RITUALIZED 'PRIMITIVE' WARFARE AND RITUALS IN WAR:
PHENOCOPY, HOMOLOGY, OR...?
by Johan M.G. van der Dennen, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies,
University of Groningen, the Netherlands
PART 1: RITUAL IN ANIMALS AND MAN
Ritualization in Animals
Any evolutionary change that adds to the communicative function of signaling
behavior has been called 'semanticization' by Wickler (1967). The majority of
know cases of semantic alteration involves
ritualization, the evolutionary process by which a
behavior pattern changes to become increasingly effective as a signal (E.O.
Wilson, 1975; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979).
Commonly and perhaps invariably, the process begins when some movement,
anatomical feature, or physiological trait that is functional in quite another
context acquires a secondary value as a signal. For example, members of a
species can begin by recognizing an open mouth as a threat or by interpreting
the turning away of an opponent's body in the midst of conflict as an intention
During ritualization, such movements are altered in a way that makes their
communicative function still more effective. Typically, they acquire
morphological support in the form of additional anatomical structures that
enhance the conspicuousness of the movement. They also tend to become
simplified, stereotyped (e.g., by repetition), and exaggerated in form (cf. the
theory of animal communication as manipulation and signals as advertisement:
Dawkins & Krebs, 1978).
Ritualized biological traits are referred to as
displays. A special form of display recognized by
zoologists is the ceremony, a highly evolved set of
behaviors used to conciliate and to establish and maintain social bonds (e.g.,
the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose as described by Lorenz ;
During the process of ritualization behavior patterns may change
in their function. For example, food enticing in the various
Phasianids becomes a signal, the movements of
swimming toward the female and toward the nest in the stickleback become a
courtship dance. Furthermore, a change of
motivation can be observed; in baboons, for example, the female
sexual presenting posture is incorporated in the male repertoire of behavior
and used as a greeting ritual. In addition, movements experience a number of
changes directly related to the signalling function (E.O. Wilson, 1975; Eibl-
Social signals must be conspicuous and most are extremely exaggerated in
form and are accompanied by specially evolved releasers which enhance the
effect of the movement. If they are to be maximally effective, social signals
must be clear-cut and unambiguous. For this reason many of them do not vary
the form of the pattern to various strenghts of stimulus: typical intensity
(Morris, 1957). See e.g., Hinde (1966) and Manning (1972) for
Signals have to be conspicuous and unambiguous and at the same time simple
and precise so as not to be misunderstood. This is achieved by the following
changes (as summarized by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979):
- The movements become exaggerated in
frequency and amplitude.
- They become stereotyped and
simplified by the dropping of some of the
original components and the exaggeration of others.
- Variable movement sequences of often
antithetic motivations become fused into a
stereotyped single movement pattern (e.g., the invitation dance of
the cleaner fish or the zigzag dance of the male
- Rhythmic repetition enhances the visual
effectiveness of the pattern. "A ritual sequence when
performed 'in full' tends to be very repetitive; whatever the
message may be that is supposed to be conveyed, the redundancy
factor is very high. Here it is worth reflecting on a general point of
communication theory. If a sender seeks to transmit a message to a
distant receiver against a background of noise, ambiguity is reduced
if the same message is repeated over and over again by different
channels and in different forms" (Leach, 1966).
- Components of orientation are sometimes
changed (e.g., inciting in ducks).
- Sometimes movement patterns are performed with a constant
typical intensity (Morris, 1957). In this
manner the behavior patterns become less ambiguous. Some
courtship movements of ducks illustrate this principle.
Animal signals can be partitioned roughly into two structural categories:
discrete and graded (or digital and analog). Discrete signals (on-off, yes-
no) are most perfectly represented in the act of simple recognition,
particularly during courtship (E.O. Wilson, 1975). Discrete signals
become discrete through the evolution of 'typical intensity' (Morris,
1957). That is, the intensity and duration of a behavior becomes less
variable, so that no matter how weak or strong the stimulus evoking it,
the behavior always stays about the same.
- Movements may 'freeze' into postures:
attacking movements, for example, often have developed into threat
postures. Greylag geese greet each other with a special triumph
ceremony which is basically a threat posture. The necks
outstretched as if in threat do not however point toward each other,
but in a course past each other, as if both were displaying at a third
imagined enemy. The anthropomorphic translation of this would be
that they are united in threat against a joint enemy.
