6 Rituals

Chapter 6 audio can be accessed on Soundcloud. Instructor resources are available on Canvas Commons.  


Rock maze
Rock Maze by Ashley Batz. Available for use through Unsplash license.


Chapter 6 Learning Objectives

At the end of this chapter, you’ll be able to:

  • Classify rituals and identify their functions.
  • Differentiate elements of rituals using an anthropological perspective.
  • Identify stages of rites of passage and identify examples of rites of passage in your own life.

6.1 Introducing Rituals

Rituals can reveal a great deal about a community’s worldview, belief systems, and lived experiences. However, like the term “religion,” “ritual” can be hard to define because what we think of as a ritual can vary widely and can be understood differently in different contexts.

People saying the pledge of allegiance
Pledge of Allegiance by TheeErin, Flickr 2008

In this course, we begin by defining rituals as an act or series of regularly repeated acts that embody the beliefs of a group of people and create a sense of continuity and belonging (Davis-Floyd 2003,8). They also feature a sequence of activities, involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a specific place or time, and according to a set order (Stein and Stein 2010, 77).

6.2 Who Conducts Rituals?

Any one instance of a ritual might be performed by a large group or by a single individual. Rituals undertaken by groups or communities usually build a sense of cultural continuity. For example, if you were baptized in a church, and your parents and grandparents were also baptized, then it likely holds a great deal of meaning when you also baptize your children. This generational baptism links all of the family together and reinforces the family’s commitment to a certain set of values. 

Here are some other examples of religious rituals and the means by which they foster a sense of community: 

  • Takuhatsu: Takuhatsu is the word used to refer to almsgiving among Zen Buddhist monks (other Buddhist groups use different words). In most Buddhist traditions, the monks are believed to be servants of the community-at-large. In order to maintain their residency in a local monastery, the monks are expected to conduct religious ceremonies for the community, offer teachings, and serve. It is traditional for Buddhist monks to walk through the community and to beg for food (Carney 2016). This tradition allows the local community to earn good karma by giving a donation to the monks. Furthermore, this tradition maintains a relationship between the monks and the community because, if the monks aren’t serving the community properly, they will not receive any donations. This covenant between the religious leaders and the community is maintained where both rely on and support each other. In many modern American temples today, online fundraisers serve the same function whereby members are likely to give to a temple that is better serving the community.
  • Hare Krishna Mantra: The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a modern religious movement that believes in the God Krishna’s power. This religion is quite popular in the United States and has a big following in Los Angeles, specifically. Members of this religious group put their faith in Krishna for salvation and usually live communally. This group believes that they can achieve enlightenment through a variety of lifestyle changes and rituals and they believe that their religious chant that starts with, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare…” can be chanted in order to elevate the mind. Members of this community further believe that one can help others by chanting outside; the belief is that all people and animals who hear the chant will be blessed. So, you may see members of this group walking outside in their peach robes and chanting and now you can understand that they are seeking to help you achieve spiritual transcendence.
  • Mortuary Temple Worship in Ancient Egypt: Ancient Egyptians had a similar creation myth as the Judeo-Christian Genesis myth in that darkness and chaos turned into life through the emergence of the “Island of Creation” from the primordial waters. This set the stage for mortuary temples, whose function was to provide a home for a deity and perform daily rituals and offerings to the deity so that the king (pharaoh) would have eternal life, and so that Egypt and its people would have prosperity (David 1998, 139). The ritual included taking the deity’s statue, washing and clothing it, and giving it food three times per day. In this case, we see how a society’s creation myth directly impacted daily rituals in the religious community.

6.3 Secular and Religious Rituals

Candles, wine glasses and bread in a religious setup
Communion Elements with Candles by Lars Hammar, Flickr, 2007

Rituals can be religious or they can be secular (non-religious). Religious rituals directly involve the supernatural, whereas secular rituals do not. In both cases, these rituals commit people to a shared identity, reflect the community’s value systems, and create a sense of meaning and a sense of control. Here are some examples of each:

  • “The Pledge of Allegiance” is a secular ritual. This American tradition asks participants to verbally recommit themselves to serve the United States each time they participate in the ritual.
  • Weddings and funerals can be either religious or secular. Some weddings and funerals involve both secular and religious elements. Depending upon the particular details of each and the participant’s goals, these rituals can include religious elements or they can have no religious elements. For example, a Christian wedding often takes place in a church, and the ceremony – a religious ritual – is conducted by a minister or a priest. At the reception, however, it is not unusual for the new couple to cut the cake together – a well-known secular ritual.
  • A graduation ceremony is typically a secular ritual. During this ritual (which we will discuss at length in a moment) participants receive a new social status based on academic achievement.

Some rituals are inherently religious whereas other rituals are entirely secular. Still others blend religious and secular traditions or change their focus and form depending upon the particular situation.

6.4 What Rituals Do

Cultural anthropologists examine rituals because they reveal the following: 

  • Rituals embody the worldview, beliefs, passions of the group (Davis-Floyd 1992, 10). In other words, the motivating factors behind cultural traditions can be understood by examining ritual. Does the community value patriotism and allegiance? Does the community value self-sacrifice? Does the community value self-reliance, etc.?
  • People conduct rituals to achieve different cultural outcomes. Whereas one community might engage in a ritual that enhances the worship of a god, another community might engage in a ritual that reinforces a commitment to science.
  • Rituals demonstrate the structure and order of things within a particular worldview. For example, a society that doesn’t believe that women are equal to men will likely not allow women to lead rituals. The hierarchy of gender, as well as relationships between humans and animals or between humans and gods is reproduced in the symbolism of rituals (Stein and Stein 2017).

Rituals also present economic and political opportunities that participants can use to their advantage. In this sense, rituals aren’t just passive “reflections” of culture, demonstrating people’s values and revealing how cultural insiders make sense of the world around them. People also actively use rituals in order to make statements about themselves, to pursue social status or wealth, and to create or alter their relationships with others.

Exercise 6A

Watch a Balinese ritual in the 1951 film titled, “Trance and Dance in Bali” (from anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson).

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. Can you identify themes of motherhood in the ritual? What do these representations reveal about this culture’s values? What is revealed about gender roles?
  2. The witch is portrayed very specifically. Across cultures, witches are represented as people who embody culturally-specific undesirable characteristics and this witch is no exception. Which characteristics are you seeing in this ritual?
  3. While in a state of trance, the performers are believed to not have control over their actions (indeed, the power of their performance relies on their complete lack of control). How does the community prevent this from causing injury?
  4. Which symbols are present in this ritual performance?

