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Author: Nikolas Århem


In modern secular societies, permeated by a dominant naturalistic ontology or worldview, the term ritual evokes a symbolic form of behavior or communication, particularly directed towards gods or divinities. In these societies, rituals mark out a separate and sacred domain of reality, one that is divorced from the “really real” the material world ruled by the laws of nature and physics. In this secular and modern world, gods and spirits are fictions of imagination, playing a secondary role and leading an unobtrusive life in society; rituals are thus regarded as symbolic and expressive acts with no “real” effects on the world – at least not in the sense intended by the believers that perform them. If ritual has any effect, it is assumed, it is personal and emotional, subjective and inter-subjective.

In animist societies (such as the hunters and swidden farmers in the Amazon rainforest or the Montagnard peoples of Laos and Vietnam), by contrast, where almost every element and phenomenon in “nature” is regarded as alive and have soul and sentiments like yourself and also powers beyond and superior to your own – in these societies, gods and spirits are the rulers of reality, lords of life and death and governors of all the living – including humans. In such a reality – one in which millions of people live today –, to make a living involves not only mastering the everyday practicalities of life, of hunting and fishing, of cultivating your fields and collecting edible seeds and fruits in the forest; you must also master the “language” of the spirits, know how to communicate and socialize with animals and plants, the spirit lords of the forest and the mountains in order to obtain what you need for your living.

This communication and social interaction with gods and spirits, we – “the moderns” – usually call ritual or magic. To the people who live in the animate world inhabited by spirits, however, rituals are simply part of the everyday work of making a living; it forms part of what we would call economy, or politics, or social intercourse. It is, as it were, just another aspect of the practical knowhow of life in society.

Hence, in “non-modern” societies, i.e., among people assuming a reality ruled by gods and spirits – there is often no distinct word for what we call ritual; they simply call it “work” – like manufacturing an object, performing an act in the pursuit of a goal, an instrumental activity in the process of making a living. The same term may be used for arranging a wedding, crafting a working tool, building a house or carrying out an animal sacrifice.

This is also true in large parts of Africa where belief in the existence of witchcraft and sorcery is widespread and many educated urban people (for example, in French-speaking West Africa), habitually consult a “feticheur” (healer) for help in achieving success in life or business, or to ward off the evil powers of sorcerers. Here too, what the feticheur does is simply referred to as “work” (“faire un travail”).


Chinese script appears to have two different main characters which carry the general meaning of what in English could be termed “ritual”, “rite” or “ceremony”. One of these words is the composite 仪式 (Yíshì), where the first character means instrument”). The second word for “ritual”, is 礼仪(Lǐyí). Here, the first character means “gift”. This fact makes an interesting connection to Western cultural history by shedding light on the etymology of the world “ritual”: it associates the word with the concept and institution of sacrifice in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Thus, the English word ritual is derived from the Latin noun rituum which seems to have been introduced rather late into English (mid-16th century) and at about the same time into virtually all Central and Northern European Germanic languages. Even though the word enters these non-Latin languages only a few hundred years ago – primarily to denote the correct way to carry out the church service – it is not clear which words it might have replaced. Thus, we do not know what, for example, the equivalent term might have been among the early Anglo-Saxons or early Germans. In Scandinavian religious terminology the word “blot” appears to have referred mainly to the practice of blood sacrifice. In Slavic languages, the word obryad also seems to be related to the concept of sacrifice, suggesting a linguistic connection between the terms for ritual and sacrifice. These (and other related) words are all linked to the Latin “oblate” – “offering”.

Anthropologists tend to associate the concept of ritual with the “sacred”, implying that ritual refers to a sacred procedure or performance. It is worth noting that the Latin (ancient Roman) meaning of the term seems very close to that of the corresponding Chinese term, meaning: the “proper way”, or the “customary” way of doing something (implying the correct protocol to follow in important matters and situations). The Latin word is also related to the Sanskrit concepts of Rta, (“order, rule, truth, the principle of natural order”) and artavan (“he who is morally accomplished”).

The old Germanic religious ideas and practices provides an entry point into the pre-Christian meanings of ritual. Christianity arrived to the Germanic tribes via the expansion of the Roman Empire. The earliest forms of Germanic (and, indeed Celtic) religion are known through archaeological findings, such as deposited ritual objects – usually found in lakes and marches. These depositions trace back all the way to the Neolithic age. Hence, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of the goddess Nerthus being worshipped “on an island in a lake”. In several bogs, wood figures have been found with strongly emphasized sexual features (suggesting that the worshipping around lakes was connected with notions of fertility). Large public offerings seemed to have taken place in centralized locations, and human sacrifice was common.

