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The Role of Myth and Ritual in Religion
May 1, 2016

Throughout history, religion and its diverse aspects, such as myth and ritual, have been of great significance for the social, economic, and cultural lives of people around the globe. Myth and ritual have also been studied at length by theorists and philosophers.  While some theorists, like Freud and Karl Marx, tried to explain religious practice away, lessening its place in social life, several other thinkers made great efforts to highlight religion’s substantial role in our postmodern society. Although it is impossible to depict all the essential facets of religion, I would like to explore the fundamental role that myth and ritual play in the understanding and realization of religion in daily life.

Religion is still profoundly embedded into today’s contemporary, postmodern, and secular society. A major facet of this intermingling between religion and society is the way individuals communicate with society as a whole, via their religious rituals and myths. Though myth is not entirely scientific, it is undoubtedly one of the best instruments for revealing the oftentimes hidden and complex meanings of religious beliefs, tenets, creeds, and principles. Thus, I would like to clarify the ambiguity and different connotations of myth for present-day readers. While myth in common parlance has come to mean “what is not true,” religious and academic connotations are quite a different story.

The English word myth comes from the Greek muthos, meaning “word” or “speech.” It owes its significance to its contrast with logos, which can also be translated as “word,” but is used especially in the sense of a word that elicits discussion or an argument. Muthos in its meaning of “myth” describes a story about gods and superhuman beings.

A myth is an expression of the sacred in words: it reports realities and events from the origin of the world that remain valid as the basis and purpose of all there is. Consequently, a myth functions as a model for human activity, society, wisdom, and knowledge. (Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 9)

This aforementioned definition of myth serves us well and points to several aspects of a myth. For instance, the story of Abel and Cain is a wonderful description of the horror, terror, and disgust of murder, as well as the evil of envy. As the story well illustrates, both Abel and Cain were supposed to sacrifice something of their most beloved to God. One did so wholeheartedly (Abel), while the other did not (Cain). Eventually, God accepted the sacrifice Abel made (since it was sincere), but rejected the half-hearted sacrifice of Cain, which made him very jealous of his own beloved brother. Then, in spite of his brother’s heartfelt efforts to help him repent his sin, his deeply felt envy caused him to murder in the name of evil. Thus, this myth perfectly portrays a model for us to adapt in order to refrain from vicious and destructive acts like murder and envy. It becomes a timeless paradigm of a human action that, no matter how unrealistic it may be, can still guide individuals to good by illuminating life’s deeper meanings. Even if such a story never happened, it would still function as an outstanding model for those who want to understand the perils of envy.

Furthermore, the story of Prophet Adam and Eve, and their corruption by Satan, has a very pertinent meaning and message. As the myth goes, Satan was an obedient servant of God, who even temporarily led almost all the angels in the name of the order of the universe. But when God willed and created Adam out of clay and infused into him His word (spirit), and then decreed all the others to prostrate before Adam, Satan did not comply. After that, even though Satan had the opportunity to show regret for his disobedience before God, he insisted on his own mistake, an error that was ultimately greater than his previous mistake. Then, his infamous efforts to seduce both Adam and Eve to follow the very same way, caused Adam and Eve to commit the first sin, leading to the Fall. But soon after, Adam and Eve realized their rebellion against the decree of God and earnestly repented. While Satan could not admit his own mistake, Adam and Eve were able to humbly repent. This led to them, in spite of the Fall, rising above even the great angels in attitude and character.

One can find a lot about the nature of human beings in this myth. For example:

  1. We are prone to mistakes – that is, we are not infallible. Therefore, we need to admit the fact that we can/will err. But what matters most here is our recognition of fallibility and our efforts to rectify the mistakes we make.
  2. Some beings are not obedient to humans
  3. Human beings are composed of both physical and metaphysical aspects. (God created man out of clay and instilled His word/spirit to this clay-made physical body).
  4. Repentance is the only way to redemption.

As illustrated above, these myths can serve good examples of ideals, paradigms, and models for human beings. As a matter of fact, together with parables and other symbolic languages like metaphors, myths build a splendid essential bridge between the addressees of religion and the scientifically incommunicable realities of religion.

