Festivals and Rituals

Cynthia J W Svoboda. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

Festivals and rituals have played an important role in developing an understanding of the social network of societies. They have existed since the dawn of humankind and remain vital to civilization today. Their role is recognized by anthropologists as central to the understanding of human culture, customs, and beliefs; as such, anthropologists have studied festivals and rituals ever since anthropology emerged and developed as a scientific field of study in the second half of the 19th century. There is an extensive body of literature and much anthropological debate on how festivals and rituals should best be defined, why they are important, and what kinds of events they may include. The study of the nature, origin, and purpose of festivals and rituals has closely followed the anthropology of religion and the history of the field of anthropology. Reviewing past practices and examining current trends in the study of festivals and rituals will help anticipate the next stage in anthropological research.

Anthropologists have approached the study of festivals and rituals from many and varying viewpoints. These perspectives have changed with time but can generally be broken down into five major categories including (1) evolutionary (origin), (2) functional (purpose), (3) structural (framework), (4) symbolic (symbols), and (5) modern (contemporary). Two broad classifications of ritual often studied within these various approaches are rites relating to the human life cycle and periodic events. These two classifications may be broken down further into a number of ritual types.

Although individuals create routine periodic behaviors, such as washing hands before and after each meal, it is the established, publicly organized rituals that generally interest anthropologists. Single social actions, such as greeting handshakes, have not traditionally been the basis for this examination either. It is the interplay between the individual and the larger society and with the greater powers of being, and the result of this series of actions, that is studied in this chapter. When people come together for festivals and voluntarily communicate through verbal and nonverbal actions, their participation exudes deeper meaning. Human responses to ritual stimuli remain a fascinating aspect of anthropological research to this day. The evolution of festivals and rituals and their existence in primal and modern society has been the focus of hundreds of research studies, but there remains much more to learn.

In this chapter, first the history of the anthropological study of festivals and rituals is reviewed and summarized. Second, common reoccurring descriptive terms used to express the definition of festivals and rituals as used in the field of anthropology are discussed. Third, significant theories in the history of the research on festivals and rituals, along with major contributors to the discipline, are reviewed. Fourth, a brief summary of the research methods applied by researchers in the field follows. This chapter then contains a brief overview of some of the major types of festivals and rituals. Recent application of festival and ritual studies in the study of arts and communication follows. In conclusion, the final section suggests future directions for anthropological research on festivals and rituals. Over time, the study of festivals and rituals has changed from observation of religious rites of the sacred to now include embracement of secular and profane study.


Anthropologists study human origins, patterns and variations of human behavior, and physical and social development in different cultures. They then compare and contrast their findings to learn what values and beliefs have been established as vital components of human society as a whole and also as important elements within specific cultures. In this research, anthropologists have found religion to be an important lens through which to understand culture. The observation of a society’s religious underpinnings provides anthropologists with information on the faiths, values, and beliefs of the society’s members, and also on how members interact with one another and their cosmic forces.

The study of festivals and rituals was initially undertaken by anthropologists who saw them as keys to understanding their places in religion and their roots in tribal societies. In examining tribal societies, anthropologists realized that ancient peoples had basic needs that required humans to unite in order to obtain food, water, shelter, and clothing. As they observed these processes, anthropologists understood that satisfying and stabilizing immediate requirements allowed the participants to focus their attentions on acknowledging their fortunes and celebrating the mysteries of life. The animal that was sacrificed or the god that provided the sustenance was given thanks and appreciation. The divine powers and the spirit of the dead animal had to be appeased and blessed, not only to give thanks for the bounty but also in hopes of future good fortune. As these feasts emerged as regular practices, they developed into intricate festivals that became central to societies. As time passed, specific rituals became associated with these and other events. Festivals and rituals and their history, function, structure, performance, symbolism, and efficacy are inherent components of anthropological research.

Defining Festivals and Rituals

Anthropologists usually identify what festivals and rituals are and can describe their general characteristics; but they have not agreed to apply specific narrowly prescribed definitions for the terms.

