The English word “ritual” comes from The Latin “ritualis” meaning a “rite” or “ritus” . Ritus has been used in Roman and religious context to describe the proven way of doing something, or correct performance of a tradition or custom. The word “ritual” has been used in common English since circa 1570-1600, and is now modernly defined as “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”.
Rituals have been used in almost all known human societies. Many rituals are very commonplace in modern Western civilization and are regularly performed by people of all ages, races and creeds. Examples of such are birthday celebrations, graduations, religious masses, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, sporting events, coronations, holidays, parliamentary procedure, and so on.
The characteristics of a ritual vary widely according to it origin and usage. Many rituals, however, will typically involve specialized gestures, costumes or vestments, food or drink, sacred objects, incense, music, singing or chanting, dances, and a recitation of fixed texts or phrasing. Rituals are typically held in a sacred place and performed by selected officiants and to some extent, involve the active participation of it’s attendees.
The usage of ritual conveys a sense on formalism and tradition, and are used to pass down, unimpeded by time and deviation, an important message, lesson, or symbolism. Some rituals are used to preserve or reenact specific historical events, while others appeal to an invented tradition. Often veiled in allegory, sacred rituals can have a profound effect on it’s participants, invoking a sense of reverence and allegiance. Some rituals are performed regularly yet remain unchanged through the ages. This can invoke a preternatural feeling of belonging and connection to all those who have participated in ages past.
Many rituals are performed every day in the secular world without giving a second thought. One’s morning routine can be classically defined as a ritual. Brushing your teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast, getting ready for the day, may not seem much like a ritual, but are often performed in a very specific order and manner which rarely deviates from day to day. Birthday parties are another classic example. Typically there is gathering of friends and family - selected participants, a birthday cake - a symbolic food which is to be presented and consumed in a specific manner, birthday candles - a symbolic representation of age, singing - a traditional song which is sung by all, and the offering of gifts. Even the workplace is full of daily rituals. Clocking in and out, performing specified daily tasks, observing formal office etiquette, lunch routines, etc. can all be considered types of rituals.
Some of the world’s oldest and most sacred rituals are heavily regulated and kept to a core set of rules and procedures. This type of regulation allows the ritual to remain unchanged for thousands of years. Religious rituals or rites are among the oldest and most observed. Roughly 88% of the worlds population of over 7 billion people identify themselves with some form of organized religion. With that many followers, and that many rites being performed, regulation and uniformity become ever the more crucial. Most organized religions have a governing body that endeavors to ensure that these rites are performed in a specific way to secure uniformity and prevent misinterpretation.
Many Christian religions, as an example, are very similar in many ways. With the passage of time and changes in society, sometimes major deviations of opinion and interpretation call for changes to ritual or belief, often resulting in a split from the main organization. These deviations called “sects” or “denominations” will many times keep the core structure and essence of it’s parent organization but with a notable, but sometimes subtle difference in doctrine and/or ritual. Liturgical cycles and similar schedules ensure that the same passages of sacred texts are orated on specific days, thus universally synchronizing all of the bodies within a particular denomination. Prayers, ceremonies, and vestments are also scheduled and coordinated to maintain a uniform usage within it’s body of observers. This is among the many reasons why we call it an “organized religion”.