The Rite

The rite is a central theme of the anthropology of religion, constituting, according to W. R. Smith, “the ancient religion in its totality”. He states that “…primitively, religion was not a system of beliefs with practical applications, but a set of fixed traditional practices to which all members of society were subjected”. Ritual hypertrophy configures the central aspect in ancient religions of ancient structure, as is the case with African matrix religions. Along these lines, Radcliffe-Brown states that beliefs have a much more variable and volatile character in the face of the rite, which presents itself in a more consistent and perennial manner, which is why, according to him, rites should be the privileged object of study in the discipline. For Durkheim, the rite has a social dimension, has a character of repeatability, performs a specific function within a society. In Freud’s wake, Malinowski conceives a psychological dimension in the ritual, which would function as a cathartic and reassuring. Malinowski also observes a ‘magical’ dimension in the ritual, resulting from the fact that its effectiveness resides in him, i.e. when he summons an immanent power (the mana), distinguished in his idea from the ‘religious’ dimension, which occurs when its effectiveness depends on the intervention of powers outside the rite (gods and spirits). Marcel Mauss made a decisive contribution in the theoretical approach to the rite. According to him, the rite is a “traditional act” adopted by the collectivity or by an authority recognized by it, and which deals with things conceived as “sacred”. For Mauss the rite has the coercive function of manipulating things by means of offerings and requests. Victor Turner, for his part, considers that the study of rituals must be accompanied by the study of symbols, affirming that symbols are multifaceted, i.e., they represent several things at the same time. For Turner, religious life presents characteristics proper to communitas, having “qualities of passage”. Finally, for Turner the ritual is a system of symbols that “stores traditional knowledge”, possessing a rigid and repetitive character, possessing a dramatic charge that allows the group to overcome divisions and reaffirm unity.


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