Universal Ritual?

What makes ritual universal? Why do some scholars argue that ritual is universal? What does the term “universal” really imply? Ritual is best understood by distinguishing it through various lenses: the subjective versus the objective, the universal versus the individual, or the academic versus personal experience. At the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, 26 students and one professor assembled for a five-day journey of a lifetime. We sat through a multitude of ceremonies, from a four-year-olds birthday party, to a wake, to multiple sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, and finally to the highly anticipated Yuwipi ceremony (or healing ceremony) in the basement of Mike Jr.’s house. After the doors were locked and blackness filled the silent room, I grabbed onto my classmates’ hands on either side of me. Mike Jr. was tied up with rope and blankets covering his entire body and the ceremony began with loud drums and singing. Unfamiliar noises ensued, as well as mysterious inexplicable flickers of white lights darting around the room. There were aspects of the ceremony that every person, Lakota or otherwise, experienced: the chanting, the drumming, the shaker, and the lights flashing. I found myself unable to close my eyes, afraid of what may happen in front of me and wanting to witness everything there was to see. We proceeded to each put in our own personal blessing, a prayer, or a concern, that the sprits could help us with. Then, the loud noises continued, filling the room with daunting vibrations and spirits.

From a more personal subjective viewpoint, I assured myself the lights and the shaker were created by one of the Lakota people running the ceremony. But with additional reflection, I realized it was virtually impossible to comprehend the events without giving credit to the spirits who filled the room with an inexplicable presence. I felt unsettled, a lack of control, a fear of what the spirits might see in me. The ceremony seemed much shorter to me than I thought it would be, but nonetheless, I left feeling exhausted, lethargic, and full of unanswerable questions. What I do know, though, is that my personal interpretation of the ceremony is based on my own past experiences and how I created meaning. I focused on various aspects of the ceremony that affected me most, while other students noticed different aspects and had different experiences. Regardless of what we independently felt throughout the ritual, our energy was combined to create a strong force. This idea relates with Victor Turner’s perceptions of ceremony and ritual, but Robert A. Segal’s interpretation focuses more on the universality of ritual, rather than individual subjectivity.

In order to discuss ritual as a universal phenomena, we need to understand the meaning of “universal”. Robert Segal discusses ritual as a universal phenomenon in his analysis of Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual. As Segal describes Turner’s argument, the word universal refers to a ritual as something that occurs for everyone in all places and cultures; it is a form of communication and understanding amongst human beings. Ritual is an all-encompassing experience that “serves to uphold society as well as to give human beings place in…it” (Segal 330). Segal seems to misinterpret Turner’s notions of the universality of ritual. On the other hand, in Turners article, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic,” Turner discusses ritual in a slightly different way. He does not use the term universal, but rather illustrates the distinction between tribal and universalistic ritual systems, using “universalistic” as a particular form of ritual in the Christian Church. He alludes to the varying traditions associated with each type of ritual. Turner argues that “all human societies have culturally defined communication codes for transmitting messages to one another about matters of ultimate concern” (504). Unlike Segal, he recognizes the different rituals held throughout the world. Arguing that ritual is universal removes the critical individual subjectivity; Segal overlooks the idea that different things happen for different people. If we use universal to mean that ritual is the same everywhere, regardless of culture or traditions, we are misunderstanding the idea. But if we use it to mean the varying presence of ritual among time, space, and different cultures, we are better equipped to analyze rituals. Rituals have the power to be long lasting, uniting, and transferable, but they still vary drastically amongst cultures. Segal’s interpretation fails to understand that ritual is based on subjectivity and inter-subjectivity.

Rituals give human beings a place on this earth, a meaning to their experiences, and a mode of communication amongst different cultures and communities. Regardless of peoples’ standard of living or way of life, ritual proves to be a uniting force in our diverse world. As Turner points out in his article, “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic,” people create interpersonal relationships based on past inspiration and present experience (517). Visiting the Lakota people on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a prime example of how people from separate worlds can converge and partake in powerful meaningful ritual, strengthening the universal bonds of mankind.

Observing the Lakota people and their rituals made me, to some extent, understand an aspect of universality of ritual. The Yuwipi ceremony is a powerful example of ritual serving as an unifying force. We all sat in the same room, with the same people, observing the same events. However, I do not know how any other individual interpreted the experience because our individual differences shape our experiences and what spirituality means to us. Based on my past, I focused on specific aspects of the same ritual that felt significant to me personally and therefore, leave me with varying opinions on what happened. What meanings we each create and how we interpret the experience varies on an individual basis; individuals have the capacity to create their own undisputable judgments on ceremonial occurrences. My own personal experiences enriched the rituals, but also limited me to what I could understand due to the language and cultural barriers.

Turner argues that ritual serves as a form of an expression or belief. It “serves to communicate information about a culture’s most cherished values” (504). He acknowledges language barriers and cultural differences, while understanding that every person can attend and participate in a ceremony, feeling included and welcomed. Segal, on the other hand, fails to address language as an obstacle to the so-called universality of ritual. Turner expresses the idea that tribal ritual systems are passed down generationally through oral tradition versus universalistic rituals through writing. He emphasizes the importance of writing as a facilitator to providing “ritual instructions.” The notion that written traditions are more centralized opposes my experience at Pine Ridge. I observed a high level of participation in ceremony and ritual with all generations of the Lakota people, much more than I have ever observed before. The Lakota people do not maintain written records of their ritual; rather, they learn it from a young age and incorporate it into their daily lives, so ritual is transferred through generations.

Ritual gives human beings a sense of belonging in society by conveying information and describing the place. Whether someone enters Pine Ridge as an observer or a participator is unimportant from the perspective of the Lakota people. Each outsider deserves a chance to learn about the Lakota culture and can decide how they choose to best do so. At Pine Ridge, classmates frequently commented on how the Lakota people have been so accepting and open with their culture and traditions, relating to Turner’s idea of ritual as an inclusive and welcoming part of society.

While I do see the merit and argument that ritual is universal, I question the validity of the term “universal”. Using this term makes it difficult to engage the personal and the subjective interpretations of ritual. We must not discount any person’s individual experience, and therefore, can acknowledge the fact that rituals are powerful, enduring, and transferable, yet never identical; also, ritual constantly changes over time. As illustrated through the Lakota people, ritual does have an exquisite way of creating a cohesive community atmosphere despite our differing life stories.

Works Cited

Segal, Robert A. “Victor Turners Theory Of Ritual.” Zygon 18.3 (1983): 327-35.

Turner, Victor. “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic.” Worship Jubilee: 504-26.


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