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Symbolism in African Ritual

Defining the role of a ritual in a society can depend a great deal on how homogenous the society is and whether all its members participate in the same belief patterns. In “Ritual”, the authors point out that too often in Western culture we have come to associate ritual with religion and that simply is not always the case (Schultz and LaVenda, 167). Instead the truth of the matter is that rituals are often rooted in shared mythology and shared beliefs, but those are not necessarily tied to religious practices. Further defining the idea of a ritual is that it is a series of actions recognizable to someone who has never seen it before as such.

It can be a series of gestures, dance, song or speech that holds symbolic meaning to those participating in it (167). And, a ritual should be set off from the social routine of daily life, even if the ritual is practiced within that daily life (167). Perhaps the most prevalent and obvious non-religious ritual within American culture is the Pledge of Allegiance. Generally preceded by the playing or singing of the National Anthem, this ritual is practiced in a great many countries through the world, but for this discussion we will concentrate specifically on its use in the United States.

This ritual is used to commence sporting events and any major gathering of people, from the Kiwanis Prayer Breakfast to the elementary students’ school day. It has a specific set of actions which are followed, a speech that is recited and a meaning backed on the mythology of the national heritage. This ritual begins with all the people in attendance standing up. For whatever reasons, we have determined that as a sign of respect this ritual is conducted while standing. There is a posture expectation. People stand straighter and at attention, though not to the military definition, when reciting the pledge.

There is a dress code. Men are expected to remove their hats. And, there is a gesture. People place their right hands over their hearts when reciting the Pledge. These practices are so engrained in American culture that many people find it hard to recall the words to the Pledge if they are not situated thusly. And, the ritual is symbolic. Few people believe that they are actually making a binding promise when pledging allegiance to the flag, but both the pledge and the flag are symbolic in their minds.

The flag represents the country and the pledge represents people’s promise to be loyal to that nation. The Pledge of Allegiance also fits the classic definition of ritual in that it is entrenched in the mythology that is American history. Unfortunately, many Americans cannot recite specific events of American history, but believe that the country is democratic and free. They believe that their country is good, despite specific evidences to the contrary and they believe that the country offers “liberty and justice for all” despite personally held beliefs that discrimination and injustice run rampant.

Many are more likely to be able to recount Daniel Boone’s legendary fight with a bear than his actual contributions to American history at The Alamo. The pledge is as much a part of what people believe about their country as it is a demonstration of that belief, yet the ritual itself is less than a century old. Ask an American Protestant and most would argue that their religion is not steeped in rituals the way that Catholicism and more Orthodox traditions are, but the rituals of Protestant faiths are there, though sometimes a bit more subtle that the Catholic religions.

Take, for instance, the Baptist tradition of “Dinner on the Grounds”. These potluck dinners are usually held during the summer, so that they can literally be held “on the grounds. ” There is a practice associated with these dinners that develops its own distinct characteristics within each congregation, but the overall ritual is the same everywhere. After the Sunday morning services conclude, the men of the church retire to set up the tables and chairs while the women head to the kitchen.

Younger women, usually teenagers, are tasked with the preparation of drinks, almost always consisting of lemonade or kool-aid and iced tea, while their mothers and the older women of the church set up the main dishes. There is an order to this as well, dictated by design of the local congregation, but the pecking order generally revolves around the pastor’s wife’s dish. The other dishes are set out in an appropriate order, usually depending on the woman’s place within the church fellowship or that of her husband. Newcomers are often relegated to making desserts or salads.

Once the meal is in place, the pastor traditionally makes some remarks and then asks one of the deacons to give thanks for the food. Children are generally fed first and then the men of the congregation and finally, the women who did all the work. Afterward, the men and children retire to various games, usually those requiring only mild athletic prowess, like horseshoes or volleyball and the women are left to clean up the mess. The specifics of the ritual vary from church to church with some churches, often dependent on the age of the congregation, leaning to more active pursuits.

