A pioneering anthropologist takes readers on a journey through the rich tapestry of human ritual—showing how and why our most irrational behaviors are a key driver of our success. “Important . . . and a true delight to read.” (Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy)
 
Ritual is one of the oldest, and certainly most enigmatic, threads in the history of human culture. It presents a profound paradox: people ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they are so important. 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. And yet, though rituals exist in every culture and can persist nearly unchanged for centuries, their logic has remained a mystery—until now.
 
In Ritual, pathfinding scientist Dimitris Xygalatas leads us on an enlightening tour through this shadowy realm of human behavior. Armed with cutting-edge technology and drawing on discoveries from a wide range of disciplines, he presents a powerful new perspective on our place in the world. In birthday parties and 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 bind us together.

What's Inside

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Praise

"In the early 1960s most ethologists maintained that personality, decision making, emotions, and culture were unique to humans, but chimpanzee research helped to dispel that arrogant thinking.  And now Dimitris Xygalatas shows that rituals are not confined to humans but are present in many mammals, birds, and even insects. This is a fascinating well-researched book about a fascinating subject. You will learn a lot."—Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace
Ritual is a deep, engaging, magnificent book. Full of vivid stories about the myriad ritual behaviors of human beings — from the prayers made to countless gods to kissing dice at craps to wearing feathered gloves full of biting ants to walking barefoot on hot coals — it shows how humans turn ordinary life into something awe-inspiring, how we use shared rituals to transcend our solitary selves. Xygalatas walks through fire himself, literally and intellectually, to share great wisdom about the human condition.”—Nicholas A. Christakis, New York Times-bestselling author of Blueprint and Apollo’s Arrow
“Xygalatas's account of how our tendency to conduct weird routines can make us feel better individually or as part of a group is a thoroughly satisfying scientific detective story. His evidence may be culled from around the world but the lessons apply to all of us.”—Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire and The Goodness Paradox
"The great mystery of human behavior is ritual. How do we explain circumcisions, debutante balls, hazing, royal coronations, and fire-walking? Dimitris Xygalatas is a brilliant polymath and this fascinating book explores this question through a mix of scientific research, evolutionary theorizing, and deep immersion into cultures with gruesome and painful rituals. An important intellectual contribution and a true delight to read."
Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy and The Sweet Spot
"Why do people walk on hot coals, scarify themselves, pierce their bodies with sharp objects, fast, kneel, handle poisonous snakes, endure hours of boring sermons on their days off? Armed with new tools, such as biometric sensors and hormone sampling, Xygalatas reveals the inner workings and crucial functions of ritual, which explain both its antiquity and ubiquity. Packed full of engaging case studies and experiments, this book is an entertaining and engaging introduction to the cognitive science of ritual by one of the pioneers of the field."
Edward Slingerland, author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization
“One of the best studies of ritual in years. In elegant, clean prose, Xygalatas draws on traditional ethnography and contemporary social science to show that rituals play a central role in the way we define who we are and in the health of our bodies. The book is a superb introduction both to classic anthropological theory and the modern science that extends its insights. Xygalatas shows that humans are indeed the ritual species.”—Tanya Luhrmann, author of How God Becomes Real
"From the firewalking ceremonies of Greece to the terrifying rites of Amazonia, anthropologist-cum-psychologist Dimitris Xygalatas leads readers on a whitewater tour of the new science of rituals, exploring and explaining how and why all human societies engage in seemingly senseless, repetitive, and obscure customs that integrate rhythm, dance, music, pain, and sacrifice. Rich in ethnographic detail, personal narratives and psychological experiments, Ritual tells us how we can use this new science, and the wisdom embedded in ancient traditions, to elevate our lives, improve our health and strengthen our communities."—Joe Henrich, author of The WEIRDest People in the World
“We are ritual beings; we surround ourselves with rituals—at birth, death and everywhere in between. But why do rituals matter to us when they so often bring so few obvious benefits? In this striking, wonderfully written, and original new book, Dimitris Xygalatas unravels the mystery of how rituals—from the mundane to the bizarrely violent—can be the source of transformative power.”—Michael Patrick Lynch, author of The Internet of Us and Know-It-All Society
"With a knack for showing how 'strange' behaviors are closer to home than we realize, Xygalatas masterfully explains how what binds us to other human beings are our most mysterious activities — rituals. Actions with no clear purpose are often, ironically, the most meaningful things we do."—Jesse Bering, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago and author of Suicidal
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