When everything is ritual is anything ritual

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


The ritual dismemberment of every last priestess, chief, and talented child on Eheu Isle should have been enough to keep the Realmwalker trapped in the hole he'd punched through the center of the world.

The wily old god managed to pull power from their corpses anyway.


There's a joke in the archaeology and anthropology communities, that if you don't know what something is, it winds up termed "ritual." Find a weird bone pipe? It must have a ritual use! Find a box that doesn't literally have "this was used exclusively for shipping merchandise" stamped on it? It probably had a ritual purpose!

We often think of rituals as solemn affairs, like funerals and church sermons. Joyous affairs like weddings get "ritualized" with long, formal sermons, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox religious traditions. Even looser rituals like attending a holiday meal (happy Thanksgiving, American friends!) are inherently fraught, as family history and social norms evolve.

Anthropologists 600 years from now will almost definitely think my turkey roasting pan I use once a year had "a ritual purpose," and to be honest, they'll be right.

Then there's the other kind of rituals, like the weird little superstitions baseball players get known for or the way most people say "namaste" at the end of a yoga session. There are quasi-religious rituals like neighborhood kids hunting for Easter eggs, and not to beat the "sports are rituals" drum too hard, but most are highly ritualized. Tennis is my favorite example: this article from Atlas Obscura  details the incredibly elitist roots of the game and explains how so many of the strange little rituals and rules evolved.

Yet, most of the rituals that come up in fantasy stories are like the one in, well, my fantasy story.

It's always some kind of ritual dismemberment or black-robed monks chanting some dark ritual, eye of newt to perform the ritual of making a witch's brew — rarely do we see "and the sorceress performed the ritual necessary to kick off the chariot races."

The Romans certainly had big festivals where they slaughtered a goat, but we have this notion that these sorts of events are dramatic, cinematic events. The priest climbs up a towering temple or pyramid, slaughters a goat or a pig (or a person) on a huge stone pedestal, rips out the heart and triumphantly holds it aloft.

Most of us have probably seen a movie like that, or come across a similar scene in a book. We rarely think about what happens afterwards.

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