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Woman in Papua New Guinea in her ritual face paint and head dress.

Extraordinary Rituals

Explore the spectacular and emotional world of rituals.

About the programme

In our frenzied lives rituals answer our human needs and desires; they teach us how to love, how to let go and where we belong.

Across the globe we perform rituals, from the intimate ceremonies around birth, to great mass pilgrimages in our millions. Rituals can challenge our courage through tough initiations and give us hope through our grief. They have the power to change us completely and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Read more about the series on the BBC's programmes pages  or find out more about the fascinating world of ritual and religion below. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Copyright: BBC/Claire Thompson

In Senegal, professional wrestlers wear ritual amulets and cast spells and dowse themselves in potions to give them the edge in the arena.

Indigenous rituals

Professor Graham Harvey considers how rituals have been explored in television and film, how they relate to theatrical performances or enable indigenous groups to engage with global audiences.

How do we define rituals?

Some interpreters have insisted that rituals only involve committed participants while theatre audiences passively observe

Rituals are everywhere but some of them are less familiar than others. Sometimes we encounter them as intrigued outsiders or as baffled passers-by. This has encouraged some people to think of ritual as a separate kind of activity from theatre and other performances. Some interpreters have insisted that rituals only involve committed participants while theatre audiences passively observe. Some have insisted that rituals change people while theatre only entertains. These and related contrasts miss some important points. In particular, they mistake the attractive and captivating nature of religious rituals while failing to appreciate that entertainment involves commitments of time and energy that shape lives.

In my research, I often focus on activities that everyone would agree are rituals. For example, I have spent time with groups who celebrate the winter and summer solstices by wearing distinctive regalia, chanting invocations and sharing special foods and drinks as the sun rises or sets. However, I also research among people who employ traditional customs in creative performances on festival stages or in theatres. They too might wear distinctive clothes and employ special sounds and movements. For both ritualists and performers, there is pleasure and transformation, entertainment and education in their activities. Their clothes, food and actions may identify the membership of particular cultures and invite others to share their commitments to particular practices and/or values.


Exploration of "rituals" in film and television

The BBC “Rituals” series showed us people doing dramatic things in many places. Some of these involved displays that attracted large audiences. Even the more initiatory and more specifically “religious” rituals gained an audience: first the camera crew and then us. Did that convert such events from rituals into entertainments? There will be many different opinions on this. It’s a question that’s central to the following series of short films related to the Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival of First Nations, held in London every two years. The festival brings Indigenous performers, artists, scholars, film directors, activists and others together to display, discuss and share their cultures and knowledge with each other and with UK-based audiences.

The first film, “The ORIGINS Festival Opening Night”, is a great place to begin. The festival organisers make sure that the three or more weeks of events begin ceremonially. Each year, an indigenous community who live in London offer a welcome to other participants. In 2017, the opening night involved an Ava ceremony led by the Samoan GAFA Arts Collective. In this film, Sani Muliaumaseali’i (GAFA’s director), Michael Walling (Artistic Director of Border Crossings), Andrew Thomas (a Diné musician and teacher), and Heath Bergersen (an Aboriginal Australian didgeridoo player) talk about ritual and related topics. The film also presents excerpts from the second half of the evening, following shared food, in which we witness some highlights from the rest of the festival programme. The film encourages further consideration of the relationship between rituals and other performance activities.


Rituals and relations

2017 marked the 400th anniversary of the visit of Pocahontas to England. During Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival, several events commemorated her life as well as acknowledging her death and burial in Gravesend in 1617. Our second film is about a ceremony conducted by three women from different Indigenous nations: Sierra Tasi Baker (Kwakwaka’wakw), Stephanie Pratt (Dakota) and Gabe Hughes (Wampanoag).