6.5 Political and Economic Roles of Ritual

Rituals can be solitary events, but as we have already noted, they often involve large groups of people. Consider holidays, marriages, funerals, or other important moments in a person’s life that involve taking on a new social role; in most cultures, people mark all of these events by planning and conducting rituals.

Rituals like the ones mentioned above can be exciting or even stressful for participants. Many of the attendees at a wedding or a funeral might not have seen each other recently, or might not have ever met before. And many of them don’t usually get to spend time together in one big gathering. For all of these reasons, the large social gatherings that often are part of rituals represent an opportunity in many cultures. More specifically, they represent an opportunity to “make an impression” on a lot of people.  

The 18th and 19th century Tolowa people of northern California provide a particularly vivid example. Tolowa village leaders would sponsor Flower Dances, celebrating a young girl’s entry into womanhood. They also held feasts to celebrate the completion of large canoes. Referring to the Tolowa leaders who organized and sponsored these events, ethnographer Richard Gould wrote:

These dances were both a display of his “treasures” as well as a feast for the villagers, with the food being provided entirely by the wealthy man’s household. The strings of dentalia [exotic shell ornaments that were imported from hundreds of miles away], woodpecker scalp headdresses, obsidian blades, dance aprons, and other regalia needed for the dances were loaned to any dancers who did not own these items who […] virtually served as manikins to show off the wealth of the [leader] sponsoring the dance.  (Gould 1966, 86).

To be clear, it was so important for a leader to impress attendees from other villages that he would dress up his family members and other followers like “manikins,” covering them with fancy clothing or other rare and valuable goods. In Gould’s view, Tolowa leaders did this to prove their effectiveness as leaders and to “show off” their wealth (to demonstrate the same qualities, they also offered guests enormous quantities of food).  

Because these rituals featured large groups of people from far and wide coming together to celebrate, they provided a larger audience than a village leader was likely to encounter under normal circumstances. Leaders worked particularly hard to show off their wealth and prestige at these events, since doing so might attract considerable prestige and even new supporters or allies in the event of future conflict or hardship. We can think of this as an example of the political role that ritual plays, not only among the 18th and 19th century Tolowa, but in many cultures.

In addition to the connection between ritual and politics in many societies, it is important to acknowledge an important economic role of ritual as well. As you may know from personal experience, rituals can be quite expensive to undertake. Yet despite their costs, social conventions in many cultures dictate that people must conduct rituals in order to enjoy the rights that come with having completed them, or just in order to be seen as a responsible and morally upstanding member of society.

For example, in many societies, the expensive gifts that a bride or groom is expected to give their spouse’s family in exchange for the right to marry – known as a “dowry “or “brideprice” – create a tremendous burden for young people who wish to start families (e.g., Meillassoux 1981). Funerals can also be expensive (for more on this topic, see Chapter 11). Each of these types of rituals (marriages and funerals), while expensive, can also be extremely important for cultural and religious reasons. 

Rituals, it would seem, are connected to a culture’s economy and its politics. In this sense, we can also see the benefits of employing a holistic perspective. As discussed in Chapter 1, holism refers to an approach that examines “parts” of a culture with the assumption that they both affect and are affected by other practices, beliefs, systems, and institutions within that culture (as rituals most certainly are). Here, we used a holistic lens to better understand the way that people’s actions at rituals affect the rest of their lives and their societies (and how their lives outside of ritual events affect their behaviors and their goals at these events).

6.6 Rituals Establish Generational Continuity

Sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that rituals build solidarity across generations (Durkheim 1915; cited in Summers-Effler, 135). In Durkheim’s view, when multiple generations re-commit themselves to their society’s values through prescribed ritual, the community’s identity is maintained.

Let’s examine 4th of July celebrations in the United States and apply Durkheim’s ideas to this national holiday. Take a moment and search the internet for 4th of July posters from one hundred years ago (consider searching for the year 1918). Looking at these images, you can see many of the same elements that Americans incorporate into Fourth of July celebrations today, over 100 years later. You can see red, white, and blue coloring. Stars and stripes evoke the flag. You can see “Uncle Sam” (a personification of the nation), fireworks (or, perhaps, explosions) and, often, guns. All of these symbols incorporate key American values: power, independence, patriotism. You might notice that, in many, violent imagery is central to American national identity. Each year, Americans come together by wearing red, white, and blue, spending the day celebrating liberty and community. Some Americans celebrate in a more sarcastic tone while others celebrate quite genuinely, but in all of these cases, the themes are the same and Americans recommit themselves to an idea of a national identity together on an annual basis.

In his 1867 book Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (or Das Kapital in German, the original language of the book [Marx and Engels 1867]), social scientist and political philosopher Karl Marx described a process that he called social reproduction (for more on Karl Marx, revisit Chapter 3). The broad concept of social reproduction is relevant to the example outlined above, but also to how we understand where culture comes from more broadly.

Marx defined social reproduction as a process that reproduces the relationships that make up a given society (Marx and Engels 1867). It also includes the process by which people learn to accept these relationships and even come to take them for granted.

Marx was particularly focused on how people produced (and reproduced) class identities that existed in capitalist societies of his time. In these societies, he observed that a small group held considerable power over the work that others did. At the same time, many had no way of exerting control over their own workplaces and no power to determine the eventual uses of the goods they produced at work. In Marx’s eyes, these powerless workers had been reduced to sources of labor for the powerful to exploit. Marx used the social reproduction concept to describe the processes that produced and reproduced both the uneven distribution of power he saw and its acceptance.

Today, many scholars have expanded the social reproduction concept beyond the study of how we replicate the relationship between ‘workers’ and ‘owners’ in capitalist societies. We now use this concept to better understand how people learn about and enter into many different types of relationships and roles that exist within a culture.

Here, we are particularly interested in how rituals aid in social reproduction. In examining American culture, we might for example consider how Americans use rituals to reproduce their culture’s ideas about what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine.’ Or we could just as well consider how they construct and spread ideas about national, racial, and geographic identities, such as what they believe it means to be American, and/or Black, and/or “a superfan.”

If you were ever a young American attending an Independence Day celebration on the Fourth of July, you may be able to recall social reproduction occurring during these ritual events. Consider for a moment whether your older relatives asked you questions or provided advice about school, or college plans, or your future career? When we are exposed to these questions repeatedly, they can easily reinforce a set of ideas about what it means to be successful, they can encourage us to desire specific social roles for ourselves, and they can teach us deference for others who have achieved these roles. Similarly, the gossiping that takes place at a ritual like a 4th of July family celebration might reproduce cultural beliefs that certain traits, identities, or achievements are undesirable.

