The Power of Ritual: Informative and Intriguing

The Power of Ritual
by Robbie Davis Floyd and Charles Laughlin
Daily Grail Publishing, 2016, $26.95 paper, ISBN 978-0-9874224-9-1
Reviewed by Drs. Susanne van Doorn

 

ritual
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the power of ritual: introduction

Do you remember the eighties when Joseph Campbell talked to us about “The Power of Myth”? It was magic on television. His engaging way of telling a story combined with the way he glued it to the challenges of that time, it made us all feel that mythology was very much alive.

Three decades later, authors anthropologist Robbie Davis Floyd Ph.D., and neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin explore the Power of Ritual.
In the foreword Betty Sue Flowers, editor of “the Power of Myth” says:
“In The Power of Ritual, Robbie Davis-Floyd and Charles D. Laughlin have done for ritual what Campbell did for myth-tell stories, personalize the study of ritual, and relate ritual to the concerns of everyday life”.

 

ritual
Joseph Campbell in the Power of Myth

 

Even though it is not written as a textbook, it has an academic thoroughness about it. It explores all the facets of ritual: the brain of the Homo sapiens, mythology, the “hardware” of ritual: the drivers, the techniques and the place, the “software of ritual: the emotions and the transformations it can sustain in a certain society.

Where myths are the stories that make us come to terms with the world, rituals are a sword with two edges. Ritual helps you make sense of the culture you live in and it can help you change that culture.

the power of ritual: giving structure

They give a list of 9 core characteristics that constitute the anatomy of ritual, based on Ronald. L. Grimes’ The Craft of Ritual Studies. (Grimes put Ritual Studies on the academic map). This list is the guideline that is used throughout the book.

“Ritual is one of the oldest human activities-often considered as important as eating, sex, and shelter. Why has it persisted so long? Why does every attempt to suppress it result in creating it anew? What makes ritual seems at once so foundational that even animals do it so superfluous that Protestants once imagined they could dispense it altogether?”

Ronald Grimes, Introduction to Reading in Ritual Studies

 

ritual
Art: The Biosphere by designed by Buckminster Fuller, photo by Dennis Bathory-Kisz

 

In eleven chapters there is a diligent search for the power of ritual. In every corner, every room, every symbol, every core symbol is interpreted as a part of a ritual. A ritual can be positive as well as negative. A ritual is dualistic: it has to sustain a culture and its rulers, but it must also be a vehicle for social change.
Not an easy subject.
But it is clear that a ritual gives structure, and it needs a certain place, a certain time, with people acting in certain ways, dressed in certain clothes. Even if a ritual has no effect, people usually blame this on something they themselves have done wrong.

the power of ritual: Personal stories

What sets this book apart from other books are the very personal stories the authors use to illustrate the values that are part of any ritual. The authors take the daring step to share some very personal stories to illustrate the 9 principles of ritual and in doing so they dare to break boundaries. The only thing that was unclear to me as reader, is who is telling the story.

Almost every personal story is told in the third person perspective. To me this was a little confusing at times. There are two authors: has one author told the story, and has the other written it down?
In the final chapter, Robbie Davis finally dares to write in the first person perspective, as she tells the story of the celebration of her deceased daughter.

Her daughter died in a car crash, one of the most heartbreaking experiences any human being can ever experience. And telling it from the first person perspective makes it strong. I was there too, celebrating the life of this vibrant young girl. Being a mother myself, I feel the loss, the desperation and the celebration about the short, but beautiful life she had lived.

“When I was called to attend the lightning of the candles on the birthday cake, I told the caterers to STOP and hold it for a little while, and then I took my sweet time to walk around the beautiful gardens to note how friends and relatives had clustered to eat and talk about Peyton-forever engraved in my memory are the shining candles and my equally shining family and friends. I had learned not to simply ride the ritual train, but to stop it for a little while. so I could simply bask in the moment to drink in from the ritual every single thing it could give me.”

Conclusion

What is the verdict: to buy or not to buy?
pro:

  • The book gives a very good analysis of ritual, and frequently surprises you with new data and insights. For example: have you ever conceived giving birth in a hospital as a ritual? Have you ever realized that a ritual is like an unstoppable train? Have you ever realized that there must be a combination of internal as well as external drivers to change consciousness when performing a ritual? This book gives so much information and so much examples that you will feel more knowledgeable once you have read it.
  • I really like and admire the fact that the writers share personal stories. Having the guts to step outside the scientific anthropological point of view, they practice what they preach. You can not study a phenomenon without having experienced it yourself.
  • There are many models and theories discussed in this book. Nine aspects of ritual, states of consciousness, a cognitive matrix, the cycle of meaning, four stages of cognition… A multitude of ways to analyse ritual.
  • The book is quite easy to read.
  • There is a lot of attention for mythology and dreams in this book. Charles Laughlin is an accomplished practitioner of Tibetan yoga and talks about dreams and dream incubation with ease, and he even shows the box he created to sleep in.
  • There is much attention to the birth process of human beings. Lots of Western women (like me) never get proper educated about it because our grandmothers, mothers and sisters are too traumatized to discuss the process.
    “An electronic fetal monitoring machine, which Robbie has interpreted as the primary symbol of hospital birth (Davis-Floyd 2004), also speaks with many voices, promising to provide full information on the strength of the laboring mother’s contractions and the contraction of the fetal heart rate, representing the vast corporation that created it and the technical know-how that went into making it, and giving women a sense of psychological and emotional trust in the information it provides” (page 57).But this machine also sucks up the attention: the mother is no longer the centre of attention: the machine is. Having given birth twice in the hospital (I was obliged to do that being diabetic) I know from experience that when the heart rate of my second baby dropped significantly, this became the center of my attention for several agonizing hours.

con

  • All the models and theories can become quite confusing. I had some trouble of allocating some concepts into the picture the authors are trying to describe. There are nine major characteristics of a ritual, there are four stages of cognition, there are the twin axes of instantiation, there is the cycle of meaning, there is the technocratic, humanistic and holistic paradigms of medicine there is a cognitive matrix… It can be a bit confusing to get the big picture the authors are trying to paint for you as reader.
  • Unfortunately, there is no e-book available (yet).

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