Repetition & Ritual

Repeat after me or do as I do, again and again and again. This is mimesis and it depends on repetition. In Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (1993), Merlin Donald proposes that the key adaptation of early hominins was an ability to mime gestures, vocalizations, and actions (e.g., tool-making), and then repeat these — at will or on command — in subsequent invariant sequences. It’s a compelling argument that brings to mind the issue of rituals. At their core, rituals are repetitive sequences. While these stylized action sequences are more than repetition, the attentional and emotional states induced by repetition play critical roles in ritual.

It so happens that I was thinking about repetition last night while reading this review (pdf) of Roy Rappaport’s Religion and Ritual in the Making of Humanity (1999). The reviewer wryly notes that Rappaport, who identified repetition as essential to ritual, uses repetition in the book, variously and ingeniously repeating arguments to make his point. As Rappaport circles round and reiterates, his wordy-rococo is intended to create an effect. This effect emanates from repetitive structure rather than actual argument; the former supplements the latter. Those who experience this effect will, Rappaport hopes, better understand — or feel — what he is saying. Given the density and opacity of Rappaport’s book, I have my doubts.

But I have no doubt that repetition is wonderfully mysterious, as this riveting piece on repetition in music demonstrates. The author, Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, does not simply assert that “repeated sounds work magic in our brains.” She has also provided sound-tracks which work that magic, known to music cognitivists as the “speech-to-sound illusion.” While listening to these and marveling at what had happened inside my head, I was thinking: “This is relevant to ritual, Rappaport, and repetition.” As if on cue, later in the article Margulis states:

Anthropologists might feel that they are on familiar ground here, because it is now understood that rituals – by which I mean stereotyped sequences of actions, such as the ceremonial washing of a bowl – also harness the power of repetition to concentrate the mind on immediate sensory details rather than broader practicalities. In the case of the bowl-washing, for example, the repetition makes it clear that the washing gestures aren’t meant merely to serve a practical end, such as making the bowl clean, but should rather serve as a locus of attention in themselves.

In 2008, the psychologists Pascal Boyer and Pierre Liénard at Washington University in St Louis went so far as to claim that ritual creates a distinct attentional state in which we consider actions on a much more basic level than usual. Outside of ritual, individual gestures aren’t usually interpreted on their own terms; they are absorbed into our understanding of the larger flow of events. Ritual shifts attention from the overall pattern of events toward their component gestures. Instead of noting only that a bowl is being cleaned, the witness to a ritual might notice the acceleration of the hand across the bowl’s edge during each wiping gesture, or the way the cloth bunches and then opens as it is dragged forward and back across the surface. What’s more, the repetition of gestures makes it harder and harder to resist imaginatively modelling them, feeling how it might be to move your own hand in the same way. This is precisely the way that repetition in music works to make the nuanced, expressive elements of the sound increasingly available, and to make a participatory tendency – a tendency to move or sing along – more irresistible.

For those who are thinking this sounds a bit esoteric and not really relevant to material or biological anthropology, I encourage you to read Sheila Coulson’s 2011 article (pdf) on “Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana.” Although there are a number of misunderstandings (here) and questions (here) surrounding this site and its significance, Coulson and colleagues seem to be on to something. Seem to be on to something. On to something. Something.



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4 thoughts on “Repetition & Ritual

  1. Sabio Lantz

    I was also impressed by the Aeon article but I likened the principle of “Mere Exposure Effect” being useful in propaganda. This made me think of the drilling of the press and the government on the word “democracy” when talking about Ukraine. They try to hypnotise us to believe their words in the familiar ritual dance around America the Beautiful and label Russia as evil. Ah, the human mind — so easily deceived. Today I liked this article in Sp!ked.

  2. Gyrus

    Interesting article. A slight tangent, Cris, do you know of any good books or articles on hunter-gatherer music? I guess the Cambridge Encyclopedia would be the place to start, just wondered if you’d come across anything specific. Also, any especially good field recording releases you know of?

  3. franscouwenbergh

    Repetition and ritual have been born in mankind as a result of becoming linguistic.
    Never forget that humans were normal animals in the very beginning. Apemen, to say it exactly.
    In one of the Pliocene apemen-groups the ‘culture’ of naming things started, presumably as a random girls play: imitating with their hands what they had in mind.
    Incidental, funny, but also useful: in this manner one could communicate something that was not on the spot.
    This gesturally imitated things were not the things itselves, it were symbols, it were words, ‘names’. For the first time in history there was an animal that could communicate something that was on a far place or in another season. It had an enormous impact on those apemen, an impact which influences into our days.
    This is not the place to elaborate on what having names for things does with an animal (visit One of the effects was that they could consult each other. Their decisions were not longer the result of their instincts. They had to suppress their instincts and give priority to their common decisions. They lost their animal intsinct security. We became ‘worrying apes’!
    One cannot live in a state of insecutity, so from the beginning they developed two security-generating mechanisms: repetition and believing.
    Repetition: – doing things like the ancestors always did. They became hyper-conservative and the would remain this for a very long time.
    – tradition, rituals, but also rythm, dancing hours after hours.
    Believing: that things are just like you want they are, or that they are just like somebody with authority says they are.

  4. Cris Post author

    Gyrus — that’s a good question and after thinking about it a while and doing some poking around in Amazon and Google Scholar, I can’t really find anything. This seems like it would be a great topic for an in-depth research project or book, something which goes beyond the stereotypes of “tribal drumming,” dancing, singing, and rhythm. While there is truth to these stereotypes, they aren’t very informative.

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