In one way or another, anthropologists who examine rituals are constantly returning to the questions “Does this ritual reproduce parts of the culture under study here? What elements of that culture does this ritual reproduce? What specific behaviors within the ritual are contributing to cultural reproduction, and how?” We encourage you to return to these questions as you encounter rituals in your own culture; you will almost certainly find cultural reproduction occurring in surprising places.

6.7 “Too Costly to Fake” 

Anthropologist Richard Sosis is an American/Israeli anthropologist who is interested in examining rituals that are dangerous, painful, or costly to a community. Sosis was inspired to study these elements of ritual while observing Orthodox Jewish people praying at a holy site called the Wailing Wall. During Sosis’ observations, the climate near the Wailing Wall is hot and sunny, and the Orthodox Jewish people he observed there wore thick black clothing from head to toe. And yet, in spite of the risk of heatstroke, they continued to pray for hours on end at the religious site. Sosis asked himself: why do many groups engage in such difficult and/or costly ritual practices?

Sosis begins his response to this question by explaining the concept of a ‘free rider.’ To illustrate the concept, consider this: in every society, it is in the best interest of the general population if all members contribute equally to the well-being of the society. On the other hand, it is in any individual’s best interest not to contribute if they can still benefit from the contributions from the rest of the community while avoiding doing the extra work themself. In other words, if everyone contributes, then everyone needs to contribute slightly less. When one or a few members refuse to contribute, the remaining contributors must do more work.  

A free rider is someone who benefits from contributions of the community without contributing themself. It’s important to note that the term “free rider” is often used politically to blame one group or another for the problems of larger society. So, when you hear this term being thrown around, look deeply into the speaker’s motivations and question the assumptions before buying into their claim. Consider the way that “productivity” is defined differently within different contexts and that not all people are in agreement about which contributions are necessary to keep society afloat. 

In Sosis’ view, communities often establish rituals that are extremely costly in order to identify which community members are genuinely prepared to contribute equally to collective tasks required for the community’s survival and which are liable to become free riders. He also notes that they may be particularly important in communities that lack surplus resources, since these communities are least likely to be able to support the added burden created by free riders. Sosis suggests that the Orthodox Jewish people he observed are a minority group who possess limited resources. For this reason, the free rider problem is a particularly important one for them to address. According to Sosis, they do so in part by creating and undertaking such costly rituals. 

Other costly rituals might include monetary cost, health cost, a time cost, or a dignity cost. Together, these costly rituals are a way to demonstrate that one’s commitment to the group is greater than commitment than personal preservation. Sosis argues that costly rituals are a common way that human societies deter would-be free riders, as this is a risk most societies face.

6.8 Sensing the Sacred in Ritual: Aesthetics and Cosmology 

Studying rituals cross-culturally involves paying attention to how religious meanings take shape through embodied action and sensory perception. Such an approach to religion allows us to see how religious cosmologies (culturally specific views of reality and the universe) connect to culturally specific aesthetics (principles of beauty or “rightness”). Ritual use of the senses gives participants a concrete experience of the sacred, connected to the particular symbolic meaning and cosmology embodied in the ritual. In this way, “sensing the sacred” helps to make a particular worldview or religious cosmology real for the participant, connecting sensory experience to emotions in a way that establishes “moods and motivations” that feel absolutely real to members of a religious group, as Clifford Geertz (1973) mentioned in his discussion of religion as a cultural system.

6.9 Visual perception in Hindu worship 

The ways in which religious practitioners engage the senses in ritual vary widely, as do the meanings that participants assign to sensory experience. One example, in Hindu worship, visual perception of sacred images (darsan) is already a form of worship, and is thought of as a kind of touching (Eck 1998). Thus, sacred images can cue multiple senses as they are used in worship (puja). Sacred Hindu images are not fully “active” until their eyes, and particularly the pupils, have been painted. The unveiling of a newly painted sacred image in a temple is a momentous occasion, particularly the very moment that the gaze of the deity falls upon the worshipper. In this way, the visual aesthetic of Hindu worship is dynamic, polysensory, and multidirectional (Eck 1998).

6.10 Sensory deprivation and sacred pain  

Often the most impactful experience of the senses in religious practice is one of deprivation. Ritual seclusion, where an initiate is kept out of the sight of others, or the experience of fasting from food and/or water are also sensory experiences. In some traditions, such as Orthodox Christianity,, fasting is framed as a way to “cleanse the senses” to increase perception of the sacred. Likewise, pain may be part of a transformative religious experience. In Sun Dance ceremonies among Native American Plains nations, participants may pierce their skin or muscle tissue (on the chest for men; on the wrists for women) with hooks attached to ropes that are tied to the central pole of the Sun Dance lodge. Since Sun Dancers consider themselves to be dancing for someone else, typically for healing purposes, the pain they incur has a sacrificial meaning, and is also connected to altered states of consciousness achieved through fasting, dancing, and singing over a period of several days.

6.11 Rites of Passage

French sociologist Arnold van Gennep first examined a particular type of ritual called a rite of passage (Van Gennep 2019; Welsch and Vivanco 2019, 348). A rite of passage is a ritual that moves a person from one life stage to another life stage. Consider the following examples: 

  • A graduation ceremony signifies that a person is no longer a student and is now a graduate, usually holding a degree that is intended to elevate professional status. 
  • A wedding ceremony moves a couple from the status of “dating” to the status of “married;” this rite of passage forms a new family. 
  • A funeral helps the community accept that a person is no longer a living member of a community and moves the passed-on individual into their new social status as deceased.
Wedding ceremony with bride and groom
Wedding ceremony by MIKI Yoshihito, Flickr 2011

Van Gennep identified three stages of a rite of passage. These three stages were expanded upon by anthropologist Victor Turner, who described the stages as follows: 

  1. Separation: The phase in each rite of passage where the person going through a change is moved into a location away from the community (Turner 2017, 94).
  2. Liminality: The middle phase where the ritual is taking place. In the liminal phase, a person is no longer a member of their old identity, but they are also not yet a member of their new identity; they exist between two states. The liminal phase is usually signified through some kind of dress that removes the person’s individual identity. For example, people in the liminal phase usually all wear the same clothing and remove personalized symbols (Turner 2017, 94-95).
  3. Reincorporation: After the initiate has completed the required ritual actions, they are allowed to return to society with their new status. In this phase, they are recognized as having a new identity and role in society Turner 2017, 94). 

