A core concept on the Road to Religion (and the Road to Rulers) is Ritual. What exactly is it, and why is ritual so important?

In my storied life, I’ve happily participated in plenty of rituals that, to an outside observer, must look extremely silly. But they sure meant a lot to those of us doing them. But there are plenty of rituals that look even sillier, out of context. Some of my favorites come from Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin books… like these two from The Mauritius Command:

But they crossed the line itself in style, with studdingsails aloft and alow, and with more than the usual merriment, for when they reduced sail to let Neptune come aboard, accompanied by an outrageously lewd Amphitrite and Badger-Bag, he found no less than a hundred and twenty-three souls who had to be made free of the equator by being lathered with rancid grease—tar was forbidden, being in short supply—and shaved with a piece of barrel-hoop before being ducked.


Our law, in its wisdom, has preserved much of this, and it is particularly remarkable in the customary tenure of land, and in petty serjeanty. Allow me to give you an example: in the manors of East and West Enbourne, in Berkshire, a widow shall have her free-bench—her sedes libera, or in barbarous law Latin her francus bancus—in all her late husband’s copyhold lands dum sola et casta fuerit; but if she be detected in amorous conversation with a person of the opposite sex—if she grant the last favours—she loses all, unless she appears in the next manor-court, riding backwards on a black ram, and reciting the following words:

Here I am
Riding on a black ram
Like a whore as I am;
And for my crinkum-crankum
Have lost my binkum- bankum;
And for my tail’s game
Am brought to this worldly shame.
Therefore good Mr Steward let me have my lands again.

My uncle owns one of these manors, and I have attended the court. I cannot adequately describe the merriment, the amiable confusion of the personable young widow, the flood of rustic wit, and–which is my real point–the universal, contented acceptance of her reinstatement, which I attribute largely to the power of poetry

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Join the conversation! There are now 16 comments on this chapter's page 70. Ritual. What are your thoughts?
  1. Castamir says

    What does it mean “bete rot” on the sign? (in runes)?

  2. STM says

    What are some rituals lawyer do? The judge saying “Oyez” springs to mind, though it once had a practical purpose.

    • Ritual, nothing—What we do is a full-blown liturgy! Complete with litanies that (like those of ancient pagan temples) must be recited precisely correctly, lest your hoped-for outcome be denied, or gods forbid you incur the wrath of the high priests of the Appellate Temple!

      (That’s a bit of a spoiler, but as we proceed you’re going to see that our judicial system has a lot in common with ancient religion. I’m not just blathering on about this stuff for no reason!)

  3. You are taking too narrow a view of religion. Religion does include beliefs. But it also includes practices, and social connections. |Link| Even in protestant Christianity, the religion that I grew up in, that places lots of emphasis on belief, you learn certain behaviors, like saying grace before meals, before you learn any accompanying belief. I am in favor of retiring the word “religion” its been around since the 17th century and we still can’t agree on what it actually is. It seems like it obfuscates more than it reveals. |Link|

    • You are talking about a version of religion that came along way, WAY after the first religions, which is where we’re going at the moment. I know it’s been hard for some people to think of the ancient world as completely alien to our modern world, even to present-day hunter-gatherers. It’s hard to think of a world devoid of what we think of as religion, government, nations, or all the other institutions, because we’re surrounded by them. But it’s important to know that our modern concepts are fairly recent inventions. It’s important to understand why they came to be, and how people have tried to deal with the perennial problems that result, to have an informed discussion of how we deal with them in 21st Century U.S. Constitutional Law.

    • I agree with this take. There are plenty of traditions that are still around today, that are unambiguously defined as religions by scholars and identified as religion by those practicing them, that have more to do with rituals and practice than belief. I do think Nathan has a point (assuming he’s going where I think he is) that relatively recent religions like Christianity (Protestantism especially) and Islam departed a lot from previous cultural traditions in how much they relied on belief, but I wouldn’t say that means the previous belief systems don’t also qualify as religions.

  4. Do you mean to say that ancient religions did not include practices and social connections in addition to explicit beliefs?

  5. Tarhalindur says

    Most likely it’s a situation where all (or at least almost all) religions have rituals, but not all rituals are part of religion.

  6. Tarhalindur says

    Crap, I meant to reply to Sewblon. I cannot brain today.

  7. Jeffrey Brown says

    Hi Nathan, you seem to be getting a lot of criticism lately. I just wanted to say thanks for putting in all the work to make this whole thing. I was a bit worried when you didn’t post for quite a while in the middle of a pandemic (here or on Twitter) so it’s great to see you seem to be OK.

    • Much obliged! I actually did get Covid—despite being the one germaphobe in the family (gently mocked for it, too) who’s always washing his hands and covering up and getting his flu shots. There’s no justice. I made it, but others close to us didn’t. Still have long-haul symptoms that befuddle the doctors. But I’ve promised to get this done, so I’m doing it!

  8. Lydia says

    You showed this ritual at the top of boys entering manhood. I believe that there were also rituals to allow children to become non-binary genders. For many cultures, the most common non-binary gender role was for boys to become a liminal role between men and women, often seen as highly spiritual. The two-spirit, hijra, and kathoey are all examples of this. I imagine there were other transgender/non-binary gender roles like this, but those are the most well-known.

    • Do you have any sources for this belief?

      (Seriously. I’d really like to read them.)

      From what I have read, the concept of transgender/non-binary gender appears to be a relatively recent construct unique to western culture. The examples you mention are also relatively recent constructs from other cultures, none of which appear to make a distinction between gender and biological sex, and which don’t really fit the western concept. I understand that the Hijra of India get quite offended at being cited as an example of non-binary gender identity, seeing it as an insensitive attempt to appropriate their cultural identity for something they do not at all identify with, imposing western definitions without bothering to understand how they define themselves. The “Two-Spirit” people of some Native American cultures, likewise, are not shifting between gender identities, but between gender roles, and there’s a big difference. Other communities where the imposition of western notions at best don’t really work, and at worst exemplify colonialist/imperialist attitudes, include the Kathoey of Thailand and the Fa’afafine of Samoa. I’d say the brotherboys and sistergirls of Australian Aboriginal cultures may be the closest fit to the transgender/non-binary gender concept, but they wouldn’t say it themselves.

      More importantly, none of those are examples of cultures practiced ten or twenty thousand years ago. Paleolithic bands of 50 or 100 people just weren’t big enough to experience these kinds of issues very often, maybe once every few generations? It’s hard to imagine any kind of long-term cultural practice arising in such conditions. And even then, what would have been the point? Neolithic villagers who’d settled down in one place for long periods are more likely to have come up with some sort of narrative for gender-nonconforming individuals, but for what purpose? In a life of subsistence farming, your role likely had more to do with the body you were born with than whatever identity you might have had. It’s the much larger societies with religions, surpluses, and significant division of labor where you could naturally develop both a narrative and a purpose for gender-nonconformity, and have it become part of your culture. And even then it didn’t happen right away.

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