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I.5.4 Myths and Rituals

Myth Ritual
Believed to be truthful accounts of the past, the narrative that gives religious sanctity and sacred character to the account, and is often associated with ritual is called myth. All myths may not actually depend on the past and necessarily do not deal with sacred, yet they refer to or hinge upon such putative factors providing social credibility and acceptability of the account.

Well-known myths are creation myths. Myth is different from legend as the characters in the myth are usually not humans. They may be supernatural beings or animals or other animate and inanimate objects and sometimes they are ambiguous characters.

Myths generally offer explanations for the customs and practices.

On the other hand, legends are about culture heroes, historical figures located in historical events, which are believed to have taken place, that very easily transit into the contemporary life.

Ritual, like religion, is difficult to define due to diverse forms and complexity of

the phenomenon. However, one may understand it as a set of formalised actions performed with symbolic value in a socially relevant context or worshiping a deity or cult. It is also a customary observance involving stereotyped behaviour.

Rituals vary in form and in content within a particular religion and across religions. They involve participation of one or more individuals, physical movements or actions, verbal and non-verbal or symbolic mode of communication based on certain shared knowledge. Often ritual actions are infused with certain moods and emotional states and the participants may inwardly assent or dissent from the ritual process.

Victor Turner defines ritual as “prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technical routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical (or non-empirical) beings or powers regarded as the first and final causes of all effects”.

Folk tales are not considered sacred but regarded as stories or fiction meant basically for entertainment. These tales may also include supernatural  elements, yet are essentially secular in nature. The characters in these tales may be human and/ non-humans. The tales exist independent of time and space. Gluckman and Turner differentiate ritual from ceremony, though both of them are forms of religious behaviour. Ritual involves social status and transition of one’s status and, therefore, it is ‘transformative’, while the ceremony is associated with social status and ‘confirmatory’. But such fine distinction often gets blurred and difficult to maintain the difference. Rituals are classified as religious, magical, calendrical, sacred, secular, private, public, sacrificial and totemic and so on.
There is a strong relationship between myth and ritual, and there was a debate as to which came first. It is so because some argued that ritual is the enactment of myth whereas others had argued that myth arises out of rites.

The contemporary studies on myths find no strict correspondence between the two.

Franz Boas tried to understand the social organisation, religious ideas and practices of people from their myths. Malinowski argued that myth is a powerful social force for the native which is relevant to their pragmatic interests. It expresses and codifies beliefs and works towards efficacy of ritual and provides a practical guide. Anthropologists most often use in their discourses on religion the ‘rites de passage’ of Arnold van Gennep, who analytically isolated a set of rituals called rites of passage. The rites are organised recognising the change of status of individual in one’s life time, and each of the rites employs three phases: separation; margin (or limen); and incorporation.
For Levi-Strauss, myth is a logical model, it is a cultural artefact.

The human mind structures reality and imposes form and content on it. According to him, myth is an area where human mind enjoys freedom and unrestrained creative thinking expressed in it. Taking into consideration several limiting factors, humans think certain conceivable possibilities about the critical problems that they face. Therefore, myth provides the conceptual frame for social order, but it need not correspond with the ethnographic facts of social organisation.

Levi-Strauss provided a method for structural analysis of myth. The latter studies of myth point out the fact that myth interprets the reality but does not necessarily represent the social order.

Turner elaborates the transitional phase liminality in his study of Ndembu in Zambia.


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