For example: in a conventional North American wedding ceremony, when a couple is preparing for the event, they typically wait for the ceremony to begin away from the guests who are arriving at their wedding or, in other words, they are separated from the community. Most cultures prescribe some kind of clothing that couples are expected to wear during the wedding ceremony. This establishes a sort of liminality during the actual ceremony whereby the couple exists in a space where they are no longer engaged but are also not yet married. Finally, after being pronounced married, the couple then celebrates with their guests in attendance as they are reincorporated and recognized as a new family unit.  

We can analyze a conventional North American graduation ceremony in the same way: 

  1. First, the people graduating are separated from their friends and family; they typically sit in the center of the ceremony space and listen to an address. 
  2. During the ceremony, all participants wear the same cap and gown which creates a sense of liminality. 
  3. Finally, the participants are handed a diploma and are declared “graduates” and return to the community to be congratulated and recognized as having a new social position.


Exercise 6B: Journal Reflection

Reflect on rites of passages that you’ve completed in your life. Which have been “too costly to fake?” Have you joined a club, sorority, or fraternity that demanded an extreme ritual for membership? Has your religious institution required intensive study or fasting to prepare for a new life stage? Have you joined a military organization or paid a large financial sum to join a group? Has your school or employer asked you to signal a commitment to the group? Do you need to complete any tasks to gain or maintain your citizenship?

After you’ve identified a “too costly to fake” ritual, ask yourself, “Why does this group require this ritual?” How is solidarity formed through this demonstration of commitment?


Exercise 6C

Watch this National Geographic video about an Apache rite of passage titled, “Girl’s Rite of Passage.

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What symbols are used in this ritual? What do these symbols mean to the community?
  2. How are the values of the culture encapsulated in this ritual?
  3. What is the relationship between individual and community in this culture? What obligations are placed upon the shoulders of young women?
  4. How is this connected to Richard Sosis’ arguments that some rituals are “too costly to fake”?

Then, watch this National Geographic video about a Xhosa rite of passage titled, “Circumcision.”

Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What is liminal about this practice? Consider appearance, loss of material comforts, and camaraderie in your answer.
  2. What is the relationship between individual and community in this culture? What obligations are placed upon the shoulders of young men?
  3. What elements of drama make this ritual more meaningful?
  4. How is this connected to Richard Sosis’ arguments that some rituals are “too costly to fake”?


6.12 Revisiting Victor Turner

In addition to building on Arnold van Gennep’s three stages of rites of passage, Victor Turner (discussed in the previous section) also observed that the power of a ritual comes from its drama (Davis-Floyd 2003, 14). You may already understand this argument because, probably, the more dramatic a ritual feels to you, the more meaningful it feels. For example, if you sit in the back of a church, temple, mosque, or any other venue where rituals occur, and roll your eyes during ceremonies while texting on a phone, then those rituals probably don’t mean very much to you. But, if you attend a ritual at one of these venues during a time of personal crisis or loss, you may find a great deal of meaning in it. And on this occasion, you may cry and feel more connected to your religious beliefs. Human beings strive to create meaning through ritual, and the power of the ritual comes from the drama.  

Exercise 6D: Journal Reflection

What is a rite of passage in your community? Did you participate in that ritual? How does the ritual feel to participants? What does it mean to participants?

6.13 Characteristics of Turner’s Rites of Passage and the Liminal Phase

Turner proposed that as a person experiences the liminal phase of a rite of passage, they take on the following characteristics:

  • Necessarily ambiguous,
  • “Betwixt and between” identities,
  • “Neither here nor there,”
  • No status, no insignias,
  • Seems to possess nothing; naked,
  • Groups become homogenized, builds camaraderie (Turner 2017, 96).

Perhaps you can recall rites of passage in your own life. We encourage you to take a moment to do so, and try to identify the liminal phase within the broader event, using the attributes listed above. After all, if rites of passage are common in most societies as a way of marking when a person changes their social role, it is very likely that your society features them too, particularly since there exist so many social roles that a person can have over the course of their life!

Turner also argued that challenging rituals serve the function of building “communitas” within a group (Turner 2017). We define communitas as the feeling of camaraderie that binds together people after going through a trial or tribulation. If you have ever worked in retail, for example, then you are familiar with the way that the stress of working through the holiday season can bond coworkers together on an unexpected level. This is a feeling that often manifests through sleep-away camp or military training. By struggling together, people feel a stronger bond.

6.14 Coming-of-Age Rituals for Bemba Women (Zambia)

Anthropologist Audrey Richards wrote about women’s rites of passage among the Bemba people of Zambia. Her work focused on a coming-of-age rite of passage called Chisungu, during which girls performed 18 different ceremonies in order to move themselves from childhood into adulthood (Guest 2018). This ritual takes place after the girls’ first menstrual cycle and is intended to prepare her for marriage.

Throughout Chisungu, young initiates are taught the sacred stories and songs of their culture by elder women, which allows the young girls to carry on the cultural traditions for their communities (Ibid). Alongside this cultural knowledge, the girls are also expected to demonstrate prowess in hoeing, sowing, and gathering firewood, as these are all tasks that fall on the shoulders of women in Bemba society (Lancy 2016, 334).

The Chisungu ritual is largely designed to move the young girl into a stage of womanhood so that she can become eligible for marriage and sex. As a result, the rituals incorporate a variety of sexual symbols (Lancy 2016, 311). The young women who are transformed in this community engage with the powerful cultural symbols that encompass their culture’s larger value systems (Turner 2017, 103).

6.15 Birth as Ritual

Birth is a rite of passage for both parent and child as, from a cultural perspective, all parties enter new life stages and new social statuses upon completion of the birth.

American Anthropologist Robbie E. Davis-Floyd examined the ritualistic elements of pregnancy and childbirth in the United States in her book titled, Birth As An American Rite of Passage (2003 [1992]). Davis-Floyd argues that our belief systems are reinforced through rituals and the symbols they involve, and that symbolic rituals translate a society’s value systems into an emotional reality for the people who participate in these rituals. In other words, we feel the value system of our society when we engage in ritual.

Davis-Floyd observes that pregnant women are expected to attend and cooperate with highly ritualized obstetrics-gynecology (OB-GYN) appointments; in these appointments, women are expected to sit in a particular chair and to wear a hospital gown. This posture and the clothing serve to enculturate the pregnant woman into a larger parenting and body ritual value system of American culture. Davis-Floyd further explains that effective rituals need to convey one simple message and they do this by repeatedly conveying the messaging over and over again (Davis-Floyd, 10). She highlights that rhythmicity, redundancy, and repetition are key elements in an effective ritual.

