Sacred Rites and Rituals, a forty-five minute film produced by FilmRoos for A&E’s Ancient Mysteries Series helped shape public attitudes toward ritual. These attitudes are now echoed by other media presentations of ritual.

I was one of the scholarly consultants for the film and know the process that lies behind the production. I kept drafts of the interviewers’ questions and my responses to them. I also had my interview independently filmed, so I could later reflect on the final film’s editing and construction.

After agreeing to an interview by FilmRoos, I received a list of questions. There were three kinds: (1) The nature and definition of ritual: Is ritual an inherent need? Are we humans by nature ritual beings? (2) Contemporary North American ritualized activities: Are mundane, secular events such as Super Bowl Sunday rituals? What about the lack of ritualized passage, particularly puberty rites, in contemporary Western societies? (3) Rites from ancient or non-North American cultures: Can you discuss some of the oldest examples of ritual? What’s the origin of circumcision, and why it is such a widespread rite of passage?

I suggested deleting a few, adding one or two, and rewording others. All the suggestions were accepted. The questions, as negotiated prior to the interview, were sophisticated, the work of inquiring minds at FilmRoos. A few questions were tendentious or leading: Why are these ritual passages so critical to healthy societies or individuals? Do you feel there is a condescending, almost puritanical, attitude toward the more physical, ecstatic, or theatrical rituals found in more primal traditions?

The actual interview, conducted long-distance with the interviewers in the United States and me in Canada, was different from the e-mail questions. The interviewers posed many more leading questions. The interviewers wanted to portray ritual in a particular light and to draft me into saying what they would like said.

The questions as posed in the filmed interview had a psychological bias. The interviewers were largely uninterested in the political, economic, religious or ecological dimensions of ritual. They displayed intense curiosity about the ways rituals heal and showed little interest in the ways they abuse or exploit.

Since Sacred Rites and Rituals was part of the Ancient Mysteries series, there was considerable pressure on me to chant a mystery mantra, not only to use the word mystery but to cloak the idea of ritual in an ancient and impenetrable aura.

Even though I said my field was contemporary rituals, I was repeatedly pressed by the two interviewers to comment on ancient rites. I resisted, suggesting that the producers find scholars with expertise in ancient rituals. They resisted my resistance, wanting to attribute a kind of expertise to me that I didn’t have. And the reason for doing so was not so much because they thought that I, in fact, possessed knowledge about ancient rites, but because they said they didn’t have enough time to locate another expert.

By implication, the word ancient, as used by interviewers, included not only things done a long time ago but also things that television viewers would readily accept as having been done for a long time. There was a pronounced tendency in the series to count as ancient or mysterious anything from non-Euroamerican cultures.

Exotic implies ancient. Ancient implies exotic.

The implied definition of mystery in this film—and most of the series—is twofold. 1. A mystery is any problem that filmmakers cannot quickly summarize for viewers. Even problems for which there are good data become mysteries if scholars have differing interpretations, or if the data are incomplete, or if explanations are complex. 2. A mystery is anything that evokes a sense of great depth—anything uncanny or eerie. Both connotations are evoked regularly in Ancient Mysteries programs.

Asked to comment on the mystery of ritual, I replied that a mystery has little to do with lack of information or human inability to explain something. Birth is a mystery. A mystery is a mystery even if you can explain it genetically and biologically. A mystery is not something exotic but an event that implicates one’s very being so profoundly that it evokes awe. The film editors didn’t use the comment, probably because it questioned a key premise of the program.

A noticeable difference between the two and a half hour interview and the final product was that the interviewers repeatedly sought explanations, especially popular psychological ones, of ritual behavior. I sometimes offered social or political ones they didn’t use.

Because the film was called Sacred Rites and Rituals, I asked whether there was a meaningful difference between “rites” and “rituals.” My suggestion that producers delete the redundancy by calling it either Sacred Rites or Sacred Rituals was ignored.

I have since encountered the phrase “rites and rituals” in the mouths of three other documentary makers. My guess is that its only function is to echo “death and dying,” a phrase that sold, and continues to sell, books.

The label “sacred” adds nothing substantive to the title or the film. It doesn’t determine that the focus will be on religious rites rather than rites of passage or secular rites. The notion of sacredness is not explored or used in the film itself, even though the written interview questions submitted to me had distinguished sacred from mundane rites. My inference is that the term sacred is rhetorical, calculated to claim importance for the film itself.