What makes it difficult for us to reconstruct the exact nature of European pre-Christian religious life outside the literary civilizations of ancient Rome and Greece is the fact that the Christianization of these lands were accomplished by the destruction of precisely native rituals and the places of worship, or an almost immediate appropriation of these places and practices for Christian worship. Once the cultic places were destroyed, non-Christian cultic worship disappeared almost instantaneously. Indeed, the wood from destroyed sacred groves of the pagan tribes were often used to build the new Christian churches.

One of greatest strengths of the early Christian missionaries was precisely the fact that it had little qualms in readily absorbing extant rituals amongst many different nations, and even of maintaining the sacrality of their sacred places by replacing their pagan mythic content with Christian notions and narratives. Certain sacred wells and springs, which had been worshipped continuously perhaps since the Neolithic times, continued to be used as places of worship, now with a story of a Christian saint attached to them. The pagan world tree became the Christmas tree and the maypole, now associated with Christian holy periods (notably Easter and Christmas). By giving old rituals a new, Christian content, the missionaries facilitated the conversion precisely because ritual practices were generally considered more important to the lay people than the religious ideas associated with them.

Animal rituals and pre-linguistic communication

The classical philologist Walter Burkert traces ritual far back in time, all the way back to pre-human mammals. Just like other theoretical speculations about the origin of rituals, his conjectures cannot be proven or disproven, but are certainly thought-provoking. He observes that the Greek practice of placing herms – statue-steles with erect phalluses – at the borders of the city states or where a victorious battle against invaders had taken place are reminiscent of, and perhaps related to, the fact that certain primates are known to station sentries at the borders of their territory, similarly with erect penises. He also compares the Greek ritual practice of offering of libations – i.e., the pouring of a liquid to a god on the ground to mark out the sacred space – with the habit of primates and other mammals to mark their territory by urinating. Now, there is no doubt that there are tangible similarities between animal rituals such as these and the spectacular courtship rituals of certain birds and mammals– and human rituals; the difference, of course is that the former are largely instinctive and the latter cultural.

These observations raise the further issue about proto-human and pre-linguistic communication – what Gregory Bateson called iconic communication. As distinct from linguistic discourse, iconic communication is carried on by means of images and metaphor and beyond the discursive consciousness. Archaic human rituals could be examples of such iconic communication.

Besides these conjectures, it is clear that rituals have very ancient roots in human cultures. Religious scholars have debated about the relationship between myth and ritual in the formation and evolution of religion. Does myth precede rituals, or is it the other way round? A fair position is that rituals are very ancient and probably precede mythic narratives. However over time they have come to be mutually supportive; myth adds meaning to ritual while ritual makes myth explicit and tangible. This mutuality between myth and ritual goes a long way in explaining their endurance in the history of humanity. Together they give people and cultures a measure of continuity and coherence in an everchanging and sometimes incomprehensible world

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified) French

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Nicolas Chapuis, Ambassador of the European Union to China

Mutual understanding is the foundation of international relations. If globalization leads us to use a common lexicon, we often tend to forget that meanings differ from one culture to the other. Lack of understanding or, sometimes, confusion in meaning, breaks communication.

When China speaks in a foreign language, it uses a lexicon that is more often than never not on par with its own history and culture. It uses words to which it may assign, consciously or unconsciously, different meanings. No dialogue can be effective if interlocutors disagree on the very meaning of what they say to each other.

More than 2000 years ago, Confucius noted the imperative “to assign proper meanings to concepts”, zheng ming 正名. That is precisely what this digital platform offers by attempting to bridge the gap of cultural differences, while respecting the essential value of cultural diversity without falling in the trap of cultural relativism. This initiative aims thus to confront key concepts between Europe and China by designing a methodical guide to handle and solve eventual misunderstandings.

Remarkably, the origin of this project stems back to the 1980’s when a number of dialogues contributed to create a trustworthy network of scholars in Europe and in China. With the renewed support of the European Union, the ‘EU-China Forum on Cultural Misunderstandings’ gathers a group of high level European and Chinese intellectuals who share the awareness that cultural misunderstandings impede mutual comprehension and positive interactions between the EU and China at all levels.

The digital platform ambitions to be a constant, accessible and tangible instrument for uploading contributions and conducting initial debates in preparation of the November 2021 Forum.

The contributions of all participating authors will be included in the EU-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings, published digitally and eventually also in a physical form. It intends to be a meaningful, scientific and literate instrument for the benefit of mutual understanding between Europe and China.

It is certainly my hope that this editorial project of a Europe-China Dictionary of Misunderstandings may constitute a reference tool for further research and exchanges.


Nicolas Chapuis
Ambassador of the European Union to the People’s Republic of China 
May 2021

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