Furthermore, Davis-Floyd asserts that rituals form a certain perception of reality for all participants to accept and then requires that all participants reason within that specific concept of reality. This is achieved in order to assure that the diversity of intelligence and experience does not cause the individual participants to question the logic behind the ritual (Davis-Floyd 1992, 11-12). In order to achieve a unified and simplistic worldview throughout, the ritual participants re-construct their world in a binary sense (black and white, either/or) so that it can be similarly grasped by people of all levels of intelligence.

Davis-Floyd makes the point that medical training is, itself, a ritualistic process whereby doctors are put through strenuous training and rote memorization designed to prevent them from questioning the medical structures within which they work. At the same time, women in labor are reduced to a vulnerable state during which the pain prevents critical thinking. These two elements combined rely on the comfort and control that ritualized practice can offer.

Finally, Davis-Floyd makes an argument similar to the one we explored earlier in a discussion of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Functionalist approach to beliefs in magic in the Trobriand Islands (see Chapter 3). She suggests that in contemporary American culture, pregnancy and birth need to be “ritualized” and “medicalized” (treated as rituals and as rigid medical procedures) in order to construct a sense of control over a natural process that is, in reality, often outside of our control.

6.16 Pilgrimage Rituals

What is a pilgrimage? We might think of pilgrimage as a sacred journey, sometimes (but not always) connected with world religions such as Hinduism and the pilgrimage to the River Ganges, or Islam and the Hajj (discussed above). The journey itself is meant to be transformational; it allows its participants to come close to the sacred, to connect with a larger community, to break from the humdrum routine of everyday life, and to obtain deeper knowledge of the self. The destinations of pilgrimages are imbued with meaning. A destination of a pilgrimage may be a place long understood as holy in a particular religious tradition, and/or it may have powers of healing. 

The destination of a pilgrimage may draw its meaning from a national narrative, from an event that occurred there, or from a person who resided there. Indeed, the destination does not actually have to be religious at all in the usual sense of being situated in the sacred narratives of an organized religion, as anthropologists Raymond Michalowski and Jill Dubisch tell us in their ethnography of veterans’ journeys on motorcycles to the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. (Michalowski and Dubisch 2001). While a pilgrimage usually involves a physical journey, typically a symbolic and spiritual journey that entails transformation is at least as important. 

Pilgrimages are highly symbolic and follow the structure of a rite of passage (Turner and Turner 2011). The first phase is marked by separation, both physical (by physically removing oneself from a location) and symbolic (by acquiring a piece of cultural knowledge that now ‘separates’ you from others), from one’s usual place in the social structure. Once the pilgrim embarks on the journey, she enters into a space and time of fluidity and flux, of the loss of previous social identities, of rolelessness and transformation.  

This correlates with the transitional period of a rite of passage, and the “betwixt and between” period is called liminality.  


People walking in a procession through town, holding a banner and statuette
Palm Sunday Filipino Pilgrimage by Darren Glanville, Flickr 2014

When people are in a state of liminality together, as pilgrims often are, they may experience the deep sense of union and connection between fellow human beings that Victor Turner referred to as communitas (see above). This period of transition in pilgrimage, together with the experiences of liminality and communitas, may last up to the arrival at the sacred destination, and even peak at that place. Afterwards, pilgrims return home in the stage of a rite of passage called reaggregation. Newly transformed, they may take on a new position in the social structure upon their return.

6.17 Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a famous Catholic pilgrimage that originated in the medieval era and continues to this day, although the passage of centuries has witnessed transformations both in pilgrimage and the people who undertake pilgrimage to Santiago. Every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, the majority on foot, make their way to Santiago de Compostela, a medieval pilgrimage destination in northwestern Spain. Others travel by bicycle, and some by horseback or wheelchair.


Street view of Camino de Santiago de Compostela
Catedral de Santiago de Compostela agosto 2018 by stephenD

There are a number of routes to Santiago, but the most popular is the French Route, which traverses northern Spain from the French border, passing through the Pyrenees, over the high, flat meseta of central northern Spain, and, finally, over a mountain pass to reach the verdant region of Galicia and the city of Santiago de Compostela. Along the route, the pilgrim encounters tiny hamlets, towns, and large cities; grand cathedrals and tiny chapels and monasteries, old pilgrims’ hospitals and modern refuges. The journey on foot from the French border is approximately 750 kilometers, and takes about a month of steady walking to complete.

The roots of the pilgrimage are old and are shrouded in myth and legend and can be traced back to the origins of Christianity and stories of the religion’s spread throughout Europe.

James (Santiago in Spanish) was a follower of Christ who, according to the New Testament of the Christian bible, was beheaded in Jerusalem in the year 44 CE. Nowhere in the New Testament is the Iberian Peninsula mentioned, but centuries later, in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, documents circulated that claimed that Jesus had sent James to the Iberian peninsula and to convert the people he encountered there to Christianity. Legend holds that after his death, James miraculously returned to the Iberian Peninsula, specifically to the spot where the city of Santiago is today.

The legends continue from there: a bright star allowed for the discovery of James’ tomb in the 9th century and the Bishop of Santiago ordered a chapel to be built on the site. The first pilgrims began to make their way to Santiago shortly thereafter.

Pilgrims range in their intent for undertaking the pilgrimage: from devout Catholics to those in search of a spiritual awakening to those in search of a psychologically and physically demanding adventure. Pilgrims come from many dozens of countries to travel to Santiago, from across Europe, North and South America, Asia and Africa, although nearly half hail from Spain. There are about equal numbers of men and women.

As soon as pilgrims begin to walk, they enter into a liminal state: they are geographically between starting point and destination, the usual signs of social status (age, gender, socioeconomic status) begin to drop away. Many pilgrims discuss pilgrimage as an escape from the dulling effects of the daily routine of work, as a site of healing from traumatic experiences such as the death of a loved one, as a way to fulfill a promise or a vow, or, somewhat less commonly, from difficult situations such as drug abuse or hard living. In the latter case, pilgrimage, and the difficult journey it entails, is a mode of purification.

Pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela often experience communitas as they form intimate ties with the other pilgrims with whom they walk, share meals, and sleep alongside, and also with those unknown masses of pilgrims who have traveled the Camino before them. As they walk, pilgrims seek out an unmediated experience of nature and face-to-face encounters with fellow pilgrims, punctuated by periods of solitude and contemplation; in sum, a return to a simpler, slower pace of life.

The everyday experience of pilgrimage is characterized by the rhythms of a repetitive, stripped-down routine: waking up, often before dawn, breakfast and packing up; walking with a break for a small snack or cup of coffee at a village bar; reaching a refuge, eating, resting, showering, eating again, and sleeping. Pilgrims become keenly aware of the basic needs of every human being: water, food, and shelter, alongside the need for human connection and relief from the bodily injuries and pain that can arise after long days of walking.