Traditionally the term festival has been used as an adjective meaning “regarding a day of feasting” and as a noun denoting “a time for feasting.” As an adjective, festival also came to be used to mean “joy, glee, or merriment.” When anthropologists began describing festivals in the late 1800s, they were usually reporting accounts of religious events, seasonal celebrations, or other practices involving major events in human life. Their reports generally referred to festivals as periodic celebrations or times set apart from the ordinary or everyday. At this time, anthropologists distinguished festivals as episodic events that were not commonplace routines. In other words, they were special. As per their observations, most of these festivals pertained to a holiday, a “holy day,” or day of religious feasting. Most of these interpretations were based on statements gleaned from observations of what were believed to be religious events. Ethnographers, sociologists, and anthropologists documented intricate performances that took place within tribal communities. Feasting was a major component of these practices: In some cases, special foods were prepared following closely scrutinized customs, while in other situations, specific items were restricted from the diet.

During these formative years in the field of anthropology, the general public began using the word festival to include artistic performances also. This new definition became more prominent and had wide-ranging effects on future research. Numerous modern anthropologists now adopt a wider interpretation and identify political, national, sports, and mass communication events, art exhibits, and intense film series as festivals, too. The broader view of festivals allows some anthropologists to interpret festival as including nearly every cultural event. This leaves wide-ranging research opportunities for anthropologists who study festivals, but not everyone agrees on the broader view. Although clear-cut definitions and specific applications have not been determined, festivals, as explained by anthropologists, usually include feasting and rituals.

Like festival, the term ritual has also had many and varying definitions throughout history. The earliest and most basic dictionary entries refer to ritual as “relating to rites or ceremonies.” Further depiction of rituals often described them as established or orderly actions or performances. Application of this secondary level of meaning may be limited to religious events, but it may also be applied broadly to pertain to nearly any living species. The migration of birds, the flight of bumblebees, and the feeding patterns of animals are all examples of actions that fall under the more general rubric. Another narrowly described, but still widely used, definition for ritual is formal, repetitive actions. Sequential, reenacted, redundant, repetitive, predictable, stereotypic, and reiterated are just a few variations that have been used to describe this phenomenon. Another variation of rituals as repetitive actions more specifically considers them beliefs in action. By adding beliefs to the explanation, the focus of the term becomes more expressly centered on human endeavors.

Since anthropologists study the science of humans, their definition of ritual has centered on actions of people, but this is not true for all social scientists. Traditionally, anthropologists have understood rituals as actions that are different from everyday events. This implies that they are not used for ordinary events but for a unique purpose. Further elaboration for some anthropologists has included delineation of the more specific traits of formality and prescription. These added details imply a need for procedure, instruction, or some form of direction for participants to follow. This definition also implies that rituals are not arbitrary phenomena, but ones that require skill or previous training to perform.

Some anthropologists include symbolic objects or words as necessary components of a ritual. Adding symbolism as part of the definition leads anthropologists to further emphasize meaning and emotion. Thinking about the meaning behind ritual objects, words, and behaviors has led some researchers to consider questions that relate to their expression, interpretation, and efficacy. How do the activities transcend the actions themselves? It is this underlying meaning that many anthropologists have found to be the most valuable part of studying rituals. The actions within the performance of rituals are interesting, but the significance of the ritual for the participants, the shared experience for the community, and the connections they make to the divine are often the focal points for anthropologists. The effects of ritual on the participants and the community often surpass understanding. Anthropologists have used function, purpose, and meaning as methods for investigating these intriguing happenings.

The lack of specific definitions for festivals and rituals has, at times, led to ambiguity in determining what can be classified as ritual. This has also resulted in various interpretations as to what actually constitutes a festival or ritual. This vagueness leaves the field open to both broad and narrow interpretations of what should be included in the study. While there is now a vast array of literature on festivals and rituals in both primitive and contemporary societies, their study is still in its infancy.

In their research, anthropologists have observed that festivals and rituals often occur around the major events of the human life cycle. Fertility, childbirth, naming, healing, initiation, adulthood, marriage, death, and funeral rites are just a few examples of this phenomenon. Hunting, planting, gathering, and other agricultural and seasonal events are cyclic events that are also examined. In their observation of ritualistic activities, anthropologists have noticed that a sense of unity develops among the participants. The rest of this chapter will generally focus on the group dynamics and the interplay that occurs during festivals and rituals.

Theoretical Approaches to the Study of Festivals and Rituals

Evolutionary Approach

Many late 19th- and early 20th-century anthropologists studied festivals and rituals by seeking their roots in primitive cultures. They recorded other people’s accounts of witnessed events and also directly observed actions in tribal societies in order to gain insight on their existence in primal lives and in their own civilization. Numerous ethnographers, sociologists, and anthropologists of the day adhered to an evolutionary approach to understanding why feasts, festivals, ceremonies, holidays, rituals, and rites exit. These early anthropologists worked to explain ritual from a historical perspective. They saw a direct link between primitive rituals and the ones they celebrated in their own time and societies, and they often perceived present ceremonies as relics of the past. Sir Edward Burnett (E. B.) Tylor (1832-1917), Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), and William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) are three well-known researchers who studied rituals from an evolutionary approach.

In 1871, E. B. Tylor published Primitive Culture (1871/1958), which included a chapter on “Rites and Ceremonies.” In his work, Tylor discusses prayer, sacrifice, fasting, orientation, and other religious rites. His view of these ceremonies portrayed rituals as dramatic performances that allowed for communication with the deities. His discussion focused on the philosophy of animism, in which both animate and inanimate objects have souls. In his writings, Tylor used accounts of primitive rituals and ceremonies to attempt to explain the roots of modern culture. In his studies, he infers that modern religion and its rituals are relics of archaic practices.

A contemporary of Tylor, Scottish classicist Sir James Frazer, also believed that it was possible to trace the customs of modern society by studying primitive ancestry. Like Tylor, Frazer wanted to prove that many modern practices were holdovers from the past. In 1890, Frazer published the first edition of The Golden Bough (1890/1935). This massive work includes numerous rites from all over the world. Frazer’s linguistic abilities, penchant to acquire evidence for comparative study, and writings have led scholars today to call him the father of anthropology.

During the 1880s, Scottish biblical scholar and Encyclopedia Britannica editor William Robertson Smith (1894/1969) hypothesized that ritual was an important component of religion, and that in primitive cultures rituals or practices preceded myths and beliefs (dogma). In his study of primitive religion, Smith observed that some clans were united by an affinity to a particular totem. He also determined that one of the oldest rituals, sacrifice, involved a ritual killing followed by a feast that was communally shared by the tribe and its god. Smith saw religion as a community unifier and ritual as a method of worshipping society. Smith’s observations and perspective on primitive social cultures have led some researchers to the conclusion that Smith deserves to be called the father of social anthropology.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the evolutionary approach to the study of festivals and rituals lost its luster. Critics argued that data and analysis under this approach were not scientific. They wished to conduct fieldwork and to implement more theoretical and methodological instruments.

Functional Approach

In the beginning of the 20th century, new functional approaches emerged among European and American sociologists and anthropologists. Functionalists studying festivals and rituals sought to explain their function or purpose. They observed festivals and rituals, but then went further by asking participants in the ceremony what this event meant to them. This form of methodology brought research forward by asking questions that required anthropologists to use more refined methods of comparison. This functional approach to studying festivals and rituals sought to understand how a particular ritual related to other customs within the society, why it was important to society, and how it might relate to similar occasions in other cultures. These functional anthropologists used firsthand observation and interviews with people participating in the ceremony. They attempted to explain festivals and rituals by appreciating the particular custom from the perspective of an individual within the society, and by understanding the social order as a whole.

French sociological theorist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) promoted a basically functional theory of ritual. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912/1995), Durkheim’s study of the Aborigines of Australia, he discussed the solemnity of religious ceremonies and the characteristics of rituals. Durkheim separates rituals into two categories: the sacred, which he dubbed “positive,” and the nonsacred “negative.” He describes the positive, religious ritual as a code of conduct that provides the proper behavior for religious comportment. He explains religious ritual as formal public enactments that include symbolic representation to provide meaning to the participants. According to Durkheim, positive rituals solidified the relationships between the individual, the society, and the spirit. He describes rituals as a means of gathering people together, motivating participants, and bringing about a new state of action. Durkheim views positive ritual as a method of reconstructing society and affirming its basic tenets, and he observes negative rituals as taboos.

Like Durkheim, Polish-born anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) viewed ritual as an important element in the function of society. After receiving training in mathematics, physics, and psychology, Malinowski traveled to the Trobiand Islands, north of New Guinea, where he conducted extensive fieldwork. Malinowski (1954) saw ritual as a means of aiding humans during their weakest hours. The presence of ritual, he suggested, provided guidance and an acceptable means of expressing emotion, especially during times of discord or distress. According to Malinowski, rituals helped to satisfy individuals’ basic needs; satisfying these basic requirements was the function of society.

A third famous functionalist, British anthropologist Alfred Reginald (A. R.) Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955), was obviously influenced by his predecessors’ findings. Like Durkheim and Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown (1952) included research on the function of ritual, in his studies, but he was more interested in the social framework of ritual. By providing a structure of analysis, Radcliff-Brown created a better strategy for comparing different global societies. While he was not the first functionalist, anthropologists today consider Radcliffe-Brown a major contributor in the formulation of the methodology.

Many British and American anthropologists have pursued the study of ritual from the functionalist perspective. Among the major contributors who have followed this route are English social anthropologist Edward Evan (E. E.) Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973), American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), and British anthropologist Edmund Leach (1910-1989). South African-born Meyer Fortes (1906-1983) was a functionalist who was heavily influenced by British scholars. Many functionalists have used the study of festivals and rituals as a way to explain religious activities and to understand the correlation between the participants’ individual needs and the demands of the civilization. After World War II ended, many anthropologists sought a new paradigm for ritual explanation.

Protostructural Approach

In 1909, Flemish anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep (1873-1957) published Les Rites de Passage (Rites of Passage; 1909/1960). Van Gennep observed individuals’ movement from one social status to another and concluded that there was a specific structure to the rites that surround major life crises. He examined birth, initiation, marriage, death, funeral, and other rites associated with transitioning from one stage of human life to another, and found that the events could be broken down into three steps. He labeled the crossing from one stage of life to another as the threshold or liminal phase. This liminal point, Van Gennep postulated, was preceded by a preliminal or separation period and followed by a postliminal or reintegration point. According to Van Gennep, rites of passage marked the stages in which an individual proceeded from one phase of life to another, allowing people a systematic method of coping with transition. The individual was removed from the former stage of life, went through a period of limbo, and then was incorporated back into society under a new standing. Van Gennep’s research has been very influential in the study of festivals and rituals.

Structural Approach

Belgian classicist and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) examined myths and rituals from various cultures and concluded that there were similarities in the structure of myths that transcended cultural boundaries. Having previously studied structural linguistics, he applied structural analysis to the study of myths. This afforded him the opportunity to show a logical, more scientific, method of understanding culture and relating the past to the present, and the present back to the past. He viewed ritual not only as a method of conveying myth, but also as a way of relating what society dictates. Lévi-Strauss was a major contributor in forming structuralism as a new method of studying society. This structural approach to myth and ritual has not proven to be the definitive answer that anthropologists hoped to find for the study of humankind, but it has added a new method for interpretation and analysis.

Symbolic and Interpretive Approach

Scottish writer Victor Turner (1920-1983) enhanced Van Gennep’s ideas on the liminal or transitional stage of rites. He referred to this midpoint as being “betwixt and between” social stages of life. Turner believed that in this phase of liminality, when people are in a state of limbo, participants form a sense of unity and a spiritual bonding he called communitas. Turner’s (1969) investigations of primitive societies led him to seek meaning in ritual rather than simply focusing on its function in society. He questioned the participants to gain knowledge of their interpretation of their rituals and found cognitive and emotional factors to be influential, and that symbolism was a basic element of ritual. Turner used his findings to create a method of analyzing symbols in terms of their level of meaning.

Symbolism and interpretation were key elements in American cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s (1926-2006) research on ritual. In the 1960s, Geertz advocated for a more philosophical explanation of culture. He studied rituals, myths, and symbols as valuable entities that provided meaning and order to life. In The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz describes ritual as “consecrated behavior” that makes people more committed to their beliefs. Geertz elaborates this basic definition by explaining the importance that symbolism has within these ceremonies and that they, too, serve to empower and enrich the experience. Geertz envisioned symbols and their meanings as units of religious rituals that, when understood in their original context, would explain the society’s culture.

Modern Approaches

Ecological Approach

American anthropologist Roy Rappaport (1926-1997) focused his studies on culture, religion, rituals, and their environmental influences. In the early 1960s, he observed the Tsembaga clan of New Guinea and concluded that rituals function to help control environmental relations. He perceived rituals he observed in New Guinea as a means of balancing the ecological system of the human beings and the pigs that resided in the area. In Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999), Rappaport provides a lengthy explanation of his interpretation of ritual. He refutes some previous studies, supports a definition with a wider scope, and specifically denies that ritual is limited to religious occurrences. He also emphasizes the communication aspects of ritual and particularly accentuates that ritual is not just a succession of acts but includes utterances as well. Rappaport emphasizes that words and sounds are important in ritual. In his lengthy explanation, Rappaport also defines ritual as performance and highlights ritual as sequential and formal. With this, Rappaport and others were beginning to take a more secular, broader approach toward ritual.

Performative Approach

Sri Lankan social anthropologist Stanley Tambiah (1929-) began his studies examining kinship and ritual in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), transferred his research to Buddhist practices in Thailand, and later returned his focus to Sri Lanka. Tambiah worked to develop analytic modes that reflected the community he was examining. He rejected contemporary processes that superimposed Western thoughts on non-Western communities. In his research on rituals, Tambiah took what he called a performative approach. He related ritual to performance and saw connections between the actions and verbal expressions in rituals. Ritual language was an important part of Tambiah’s research. His research also investigated politics, conflict, violence, ethnic identity, and social identity.

Neurotheology/Biogenetic Structuralism

Some anthropologists have recently begun examining festivals and rituals from a more biological viewpoint. These anthropologists have been applying psychological and neurological methodologies to determine how the human brain is wired and how it has evolved over time. American neurotheologist Eugene Guy D’Aquili (1940-1998) and Canadian neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin Jr. (1938-) proposed a new school of thought—biogenetic structuralism. They theorize that the human body, particularly the brain, allows for human behavior characteristics that enable us to have the necessary skills for music, sex, linguistics, etc. They hypothesize that the brain provides for religious abilities, too. Based on this premise, neuroanthropologists use an interdisciplinary approach that combines neurosciences and physics with anthropology. Thus, they use physiological analysis to investigate the balance between the central nervous system and the environment. Since rituals are central components in all societies, these biogenetic structuralists apply their methodology to rituals.

Modern Applications

Modern anthropologists have continued to review their predecessors’ research and to add their own insights to the body of literature on the topic. British anthropologist and functional structuralist Mary Douglas (1966) applies Durkheim’s premises as she examines religion and symbolism in contemporary and tribal cultures. South African- born British Anthropologist Max Gluckman initially pursued Radcliffe-Brown’s models, but later created his own school. Gluckman (1962) is noted for adapting Durkheim’s and Van Gennep’s theories to his own findings and enhancing them to apply to his fieldwork research on African legal systems and local conflict.

Since the 1960s, anthropologists have broadened their focal points of study. They have carried on with their interest in ritual in the context of religion, but have increased their investigation of formal procedures within secular events. This new, more cultural approach has triggered expansion of ritual inquiries into the arts, laws, customs, performance, and other areas as well. Recent anthropologists have delved into research areas that include academic traditions, military rites, parades, social clubs, oaths of office, habitual shopping sprees, health and folk festivals, and other public performances as falling into appropriate perimeters for ritual research.

Some of these anthropologists have also included major political events, national holidays, and national ceremonies in their studies. A review of the recent table of contents (1990-2008) of journals that focus on the study of rituals reveals articles with titles that include research on food, everyday life, art, gender, sports, athletes, professional wrestling, tooth-filing, well-being, snow days, television, and many that deal with performance or drama. These varying topics show the breadth of research today. Some anthropologists who study these events see similarities between the gathering of crowds for social events and for religious festivals and rituals. While religious rituals continue to be investigated in developing countries, there is clear indication that modern anthropologists are investigating broader aspects of civilization. Modern anthropologists have analyzed festivals and rituals from the traditional evolutionary and structural approaches but have tended to examine the functional, symbolic, and cognitive methods more often.

Research Methods

Descriptive Research

While observing and studying religious aspects of society, anthropologists realized that studies of festivals and rituals are essential for understanding religion and human origin. They are small building blocks that convey important aspects of religious life. Recognizing this value, anthropologists began recording other people’s accounts of festivals and rituals and then continued by documenting their own observations. In these accounts of festivals and rituals, anthropologists worked to provide descriptions of the people, details of the processes undergone in the ritual activity, and information regarding relationships among the group. Festivals and rituals were elements of religion in ancient times, and, as such, early ethnologists, sociologists, and anthropologists began providing empirical accounts of their existence in society.

Explanatory Research

Observation of tribal societies and their feasts, rituals, and festivals led anthropologists to follow their descriptive research with explanations as to why they exist in society. Attempting to understand their importance led anthropologists to exam their function, purpose, meaning, and symbolism for civilization. Endeavoring to clarify empirical studies with reasons for the survival of rituals has helped to broaden anthropologists’ overall understanding of what they observed in these ceremonies, and it gave rise to new theories and interpretations. Explaining festivals and rituals from various theoretical points of view has been enlightening, but it has also fueled debates among social and cultural anthropologists.

Records of these observations and explanations have provided a wealth of information on festivals and rituals. These field research studies and analyses have also allowed social scientists to compare case studies with other historical accounts of festivals and rituals. Anthropologists continue to seek measurable standards that allow quantitative and qualitative data to be compared. Creating hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, evaluating findings, and comparing and contrasting the information with information found from other rituals and cultures continues today. Recently, anthropologists have applied quantitative and qualitative research methods from other disciplines to provide further analytical information.

Types of Rituals


As mentioned previously, most anthropological definitions of ritual include an aspect of repetitive or patterned behavior in their description. These behaviors may mimic or reenact actions from the past. These imitative actions can be ingrained traditions of religious ceremonial practices, repeat a story, or share a myth. The debate as to whether these actions stemmed from myths, or whether the myths came from actions, was a central point of contention between many anthropologists in the early 20th century. Later anthropologists appear to have agreed that some rituals stem from myths and some myths are offshoots of ritual. Imitative rituals may include rites of passage, healing, purification, and more. They may be periodic or celebrate a particular occasion.

Periodic/Seasonal Rituals

Rituals that are celebrated at regularly spaced intervals are known as periodic rituals. Periodic rituals observe special days or seasonal events. They may occur on a specific date such as July 4th or at a more open-ended time such as during the first harvest moon or on the second Sunday in May. These rituals can be associated with seasonal celebrations, national events, community festivities, religious commemorations, and more. These holidays, or “holy days,” offer an opportunity for friends and family members to unite and celebrate a commonly held belief or practice. Most of these days are periodic, and many of them include symbolism. An American flag to mark the celebration of Independence Day, or an evergreen to celebrate Christmas, are just two such symbols.

While not necessarily holidays, similarly celebrated periodic occasions include birthdays, graduations, retirements, reunions, and anniversaries; these events are often honored with ritualistic activities. People gather together to honor someone or something, and to participate in prescribed actions that are not everyday activities for the honoree. The occasions are important to the individual, and the coming together of family and friends who participate in the attached activities enhances their value. These episodic revelries sometimes take on even greater significance at certain times in human life. Certain birthdays, for example, are more heavily revered than others. In some cultures, the first birthday is marked as a time of extra rejoicing because the baby has lived through a year that is often a tenuous year for children in those societies. In other cultures, this particular occasion is celebrated at a later point in life, but observed, nevertheless, for the same basic purpose, to mark the individual’s arrival at a safer plateau in life.

Healing Rituals

Among the many events commemorated during a human’s lifetime are those that are organized to assist people with healing processes. The loss of a loved one, major illness, or horrific violence can leave individuals in despair. A major life crisis, such as death, may leave family members and friends needing to bond with others in order to regain a sense of order in their lives. Ritual processes like the three phases discussed by Van Gennep (1909/1960) provide opportunities to express emotions and begin the healing process. Those people who are closely attached to the departed generally need to separate themselves from the lost member through mourning, transition through the phases of grief, and then rejoin society. Traditional ritual services that honor the lost person are celebrated throughout the world. These ceremonies provide an opportunity to share the loss and provide mutual support during the darkest time periods. This need for therapeutic rituals occurs in times of illness, too. Special healers use time-honored practices to ward off evil and bring health to the ill.

Purification Rituals

Purification rituals may also serve a therapeutic purpose. Like healing ceremonies, they help people traverse through a series of cleansing processes: sanitization, solidarity, reflection, beseeching, and sacrifice. These rituals are practiced with all seriousness, for the ultimate goal is to show repentance in hopes of returning the sinner to society’s good graces. If a person has upset the divine order, restorative measures may be used to attempt to regain stability.

Ritual, Performance, Theater, Arts, Media, and Recreation

The challenge of defining festivals and rituals has resulted in no specific guidelines as to what they actually constitute. This lack of specificity has led to various interpretations as to the difference between rituals and theatrical performances. It has been argued that there are ritualistic festivals and ritualistic theatrical performances. Both include actions and incorporate the arts of singing, dancing, and music. The debate is whether or not theatrical performance is ritual, or ritualistic behavior. In this same vein, there has also been a disagreement over festivals and rituals and their place in parades, carnivals, beauty pageants, protests, and national ceremonies. Western anthropologists generally describe the entertainment aspects of theater, and the serious efficacy aspects of ritual, as methods of codifying what belongs within each of these categories; but festival, which has been affiliated with both ritual and theater, has a secondary definition of gaiety and merriment. While festivals may be merry, by most definitions rituals are not strictly fun, frolicking, and frivolous. In the past, anthropologists have contemplated ritual in theater and the other branches of the visual arts, but recent research has concentrated much more extensively on the secular arts and their relationship to festivals and rituals.

Ritual and Communication

When anthropologists began documenting rituals, they noted that the ceremonies appeared to include nonverbal messages. The participants seemed to be following a format in which they had been taught to share a series of actions with the community. In some instances, these activities appeared to provide the participant with some freedom of expression, and the anthropologists perceived that they were witnessing repetitive and imitative behaviors that communicate messages to society and the gods. Both the solemn and highly charged rituals seemed to transform and empower the participants. Many of these rituals included verbal communication forms, too. Both verbal and nonverbal ritual communication, their meanings and their structures, have been of interest to modern anthropologists.

The process of analyzing and interpreting festivals and rituals includes three phases: (1) the messages conveyed within rituals and festivals, (2) the anthropologist’s attempts to interpret and effectively express knowledge gleaned from these performances, and (3) the readers’ or listeners’ efforts to effectively receive this information. The communication that takes place within the ritual itself has been a regular component of the interpretation of festivals and rituals. Anthropologists recorded what they saw and later attempted to clarify their interpretations through participant interviews. Most of the anthropological studies of festivals and rituals that have been generated for English-speaking communities have been transmitted from a European-American perspective; but many of these festivals and rituals have been translated from non-English-speaking communities. Hence, there has been more effort to gain direct insight on festivals and rituals from within the culture.

Rituals and the Family

Social scientists’ study of ritual may be viewed within the smallest social unit, the family. Families establish festivals and rituals that bind them as members of a large clan, as constituents of a religious unit, or as affiliates of political or social groups. Wedding services, holiday celebrations, and other family occasions provide people with shared experiences and develop and create new relationships. Rituals help meet humans’ need for unity and stability. Family members thrive in households that provide unifying experiences that offer continuity with past generations, familiarity with periodic events, predictability in routine, and protection from the unknown. Rituals also provide significant coping techniques in a world that can often seem overwhelming.

Family rituals can be viewed as both emanating from society and providing protocol for the social order. Viewing the ebb and flow of festivals and rituals from all of the various interpretations has expanded research into many arenas. Today, even a family vacation holiday to a favorite getaway place may be seen as ritual.

Future Directions

The study of festivals and rituals has evolved parallel to the field of anthropology as a whole. Anthropology has been studied from both cultural and social traditions; but modern anthropology includes a host of subdivisions such as action or development, architectural, biological, business, ecological, economic, environmental, evolutionary, feminist, forensic, industrial, linguistic, political and legal, psychological, and visual. These various divisions of anthropology offer even more study opportunities when a multitude of more specific categories are explored: aging, carnivals, education, race, social class, bioethics, ethics and justice, sexuality, and gender. Each of these research areas offers opportunities for further investigation of festivals, rituals, and ritualistic behaviors.

As the field of research has expanded, so, too, have the various approaches to the study of festivals and rituals. A review of the most recent literature appears to indicate that cognitive approaches, which involve thinking and reasoning, are likely to be in the forefront in the foreseeable future. New scientific emphasis on biology—also known as physical anthropology—and neurology are also providing anthropologists opportunities for unprecedented exploration. Current theoretical approaches to the study of festivals and rituals appear to be those that require thought, scientific methodology, and humanistic views. These methods are also ones that most easily lend themselves to cross-cultural interpretation. As communication methods and global transportation have seemingly shrunk the world, anthropologists have also become more inclined to utilize international and interdisciplinary approaches to investigate these basic elements of human existence. The study of festivals and rituals is inherent in the field of anthropology and will continue to be a valuable element in the science of human beings.


Festivals and rituals seem to have existed nearly as long as humans have walked the face of the earth. They are performed all over the world for a variety of purposes, including ritual compliance, recognition of respect, satisfaction of personal needs, improvement of cultural bonds, and social acceptance. Anthropologists have documented festivals and rituals as worship rites, rites of passage, celebrations of joy and sorrow, and components of everyday culture. They are integral parts of most societies that help shape culture and assist in establishing common connections between members of the culture. They provide a sense of commonality that facilitates participants’ understanding of their heritage, eases transition from one stage of life to another, and provides legacies for the future. Although festivals and rituals are fundamental aspects of human culture, anthropologists have yet to truly understand their intrinsic values and their ubiquitous nature in society.

Anthropological studies of festivals and rituals have evolved from accounts of tribal religious practices to scientific methodology applied to both religious and secular events. Over time, some social and cultural theorists have described various aspects of festivals and rituals as being the most pertinent for their research in understanding humans. They have depicted festivals and rituals as ranging from prescribed, symbolically controlled sequences of beliefs in actions with deep-rooted symbolism and meaning to simply being action that is separate or different. Various theorists and researches have come to different conclusions regarding the function, meaning, and structure of rituals and the boundaries of festivals.

The abundance of literature on festivals and rituals has exploded into nearly every social and cultural arena. The broad and variant interpretations for festival and ritual have ranged from very solemn functional affairs to happy moments of social interaction. They have included periodic, life cycle, and performance events. When viewed in humanistic terms, the field of festival and ritual studies may have reached its preteens or adolescence, but there are still major growth prospects ahead.