Ritual in Myth and Experience


Thomas Rue, M.A.
December 1990, 2004. All rights reserved.

Rituals take many forms, from simple to highly complex. They serve important psychological/spiritual functions, and can be conducive either to mental health, or psychopathology.
Assayag (1988) calls ritual "a form of symbolic communication, definitively identical to spoken language and its functioning" (p. 116.)
Gallanter (1989) contends all rituals deal with the problem of transformations of state in human beings or, in nature. Obvious Western culture examples of the former are christenings, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.
Examples of the latter occur in nature-oriented religions such as those of Native Americans, Celtic pagans and others. The turning of the seasons is recognized as cause for celebration.
The great sabbats of European antiquity are Samhain (Halloween), Beltane (May Day), Imbolc (St. Bridget's Day), and Laghnasadh (Lammas.) Between each are the four seasonal equinoxes and solstices. These eight turning points mark annual transformations in the earth's being, as participants use the ritual to help internalize personal growth and change within themselves.
Gallanter continues: "Two rituals of particular relevance to new religions are those of therapy and salvation. Therapy or healing rituals aim to renew a damaged identity and to direct themselves toward the future... The combination of healing and salvation rituals as a kind of rite of passage is probably what makes religious conversion or induction, functionally speaking, such a powerful socializer of human behavior. Renunciation, expiation, and cleansing manifest themselves in such contexts. Individuals successfully transformed into new religions emerge in a metaphorically transformed sense as individuals resocialized into a new psychological world.
"The 'rite of passage' nature of such healing and salvation rituals in new religions typically involves three stages: separation (whether physical or psychological), transition, learning the new role and worldview), and incorporation (adopting the standards of the system and living by it). Moreover, they effectively impress on the initiate: 1) how a change in one's self is sequentially managed within a particular structure with the assistance or guidance of a particular person or group; and 2) how the outcomes can be ultimately attributed to one's own efforts" (p. 215, emphasis added.)
Interesting examples of ritual in the mundane world cited by Moyers (1987) in the context of Court proceedings: "...one of my colleagues had been asked by a friend... 'Why do you need the mythology?' She held the familiar, modern opinion that 'all these Greek gods and stuff' are irrelevant to the human condition. What she did not know -- what most do not know -- is that the remnants of all that 'stuff' line the walls of our interior system of belief, like shards of broken pottery in an archaeological site. But we are organic beings, there is energy in all that 'stuff.' Rituals evoke it. Consider the position of judges in our society, which Campbell saw in mythological, not sociological terms. If this position were just a role, the judge would wear a gray suit instead of the magisterial black robe. For the law to hold authority beyond mere coercion, the power of the judge must be ritualized, mythologized. So must much of life today, Campbell Said, from religion and war to love and death" (p. xiv.)
According to Sharon Devlin, quoted in Adler (1986): "The purpose of ritual is to change the mind of the human being. It's a sacred drama in which you are the audience as well as the participant. The purpose of it is to activate parts of the mind that are not activated by everyday activity. We are talking about the parts of the mind that produce the psychokinetic, telekinetic power, whatever you want to call it -- the connection between the eternal power and yourself. As for why ritual, I think that human beings have a need for art and art is ritual. I think that when we became sapient, we became capable of artistic expression. It is simply a human need" (p. 141.)


  • Adler, M. (1986), Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-worshippers and other Pagans in America today,. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Assayag, J. (1988), The basket, hair, the Goddess and the world: An essay on South Indian symbolism, Diogenes, summer 1988, 142:113-135. Journal of the International Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies, (Firenze, Italy.)

  • Campbell, J. (1988), The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday.

  • Galanter, M. (1989), Cults and New Religious Movements: A report of the American Psychiatric Association, Washington: APA.