- The threshold values for the stimuli
releasing the patterns often change in such
a way that the more ritualized the behavior, the more easily it is
released (Daanje, 1950; Oehlert, 1958).
- Along with the above, behavioral changes frequently cause the
development of additional bodily structures which emphasize the
display, for examples plumes, manes, brightly colored skin patches
or fins which unfold to sails.
- Expressive patterns with opposing intentionality in emphasis of
contrast get ritualized in clear antithesis. A marine iguana will raise
itself on all its feet and make itself as large as possible in aggressive
display, but will drop flat on its belly in submission. This principle
of antithesis was discovered by Darwin (1873), who was the first to
describe metacommunicative play signaling in dogs. Such signals
appear to be ritualized aggression intention movements.
- Several expressive patterns can be combined, each in varying stages
of intensity, thus giving rise to a great variety of expressions, which
nonetheless can be reduced to a few variables. Simultaneous
combination results in superposition. In cases of alternative
combination the organism may oscillate between the antithetic
The concept of ritualization was originated by Julian Huxley in his 1914 study
of the great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus, and
developed still more explicitly in a later monograph on the red-throated diver
Gavia stellata. And later reinterpreted according to
the concepts of modern ethological theory by Huxley (1966).
The ritualization of vertebrate behavior often begins in circumstances of
conflict, particularly when an animal is undecided whether to complete an act
(e.g., intention movements: flight intention movements [take-off leap] have
been ritualized to serve as a courtship display in the male European cormorant
Phalacrocorax carbo [Kortlandt, 1940; Hinde, 1970];
intention movements of biting or striking are a common source of the
components of threat displays).
Signals also may evolve from the ambivalence created by the conflict between
two or more behavioral tendencies (Tinbergen, 1952) (e.g., approach-
avoidance, fight-flight), giving rise to redirection of aggression or
displacement activity (a seemingly irrelevant act; such displays are called
'derived activities' by Tinbergen to signify their origin from other types of
behavior). This is known as the conflict theory of the origin of displays. But it
is now recognized that ritualization is a highly opportunistic process that can
be launched from almost any convenient behavior pattern, anatomical
structure, or physiological change. E.O. Wilson (1975) gives the following
examples: ritualized predation; ritualized food exchange (billing, licking,
kissing); lip smacking; smiling and laughing (derived from primate silent
bared-teeth display and relaxed open-mouth display [van Hooff, 1972]);
displays derived from autonomic responses such as ritualized respiration,
ritualized excretion and secretion (e.g., pheromones, sex attractants, changes
in skin coloration due to changes in the surface vessels [Hinde, 1966]); and
automimicry (Wickler, 1969, 1970).
Other types of changes in the relations between the movement and its causal
factors also occur during ritualization. Sometimes, for instance, homologous
displays in related species depend on different strength of the associated
tendencies. Baerends & Blokzijl (1963), comparing the agonistic and
sexual displays of two closely related cichlid fish (genus
Tilapia), found that each display was associated with
a particular range of values of the fight/flight ratio ([tendency to attack]/
[tendency to flee]). The value of this quotient appeared to be higher in
Tilapia nilotica than that for the homologous display
in Tilapia mossambica. They thus suggest that the
primary difference between the two species lies in a lower threshold for
aggressive responses in T. nilotica. Similarly,
differences in the displays between male and female of the same species can
be understood in terms of threshold differences (Hinde, 1966).
Another important concept in relation to ritualization is
emanicipation of ritualized patterns. The courtship of
ducks, for example includes patterns which are clearly derived from
displacement preening and displacement drinking. It is possible that these
patterns originally occurred by disinhibition as a direct result of a conflict
between sexual and attack or escape tendencies when males courted females.
One supposes that in ancestral males the appearance of preening or drinking
depended on the conflict sufficiently balanced. Those males which performed
these displacement activities most regularly were most successful in mating. In
some way the appearance of these patterns served to arrest the female's
attention and perhaps stimulate her sexually. However, in their descendants
conflict may no longer be a prerequisite for the performance of preening and
drinking patterns in the sexual situation. They are now almost invariable parts
of courtship and highly modified in form. Tinbergen (1952) suggests that
these patterns have become 'emancipated' from their original controlling
mechanisms and are now controlled by the sexual mechanisms alone
Rituals serve the function of communication. They release responses which in
turn are answered; this leads to an orderly sequence of patterns of expression
(Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1979). Events which follow the stimulus-response principle
may also be observed in the rituals of man. A smile is usually responded to by
a smile, a nod by a nod and a handwave in a distance greeting with a similar
handwave. In addition, however, acts are fused into longer sequences.
