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. 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:
- Internal: psyche, mind, spirit, chi, soul, inner self, life force..
- External: deities, gods, cosmic force, universal energy, higher power, destiny, karma, fate…
- Both: the all, universal energy…
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.
- Veneration - Through worship, the individual and/or social community can express their adoration and reverence for their divine subject. Through this worship, social and spiritual ties are formed, creating a shared spiritual unit and a strengthening of belief. (Catholic mass, and Muslims’ Salat)
- Systemization- In order for cohesion to exist there must be controls. In a community, these controls are set forth by the community’s shared ethics, ideology and doctrines. (Bible, Koran, The Vedas, Tanach, and Kabbalah, just to name a few.) In solipsistic belief structures, these controls are created by the individuals’ personal ethical tenets, which might be based on for instance, societal norms or Natural Humanism.
- Formalization- The objective of the ritual is to validate a status or change in status within a social-spiritual community. Examples are rites of passage, birthing and naming ceremonies, initiations, confirmations, and weddings.
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. 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?
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.
Something to contemplate …
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.
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.