The Ritual, the Symbol, the Myth

ritual

Proceeding on from an article I wrote not long ago in defence of useless things, I hope the reader will continue to allow me an indulgence in my mediocre understanding of aesthetics and explore the emergence of what might be called the aesthetics of culture.

Our lives are made up of little moments of meaning: from our morning routines to our good-luck charms, we wrap ourselves in a world we construct to feel a degree of control over; but beyond the basic utility of certain practices, we furnish these things with enjoyable gildings to make them feel personal. The same is true of the inter-personal world – we shape and personalise practices to make them feel as if they are ours, from the celebration of birthdays to the spectacle of weddings down to the observance of the passing of another life, we take occasions that bear no practical relevance to our day-to-day lives and show that they mean something. It is out of these shared expressions that culture emerges, and from culture, community.

In this world we make, there are three distinctly aesthetic elements of culture: rituals; symbols; and myths. Each may be related to the other – in fact, it is almost essential for culture to endure that the three coalesce. Consider Christmas: the ‘myth’ of the Christmas celebration is that it was the birth of Christ, which you may take sincerely or symbolically; and literal symbols adorn the myth, from the religious symbolism of the nativity scene, the Christmas Star, or angels, to the secularised Christmas tree; while the ritual giving of presents, now ubiquitous, keeps the ceremony and celebration alive, while the more devout attend Mass or pray. In this article I wish to examine each of these three elements, their particular significance, and the role they play in the construction of culture and the creation of community.

The Nativity Scene celebrates the Birth of Jesus Christ and the gifts given by the Wise Men, and the Shepherds.

Rituals

A ritual, in the cultural sense, is not taken alone, but requires a plurality in order to be recognised as “cultural”. We may each have rituals we perform each morning in isolation, from the necessary (showering, shaving, breakfast) to the unnecessary, but those remain mine or yours, and hold distinct meaning for a single individual, perhaps because of the good luck they bring or the security they reassure us of. But these are not ‘rituals’; rather they are simply habits and were we to try and explain those habits we keep and their significance to another person in a rationalistic manner, we would appear mad. Perhaps it is a sign of the truth of this that we often explain the significance of habits in an emotional manner: I could say, for instance, that every morning I write in my diary because it clears my head and readies me for the day, thus appealing to the irrational but sympathetic side of humanity, rather than the rational side that might consider such a practice universal in its application; some would consider writing in a diary every morning a waste of precious time.

What demarcates a ritual, instead, is the sharing of it with another soul; and I say soul specifically because it would be dismissive to consider religious rituals mere ‘habits’. This is because, for instance, prayer is not a habit, but a communication with God, thus a communal practice, even if that communication is between the material and the transcendental. Returning to this world, if we may speak concretely in terms of culture, as I set out to do, a ritual can be summarised as a regular practice between two or more people.

As I mentioned in the previous article, part of the usefulness of art is its lack of utility; it is not designed for a particular use, and therefore a plurality of uses may be found in it according to the plurality of the audience observing it. Culture is specified by a minor derivation; a simple utility underlies the ritual, which provides a degree of limitation to that plurality of meaning. The purpose of the ritual may be obviously biological – we need to eat, but there is no need to make ceremonial dinners so elaborate; or it may be historically contingent – in Lithuania, for instance, the Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, in which they consume carp or herring instead of the Western turkey, which is a nod to the historical absence of turkey or game bird in Eastern Europe but the abundance of fish. Therefore, we can say that there is a utility behind a ritual; but the aesthetic element is the uselessness of the gilding and ceremony we afford to it. And in doing so, we open up the interpretation of meaning to the plurality created by art.

When we join one another for a meal, the biological necessity does not dictate that we do so in public; instead, that is our desire to reaffirm our bonds of friendship or family that require us to eat together. If eating was the purpose, we would do so alone; therefore, communal meals hint at a deeper meaning, but it is a meaning derived by each member of the communion, and not dictated by the utility. Consequently, rituals invite us in to actively reaffirm our communal membership by taking part in the ceremony of community, and in doing so provide us with the basis of a group identity. One exception to this rule is the historic weight behind rituals that often limits the plurality of meaning: specifically religious rituals, for instance, carry with them the weight of divine significance, such as the ritual burning of candles at Hanukah; or nationally important rituals are burdened with potentially prejudicial meaning, such as the burning of the Guy on the 5th of November in England. But as time goes on, that meaning can fall away, or be replaced with new meaning reflexive to the community that carries on the ritual, instead of simply ending with each generation.