According to these responses, rituals can, following Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979), be
classified as follows:
Individualized bonds evolved independently in birds and mammals from the
mother-child relationship. Behavior patterns that serve bonding in the adult are
derived from mother-child signals. Kissing, derived from kissfeeding, is an
example of a parental behavior used to express affection and thus strengthen
the bond between adults of opposite sex. Infantile appeals are used to attract
Rituals of bonding may be classified in various ways, according to the agents
involved or the method by which the bonding is achieved.
Courtship rituals refer to the establishment of pair-
bonds. Greeting rituals and
feasts refer to bond formation and reinforcement
outside the context of pair formation, feasts particularly on the level of
If classification is by method, a particular type of bonding ritual might be
categorized under the heading rituals of
synchronization (e.g., dances).
Bonding, furthermore, can be achieved by rituals which express a
shared concern (mourning rituals) or which unite the
group ritualized by acts of joint aggression against a
common enemy. Rituals of gift exchange are another
category of bonding patterns.
2. Spacing and competing
Spacing is achieved by fighting and display. In intragroup aggression special
inhibitions, released by appeals to submission (crying, pouting with cut-off and
lowering of the head), prevent escalation into destruction (at least regarding
members of the 'ingroup'). The appeals are the same universally. In addition,
fighting by display occurs, one universal form being the threat stare duel.
Another example may be the Kwakiutl potlatch: 'fighting with gifts'. The
concept Ventilsitten refers to a category of rituals
which apparently serve the function of neutralizing aggression by allowing it
to have an outlet in contests which 'let off steam'.
In intergroup violence conventions are sometimes established to restrict killing
to the combatants, to spare the civilians, to allow a warrior to surrender and
to ban particularly destructive weapons. This is not just an invention of the
'civilized'. The Tsembaga of the Highlands of New Guinea fight wars with
their neighbors, but try to avoid escalation into bloodshed if possible.
According to Rappaport (1968) there are several stages of the war. At the
beginning both parties rely mainly on display. After having cleared the
traditional battle ground, they face each other, shouting insults and shooting at
each other with arrows which lack the feathers and therefore easily miss the
target. Since the parties are communicating verbally a release of tension may
occur and reconciliation may result, particularly since a neutral third party is
commenting on the event. Standing on a hill nearby, its members shout to the
fighting parties how bad it is for brothers to fight, and that the dispute should
be settled by an arrangement. Only if this fails does an escalation take
Appeasing is directly related functionally to aggression. Without the ability to
appease, community life for potentially aggressive individuals would scarcely
be possible. The simplest way to appease is by deflecting aggression-releasing
signals. In man, signals which act as unconditioned aggression inhibitors are
the signals which constitute the baby schema
(Kindchenschema) and appeals through children have
been mentioned as part of the rituals of friendly encounter. Behaving like a
child may serve as an appeal as well...
Among the patterns of expressive behavior which inhibit aggression may be
included smiling, pouting, ritualized cut-off and crying. Behavior patterns
derived from parental and child behavior have an appeasing value, as is the
case with all patterns of bonding, including verbalized appeals.
4. Rituals to keep 'discipline'
In the military circles of our culture rituals of obedience can be observed (for
example, raising and saluting the flag in the morning and evening).
5. The conquest of fear
Most other human rituals may be understood as serving the conquest of fear.
Man as a rational being seeks for causal explanations of events. Events which
he cannot explain cause fear. In an attempt to conquer fear man invents
explanations for events caused by factors which are not accessible to his direct
observation. He structures his world view according to these assumptions,
providing security as well as a logical framework within which to act. The
trance dance of the Bushmen may serve as an example.
Probably the most spectacular examples of ritualization involve ritualized
aggression; as E.O. Wilson (1975) formulated the key question: "Why
do animals prefer pacifism and bluff to escalated fighting?". The answer
is that agonistic behavior is potentially advantageous but also carries very high
costs (in terms of the individual's inclusive fitness): possible injury and even
death, 'aggressive neglect', etc. (see especially Cronin  and Van der
Dennen  for detailed analysis).
