by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ April 23, 2021
When in doubt, we perform rituals. Anxiety and insecurity are constant factors in our lives. That has always been the case, but the anxiety levels are much higher in civilizations and astronomically higher in postmodern civilizations. As we have become more complex and urbanized, we now spend most of our time looking for relief from stress, anger, pain, and insecurity.
We perform rituals to relieve stress as we get ready to accomplish an unpleasant task after attempting it or ensuring success in a pleasant task. Ritual is often thought of as a product or part of religion. I’ve come to think that is, instead, the source of religion.
Our gods are constructs or embodiments of rituals. We formally shape our fears and needs into rituals that require both a physical and metaphysical center. Each ritual created and performed builds a shared sacred place and a spiritual entity to go with it. This originated in individuals performing rituals for themselves, their families, and communities.
Humans’ earliest works of art are animal paintings of animals hunted and consumed, thus of maximum importance to humans. The oldest has been confirmed in Indonesia, dating back 45,500 years. These were symbolic and were depicted to ensure the relationship between the hunters and the prey. The ability of the artist to portray the animals was the power of permanent connection. These earliest paintings often included handprints that we assume were the artist's hands working in the low light deep underground to forge their magic.
These paintings were a ritual. Both the beauty and similarity of these earliest symbols suggest they were heavily ritualized. The surviving examples found deep in caves difficult to access made their creation an important and powerful act.
While it may be that these survived only because of their inaccessibility, they were not simple graffiti. Risk and pain went into their production. Those are the elements of an important ritual. Change or the fear of change requires ritual. Change is marked by ritual to ensure success and prevent pain or prevent the change and thus to prevent pain.
The oldest examples of human form images emphasized human secondary sexual characteristics, and we long known as earth mothers. These are heavily sexualized and suggest both anxiety and hope in birth. People, almost certainly, used these objects ritualistically to give comfort to pregnant women and their mates and families. The slow evolution of female divinities came to embody birth, life, and death.
It is generally assumed that these female symbolic images are the human divinities source with the earth mother as the original goddess. These objects, stories, and endless variations of the story of birth, death, and human survival raised these ritual objects to the level of cultural divinities.
My point here is that the earliest religious symbols were ritual objects acting as triggers for stories. Stories as memes and later rhymed chants incorporated object possession, human action, and sound that produced magic that was palliative or preventative. All religion evolved from the ritual.
There is a full range of rituals that we use from large to small. We are creating everything from large divinities down to minor, casual spirits. Ritual is tied to food, the cups we use at different times of day, the tools we use and then put away, the clothes we select based on ‘feel’ or ‘style.’ As we age, we become more comfortable with our rituals that are the habits that shape our days and nights.
There is always physical action in rituals, and some rituals are all actions in the form of dance. These are simple for group members to participate in as themselves or in costume as symbols of other beings or objects.
The age of classical religions was a period of administrative control of large regions of the planet, with rituals and religion used to unify and set control standards on large and diverse populations. This has survived in regions with ritual systems that continuous and performed daily. These became complex systems defining life, language, and thought.
Human evolution has become a steadily more personal and individual refocusing ritual in our personal spaces and less on grand and frequent mass rituals. Those large rituals that remain we now call entertainment are more narrowly focused and less intrusive on our growing individual diversity.
We are not losing or spiritual forms with the modern, accelerating loss of traditional religions. Those religions came about as justifications for kingdoms and empires to unify and control conquered populations. The concept of empire has been crumbling for the last five hundred years. Traditional religions survive among those who are caught in the remnants of that autocratic world.
The change has been a return to individual spiritual rituals with no political justifications. A large part of our planetary population in divergent post-modern states is completing that process. The spiritual groups and shared experiences are focused on rituals to create the divine for each individual. These are not the politically regressive mass churches but the spontaneous ritual of people at play.
We have returned to personal spiritual rituals that are not entangled in political power or control. That is, of course, frightening to those who held power through the old religions. This is another paradigmatic change.