The crescent & star
of the Turkish flag,
symbols older than






Living Images of the Tradition:
Ritual and Symbol

   Ritual Honors Divine Beings
   Ritual Makes Reality Work Right
   Ritual Makes Reality More Real to People
   The Separation of Magic from Ritual
   The Origin of Ritual
   Legalistic Ritual
   Rituals as Part of the Long Transformation
   Kinds of Symbols
   Core Symbols
Ritual, Symbol, and the Numinous
   The Symbol in Primitive, Archaic, and Historic Religion
   The Problem of Idolatry in Historic Religion
   The Death of Religious Symbols

The language of ritual and symbol has been an expression of religious tradition for nearly all religious traditions.

Ritual is ceremonious or formalized behavior.  This behavior is not limited to the religious sphere.  From rituals of greeting to marriage, ritual makes up an important part of everyday life.  Religious ritual often serves three purposes: to honor divine beings, to maintain the traditional order, and to support and legitimize existing thought structures.  In this way, ritual can make reality seem more “real.”  Although magic is often an important part of religious ritual, religions of the historic stage tried to deemphasize or eliminate the role of magic.  Similar to the role of magic in ritual is the role of legalism—obedience to external forms of ritual rather than participating in the true meaning.

The Origin of Ritual
Though ritual is very useful in affirming the reality and significance of a way of life, most people do not recognize this as the reason they take part in religious rituals.  The true origins of ritual are unclear.  Some reason that humans have an inborn tendency to ritualize, while others note that ritual is an important learning device.

Ritual as Part of the Long Transformation
It is easy to see performance of ritual as a shortcut to the things we desire.  However, we gradually learn that a transformation supported by ritual is a slow, arduous journey.  By encouraging people to make religious vision a guiding center of their lives, ritual helps to illuminate lifelong goals and remind people that struggle accompanies all development.

All forms of symbol—words, pictures, actions, objects, etc.—are meaning-carriers; like ritual, they have the ability to make reality more real.  Because religious traditions profess belief in invisible numinous realities, symbols can provide a means of perception for these invisible realities.  Some religions even have core symbols that are central to the tradition, such as the Jewish Torah, a symbol of God’s kindness and guidance.


The Symbol in Primitive, Archaic, and Historic Religion

In primitive religion, symbols and the numinous are essentially the same thing.  Rather than describing sacred objects as symbols, the objects are considered to embody the numinous essence as well as represent it.  This tendency is sometimes seen in archaic religion as well: the statues of gods may be the gods themselves.  However, archaic religion can also recognize that representations of numinous power are distinct from the power itself.  Historic religions have a firm grasp of this concept.  Because symbols are part of limited reality, they are clearly separate from the ultimate numinous reality.


The Problem of Idolatry in Historic Religions
The infinite nature of ultimate reality makes symbols even more important for followers of historic religion; symbols can even be dangerously attractive.  The treatment of finite symbols as infinite divinity is called idolatry, a practice that Western religious traditions fiercely prohibit.


The Death of Religious Symbols
One form of a loss of religiousness is when symbols begin to lose their impact and significance.  This can happen simply through cultural change.  Symbols may die when their meaning is no longer culturally acceptable, or when legalistic use of a symbol “wears out” its significance.

End of notes to Chapter 10

This page last changed Tuesday May 20, 2003

In The Presence of Mystery



Line of Sufi dancers,
el Ghuri Palace, Cairo,
1998.     Photo: 
Copyright Stephen Wolf