For each species, Wilson observes, there exists some optimal level of
aggressiveness above which individual fitness is lowered.
In a situation of conflict an individual can either challenge its rival, or retreat.
The advantage of challenging lies in the chance of winning the resource,
which will be referred to as the payoff. The cost of challenging can be
assessed in terms of the energy utilized in the conflict and the risk of serious
injury. For the stronger opponent, challenging is the best strategy; for the
weaker, retreat alone will provide the maximum benefit. In unequal
(asymmetrical) contests it is clearly beneficial to have some method of
assessing relative strengths which will allow the weaker individual to withdraw
without physical injury. Such an assessment will benefit both individuals if
physical conflict can be avoided, and commonly occurs where a clear
discrepancy in fighting potential or resource-holding power (RHP) exists
between two individuals. Thus, the (obviously) stronger individual (generally)
displays and the (obviously) weaker individual (generally) withdraws (Poole,
Non-injurious contests of this type (resolved without resort to physical
violence but simply by display) have been termed ritualized fighting and, until
the early 1970s, many ethologists (notably Lorenz, 1964, 1966) believed that
ritualized fighting had evolved because it benefited both partners and hence
ultimately he species. However Maynard Smith, Price and Parker carried out
a theoretical analysis of aggression using game theory which cast serious
doubts on such an interpretation (Maynard Smith, 1974; Maynard Smith
& Price, 1973; Maynard Smith & Parker, 1976; Cf. Dawkins
& Krebs, 1978; Caryl, 1981; Poole, 1985; Cronin, 1991; Van der
In essence their argument (as summarized by Poole, 1985) is as follows: if all
individuals in a population (henceforth referred to as 'doves') settled disputes
by ritualized fighting and an individual appeared who employed escalated
injurious fighting (a 'hawk'), the 'hawk' would win every time. Thus the
strategy 'dove' is not an evolutionarily stable strategy (or ESS) for it can
always be defeated by a 'hawk' (an ESS is defined as a strategy which, if
adopted by most members of a population, confers greater reproductive fitness
than any alternative strategy).
As a 'hawk' would always succeed in conflict with a 'dove', the genes for
'hawk' would spread throughout the population. The time would come,
however, when the probability of a hawk meeting another hawk in a conflict
would increase to such a point that serious injury among hawks would be
common; doves would then come to be at an advantage. Thus 'hawk' is not an
ESS either and in this example, assuming that the cost of injury was greater
than the benefit of winning, the final ESS would be an equilibrium point with
a particular proportion of doves and hawks. The exact percentages of hawk
and dove can be calculated by game theory for various values of costs and
payoffs for the two strategies.
Maynard Smith (1976) appreciated that this scenario is simplified and that, for
example, an individual might display conventionally against a dove but
escalate when confronted with a hawk. He termed this strategy 'retaliator' and
showed that it can be an ESS in situations where the cost of injury exceeds the
benefit of winning.
The examples so far considered have made the assumption that the two
individuals are evenly matched in the sense that each rival has a 50:50 chance
of winning. In nature, however, conflicts are often asymmetrical; this may be
because one individual is stronger (has greater resource-holding potential, or
RHP), or one has greater need of the disputed resource, or because one
individual is already holding the resource while its rival is a challenger
attempting to take over.
In such asymmetrical contests, information regarding the resource-holding
potential of the combatants may be available. Geist (1966) found that, in
mountain sheep (Ovis dalli), a strange ram's position
in the dominance hierarchy is partially determined by relative size, especially
horn-size, and he observed only fights between rams of approximately equal
size. Thus, it must be assumed that a ram is capable of assessing, on the basis
of body and horn-size, the RHP of its rival in comparison to its own.
Where individuals are unable to detect differences in RHP, they might be
expected to behave as if they were evenly matched. This would lead either to
an impasse or to damaging fighting. Maynard Smith & Parker (1976),
however, have shown that an arbitrary rule could be used to settle such
disputes amicably. For example, the rule "resource-holder wins" is
common to most territorial mammals but may also occur in competition for
females, e.g., in hamadryas baboons (Kummer, 1968).
Whether or not escalated fighting occurs is also dependent upon the scarcity of
the resource, conflict being more likely if a resource is highly restricted, when
the payoff will be high. Escalated fighting is also more likely to occur in
species in which the risk of serious injury is low.