Sacred Rites and Rituals is divided into acts:

  1. Passages
  2. Journey of Faith
  3. Flesh and Blood
  4. Beyond Death
  5. The Quest Continues

These film sections are treated as theatrical acts, but their other function is to provide commercial breaks.

Act 1, Passages, focuses on Jewish circumcision and an African women’s initiation rite, but it also includes the Hindu Agnicayana—not a rite of passage.

Act 2, Journey of Faith, is largely about two pilgrimage rites, the Kumbha Mela of India and the Hajj of Saudi Arabia.

In Act 3, all pretext of the film’s being a treatment ritual types breaks down. Titled “Flesh and Blood,” the section is also referred to by Leonard Nimoy, the narrator, as “rites that stagger the imagination.” The section is blatantly voyeuristic. Clips appear because they depict bizarre, bloody, or painful acts.

Act 4, Beyond Death, features an attempt in 1986 by Chinese actors to reenact Confucius’ birthday ceremony. It is not really a ritual but an instance of restored behavior (Richard Schechner’s term), of people pretending to be engaged in ritual. This example is followed by a second one: a South Korean businessman venerates an ancestor and tells the story to his employees as if he were their patriarch.

Act 5, The Quest Continues (also called Rituals that Shape Our Lives) is a miscellany. It’s intent is vague. The film doesn’t feature an earlier quest, which this quest purports to continue. The largest portion of the final act contrasts constructive and destructive, as well as religious and non-religious, rites.

The choice of rites depicted in the film is driven almost exclusively by visual interest and the availability of footage and archival materials, not by how widespread or important the rites are, nor how well they illustrate a category, nor by how much is known about the rite.

The implied criteria for visual interest are how much movement and color there is, the recording quality of the clip, and the projected ability to attract and hold viewers’ interest. Among the aesthetic preferences exhibited by Sacred Rites and Rituals are largeness of scale (big crowds and wide vistas), scenes involving blood or pain, actions with no obvious explanations, culturally unfamiliar sites, and ritual actors with ornate or minimal clothing.

Besides movement through five acts, the film alternates between the voices of Leonard Nimoy (who is seen on screen only at the beginning and end) and the talking heads of experts (whose authorizing biographical blurbs are superimposed on the screen).

Scholars rarely speak for more than twenty seconds. They do not interact with the narrator, much less the participants. And participants are never asked about the meanings of their own rites. Although it is never said, the film implies that one class of people acts ritually, whereas another class understands ritual. There is neither discussion nor debate over interpretations, since observers and participants don’t interact, nor do the experts interact with one another.

Contradictions abound but are rarely commented on. For instance, Philip Novak, one of the experts, speaks of ritual as action “which intends a transformation of state,” whereas Nimoy describes a situation in which ritualists are transported—not transformed but elevated, then returned to where they started. In another example, the audience is shown the very concrete act of burning a ritual site, while Nimoy refers to it as an instance of “abstract mystical belief.”

The dissonance between things shown and things said, as well as between one claim and another, is striking.

The film fires a barrage of rhetorical questions: How original are these rites? Does pilgrimage change people? Which rites endure? Are all these rites related to one another? How did these rituals originate?

These are good questions, but no one attempts to answer them in Sacred Rites and Rituals. Rarely is a question posed, pursued, then debated or answered. When answers are given, there is never more than one. Ambiguity and conflict are edited out. Answers are either singular and authoritative, or they are mysteries.

As for the meanings of ritual symbols, there seem to be three possibilities in the film: what they mean is obvious; what they mean is a mystery; what they mean can be summarized in two or three sentences, usually concerning their imagined origin or supposed psychological function.

Much of what is offered as interpretation is at the level of truism or supposed common sense, having little to do with either participants’ or scholars’ ways of speaking about the meanings of symbols. “This simple ritual [Muslim circumcision],” the narrator tells us, is not threatened. Why? Because it relates “so directly to the idea of a people’s survival.” How or why circumcision means survival is not obvious, but the comment is offered as if it were.

After a series of clips on weddings, births, and funerals, the narrator claims there is “no doubt as to the meaning of these symbolic gestures,” even though the viewers may not have the faintest idea what they have seen.