At a place where Pocahontas stayed, Syon House, they created a ceremony following private conversations about the protocols and traditions of their peoples. Out of respect for those protocols and traditions, the ceremony itself was not filmed. However, photographs from the day provide a backdrop to interviews with Sierra Tasi Baker and Michael Walling (Border Crossings’ Artistic Director). These expand our understanding of the value of rituals for changing people, conditions and the world. They emphasise that remembering Pocahontas is not an end in itself but a step in a process of healing and reconciliation which could change relations between colonial and indigenous communities.

In addition to informing us about the ceremony, the two interviewees offer important perspectives for understanding other rituals, histories, cultures and our relations with ancestors. Sierra Tasi Baker talks about the creative processes used in improvising a ceremony respectful of inherited customary practices. Michael Walling notes that English theatre originated in rituals – such as “Quem Quaeritis” mystery plays and courtly masques – which enabled each generation to understand themselves in relation to the honoured dead.


Our third “ORIGINS Festival” film is about a ritual Scissor Dance, an aspect of Quechua culture from the Peruvian Andes. We witness José Navarro’s performances in London and in the Andes, and hear him and Michael Walling talk about the significance of the dance. Once again we are presented with a challenge to distinctions between ritual and other kinds of performance. We are also told that a profound act of thanksgiving to Mother Earth (Pachamama) for her gift of everything needed for life and livelihood also involves courage, courtship and comedy.


Thinking about rituals

In this series, Professor Graham Harvey considers everyday habits alongside religious and ceremonial rituals and asks at what point does a repeated activity become a "ritual" in itself.

Rituals in everyday life

Mai-Linh Doan under CC-BY licence under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

Once you alert to them, rituals are everywhere. Some are dramatic and involve large numbers of participants. Others are small everyday acts done repeatedly by individuals. Religion frequently involves doing rituals, but the worlds of politics, sport, education and many other areas of life can also be thoroughly ritualised. Scholars interested in rituals ask questions like: What is “ritual”? How is it different to other activities? Why do people do rituals? How do rituals affect those who do them?

A simple definition might begin with the terms “action” and “repetition” – combined with the assertion that rituals are repeated actions. This emphasises that rituals are things that people do: rituals involve the senses and movements of bodies. Repetition suggests that anything someone does more than once could be a ritual. Such activities can include participation in religious ceremonies, political rallies and sporting events where specific costumes, gestures, postures, sounds and other acts are expected and contribute to the atmosphere and experience. Rituals can also include more individual or familial actions to do with costume and food choice or with weekly routines.

Is repetition enough to require us to identify some activities as rituals? When someone does something for the first time and intends to do it again, perhaps even that first occurrence is a ritual too. However, the mere fact of repetition (or intended repetition) hardly deserves a big word like “ritual”. After all, we have many words for things we do more than once: like habit, routine, schedule, organisation, rehearsal, performance, system and even recipe. We also recognise that most rituals involve elements of improvisation rather than rigid conformity. So we need to be careful not to over-emphasise repetition.

Another key characteristic of rituals is that they are catalytic. They cause change. They do not always do so immediately: the fact that they need to be repeated tell us that! Sometimes rituals reinforce changes we’ve already made. By regularly wearing the same sort of clothes we reinforce our membership of and participation in groups or communities. By regularly eating particular kinds of food – or avoiding some foods or drinks – we make ourselves more like the people we want to be. And more like the people we want to be with. We repeat acts that shape our lives, dispositions, identities and relationships.


Cultural rituals and initiations

Students graduating from The Open University

Students graduating from The Open University

The changes caused by rituals are often recognised as significant and sometimes transformative. Naming ceremonies make newborns into members of families and communities. Weddings change people into couples. Funerals can change those who have died into ancestors (particularly venerable members of some societies) and aid mourners to adjust to their new reality. There are rituals which initiate people into new groups or roles.

Even in relatively ordinary circumstances we often use repeated actions to mark changes: we shake hands with colleagues when they are promoted and give them flowers when they retire. These life changes seem to require us to do things that have no purely practical purpose. That is, the mutual shaking of hands, in itself, does not make someone different. However, it is a culturally recognised way of indicating respect and can signal that we are paying attention to and give heightened significance to some changes of role or life.