Church elders are generally ensconced in lawn chairs in whatever bit of shade is available and the children are tasked by the parents to behave and not mess up their Sunday clothes. Depending on the congregation, there is also almost always one food, be it casserole or dessert that is the subject of endless discussion and is always the first thing gone. For the women, relegated to kitchen and clean up duty, discussion usually centers on new recipes or some upcoming charity project. The ritual dictates that no serious conversation can take place at these events as that might hamper the “fellowship.

” The ritual is designed to promote goodwill and friendship within the church and happiness is an expected and sometimes parentally enforced emotion. Almost always, the prayer and mini-sermon before eating will refer to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes or Jesus having fellowship with his disciples, anchoring the practice firmly in the mythology surrounding the birth and life of Jesus Christ. In particular, this ritual is tied to the myth that members of the same faith should be friends with one another and enjoy each other’s company.

These two rituals are an important part of our society as they help to define segments of our population and give order to it. The Pledge of Allegiance ritual is a sign of solidarity and choice, indicating that the people of the nation want to be a part of it. It reinforces their belief in the buzz words of liberty and justice. The Dinner on the Grounds ritual of the Baptist faith in particular and Protestant faiths in general harkens back to their mythological belief that having a pleasant conversation with others of like faith over food somehow makes them more Christ-like.

Yet, within the ritual, it also sets forth a social hierarchy, both male versus female and based on longevity or relevance within the church structure. The most important, the children are allowed to go first because it is believed that they must be taught the ways of the faith and take it forward. The men eat next because in the church society, they are deemed more important than the women. The women make and clean up the food because most Protestant faiths believe that this is their place, to be submissive to their husbands and submissive to God.

Men, meanwhile, are expected to enjoy one another’s company and do manly work, like setting up the tables and chairs. Regardless of whether one agrees with the sub context the rituals set forth, rituals have an important place in society because they establish order. While that order can sometimes be questioned or changed within the ritual process, order itself must be maintained for society to continue. 2. Myths are stories that a people, that is, a culture or group within a culture, tells about themselves.

Discuss some of the uses of myths; e. g. , group identity, explaining social or natural facts, finding personal solutions, answering Big religious Questions (see Brockoway, All Myths are Stories). Why are myths both public and private (see The Power of Family myths) symbols? Explain what sort of cultural uses are made of these myths; chose a religious myth and a secular one with which you are familiar and explain their uses and role in cultural rituals? What do the stories say about their view of the way the world works?

Mythology is often used to help explain away real or imagined history and to help understand natural occurrences. Within a family, myths often develop out of an effort to seem more interesting or out of the simple misunderstanding of a real event. For example, in their personal family history, who wants to admit to being a European nobody who came to the New World, enslaved others based on their race, lost their property during the Civil War and has worked as tradesmen and union members ever since.

It is a much more interesting tale if your great-great-grandfather was born on the wrong side of the blanket and is the bastard son of someone with ties to nobility who fled to the United States to escape his treacherous half brothers and once he got here established the only Southern plantation where slaves were treated well and people actually volunteered to become slaves. Which story would you rather have as part of your family tree? The thing about family mythology is that no one wants to admit that their grandfather was an abusive husband who drank too much and squandered his money on whiskey, leaving his widow and orphans destitute.

So, family myths develop over time. Perhaps an uncle, in passing the story of their father on to the orphans, decides to sugar coat it, to keep the children from resenting their father. Or maybe such things simply weren’t talked about at the time. Take, for example, family medical histories. For generations, some things simply weren’t discussed. A woman would never tell her daughter, or her sons, that the oldest of them was born six months after his parents’ married and he was born full-term. A man would never tell his doctor, much less his family, that he had an enlarged prostate.

Mothers would have “female trouble”, not breast cancer, hysterectomies, or uncontrolled bleeding. Thus, for some generations, family myths developed out of a sense of honor and the idea that some things simply were not talked about. By the time society shed its Puritanical leanings, those who knew the real facts were dead and gone. And, the story about a wayward son who stole the family fortune and went west to follow his dream is much more interesting than the idea that someone was a horrible farmer and lost his shirt, and everything else, to the bank and the Dust Bowl.

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