One of the things that most strongly differentiates modern from traditional societies is the business of rituals. Broadly speaking, modern ones have very few of them; Traditional ones have a lot of them. What is a ritual? It’s a periodic invitation by your society, typically by its religion, to come together with other people for an event that marks an occasion, often of an underlying spiritual or psychological nature. Perhaps it’s the start of the year, the birthday of a God, a day to apologize, or a moment to feel grateful for springtime, or the love of now dead relatives. And so you dance, say some rather formal words, eat an unusual food, or wear special clothes. And by doing all this, you are, somehow, helped. Purged in some way. Helped to grow, transition to a new stage, reconnect to an important idea, or guided to inner peace. What marks out modern societies is how ruthlessly they’ve stripped back rituals. Largely because they get in the way of making money. To generalize, when societies become modern, rituals drop out of the calendar and the main focus starts to be private and work life, and not much in between. A key part of understanding our own times is therefore to grasp the history of rituals. What they have been, where they’ve gone, and in what ways we might be missing them today? Rome, 17th December, 150 AD It’s the first day of a three-day celebration known as the Saturnalia: a ritual festival in honor of Saturn, Roman God of wealth and agriculture. The Saturnalia is a time of ecstatic release and exuberance. The Roman poet Catullus describes the occasion as “the best of times.” All the normal social codes and rules are temporarily put on hold or turned upside down. Masters are expected to look after their slaves and parents to obey their children. Slaves can’t even insult and poke fun at their masters with complete impunity. Important magistrate and public officials wear colorful sometimes silly clothes and cones on their heads. Your meant to shout “Io Saturnalia” at strangers when you pass them in the street. Married couples can have affairs and no one is meant to be unduly upset. Women can make the first move on men or sleep with one another. There are orgies and you can gamble and drink as much as you like. Then after three days of fun everything comes to a stern halt and order is restored but life feels a lot less bitter and oppressive. The slave is back to his dinner duties but the memory of having called his master a shit lighten his burdens. The mistress of the house is back to putting up with her boorish husband but the two nights with a hairdresser make a sarcasm and dullness importantly more bearable. Across Rome a great many people can’t wait for the 17th of December to roll around again. Alexandria, Egypt, 10th day of Tishrei, 969 AD It is shortly after the beginning of the Jewish new year, in one of the thriving centers of Jewish life, under the protection of benevolent Arab rule. The Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur is a Solomon critical event in the Hebrew calendar. Leviticus instruct that on this date all Jews must set aside their usual family and commercial activities and mentally review their actions over the preceding year. Identifying all those whom they’ve hurt or behaved unjustly towards. The ritual festival is kicked off by the blowing of the shofar: a hollowed-out ram’s horn. Then together in a synagogue the Jewish community repeat in prayer: “we have sinned we have acted treacherously.” They then seek out those whom they frustrated, angered, discarded casually or otherwise betrayed. And offer them their fullest contrition. This is God’s will, and a rare opportunity for blanket forgiveness. “All the people are in Fault” says the pray and “so make all the people of Israel be forgiven including all the strangers who live in their midst.” The day of Atonement has the immense advantage of making the idea of saying sorry look like it came from somewhere else neither the idea of the perpetrator nor of the victim. Under the assumed eye of a benevolent God, it allows everyone a chance to make a clean break and move on. Medina, June 12, 10 AD It’s the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, marking the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. As one of the five pillars of Islam fasting is obligatory for virtually all Muslims, requiring abstinence from sex as well as smoking swearing and violence. Fasting is believed to cleanse the soul by removing from it worldly concerns and focusing on God alone. It’s admired as a way to teach self-discipline, self-control and empathy for those less fortunate. Adherence to Ramadan will provide strength and spiritual growth for the upcoming year. Ramadan gives vital encouragement to an enduring human desire: the wish to start a fresh, reform oneself and lead a better life hence forth. But rather than these ambitions being left to the individual alone, Islam wisely creates a collective moment to strengthen the will and it finds a fitting physical activity to support what is at heart a spiritual endeavor. Gazelle Peninsula, Papua New Guinea, 1652 A mother has come to visit her adult daughter and grandchildren, for a few weeks in a village community of the Baining tribe. Now it’s time to say farewell. There is sadness all around and the mother and her guide head off through thickly forested hills. It may be a long time to mother and daughter will see each other again. The Baining have developed a special word to describe the feeling that can come over you when a friend or relative you love has left. They call it “Awunbuk”. Symptoms of Awunbuk include sleeping in, losing a sense of purpose and an inclination to burst into tears. But the Baining have also developed an accompanying ritual to deal with the sadness of Awunbuk: The people who have been left are granted three days during which they’re not expected to do any gardening or hunting. Everyone is supposed to behave very gently around them. Then, on the third day the sufferers have to