Why is this? The answer is rather simple; as much as rituals provide a community with an identity, a community provides rituals with life, breathing energy into them and keeping them alive for the next generation, as well as adapting them to contemporary periods. After all, a ritual only becomes outdated when a community stops doing it, not the other way around. And by taking part in these rituals, they become real to us, and precious as a result.

 

Symbols

Whereas rituals are intangible practices that are brought to life by the people who do them, symbols are different; they are, instead, physical manifestations and distillations of the meaning of those rituals or traditions that communities care for, and as a consequence reflect the significance of the ritual even in isolation from it. Furthermore, acting as a distillation of meaning, symbols are a bridge between the material and the transcendental, and so often evoke great emotional responses from those who value them, and in this way become conduits for the individual to access the values of the community behind them. Think of flags, or the monarchy (not the monarch), or Lady Justice, and so on.

This is particularly significant for the extension and deepening of community in our daily lives, as it allows us to carry or keep with us reminders of the identity to which we belong. Forgive me for the overindulgence of the Christian stereotypes, but this is part of the reason Christians carry crucifixes with them, both as a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made for humanity, but also as a symbol of belonging to the holy and global community of Christianity and the Church.

Regarding the question of utility and aesthetics, symbols, like rituals, have a utility behind them as they are usually created for a purpose, but this purpose is instantaneously related to a more concrete event or circumstance, or even a ritual in itself. Flags are such an example; flags are typically designed to reflect the community they seek to represent – as the Union Flag does so elegantly – and consequently become focal points of the community itself, and as a result become opportunities for members of those communities to reaffirm their membership. This is part of the reason citizens often swear on flags, or – in a less nationalistic way – football fans wear regalia or outfits adorned with “their team’s colours” (note the possessive noun). Therefore, symbols are not only reflections of the meaning we give them, but are physical representations of the community they bind together.

 

Myths

Finally, myths reside in the realm of the transcendental, are often clouds of lies behind which the truth shines like a sun, distorted and fragmented, but present nonetheless. Myths offer a motivating ideal of membership, a sort of fictionalised goal to live up to. In the strictest sense possible, myths are not entirely true – hence the deliberate choice of the word, “myth”. Instead, they are stories told of and by members of our community, or patrons, or even the community as a whole, with who we feel an affinity by virtue of our membership, reinforced by the rituals that bind us together and the symbols that remind us of this. By virtue of their retelling, they are disfigured, with some parts diminished and other parts exaggerated, in a way that stirs the spirits and rouses emotions. Of course, the myth must bear some relation to the truth in the face of the link between memories and fact; but it is natural that, as fact becomes blurred by fiction, the animating myth takes hold, and the community it binds together makes it part of their identity.

Consider the Second World War; during the opening years of the war, Britain stood alone, hammered by Nazi rockets, bombs and the threat of invasion. It is in the face of this monstrous threat that Britain, cut off from the world, stood stoically against the Nazi war machine and, as we know, would “keep calm and carry on”. Except that wasn’t technically true: Britain had many allies, least of all its imperial territories and the United States, and the famous red and white poster was never actually used, but was propaganda planned in the case of German invasion. But don’t those five words make you proud? Doesn’t the idea of a small island standing alone against a continent-wide malicious empire make you feel some sense of belonging?

Myths are what link us to the community beyond our own time, by drawing a line of continuity from the past to the present, and by our own design from the present to the future via their telling and retelling. The stories of the myths are then distilled in those I have discussed above: rituals, and symbols. In rituals, we re-enact the most tantalising and communal moments of those myths we share, such as the act of receiving Communion, the exchange of gifts around the Christmas tree, the sharing of vows in marriage and so on; in symbols, those myths are made corporeal, such as the aforementioned Keep Calm and Carry On poster. Without the spirit of the Second World War behind it, it would be another array of letters on colour; with the memories of Dunkirk, of D-Day, of daring SAS missions to the continent and, most significantly, the Blitz, that poster becomes a symbol of the Second World War, of British spirit and sentiment, and by extension inspires a connection beyond the here and now.

 

To conclude, rituals, symbols and myths are the building blocks of the aesthetics of culture: it is hard not to use these words interchangeably, perhaps indicating their connection and authenticity, but to use ‘symbol’ as a stand-in for all three, we can see that these building blocks become symbols of community, as epicentres of loyalty and membership around which we coalesce, come together to reaffirm our membership of the long-standing community they represent, and leave feeling so much more enriched for doing so. These centres of community, by extension, become constitutive of our social identity, due to the role they play in our social life.

Jake Scott is editor of the Mallard and a Master’s student of Political Theory at the University of Birmingham.

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