The slow, unmediated journey to Santiago de Compostela ideally sparks an interior journey that carries with it the possibility of transformation: being touched by the sacred (understood as closeness to God, or for some, forms of New Age spirituality often described in terms of energy concentrated in particular locales) or achieving a deeper knowledge of the self.  Interestingly, a number of pilgrims do not stop at the cathedral in Santiago and visit the relics of St. James in the cathedral’s crypt as their ultimate destination. Some pilgrims continue on after reaching Santiago either by bus or on foot to Finisterre, a small fishing village on the Galician coast whose name means “Land’s End.” Attracted by the idea of reaching what seems to be the absolute end. Here, some pilgrims engage in what they understand to be pre-Christian, even Celtic rites of death and rebirth. After sundown, they build a fire, burn objects associated with the Camino (clothes, boots, walking stick).  Pilgrims sometimes undress and plunge into the cold waters of the Atlantic: a rite of purification, of symbolic death and rebirth before the return home.

6.18 The Roles Bedouin Women Play on Pilgrimages to Holy Sites in Southern Jordan

In much of the Islamic world, sacred places have defined the religious and spiritual landscape for worship. Many of these shrines are tombs of important religious and historical figures, but still, the majority of these sacred spaces are dedicated to the ancestors of local families or tribes. These tombs function as a religious center of the community, providing avenues for community worship, but, also, private visitation for individuals who seek council. While women partake in public displays of veneration, the private and independent prayer that takes place at these central shrines are traditionally and frequently sought by women.

In Jordan, the wealth of holy sites, shrines, and tombs of tribal ancestors is vast. These sites are frequently and regularly visited by the descendants of these tribal leaders. The most prominent holy site, the shrine of Harun, or biblical Aaron, is visited on an annual cycle, but also on an individual basis. Located on a mountaintop, this shrine is visible from afar. Women are permitted to partake in pilgrimages to the shrine of Aaron. However, it is difficult to reach, given the rugged terrain and its mountaintop location. As a consequence, women are more likely to visit holy shrines within the confines of their villages or towns rather than the shrine of Aaron. Many such shrines are located along water sources, allowing more effective accessibility for women to visit (Miettunen 2018).

While many important celebrations take place annually to commemorate and venerate shrines of tribal ancestors in which women are permitted to participate, males and females are not treated equally during the course of the celebration. Women are most likely the ones unable to disengage themselves from their duties at home; indeed, they continue cooking, cleaning, and childrearing during these events. Women are also expected to prepare food for feasting during the celebration. Finally, during public pilgrimages, women are stringently controlled by their family and friends for fear of contact with strangers over the course of these celebrations. This strict control over women is stemmed by fears of inappropriate behavior or promiscuity on the part of the woman during public gatherings (Miettunen 2018).

As a consequence, women infrequently participate directly in these celebrations, instead preferring independent spiritual journeys.  Throughout the year, these women visit shrines or tombs individually or in small groups, and organize female-centric public pilgrimages to overcome these challenges. One such example is the Rain Mother ritual, where women participate  in a pilgrimage that involves singing and dancing to honor the Rain Mother.  Although these types of pilgrimages occur, younger women rarely engage in them because many believe that these are pagan in nature and women are now commonly able to obtain jobs and educational pursuits outside of the household (Miettunen 2018).

6.19 Possession in Voodoo

To better understand the term “altered state of consciousness,” please read Biswas-Diener and Teeny’s article on the topic.

Haitian Voodoo ceremonies are highly secretive and are typically not open to outsiders of the religion. While there is no central authority who defines or regulates the religion, the word “Bembe” is often used to refer to a religious service performed to connect with the loas (Brown 2010). Loas are divine spirits that are human-like with human tendencies, and are interested in human affairs. Bembes are led by the religious leaders (oungan/priest or manbo/priestess) whereby the leader ritually invites a loa to join the ceremony. The group will always offer the loa’s favorite items (including food, drink, tobacco, perfume, etc.) as a ritual sacrifice to them.


Man holding falling woman during a vodou ceremony
Houngan ceremony ritual by Anthony Karen

Practitioners of Haitian Voodoo know that the loa is present in the ceremony when the leader of the ceremony changes her or his behaviors and starts to behave like the loa. It’s believed that the loas possess the bodies of the participants and, as a result, the possessed person will start to exhibit the behaviors that each particular loa is known for (Brown 2010). This change, where a participant adopts a new pattern of perception in order to experience the ritual in a spiritual manner, is a great example of an altered state of consciousness.

There are stories of Voodoo priests or priestesses who, for example, have ingested excessive amounts of alcohol during the ceremony when possessed by a loa who likes to drink. But, in spite of taking in so much alcohol, they report feeling completely sober after the loa has left their body (Brown 2010).

Exercise 6E

Altered states of consciousness manifest in a wide variety of ways. Learn about Lurancy Vennum and reflect on how her seizures were bringing her into an altered state of consciousness. Remember that, as anthropologists, we are not interested in the “truth” or “falsity” of a spiritual belief but, rather, in the way the events impact a person’s understanding of reality. Remember, also, that religious experiences are frequently created by the brain and that we are apt to use our own culturally-specific ideas in order to explain the confusing phenomenon.

Listen to Aaron Mahnke’s episode of Lore titled, “Mary, Mary.” Then, see if you can answer the following questions:

  1. What type of altered state of consciousness was present in this event? (You may want to review Biswas-Diener and Teeny’s article before answering this question).
  2. What was the spiritual worldview of the time? How might this have influenced the people’s interpretation of the events?
  3. What was the scientific worldview of the time? How might this have influenced the people’s interpretation of the events?
  4. How was possession used to explain misfortune?
  5. How was spirituality used to explain illness?

Note: this story is not based on anthropological research; the story may be exaggerated for impact. 

6.20 Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, also called la purga, is a brew made from the ayahuasca vine, chacruna leaves and the leaves of various plants and shrubs indigenous to the Amazon region of South America. It is a hallucinogen that has been used for attaining ASC during healing rituals in various indigenous Amazonian cultures.  It is a very potent hallucinogenic with evidence of healing qualities (but note that inappropriate use of ayahuasca can cause severe psychological side effects and in some cases even death).


Preparation of ayahuasca in a pot
Preparación de ayahuasca con chacruna by Jairo Galvis Henao, Flickr 2014

Use of ayahuasca has migrated out of the Amazonian cultures over time to various religious communities in Brazil and South America, such as the Santo Daime followers in Brazil.  Increasingly, there are also people traveling from North America, Europe and Australia to South American countries like Peru to ritually consume the drug, where the use of the ayahuasca brew for healing is still practiced.  This is becoming problematic, since the plant is over-harvested and is destabilizing the fragile Amazonian ecosystem.  There are also reports that ayahuasca tourism is becoming a driver of trade of jaguar body parts, since they are being sold to tourists to supposedly enhance the ayahuasca experience.