leave a coconut shell of water on the veranda of their house. It’s believed to soak up sadness and with a few ritual words they then throw the water out into the garden there by purging their emotions and signaling a return to active life. The ritual of Awunbuk is similar to morning rituals all over the world. It legitimates what might otherwise be a guilty or confused melancholy. It gives sadness a shape and a direction. It demarcate a time for it and then gently creates a moment when we meant to overcome it and rejoin the group. Warsaw, Poland, spring 1798 It’s the Jewish festival of “Birkat Ilanot” which dictates that at the time of the first blossom the community will gather outdoors by some trees and flowers in bloom to appreciate the beauty of nature and honor the generosity of its creator. In the company of a rabbi, Jews recite a ritual prayer from the Talmud honoring the hand that made the blossom: “blessed are You Lord our God, King of the universe who didn’t leave a single thing lacking in his world filling it with the finest creatures and trees so as to give pleasure to all of mankind. 2,000 kilometers to the west, an English poet is also struck by the beauty of spring and wants to express his enthusiasm and gratitude: “I heard a thousand blended notes while in a grove I sat reclined” writes William Wordsworth in the opening stanza of his “Lines written in early spring” of 1798. Both the Jewish community and the poet appreciate springtime but the poet is not interested in ritualizing his feelings. He is emblematic of a new age known as Romanticism which believes in leaving people to feel things at their own pace at a time of their choosing. Religious belief is in decline across Europe and for many rituals are tainted by being associated with a supernatural. That’s unfortunate even in the hands of religions rituals have been guardians are very important states of mind that would otherwise be crushed or neglected. A book of poetry is in the end a hushed object in a noisy world whereas a ritual protects emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which without a degree of fabrication and structure we might be too distracted and undisciplined to make time for. London, October 1834 James patterson, the governor of the Bank of England cuts annual, national or so-called bank holidays to just four a year. Only three years earlier the English bank like many English businesses had been closed for 36 days a year to make room for all sorts of traditional ritual festivals up and down the land. The bank’s drive to slash holidays is typical of a hundred year long process that begins in the late 18th century. The industrial revolution has made it deeply inconvenient for employers to let their workers take holidays to mark this or that ritual. The collective purification of the soul is of no interest to employers. It’s something you can do in your own time. There are even suggestions to put an end to Christmas and Easter which together cost industry of fortune. Nuremberg, Germany, 30th of August 1933 Adolf Hitler leads “The Rally of Victory”. 700,000 people are in attendance. People sing marshall songs are gonna blast from speakers. There are banners of swastikas torchlight parades and thousands of soldiers goose-stepping. To engender a sense of fraternity flags are ritualistically touched against a blood-soaked flag from Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923. Hitler speaks for hours on racial supremacy, German art and architecture and an international Jewish conspiracy threatening to bring down the Aryan race. Behavior like this hastens the modern suspicion of any ritual behavior. Collective activity and excitement start to seem ever more eerie mob like and out of sync with an individualistic age. London, 30th of July 1966 96,000 people including the Queen of England take their seats inside Wembley stadium to watch England defeat West Germany in the world cup final. 32 million people are watching on TV. The picture of England captain Bobby Moore hoisting the trophy is immortalized by statue in East London while the ball is canonized in a special museum in Manchester. Rituals have continued into the modern age but they now tend to be around sport. They’re very limited in their ambitions and lack a lot of the psychological richness of religious minded rituals of old. Australia, 26 of May 2015 The 18th annual Sorry Day is held in Australia, when white Australians atone for the removal of 50,000 children from aboriginal tribes. The day is a somber occasion for reflection with speeches from the indigenous Australian community and politicians of all stripes. However, the day meets with little public enthusiasm and engenders little change no compensation is awarded and many feel the day obscures the still prevalent kidnapping of children from aboriginal families. Like so many modern rituals even once emphasizing important events in a nation’s identity national Sorry Day feels rather placid and in many ways token. The part of human nature the craved and created rituals has not been eliminated but it is currently in many developed societies quiescent or unfairly tainted by associations with a less admirable sides of religion. So a lot of what we used to do in ritual ways we now do privately: we have moments of carnivalesque indulgence, we get drunk, have affairs say sorry, purge ourselves and feel grateful for existence. But we also do so without guidance and therefore our behavior often lacks boundaries or is half-hearted or colorless. We also often just forget things. We have very few collective appointments with important emotions but perhaps we remain in need of rituals all the same. Points in the calendar that help us in our endeavors to be sane and kind. A challenge for the future will be to create new rituals every bit as convincing as those of old with the proper resources of art, music and design that will take some of the burdens off us as individuals. We’ll have realized that being modern has not replaced our need for rituals.