Review of Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living by Dimitris Xyglatas

In Ritual, Dimitris Xyglatas discusses the role of ritual in human life, drawing on research from a broad range of countries from Georgia to Greece, India to Indonesia, Lebanon to Libya, New Guinea to New Zealand, Spain to Sudan, and Tanzania to Turkey. Many of the examples come from his own studies, including his own experiences of fire-walking.

Xyglatas links the need for ritual to many other psychological theories and research, including Skinner’s work on conditioning, Tajfel’s work on social identity and in-group behaviours, Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, Zak’s work on trust, Bloom’s work on pain and pleasure, and even Dunbar and other’s work on primate rituals including grooming.

Although much of his own research covers religious ceremonies, including those in his own home of Greece, Xyglatas also discusses more profane examples of ritual including those in our everyday lives. The book even covers the impact of COVID-19 in creating new rituals that helped people cope with the pandemic and lock-downs, including Jimmy Kimmel’s exhortations to dress up in a tuxedo once a week for a sit-down dinner.

Overall, the book argues that ritual is a human universal, that sits with others listed by Donald Brown in his anthropological work. These rituals revolve around both daily moments and more important rites of package in our lives (marriage, childbirth, burials, oaths, etc).

Roy Rappaport wrote that ritual is “humanity’s basic social act” and this book is a good place to understand its importance in human lives.

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