One of the few mammalian species for which a detailed analysis of ritualized
aggression under field conditions is available is the red deer
(Cervus elaphus) which has been extensively studied
by Clutton-Brock et al. (1979, 1982). In the rut, each stag attempts to acquire
access to a groups of hinds (a harem) which he then defends against rivals. In
situations in which a stag is likely to be challenged he shows threatening
behavior in the form of roaring and walking parallel to his opponent.
Clutton-Brock et al. found that stags roar most in conditions in which they are
likely to be challenged and that the pitch of roaring is related to the size of the
animal, larger stags having lower-pitched roars. Generally stags roar
alternately, each facing its opponent.
Roaring appears to function for the two stags as a means of assessment. If the
protagonist remains after the roaring contest, the contestants generally
commence parallel walking. This occurs most commonly when opponents are
well matched. The fact that there is a strong correlation between the duration
of parallel walking (a test of stamina) and that of subsequent fighting again
indicates a trial of strength.
Should the other male continue to challenge, however, the antlers are used and
a fight develops. Fighting stags lower the head and ram the opponent with
their antlers. As the rival faces his attacker, their antlers lock together and a
pushing match ensues. Each stag attempts to get uphill from his opponent and
to push him backwards. The loser finally withdraws and takes to flight.
Pursuit is rare because attacking involves lowering the head which reduces the
male's speed. If, however, the loser slips or falls, the winner will take the
opportunity to jab the flank of its fallen rival, often wounding it
Fighting success is positively correlated with reproductive success and, in
turn, with antler size. Success in fighting can therefore lead to a considerable
gain in a male's fitness, but it also involves risks, as there is a 1:17 chance of
its being seriously wounded. As a seriously-wounded stag has little chance of
survival, it is apparent that the optimum strategy is avoid contests with
superior rivals or those in which there is a high risk of injury.
Clutton-Brock et al. were able to show that roaring, parallel walking, and
antler-pushing are three separate - ritualized - stages of escalation in a process
of mutual assessment of fighting potential. This method of assessment (of size
discrepancy, vigor of display, stamina and strength) is probably relatively
immune to cheating.
These data support the view that roaring and parallel walks provide a means
whereby rival stags can assess one another's fighting potential. Stags seldom
challenge older, larger individuals, so that roaring contests rarely occur is
there is an obvious visible discrepancy in size; very powerful stags of
approximately equal strength, however, generally do not fight after long
parallel walks, thus avoiding serious injury.
By advertizing its fighting potential, the individual conveys information to its
rival and at the same time may receive information about its opponent's
In situations in which there is a difference in resource-holding potential (RHP)
between two individuals, the weaker may display to indicate his non-
combatant status. The two main types of display concerned are termed
Submission indicates that the individual will not retaliate, even if attacked, and
a common form of this behavior is rolling over on to the back or crouching.
For example, submissive canids lie on the back and expose the inguinal
region, sometimes also showing a submissive grin. Submissive displays are
commonly shown by the young towards older group members, by females
towards males and by low-ranking adults towards high-ranking
Defensive displays, often referred to as 'defensive threat' signify that the
animal will not spontaneously attack its opponent but may retaliate if attacked.
It is commonly used where two closely-ranking individuals are in proximity,
or where a lower-ranking individual is holding a disputed resource. In many
species defensive threat involves displaying the teeth as, for example, in
carnivores and primates (Poole, 1985).
Human (Cultural) Rituals
According to Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979) there are similarities between
phylogenetically and culturally evolved patterns of expression, which is, he
contends, not particularly surprising. The selection pressures in both cases
operate along similar lines. In general these patterns have to fulfill the criteria
of being conspicuous, redundant, unmistakable and at the same time fairly
simple as signals. Mimic exaggeration by emphasis of movement amplitude,
simplification, rhythmic repetition, fusion of elements into new patterns and
emphasis by additional structures of adornment are also principles in the
cultural evolution of ritualistic behavior. No wonder human rituals appear to
be highly stylized.
Typology of Human Rituals
In anthropology and related disciplines the terms 'ritual' and 'rite' are
intimately associated with concepts such as myth, religion and the sacred (the
transcendent realm), totemic cults, animal or human sacrifice, theater and
dramatic expression, concerted ceremonies and collective synchronized activity
(e.g., war dances, mourning procession, memorial parade).