Another major problem with ayahuasca tourism surrounds the guidance of appropriate consumption of the substance. Religious specialists guide the use of ayahuasca and other powerful substances to ensure a proper and safe experience for the believer taking part in the ritual. Increasingly, more tour guides have completed short programs for distributing ayahuasca.  This is problematic, since the skills passed down to religious specialists over multiple generations are bypassed for a quick lesson and can lead to more people becoming sick from the substance and even dying.  The podcast in the optional resources section discusses some of these issues surrounding ayahuasca tourism.

 6.21 Case Study: Body Rituals Among the Nacirema

The following article was written by anthropologist Horace Miner in 1956. The text discusses the ritualistic practices and worldviews of a community that Miner calls “the Nacirema.” Closely read this text and take notes on the rituals that are described. Then, answer the related questions. 

The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different people behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs. In fact, if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe. The point has, in fact, been expressed with respect to clan organization by Murdock[1]. In this light, the magical beliefs and practices of the Nacirema present such unusual aspects that it seems desirable to describe them as an example of the extremes to which human behavior can go.

Professor Linton[2] first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago, but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength—the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls.

While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries. I was able, however, to establish sufficient rapport with the natives to examine these shrines and to have the rituals described to me.

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. These preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the required charm.

The charm is not disposed of after it has served its purpose, but is placed in the charmbox of the household shrine. As these magical materials are specific for certain ills, and the real or imagined maladies of the people are many, the charm-box is usually full to overflowing. The magical packets are so numerous that people forget what their purposes were and fear to use them again. While the natives are very vague on this point, we can only assume that the idea in retaining all the old magical materials is that their presence in the charm-box, before which the body rituals are conducted, will in some way protect the worshiper.

Beneath the charm-box is a small font. Each day every member of the family, in succession, enters the shrine room, bows his head before the charm-box, mingles different sorts of holy water in the font, and proceeds with a brief rite of ablution[3]. The holy waters are secured from the Water Temple of the community, where the priests conduct elaborate ceremonies to make the liquid ritually pure.

In the hierarchy of magical practitioners, and below the medicine men in prestige, are specialists whose designation is best translated as “holy-mouth-men.” The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror of and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them. They also believe that a strong relationship exists between oral and moral characteristics. For example, there is a ritual ablution of the mouth for children which is supposed to improve their moral fiber.

The daily body ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite. Despite the fact that these people are so punctilious[4] about care of the mouth, this rite involves a practice which strikes the uninitiated stranger as revolting. It was reported to me that the ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures[5].

In addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these items in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations[6] is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

It is to be hoped that, when a thorough study of the Nacirema is made, there will be careful inquiry into the personality structure of these people. One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy-mouth-man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite includes scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument. Special women’s rites are performed only four times during each lunar month, but what they lack in frequency is made up in barbarity. As part of this ceremony, women bake their heads in small ovens for about an hour. The theoretically interesting point is that what seems to be a preponderantly masochistic people have developed sadistic specialists.

The medicine men have an imposing temple, or latipso, in every community of any size. The more elaborate ceremonies required to treat very sick patients can only be performed at this temple. These ceremonies involve not only the thaumaturge[7] but a permanent group of vestal maidens who move sedately about the temple chambers in distinctive costume and headdress.

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body-rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso. A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness. Female clients, on the other hand, find their naked bodies are subjected to the scrutiny, manipulation and prodding of the medicine men.

Few supplicants in the temple are well enough to do anything but lie on their hard beds. The daily ceremonies, like the rites of the holy-mouth-men, involve discomfort and torture. With ritual precision, the vestals awaken their miserable charges each dawn and roll them about on their beds of pain while performing ablutions, in the formal movements of which the maidens are highly trained. At other times they insert magic wands in the supplicant’s mouth or force him to eat substances which are supposed to be healing. From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

There remains one other kind of practitioner, known as a “listener.” This witchdoctor has the power to exorcise the devils that lodge in the heads of people who have been bewitched. The Nacirema believe that parents bewitch their own children. Mothers are particularly suspected of putting a curse on children while teaching them the secret body rituals. The counter-magic of the witchdoctor is unusual in its lack of ritual. The patient simply tells the “listener” all his troubles and fears, beginning with the earliest difficulties he can remember. The memory displayed by the Nacirema in these exorcism sessions is truly remarkable. It is not uncommon for the patient to bemoan the rejection he felt upon being weaned as a babe, and a few individuals even see their troubles going back to the traumatic effects of their own birth.

In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend upon the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation. A few women afflicted with almost inhuman hyper-mammary development are so idolized that they make a handsome living by simply going from village to village and permitting the natives to stare at them for a fee.

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinized, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

Our review of the ritual life of the Nacirema has certainly shown them to be a magic-ridden people. It is hard to understand how they have managed to exist so long under the burdens which they have imposed upon themselves. But even such exotic customs as these take on real meaning when they are viewed with the insight provided by Malinowski[8] when he wrote:

“Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in the developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of civilization.”


  1.  Murdock, George P. 1949. Social Structure. NY: The Macmillan Co., page 71. George Peter Murdock (1897–1996 [?]) is a famous ethnographer.
  2. Linton, Ralph. 1936. The Study of Man. NY: D. Appleton-Century Co. page 326. Ralph Linton (1893–1953) is best known for studies of enculturation (maintaining that all culture is learned rather than inherited; the process by which a society’s culture is transmitted from one generation to the next), claiming culture is humanity’s “social heredity.
  3. A washing or cleansing of the body or a part of the body. From the Latin abluere, to wash away
  4. Marked by precise observance of the finer points of etiquette and formal conduct
  5. It is worthy of note that since Prof. Miner’s original research was conducted, the Nacirema have almost universally abandoned the natural bristles of their private mouth-rite in favor of oil-based polymerized synthetics. Additionally, the powders associated with this ritual have generally been semi-liquefied. Other updates to the Nacirema culture shall be eschewed in this document for the sake of parsimony.
  6. Tending to religious or other important functions
  7. A miracle-worker.
  8. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science, and Religion. Glencoe: The Free Press, page 70. Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) is a famous cultural anthropologist best known for his argument that people everywhere share common biological and psychological needs and that the function of all cultural institutions is to fulfill such needs; the nature of the institution is determined by its function.

