathieu Deflem
Study of the Supernatural 5th ed. –Arthur C. Lehmann
James E. Myers Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World –John G. Gager.

Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion