Monday, 14 May 2012


A book on mythology which I read recently put forward the interesting argument that what matters in primitive religious belief is the performance of ritual. Strict observance of ritual appeases the gods, and protects the performer against malevolent fate. I am sure this is a correct assessment. It can be seen, for instance, in the way in which Norman warlords would commit the most barbaric acts, but be confident that going through the ritual of confession and absolution would wipe away the sin, and leave them free to be equally barbaric the next day. They seldom allowed the profession of Christianity to alter their conduct in any way. Then, every few centuries, Saint Francis or Martin Luther (or for that matter, Jesus himself) comes along and says, "No mere observance of ritual can bring salvation! What matters is God in your heart!" Everything is stirred up, but after a while it is found that new rituals have grown up to replace the old.

Ritual clearly fulfils some deep need in the human psyche, and there is no doubt that the performance of an impressive and elaborate ceremonial can induce feelings of awe in the actors as well as the spectators. Magic and superstition are strongly linked with ritualistic behaviour: for instance, some sportsmen always go through such rituals as always putting the right shoe on first. If the ritual has not been performed correctly, they feel uneasy and are thus likely to perform poorly; and so the whole procedure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Robert Graves, in his writings on mythology, suggested that kings have always had a quasi-religious function,and in consequence become increasingly hedged around by ceremonial rituals and prohibitions, with the result that less and less time is left for actual governing, and actual power has to be exercised elsewhere. As early as the mid-19th century Walter Bagehot therefore distinguished between the "efficient" side of the British constitution (the Prime Minister and the Cabinet), and the monarchy, which was merely ceremonial.

At the time of writing, Britain appears gripped by an entirely synthetic piece of elaborate ritual, namely the Olymic torch ceremony. This is wholly without antique tradition, having been invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Games, and become more and more elaborate with every passing Olympiad. One cannot but admire Dr. Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, for his penetrating if cynical insight into human nature. He was obviously right in assessing that this was just the sort of bogus-historical ritual that people would fall for. If we really wanted to follow the ancient Greek ritual, we would open the Olympics by sacrificing a hundred oxen to Zeus: but I suspect this would be a step too far even for Goebbels!

1 comment:

  1. Although the type of ritual varies with the patient, following a ritual is a universal symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Good point about the Olympic torch relay Peter.