"In the early 1960s most ethologists maintained that personality, decision making, emotions, and culture were unique to humans, but chimpanzee research helped to dispel that arrogant thinking. And now Dimitris Xygalatas shows that rituals are not confined to humans but are present in many mammals, birds, and even insects. This is a fascinating, well-researched book about a fascinating subject. You will learn a lot."—Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace
“Ritual is a deep, engaging, magnificent book. Full of vivid stories about the myriad ritual behaviors of human beings — from the prayers made to countless gods to kissing dice at craps to wearing feathered gloves full of biting ants to walking barefoot on hot coals — it shows how humans turn ordinary life into something awe-inspiring, how we use shared rituals to transcend our solitary selves. Xygalatas walks through fire himself, literally and intellectually, to share great wisdom about the human condition.”—Nicholas A. Christakis, New York Times-bestselling author of Blueprint and Apollo’s Arrow
"The great mystery of human behavior is ritual. How do we explain circumcisions, debutante balls, hazing, royal coronations, and fire-walking? Dimitris Xygalatas is a brilliant polymath and this fascinating book explores this question through a mix of scientific research, evolutionary theorizing, and deep immersion into cultures with gruesome and painful rituals. An important intellectual contribution and a true delight to read."—Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy and The Sweet Spot
"Why do people walk on hot coals, scarify themselves, pierce their bodies with sharp objects, fast, kneel, handle poisonous snakes, endure hours of boring sermons on their days off? Armed with new tools, such as biometric sensors and hormone sampling, Xygalatas reveals the inner workings and crucial functions of ritual, which explain both its antiquity and ubiquity. Packed full of engaging case studies and experiments, this book is an entertaining and engaging introduction to the cognitive science of ritual by one of the pioneers of the field."—Edward Slingerland, author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
“One of the best studies of ritual in years. In elegant, clean prose, Xygalatas draws on traditional ethnography and contemporary social science to show that rituals play a central role in the way we define who we are and in the health of our bodies. The book is a superb introduction both to classic anthropological theory and the modern science that extends its insights. Xygalatas shows that humans are indeed the ritual species.”—Tanya Luhrmann, author of How God Becomes Real
"From the firewalking ceremonies of Greece to the terrifying rites of Amazonia, anthropologist-cum-psychologist Dimitris Xygalatas leads readers on a whitewater tour of the new science of rituals, exploring and explaining how and why all human societies engage in seemingly senseless, repetitive, and obscure customs that integrate rhythm, dance, music, pain, and sacrifice. Rich in ethnographic detail, personal narratives and psychological experiments, Ritual tells us how we can use this new science, and the wisdom embedded in ancient traditions, to elevate our lives, improve our health and strengthen our communities."—Joe Henrich, author of The WEIRDest People in the World
“We are ritual beings; we surround ourselves with rituals—at birth, death and everywhere in between. But why do rituals matter to us when they so often bring so few obvious benefits? In this striking, wonderfully written, and original new book, Dimitris Xygalatas unravels the mystery of how rituals—from the mundane to the bizarrely violent—can be the source of transformative power.”—Michael Patrick Lynch, author of The Internet of Us and Know-It-All Society
"With a knack for showing how 'strange' behaviors are closer to home than we realize, Xygalatas masterfully explains how what binds us to other human beings are our most mysterious activities — rituals. Actions with no clear purpose are often, ironically, the most meaningful things we do."—Jesse Bering, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago and author of Suicidal
"An elegantly simple and deeply persuasive argument which generalizes to other forms of delusional belief"—Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring
A comprehensive examination of rituals, from the primitive to the complex, and how they embody social meaning and purpose.
In his first book for a popular audience, Xygalatas, who runs the Experimental Anthropology Lab at the University of Connecticut, digs into an understudied field. Researchers have often dismissed the concept of ritual as an oddity existing at the fringes of culture even while acknowledging that every society has its ceremonial practices. Despite his initial skepticism, the author observed a huge number of rituals, supplementing his findings with lab studies, and interviewed numerous participants, many of whom “swear on the importance of their rituals, although they are not always sure why they are so important.” Humans have been doing this for millennia. In fact, Göbekli Tepe, one of the oldest and largest archaeological sites in the world, built more than 12,000 years ago, was apparently designed with a variety of ceremonies in mind. Xygalatas examines religious ceremonies as demonstrations of faith and sacrifice, as well as military rituals, which have the purpose of building solidarity and skills. Other rituals connect to mate selection and fertility. The legal profession has plenty of odd ceremonies of its own, with robes, titles, and Latin incantations, and athletes will often carry lucky charms or perform personal rituals before a big game. Yes, Xygalatas concludes, rituals are essentially pointless in that they do not have any impact on the physical world. However, there are undeniable effects for those who participate, and they are usually beneficial in providing social cohesion and individual purpose. “Ceremony is a primordial part of human nature, one that helps us connect, find meaning and discover who we are,” writes Xygalatas. “It is only when we embrace our obsession with ritual that we will be able to harness its full potential in our lives.”
Intriguing glimpses of how ritual provides the foundation stones of social structure and cultural evolution.