Exercise 6F

After reading, “Body Rituals Among the Nacirema” discuss the article with your instructor. Ensure that you understand who the Nacirema are and ensure that you are able to correctly answer the following:

  1.  What is the Nacirema worldview?
  2. What is the ritual shrine in Nacirema homes? What happens in this shrine? How do the shrine rituals reflect the value system of Nacirema culture?
  3. Who are the holy mouth men and listeners? What would you call them?
  4. What is the latipso? What would you call this?
  5. How and why do the Nacirema demand changes to the human body? How do they perform these physical changes?

After reviewing the answers to the above questions with your instructor, please write your own unique observation of the Nacirema. Be sure to follow Horace Miner’s writing style and “make the familiar strange.” Refer to the people as “The Nacirema.”

To come up with ideas for your original observations: look around your own community and try to explore the “mundane imponderabilia.” What activities or beliefs seem “normal” to you that might seem quite strange to an outsider? What sort of “rituals” do you regularly engage in? For this assignment, you should not summarize Miner’s work. Instead, please look around Nacirema society and report on your own observations. 

Exercise 6G: Study Guide

Before moving on, ensure that you can define the following terms in your own words

  • Rituals
  • Takuhatsu
  • Hare Krishna Mantra
  • Mortuary Temple Worship of Ancient Egypt
  • Secular
  • Dowry/Brideprice
  • Sacrifice
  • Social Reproduction
  • Free Rider
  • “Too Costly To Fake”
  • Rite of Passage
  • Separation
  • Liminality
  • Reincorporation
  • The Hajj
  • Pilgrimage
  • “Ritual as drama”
  • Communitas
  • Chisungu
  • Pilgrimage
  • Nacirema
  • Altered States of Consciousness
  • Ayahuasca
  • Possession

Briefly describe the arguments and contributions of the following social scientists:

  • Richard Gould
  • Richard Sosis
  • Arnold Van Gennep
  • Victor Turner
  • Audrey Richards
  • Horace Miner
  • Robbie E. Davis-Floyd

Chapter 6 Works Cited

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  • Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: a Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press, 2010.
  • Carney, Eido Frances. “Zen and the Art of Begging.” Tricycle, 7 Feb. 2016, tricycle.org/magazine/zen-and-art-begging/.
  • Ceruti, Constanza. 2004. Human Bodies as Objects of Dedication at Inca Mountain Shrines (North-Western Argentina). World Archaeology 36(1):103-122.
  • Classen, Constance.  1997.  Foundations For an Anthropology of the Senses.  International Social Science Journal 49: 401-412.
  • David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Facts on File, Inc. 1998.
  • Davis-Floyd, Robbie. [1992] 2003. Birth as an American Rite of Passage, second edition. Univ. of California Press.
  • Durkheim, Emile. 1915. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
  • Eck, Diana.  1998.  Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, Third Edition.  New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Frey, Nancy. 1998. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago.  Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  “Religion As a Cultural System.”  In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, pp. 87-125.   New York: Basic Books.
  • Gould, Richard A. 1966. “The Wealth Quest among the Tolowa Indians of Northwestern California.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 110(1):67-89.
  • Guest, Kenneth J. Cultural Anthropology: a Reader for a Global Age. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
  • Lancy, David F. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Capital; A Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers, 1967.
  • Meillassoux, Claude. 1981. Maidens, Meal and Money: Capitalism and the Domestic Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Michalowski, Raymond and Jill Dubisch. Run for the Wall: Remembering Vietnam on a Motorcycle Pilgrimage. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Miettinen, Päivi 2018 Agency and the roles of Southern Jordanian Bedouin women on pilgrimage and visiting holy sites. Approaching Religion Vol. 8(2):40-53
  • Munson, Jessica, Viviana Amati, Mark Collard, Martha J. Macri 2014 Classic Maya Bloodletting and the Cultural Evolution of Religious Rituals: Quantifying Patterns of Variation in Hieroglyphic Texts. PLOS ONE 9(9): 1-13
  • Previgliano, C. H., Constanza Ceruti, Johan Reinhard, Facundo Arias Araoz, Josefina Gonzalez Diez 2003  Radiologic Evaluation of the Llullaillaco Mummies. American Journal of Roentgenology 181:1473-1479.
  • Reinhard, J. 1998 Discovering the Inca Ice Maiden: My Adventures on Ampato. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
  • Richards, Audrey Isabel. Chisungu. 1956.
  • Sosis, Richard. “The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual.” American Scientist, vol. 92, no. 2, 2004, p. 166., doi:10.1511/2004.46.928.
  • Stein, R.L. and Stein, P.L., 2017. The anthropology of religion, magic, and witchcraft. Routledge.
  • Summers-Effler, E. Ritual Theory. In: Stets, J.E., Turner, J.H. (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions. Springer. 2006.
  • Turner, Edith and Victor Turner. 2011. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture (Revised Edition). New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Turner, Victor. 2017. Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Routledge, 2017.
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. 2019. The Rites of Passage. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Welsch, Robert Louis, and Luis Antonio Vivanco. Asking Questions about Cultural Anthropology: a Concise Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2019.

Chapter 6 Suggestions for further reading:

  • Fraser, Barbara. 2017. “The Perils and Privileges of an Amazonian Hallucinogen”. Sapiens, August 3, 2017. https://www.sapiens.org/culture/ayahuasca-tourism-amazon/
  • Labate, B. and E. Macrae. “Ayahuasca, Ritual and Religion in Brazil.” (2014).
  • MacRae, Edward. “Santo Daime and Santa Maria – The licit ritual use of ayabuasca and the illicit use of cannabis in a Brazilian Amazonian religion”. International Journal of Drug Policy 9 (1998): 325-338. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0955-3959(98)00045-0.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel Samuel. Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions. Temple University Press, 2010.
  • Rooyin, Ali. “Liminality in Hajj’s Rituals (The Comparative Analysis of Hajj’s Rituals and Features of Expedition Theater).” University of Tehran, jfadram.ut.ac.ir/article_69005_en.html.


Written by Amanda Zunner-Keating, Ben Shepard, Angela Glaros, Jennifer Sime, Jennifer Faux-Campbell, Madlen Avetyan, and Sarah Etheridge. Edited by Tad McIlwraith, Brian Pierson, and Julie Jenkins. Special thanks to Jennifer Faux-Campbell for curating photos and to Melody Yeager-Struthers for organizing our resources. Student research/editing by Genna Weinstein. Layout by Amanda Zunner-Keating and Madlen Avetyan. Audio recording by Amanda Zunner-Keating.

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