What is a ritual?

For many, a ritual sounds like a thing from the past. The word seems to be associated with religious practices, occult sects, or tribal culture. Others use it in a more mundane way, often connected to daily habits and routines. In this article, I want to go over the definition of a ritual that we use at Liminal Rituals. 

Rituals are as old as humankind itself, and what people refer to as a ritual has changed over time. They are a powerful social tool for creating clarity, direction, meaning, and community, and that’s probably why every culture that we have recordings of has come up with its own unique ritualistic practices. And while the word is not really popular in Western societies, we still have a fair amount of rituals today that we engage in: weddings, funerals, graduations, and several rituals stemming from religious backgrounds that even more secular oriented people attend(i.e. Christmas, Ramadan, Bar Mitzvah). 

In my own personal experience, many of the rituals I grew up with and I had to participate in felt empty. A traditional Christian wedding ceremony in which the father “hands over” the bride into the care of the husband does not speak to my feminist values, and celebrating my love for another person in this fashion would simply feel wrong. 

But just because the form of a ritual does not feel right doesn’t mean that rituals themselves are wrong. Rituals are a social form, a social expression, and in the same way we adapt the way we speak to the changing of times, we also should adapt the way we use rituals in our life. They often mark critical moments in our lives – celebrations, transitions, farewells, unions – moments that form and constitute communities, and it would be a great loss if we did not have ways to collectively act on those moments anymore.

Rituals are Intentional Gatherings

In a simple way, rituals are gatherings. We come together as a group, hang out, and do something together. What sets them apart from casual or loose social meetings is that a ritual has a strong intention. We come together for a specific purpose, i.e. celebrating someone’s love, burying a deceased, or ending/starting a specific project. 

What I like about the word ‘gathering’ is that it includes the idea of collecting something in one place, and I imagine it to be the gathering of attention. In a ritual you gather everyone’s attention to focus on one intention. It is a focussed effort to perform a collective act.

Rituals Provide a Structure

Rituals allow you to approach the world in a structured way. All rituals have a clearly defined set of actions and rules according to which the actions are done. Sometimes this framework is also called a ‘magic circle’ that we step into, a container that works according to different rules than our normal everyday life. In a magical circle you are also invited to play with who you are and how you act towards others and yourself.

To some degree this structure is necessary to align a group of people to perform the collective  act of the ritual. In a ritual you know what you are expected to do, and in what way you relate to others and the world while maintaining a playful agency that you can explore. Whether they are happening regularly or are one-offs, the structure of the ritual gives you something to hold on to, a safe (and familiar) framework to stay with your experience, and align yourself with the intention of the ritual.

Rituals mark Important Moments

All well known rituals are performed around critical moments of someone’s life, or around moments of great importance for the communal identity. Very often those rituals are transitions (e.g. baptism, wedding, funeral) or celebrations (such as personal or political anniversaries). Simply put, performing a ritual allows a moment to be highlighted from the flow of everyday life. It is a way of saying: This here is important, this here means something to me/us. That’s why we create magical circles around them, to emphasise the extraordinary of the situation.

While it is true that most common rituals are centred around what is commonly referred to as “life achievements”, rituals can also be a tool to imbue more parts of our lives with meaning. Performing a daily ritual every morning to start your day can enhance the way you go about your life in a profound way (and also help you structure your day if this is something you need help with).

Rituals use Manifested Symbols

Rituals are manifestations or expressions of internal processes. It is a complicated way of saying that rituals can express things in a way that words alone can’t. They make abstract ideas and concepts feel real and tangible. 

This is where the use of symbols comes in. A symbol is a connection between one thing and another, where the first one comes to stand for the latter. Take the exchange of wedding rings as an example. The action that people want to do at a wedding is to show each other their love and commitment (two very abstract ideas). The rings themselves are just some folded metal. But within and through the ritual the rings become the physical symbol of these abstract ideas. And thus, by exchanging the rings and putting them on each others’ fingers, we can physically enact and feel our love and commitment in the form of the metal sliding over our fingers. The rings have become manifested symbols of our internal landscape. 

Rituals are a Tool

Last but not least: rituals are tools. They can be a tool for many things: for writing your own story, for establishing and defining relationships, for making transitions, for goodbyes and hellos. No matter what you use them for, the most important thing is that they serve your best interests. I imagine that a big part of why rituals have vanished from our everyday life, is that the religious rituals we were supposed to engage with were not speaking to our understanding of ourselves and the world anymore. As with all things: If a ritual does not serve us, we should give it up.

This ties back to my own experience with the rituals I grew up with. Yes, the rituals felt often empty, the weddings I attended didn’t speak to me and often I would feel lost in why and how I was celebrating Christmas. The tools were not sharpened for what I needed – they didn’t serve my interest.

In the end, that’s what we are doing with Liminal Rituals: We want to create rituals that serve the people in the world they live in, and offer our support and knowledge for those that would like to make rituals for their own purposes. We believe in the power of rituals to create meaning, clarity, direction, and community, and we want to bring this back into the modern way of life.