The Nature and Function of Rituals: Fire from Heaven

The Nature and Function of Rituals: Fire from Heaven

The Nature and Function of Rituals: Fire from Heaven

The Nature and Function of Rituals: Fire from Heaven


Rituals define crisis situations and guide participants through transitional phases of their lives. Since prehistoric times, they have resolved existential fears and reenacted the mystical event of experiencing the "fire from heaven." The essays in this collection help modern readers understand the nature and function of rituals in human society from earliest times to the present.


Edith Tumer

I am starting the preface to this book by putting myself in the shoes of a serious performer of ritual. In that mode, I am going to take a look at the prime topics concerned.

What is the nature of ritual? It is work done at the behest of and under instruction from spirits, gods, or powers, and it is work that has efficacy in its performance. It is unlike utilitarian work whose usefulness is seen in its result, not in the doing of it. Yet ritual is also done to achieve something. Saying that it is a performance is not to say that it is a show, performed to impress people. It is done much more seriously than we could ever image being the case for ordinary work. It is, indeed, done with total intent, as when a shaman draws the crystal over the body of a suffering person and senses the illness, or when an African healer draws his mongoose-skin bag carefully down the body of the sufferer, holding the mystic disease under control with focused intent. Both types of practitioners are catching the signals from the sick part of the body. These acts are typical of the nature of ritual. Each act is done in both the material and the spirit world; utilitarian cause and effect are not the issue. It is in the action that the result takes place -- in the particular present action.

Then, what is the function of ritual? It is to give humankind the powers promised to it: "You shall run and not grow weary." "You will be born again." "Your young men shall see visions." Entire personalities are re-formed for a new stage in life, healing, finding what is lost, clairvoyance, speaking with ancestors, all the multitudinous connections that . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.