As for ritual, though it might seem easier to define compared to myth, in religious studies it is rather troublesome to thoroughly describe what ritual is. While some famous scholars like Edmund Leach maintained that the term ritual should be applied to all culturally defined sets of behavior (the symbolic dimension of human behavior as such), others like Otto and Eliade argued that ritual arises from, and celebrates the encounter with, the “numinous” or “sacred” (Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 9). Still others, like Robertson Smith and Emile Durkheim, have presented ritual as the very heart and soul of religion, and put more emphasis on ritual than myth. As Durkheim contended, “Societies image themselves in their ritual symbols and the sacred is the essential social idea” (Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 9).

Having admitted the difficulty in defining ritual, I would like to pay attention to its simple definition according to James Livingston:

Ritual can be defined as an agreed-on and formalized pattern of ceremonial movements and verbal expressions carried out in a sacred context.

Of the several dimensions of the definition above, I want to underline the fact that for a ritual to be qualified as religious, it should be carried out in a sacred context. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have any taste of religion; it would rather be a mere formalized systematic model of ceremony or verbal expression. Therefore, not every ritual is a religious ritual in the sense that it does not carry the meaning of the encounter with the sacred or the numinous.

The role ritual plays in religion is of the lofty consideration in religious life. While Aristotle held, “We are what we repeatedly do,” Kant argued that the ultimate truth cannot be known just through theoretical cognitive research; it must be internalized by means of habitual repetition of some formalized patterns of behavior or verbal expressions – in other words, ritual conceptualization or communication (he called it the “practical mind” in critique of pure reason). 

Religious ritual is a crucial part of holding the members of a society together (the idea of “we” interdependence, rather than “me only” independence), and maintaining the continuity and congruity of the social body or organism. As some scholars reason, three individuals (1+1+1=3) are equal to 3 in mathematics, yet in a society of three individuals held together by the invisible but practical bond of ritual, the sum is not three, but 111. [When three individuals line up next to each other and have a complete consensus and synergy about the purposes of their society socially add up to almost 111.]

Ritual unquestionably serves many significant psychological and social functions. For example, through religious rites and rituals, individuals can cherish an opportunity to synchronize one’s own ideas and emotions with those of others. Moreover, social togetherness via rituals is most likely the best remedy for individual anxiety and selfishness, as the maxim “it takes the whole village to raise a child” depicts. Rituals can also cure some social tensions, whether they are due to uneven distribution of wealth and material resources, or apparent injustice because of allocation of social status. For example, a janitor in a faithful society can stand side by side with a President while praying before God in a mosque or a church. The two of them are equal in the sight of God. Rituals are also the best means for the realization and application of the archetypal patterns made manifest in myths and other symbolic languages like parables and metaphors. Therefore, rituals serve as “the practical mind” for the adherents of a religion, allowing them to embed the sophisticated meanings communicated in the sacred scriptures and myths. Ritual is to religion, what light is to the act of seeing – indispensable. Rituals keep faith alive.

In regard to the interconnectedness of ritual and myth, they are like two facets of one reality, implementing one another’s functions and meanings. Neither ritual nor myth is superior; each has its own peculiar role and functions in religion. I would describe ritual as the realized and applied perception of religious myths and sacred scriptures. For this reason, neither myth nor ritual can exist on its own. While myth presents perfect archetypes and paradigms of the doctrinal system of religion (the theoretical mind), rituals function as conducive platforms to realize what the theoretical mind puts forward, by means of systematic repetition (the practical mind). Together, they form a united reality of both the theoretical and practical mind of religion. As the great Rumi contended about the vital importance of practicing religious tenets and beliefs through rituals, “We either appear as we are or we become as we appear.”

In conclusion, ritual and myth are two angelic wings of the same heavenly system of religion. For the modern students of world religions, both serve as celestial lifts or launchers that can enable the believers to pass beyond the boundaries of this three-dimensional realm and enjoy the sacred bliss on the opposite shore of existence, the transcendent realm: the experience of encountering the numinous. A religion functions best when it has these two angelic wings – myth, the theoretical mind, and ritual, the practical mind.


  • Gale Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Ed.
  • Livingston, James C. 2008. Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, 5th Ed. Pearson.
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen. Encyclopedia of Qur’an.
  • Pals, Daniel L. 2006. Eight Theories of Religion, 2nd Ed., Oxford University Press.
  • Pals, Daniel L. 2008. Introducing Religion: Readings from the Classic Theorists, Oxford University Press.