Several features distinguish rituals from other kinds of behavior (e.g.,
Rappaport, 1979; Kottak, 1991). Rituals are formal - stylized, repetitive, and
stereotyped. People perform rituals in special (sacred) places and at set times.
Rituals include liturgical orders - set sequences of
words and actions invented prior to the current performance of the ritual in
which they occur.
A conventional typology of rituals distinguishes:
- imitative rituals (rituals imitate or repeat the myths; myths are the
librettos for rituals);
- positive/negative (consecration and taboo) rituals;
- sacrificial rituals (destruction of a victim or scapegoat);
- and life crisis rituals (rites de passage; the
transition of one mode of life to another, e.g., puberty, marriage, and death
rituals; rituals of initiation, often involving symbolic death followed by
symbolic rebirth; war/peace rituals) (Encycl. Britannica).
Passage rites are often collective. All rites de
passage have three phases: separation, margin, and aggregation
(Van Gennep, 1909; Gluckman, 1962; Turner, 1974; Fried & Fried,
1980; Kottak, 1991). In the first phase, individuals withdraw from the group
and begin moving from one place or status to another. In the third phase, they
reenter society, having completed the rite. The margin phase is the most
interesting. It is the period - suspended - between states, the limbo during
which people have left one place or state but have not yet entered or joined
the next. This is called the liminal phase of the passage rite.
Liminality always has certain characteristics. Liminal
people occupy ambiguous social positions. They exist apart from ordinary
distinctions and expectations, living in a time out of time. They are cut off
from normal social contacts. A variety of contrasts may ritually demarcate
liminality from regular social life. Turner (1974) and Kottak (1991)
summarize a number of contrasts or oppositions between liminality and normal
life. Liminality may even be demarcated ritually and symbolically by
reversals of ordinary behavior. For example, sexual
taboos may be intensified or, conversely, sexual excess may be
Most notable is a social aspect of collective liminality called
communitas, an intense community spirit, a feeling
of great social solidarity, equality, and togetherness. People experiencing
liminality together form a community of equals, and develop a strong
esprit de corps.
Rituals are social acts par
exellence. Inevitably, some participants are more committed than
others are to the beliefs that lie behind the rites. However, just by taking part
in a joint public act, the performers signal that they accept a common social
and moral order, one that transcends their status as individuals (Kottak, 1991).
Gluckman (1967), following analyses by Fortes & Evans-Pritchard and
other social anthropologists, emphasizes that tribal ritual arises from situations
where there is a conflict between the general moral order and the interests
which leads individuals and groups to compete with one another: "Ritual
cloaks the fundamental disharmonies of social structure by affirming major
loyalties to be beyond question".
Differences between Evolutionary Ritualization and 'Cultural'
1. Evolutionary ritualization involves the behavior of individuals; 'cultural'
rituals and ceremonies mostly imply aggregates or groups (such as clans,
tribes, [isosexual] age-classes) of individuals.
2. Evolutionarily, individual displays evolved to manipulate or otherwise
influence the behavior of other individuals by means of conspicuous and
stereotyped advertizement (e.g., inducement to copulate in courtship displays,
intimidation and deterrence in threat displays, cementing a pair bond in the
triumph ceremony); 'cultural' rituals are generally difficult to understand as
manipulations of, or attempts to influence, other 'cultural' units (with the
possible exception of ritual warfare).
3. Rituals designed by evolution are conspicuous, unambiguous, stereotyped,
often repetitive, motor patterns coordinated in the brain. In 'cultural' rituals
the conspicuousness, stereotypy and repetitiveness are mostly the result of
(mass)organization, staging and choreography.
As most human rituals involve either some procession-like program or
concerted and synchronized rhythmic activities (e.g., collective dances), it
seems appropriate to refer to their succession of steps or behavioral syntax as
'choreography', though no conscious dramaturge or conductor (other than
'tradition') may be involved.
On the other hand, the triumph ceremony of the greylag goose, performed by
the two pair-bonded actors, male and female, is indistinguishable from, say, a
dancing human couple in its concertedness and synchronicity.
The Neural Substratum of Rituals
Psychiatrists have often pointed out that rituals (psychological counterparts of
somatic stereotypes) play a paramount role in all kinds of psychopathology.
