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Updated: Feb 28, 2023

There is little doubt we perform rituals which can properly be called human. They cover a vast repertoire of actions. Ritual stretches from the simplest rite to the most elaborate, from the most familiar to the most exceptional. An everyday act like sharing a meal can furnish the background just as much as a collective trance, or the ravings of a transgressive festival. These rituals, however different they may appear, have a continuity which is due to human social activity, and are cemented together by both emotional interaction and the exchange of signs.

We are social animals

This collective aspect can be found everywhere: in seasonal rites, cyclical within the year; in the rites of passage which unfurl along the linear axis of human existence (birth, growing up, marriage, mourning), even if this axis fits into a larger cycle of life and death. Even the occasional rituals enacted with a therapeutic object which accompany an event like illness or any other potentially traumatic event. We have an impressive toolbox of bodily actions for these situations. They can be considered together under the aegis of ‘celebration’ or ‘festival’, whether joyous or not.

Gathering the tribe is the necessary prelude and a ritual in itself; then food and drink (or fasting), dance, story-telling, song, music, drawing, immersion in water, anointing, procession.

The creative chaos

Certain actions seem intrinsically associated with ritual, sometimes to a spectacular degree: deliberate intoxication by a variety of substances, the setting up of dramatic scenery, bodily modifications (tattooing or circumcision), transgressive acts, wearing masks, the ordeal, sometimes competitive along with risk taking and other physical exploits ... It is just in the ritual moments of paroxysm that the human being feels most deeply his belonging to the group, his place in the cosmos, and the vital energy which is working in him when he touches or enters into a state of modified consciousness.

The benefits of dissociative states like trance need to be more deeply studied, as we know little about them

These ecstatic experiences are described by first peoples as the breaking-in of a life-bringing chaos into the world order which is necessary but always tends to rigidity and sterility.

This chaos is the world of the spirits characterized by symbolic representations of wild spirits of the forest, both threatening and helpful; this has survived into modern times as the Wild Man (or Woodwose) of European countryside. These personages are the central figures of the universal phenomenon, dating from ancient times, of what we in the West know as Carnival.

© Matthieu Smyth,

Professeur d'Anthropologie, Université de Strasbourg

Photos : ©Claudia Tur-Fauquex

Illustration : Tanit Agency

Thanks To :

Exposition Masque du Lötschental au Musée Arts et Collection,

Avenue de la Gare 7, 3963 Crans-Montana, Valais/ Suisse

Fondation Bernard et Caroline de Wattewille


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