Some initiations involve large gatherings, distinctive costumes, and the acceptance that someone or some group now has permission or authority to do new things. Examples include ceremonies in which people become religious, political leaders or university graduations. Such transitions into new statuses or roles gain added emphasis from rituals of increased formality and recognisable “fit” with accepted tradition. The putting on of robes, necklaces or other insignia are common examples.


Rituals and enlightenment

Solstice at Stonehenge - sun behind the heel stone

Some of the changes made by rituals involve relationships between communities and the larger-than-human world. If we recognise that people who participate in religious, sporting, political or family rituals generally mesh more closely with those groups, we can also appreciate that rituals might have profound effects on our place in the world. Some rituals not only celebrate seasonal changes or acknowledge the shortening or lengthening of daylight at the solstices, but also orientate individuals and groups to their position in the cosmos.

Thus, some cultures have regular ceremonies to renew and re-affirm understanding of how people relate to the plants, animals, mountains, rivers, deities and/or ancestors whose lives are braided with human wellbeing. These and other rituals require participants to act as if the world really is as it should be – for example as if all beings lived in harmony. These rituals can affect the dispositions, imaginations and intentions of participants so that, after the ceremonies are over, people discover that they are now ready to live in ways that bring a better world into being.

Repeated bodily actions are a starting point for defining “ritual”. To them, we must add terms like participation, catalytic, affective, causing change or transformation, paying attention, heightened significance and formality. The degree to which these terms apply to specific acts is important, but they point to the mix of characteristics that define some activities as rituals.


A woman studying at a table

Studying rituals

There are a number of ways you can study ritual practices with the Open University. Professor of Religious Studies, Graham Harvey, lists some of the academic courses available.

Study at the Open University

Rituals are a key theme in the study of religions at the Open University. Within our efforts to promote religious literacy, we explore a variety of religions in order to understand both everyday practices and the sometimes dramatic gatherings which punctuate or structure religious lives. We are not only interested in rituals performed by devoted members of specific religions but also seek to understand how religious events, venues, personnel and ideas inform and affect other aspects of life. Signs of religious influence might include foods listed on or absent from restaurant menus, costume choices, some street names, public and private seasonal celebrations, and news stories.

We seek to understand how rituals affect people’s lives – whether in antiquity or now. We ask questions such as: what is the relationship between ritual and belief? Are rituals meaningful in changing contexts? Are rituals more powerful when people understand their origins or intentions? What happens when people do rituals badly? How do rituals relate to theatrical performances and/or material cultures? Why do some religions involve more rituals than others?

The BBC’s “Ritual” series provides us with unrivalled close-up access to the ritual activities of people in many places. It includes both intensely personal perspectives and the colourful spectacle of large gatherings. It honours the humanity and life experiences which we share with those presented to us. Even when the rituals and cultures shown in the series are new to us, we see people like us. They wear watches and t-shirts. They laugh, cry, worry, hope, suffer, cook, celebrate, build communities, challenge other groups, give birth, mourn death... Like us (or, at least, like the BBC film crews), they also record their experiences on film and in stories. All of this encourages us to reflect further on our own lives, knowledge, commitments and activities. What could have been a voyeuristic and distancing experience becomes an enrichment of our shared humanity.


Religious Studies courses at the OU

Nepali Hindu wedding detail scene

Creative Commons

The OU’s Religious Studies department aims to increase understanding of and conversation about the things people do. Our course “A227 Exploring Religion” focuses on religious activities in both thoroughly personal and dramatically communal events. It explores the diversity of places, practices, texts and experiences which shape people’s engagements with religions. It also examines the diversity of ways in which such places, practices, texts and experiences are celebrated, contested and/or changed as people encounter them. The course enables students to engage with the sensual nature of religious lives and practices. For instance, we ask them to consider “what does religion taste like?” We invite them to think, talk and write about what the dietary traditions of different communities achieve and how they might make every meal a ritual which affirms, strengthens or challenges people’s commitments.

