Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living

Dimitris Xygalatas

Dimitris Xygalatas Headshot

Ritual is one of the oldest threads in the history of human culture. Yes, it poses a deep paradox: people ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they matter so much. Apparently pointless ceremonies pervade every documented society, from handshakes to hexes, hazings to parades. Before we ever learned to farm, we were gathering in giant stone temples to perform elaborate rites and ceremonies. But while rituals exist in every culture and can persist nearly unchanged for centuries, their logic has remained a mystery – until now.

In Ritual, pioneering scientist Dimitris Xygalatas leads us on an enlightening tour through this shadowy realm of human behaviour. Armed with cutting-edge technology and drawing on discoveries from a huge range of disciplines, he presents a powerful new perspective on our place in the world. In coronations, in silent prayer, in fire-walks and terrifying rites of passage, in all the bewildering variety of human life, Ritual reveals the deep and subtle mechanisms that soothe, excite, divide and unite us. Our need for ritual, he finds, is primordial. Embracing it can help us connect to each other, find meaning in our lives and discover who we are.

Below is an extract of the shortlisted book.


Alejandro was a seventy-three-year-old man from a small Spanish village called San Pedro Manrique. Ever since his teens Alejandro and most of his family had been taking part in the local fire-walking ritual. I have attended numerous fire-walking ceremonies over the years, but none of them was as fierce as the one that takes place there. Over two tons of oak are used to produce a fire hot enough to melt aluminium, and participants walk on that fire barefoot while carrying another person on their back. Many of them carry children. But not Alejandro. He carried adults who often weighed more than himself.

Alejandro took great pride in being a fire-walker. He hadn’t missed the ceremony in fifty-three years. When I asked him if he would ever stop, he became thoughtful. After a long pause he said: ‘I know that one day I will be too old to do it. But when that day comes, I just won’t go there; I’ll stay at home. Because if I am there, watching, without being able to participate, I’ll jump off the bell tower and kill myself.’ The following year, a physical examination revealed that Alejandro’s heart was showing signs of arrhythmia, and his doctor prohibited him from performing the ceremony. It would be too much excitement, he said, and in his condition, it was best not to take any risks. Unable to walk across the fire, the old man kept his word and decided to stay at home that night. As painful as it was for him, he was not going to watch the firewalk if he could not take part in it. His son Mamel, however, had other plans. That year I had returned to San Pedro to attend the festival. I was invited to join the procession, in which the locals gather at the town hall square and then join hands, forming a human chain that rhythmically moves up the hill until it reaches the recinto, an open-air amphitheatre structure surrounding the flat piece of earth where the pyre burns. I was next to Mamel, our hands locked together. As we approached his father’s house, he pulled me out of the chain. I was quite surprised that he would want to leave the procession. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘You’ll see,’ he said. We walked into Alejandro’s house, and found him sitting by the window. He looked up, seemingly surprised to see us. Mamel stood in front of his father and announced: ‘Dad, if you can’t walk over the fire, then I’ll carry you over the fire myself.’ The old man did not speak. He just stood up and gave his son a hug, his eyes full of tears.

That night, the crowd applauded as Alejandro climbed on to Mamel’s back. He looked as proud as a peacock as his son carried him across the flames in small, steady steps. The entire village cheered for them, and their family rushed to embrace them. But Alejandro hadn’t finished. He waved his hand sharply, stopping everyone in their tracks. As he turned around to face the fire once more, everyone gasped. They knew exactly what his intentions were. He took two steps forward and then started stomping his feet. His smile was now gone, and his face looked more serious. He stared at the fire with such intense focus, it was almost as if he was trying to will it into submission. Without hesitation, he started walking across the glowing embers. A few moments later, he emerged triumphant from the other side of the fire pit. The crowd was now frenetic, and the other fire-walkers praised and congratulated him – except for his family, whose reluctant smiles conveyed a mix of disapproval and pride. When I asked Alejandro why he had decided to defy his doctor’s orders, he told me: ‘The doctor said that if I do the fire-walking ritual, something terrible might happen to my heart. But does he know what will happen to my heart if I don’t do the ritual?’ Indeed, there seemed to be very few things Alejandro considered more important than this ceremony. He had told me so repeatedly: this was one of the most important things in his life. But when I asked him why the ceremony mattered so much to him, he seemed puzzled. He stared at me and after a long pause repeated the question, seeming at a loss for words. ‘Why we do it? … Well, I can’t really say why. I guess it’s something I’ve seen since my childhood. My father did it, and my grandfather did it, so since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to cross that fire.’ Time and again, anthropologists come across such statements. When they ask people why they perform their ceremonies, the most typical reactions involve perplexed looks, long pauses and eventually something along the lines of the following: ‘What do you mean, why do we do our rituals? We just do them. It is our tradition. It is who we are. That’s what we do.’ This is the ritual paradox: people often swear on the importance of their rituals, although they are not always sure why they are so important, other than that they are time-honoured. Ritual seems pointless, yet it is experienced as something truly vital and sacred. But much like other deeply meaningful areas of human activity – think of music, art or sport – what might initially appear bizarre or futile can actually have transformative power.

© Dimitris Xygalatas from Ritual, How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, Profile Books, 2023

Dimitris Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut. He has spent his career studying rituals all over the world, combining ethnographic observations with novel scientific experiments. He has published over 100 articles, and has been interviewed about his pioneering work by the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Forbes, PBS, the History Channel, National Geographic and others. He has a particular interest in walking through fire.

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