Viewers are shown a photo of John Kennedy, Jr., as a boy, saluting. How old would a viewer have to be to recognize the scene as that of a presidential funeral of John F. Kennedy? Does the boy realize what is going on? Is this his declaration that he, the son, will carry on in the absence of the father? Is Junior playing soldier? Who taught him to salute? What does saluting mean to him? At the very point where a viewer might want to explore these questions, the film claims the meaning is obvious.

Sacred Rites and Rituals is littered with tacit racism and sexism. Viewers are shown African women dancing bare-breasted. Judith Gleason, the expert who is credited with having shot the film, is shown saying that some of the dancers are Western educated and embarrassed. Despite that, the camera continues to follow their breasts.

White, American breasts would not be shown in such a manner. I overheard a woman watching Sacred Rites and Rituals say, “Wanna to take bets on how many dicks we see!” She was right: The only naked male in the film is shot discreetly and momentarily from the side.

Film viewers are shown old drawings of the Lakota Sun Dance. The narrator speaks about it as a dead rite no longer performed. There is no awareness that the Sun Dance is still enacted.

The film’s producers don’t use scholars to check the accuracy of their data, offer nuanced interpretations, or elicit undiscovered meanings from participants. Instead, the producers use the scholars as legitimizing agents, coopting their names, institutional affiliations, and demeanor to enhance the saleability of the film.

Sacred Rites and Rituals includes some old black and white footage of the Hajj, as a newsreel commentator refers to pilgrims as “Mohammedens” and Allah as “their god.” The insensitivity and inaccuracy are blatant and dated. Viewers who hope the film will pull back out of this time warp and comment on the offensive ways that Westerners used to speak of such rites are disappointed. The only revision of the footage is to change the number of those participating from 200,000 to 2,000,000.

Although the narrator never directly accuses ritualists of being primitive or irrational, he implies as much by his rhetoric. He refers to rituals as performances that “challenge logic.” He asks his audience, “What belief is so strong that it has convinced these people to undertake this daring ritual?”

The film’s narrator suggests that we can understand them, even if they are “Stone Age mystics of 40,000 years ago.” The universalist premise allows the narrator to offer commonsense interpretations even though no participant or observer offers a supporting interpretation.

Sacred Rites and Rituals assumes evolutionary superiority: We can explain what they do, so we are superior to them. Our rites, unlike theirs, are not logically challenged. This tendency “to other” permeates the film.

When Sacred Rites and Rituals offers examples of destructive ritual, it shows Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies, not initiatory hazing in American Marine boot camps. Implied critiques are usually aimed elsewhere, not at the heart of American cultural ceremony.

Ritual is made strange by Sacred Rites and Rituals. Its connection with ordinary life is severed; both religion and ritual are reduced to one dimension: mystery. Rituals, obscure and mysterious, says Nimoy, fulfill human needs. He doesn’t pause to reflect: Do they really? Or do they only appear to? Ritual is rendered odd, in need of an explanation but one that participants cannot, or do not, provide.

If we compare this television presentation of ritual to, say, a television presentation of ice skating some provocative contrasts appear. One aim of sports interviewers is to engage, not avoid, athletes such as figure skaters. Performers are consulted, as if their responses are more important than those of observers. Skaters are not asked why they engage in such odd behavior. Instead, the beauty or importance of ice skating is assumed. Skaters are asked how they felt during the event, how they prepared, where they are going to skate next. These kinds of questions don’t occur in Sacred Rites and Rituals.

Ritualists in the film are rendered absent from the ritual event. We do not learn their names or hear their voices. We do not know or care what they think they are doing. The A&E narrator assures us, “The lives of billions on the planet are still affected by ancient rites,” as if this were an amazing rather than an ordinary fact, and as if these rites had not changed through history.

At the end of the film, a pun is used to force the final transition. From a reference to ritual within family space, the camera cuts to Leonard Nimoy and a reference to outer space, the place that many viewers associate with his most popular role, Spock on the Star Trek television series. Nimoy looks up at the stars as he links space with the future, implicitly consigning ritual to the past.

In Sacred Rites and Rituals ritual space, like outer space, is necessary to the health of the planet, but since ritual is not quite here in this world, not fully inhabiting the present, it is a mystery.

By being rendered other, ritual, like Spock, is not quite human.

By being portrayed as either more than human or less than human, ritual is made alien.


Originally published in Contemporary Consumption Rituals: A Research Anthology, pp. 21-36. Edited by Cele C. Otnes and Tina M. Lowrey. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2003.