Our students can continue to build up skills of observing, gathering, analysing and debating data relevant to religious activities in another course: “A332 Why is Religion Controversial?”. Here we focus on controversial people, practices, ideas and futures to develop thinking and discussion. Some examples of controversies in which rituals play a part include differing assessments of the role and legacy of religious leaders, of multiculturalism and intercultural encounters, and of the relationship between cognitive and performative approaches to religion. Rituals are also implicated in discussions of relationships between religious activities and capitalism, between material cultures and spirituality, between yoga in India and elsewhere, and between evangelical Christian anticipations of the “end of time” and other hopes for the future.


Research examples at the OU

Much of our research (under the tagline “Contemporary Religion in Historical Context”) also concerns rituals and other ways of doing religion. Some examples we have blogged about include projects about the changing uses of cathedrals and churches in England, the rituals of democracy activists in Hong Kong and the UK, indigenous rituals as a resource for shaping performances at contemporary cultural festivals, Pentecostalist Christian healing and worship in Africa and North America, controversies over Muslim women wearing headscarves in Germany, and approaches to health and wellbeing. Our current and recent PhD researchers are also interested in topics that involve rituals, such as yoga, drone metal music, clerical family life, Rastafarians in Italy, BDSM, Jewish liturgical changes, oracles in ancient Greece and many other issues.

In summary, a focus on ritual at the OU’s Religious Studies department arises from our interest in religions as activities by individuals and groups in many places. We want to understand how rituals change and how they change lives. We employ different approaches to rituals within and beyond specific religious groups. We also employ data about rituals to test the value of different theories about and interpretations of religion(s). Inspired by ritual studies scholars (especially those suggested below for further study), we suggest that studying is like doing rituals. Both activities are endlessly changing but disciplined explorations in which people seek to discover, pay attention to, and test possibilities which they deem significant.

Grimes, Ronald. (2006) Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, Ronald. (2014) The Craft of Ritual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kreinath, Jens, Jan Snoek and Michael Stausberg (eds). (2008) Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts. Leiden: Brill.
Seligman, Adam B. (2004) Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stewart, Pamela, and Andrew Strathern. (2014) Ritual: Key Concepts in Religion. London: Bloomsbury.

Among their many excellent resources for the social-scientific study of religion, the Religious Studies Project has tagged the following podcasts as relating to 'ritual': http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/tag/ritual/ 

Ronald Grimes’ website provides further resources (including videos) for studying ritual: http://ronaldlgrimes.twohornedbull.ca/ 


Meet the OU expert

Professor Graham Harvey - Professor of Religious Studies at The Open University
Professor Graham HarveyProfessor of Religious StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor Graham Harvey - Professor of Religious Studies at The Open University
Professor Graham HarveyProfessor of Religious Studies

Graham's research and teaching focus on rituals and other kinds of performance in the ways in which people live their religions. His book Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding Religion as Everyday Life (2013) argues that everyday practices as well as exceptional rituals should all be considered when we seek to understand religion(s). It is rooted in his research among Jews, Pagans and Indigenous peoples (particularly Anishinaabeg, Maori, Mi’kmaq, Sámi and Yoruba both in their homelands and in diaspora).

His most recent research project has been at the Sámi organised annual cultural festival, Riddu Riđđu, in Sápmi, arctic Norway, and at Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival of First Nations, hosted biennially in venues across London. This has been part of an international project, “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual as Cultural Resource”, funded by Norwegian Research Council. Other project members have researched religious, cultural and political rituals in Canada, Denmark, France, Ghana, Hong Kong, Norway, Poland, UK, USA and Zimbabwe.

Graham’s research informs his contributions to courses in Religious Studies at the OU, including discussions of religious foodways and Indigenous narratives for A227 “Exploring Religion” and the “new animism” and individualised “spiritualities” for A332 “Why is Religion Controversial?”

He is also editor of the book series “Religion and the Senses” and co-editor of the journal Body and Religion both of which encourage debate on the physical, bodily and sensual realities of religion. 

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