Ritual is, for example, a central feature in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Turbott (1997) considers the common feature of all rituals (psychopathological
or not) to be stereotyped physical activity which conveys information. Some
clinical, developmental, evolutionary and religious/historical evidence
suggests, according to him, that stereotyped motor behavior may be the
Indeed, humans and other animals - at least the reptilian and mammalian
species - seem almost 'predestined' to develop rituals of all kinds because of
their neural (cerebral) architecture: the possession of a reptilian and
paleomammalian brain underneath the (in humans hypertrophied and
cauliflower-like) neomammalian cortex (MacLean, 1970 et seq.; Bailey,
1987). This is called the triune brain, and it supposedly gives rise to three
mentalities. Bailey explains the role of the reptilian brain (or R-complex) as
At the behavioral level, the reptilian brain is a 'slave to precedent'
(MacLean, 1970), calling, as it does, upon rigid, stereotyped, and
preprogrammed responses steeped in ancestral learning and memory...
Within the R-complex is housed the basic behavioral hardware of the
animal, the evolved repository of instincts and species-typical
motivational and behavioral patterns subserving individual and,
ultimately, species adaptation and survival. MacLean (1976) lists a
pentad of reptilian traits including perseveration, re-enactment, tropisms
(both positive and negative), deception, and isopraxic behavior. Thus,
reptiles, and humans when they 'regress' to reptilian levels of behavior,
exhibit repetitive obeisance to daily routines and subroutines, ceremonial
re-enactments and compulsive ritualism, mechanical reactions to minimal
stimuli and partial representations (tropisms), nonconscious
misrepresentation of motivation or intention (deception), and slavish
conformance to species standards of behavior. The last fundamental
parameter, isopraxis, is particularly interesting, for it is through imitation
and mimicry of species-appropriate behaviors that species members act in
accordance with species standards and achieve a sense of 'identity' of
sorts. As MacLean (1978b) says: 'It cannot be overemphasized that
isopraxis is basic for maintaining the identity of a species or social
group' (p. 320)... note that reptilian behavior falls into a number of
general categories including imitation and species conformity,
establishment and defense of territorial areas, home-site selection,
foraging and feeding, courtship, mating and reproductive behavior,
ritualistic display, group formation, and competition, dominance, and
aggression (MacLean 1962)... (Bailey, 1987 p. 62-63).
Konner (1982) remarks that MacLean's contribution has been to show that the
reptilian brain is not concerned with mere control of movement, but with the
storage and control of 'instinctive' behavior: the fixed action patterns and
innate releasing mechanisms of the ethologists. "This helps explain why
reptiles and birds, in which the corpus striatum is the
most highly developed part of the brain, seem (much more than mammals) to
have behavioral repertoires consisting of stereotyped behaviors and responses:
a lizard turning sideways and displaying its dewlap as a threat, for instance, or
a bird repeating over and over again the same territorial song. It isn't that
mammals have no such behaviors, but rather that birds and reptiles have so
little else" (Konner, 1982, p. 148).
The Ritual Cycle in Serial Killings
Joel Norris (1988), a psychologist and consultant on criminal cases in Georgia
and Florida, has recently produced a psychobiological model of the serial
killer's mind, his method and his madness, which at least puts the problem
into some sort of order. According to Norris (as reproduced in Watson,
1995), the compulsion to kill represents the serial performance of a 'morality
play' in which the same story is repeated, again and again, with different
victims. In telling the obsessive tale, the killer establishes elaborate rituals,
setting up a 'behavioral skeleton', which he wears on the outside like an
insect, using this architecture to support his fantasies. And, Norris argues,
because such killers seldom act rationally, but respond automatically to
specific stimuli, it is possible to codify and predict their behavior. Norris
identifies seven key steps in a typical serial killing:
- The 'aura' phase - in which the killer withdraws from reality and
builds a fantasy that demands to be satisfied.
- The 'trolling' phase - involving an active search for suitable prey on
carefully chosen hunting grounds. A time when the killer becomes
very alert and focused, stalking victims like an accomplished
- The 'wooing' phase - during which victims are charmed, disarmed
or tricked into putting themselves at risk.
- The 'capture' - a moment that is savoured on the killing
- The 'murder' itself - which is usually heavily symbolic, staged to
recreate a moment in the killer's own childhood, bringing an
emotional high and sexual release.
- Followed by a 'totem' phase - in which the killer tries to prolong
the intensity by taking photographs, dismembering, eating or
preserving parts of the victim or their possessions.
- And finally, a 'depression' phase - as illusions fade and the killer
realizes nothing has been changed.
During this reprise, the killers may be lucid enough to turn themselves in and
confess. Though, even when they do, they are seldom believed and frequently
turned loose to start all over again. But, more often, the feelings of guilt pass
and the relentless cycle begins all over again, going on and on until they are
eventually caught red-handed (Watson, 1995).
A Communication-theoretical Analysis of
Rituals, like all human interactions, can be analyzed in terms of the
communication theory developed by Scheflen (1968), among others.
People behave in coded, patterned ways and others perceive and comprehend
these patterns. Logically speaking, were it not that interactions were patterned,
behavior would be unpredictable and unreliable, and it would be impossible to
sustain, mediate, and form human relationships, complete coordinated tasks,
and transmit a common culture. Communication depends on a common
behavioral morphology of shared meaning. Redundancy in behavioral
programs reduces ambiguity.
Scheflen distinguishes 3 orders of behavioral integration in
1. First-order communication: simple coordination of activities.
People who know, whether consciously or not, the programs of action can
perform their joint parts of the program without words or special signals.
They simply do what is expected, conjointly and in synchrony. Consciousness
is not necessary to the integration.
2. Second-order communication: use of integrational signals. But
it is often the case that contingencies or ambiguities arise. Performers do not
know precisely what to do or when to do it. Hence, special signals are
introduced to modify or integrate the activities. Common examples are the use
of a conductor to synchronize parts in a concert or the use of commands,
bugles, whistles and other signals to coordinate a battle. The integrational
signals can be classified as follows:
A. Pacing signals to regulate the speed of
performance; for example, in conversations, head nods and facial
expressions provide feedback of the comprehension of those
B. Identification signals from the participants
that indicate their roles and capacities in the performance.
C. Social integration signals that monitor
deviance and facilitate coordination of performance.
D. References to contexts that indicate
external events that require modification in the program.
3. Third-order communication: metacommunication. There are
occasions when an interaction may be represented symbolically for someone
who is not present, or a participant may learn his part better if the program
can be explicated and discussed with him. There has evolved communication
about communication - or metacommunication. As a consequence we can talk
about activities not then in progress or speak about them while we are
An action that is metacommunicational in function can be as simple as a
gesture or a smile. For example, men may smile to indicate that their
pummeling of each other is to be regarded as friendly play. Or
metacommunication may be as complicated as language.
Metacommunication can be elaborated about any part of a program, any
relationship, any outcome.
In the enactment of a program, the communicational and metacommunicational
aspects can at least have the following relations:
- There may be no apparent relationship. The interactants may be
performing a task and talking about entirely different matters. For
example, a mother may feed her baby while talking to a neighbor
about a television show.
- A metacommunication commentary may be conducted about the
program in progress. For example, participants may verbalize what
they are doing and evaluate it by some criteria or evaluate and make
explicit what others are doing. This is likely to occur when
novitiates are being trained or deviants corrected as in
- Metacommunication may distort, rationalize, disguise, or draw
attention from the rest of the activity of the program, either in
conscious guile, unconscious delusion, or because in that culture the
actual nature of the task has never been known or visualized
appropriately. For example, certain Africans designate their
morning and nightly drumming as bringing up and putting down the
The following observation is of special importance regarding human rituals,
the meaning and 'choreography' or 'syntagmatic sequencing' of which are
mostly fixed by traditions: "When one is learning a program, the
commentary may be learned with it and henceforth repeated with the formats
without knowing why. In this way, linguistic accompaniments that do not
represent understanding or insight into the activities may be transmitted from
generation to generation. It can be asserted that, in some cases at least, people
not only learn how to perform in first order formats, but learn how they are to
refer to, think of, feel about programs. This last point has a number of
implications for psychological theory. We have traditionally assumed that
feelings and thoughts precede and cause behavior; this view opens the
possibility that behavior may precede feelings and thoughts, or all may occur
simultaneously" (Scheflen, 1968).
This also means that one cannot rely on asking subjects what they are doing.
They cannot adequately tell what they are doing. What they report are feelings
about behavior or idiosyncratic or cultural myths about behavior.