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Rites and rituals have been studied from antiquity: Western philosophers pondered these practices, which in modern times have become an object of study in anthropology, ethnology, and sociology. The diversity of practices makes an authoritative definition problematic, but certain general descriptors apply: A rite is a well-ordered, obligatory action or group of actions that is performed precisely and repetitively; it often moves to an individual or collective rhythm; its meaning and aims are generally opaque, and of no obvious practical purpose. Rites and rituals are related to the sacred: religion, magic, purification, and so forth—the notion of the rite of passage remains in use. Sigmund Freud's writings on the ritual can be included among the great variety on the subject, although, but he privileges the German word Zeremoniell, meaning ceremonial or ceremonious; in so doing, he underscores the sacred character of these practices. From 1894 to 1896 Freud developed the idea of obsessional neurosis. In "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b), in the context of the trauma theory, he interpreted the ceremonials it can entail. These derive from the idea of obsessive actions, which are among the defenses and result from repression. Freud cited ceremonials associated with the anal zone and with infantile masturbation in, respectively, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) and the case of Dora, related in "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (1905e [1901]). The article "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practice" (1907b) was devoted to this topic and, according to Freud's "Short Account of Psycho-Analysis" (1924f[1923]), marked the beginning of his work on religious psychology. The deepening of the analogy of the dynamics between obsessional neurosis and collective ritual practices, by way of the notion of primal ambivalence and its expression toward the father, in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a), is the basis for Freud's perspective on individual and collective ceremonials. In "A Short Account of Psycho-Analysis," written in 1923, Freud presented this study in a broad context: "If the psychological discoveries gained from the study of dreams were firmly kept in view, only one further step was needed before psycho-analysis could be proclaimed as the theory of the deeper mental processes not directly accessible to consciousness—as a 'depth-psychology'—and before it could be applied to almost all the mental sciences. This step lay in the transition from the mental activity of individual men to the psychical functions of human communities and peoples—that is, from individual to group psychology; and many surprising analogies forced this transition upon us.... To take an instance. . . . It is impossible to escape the impression of the perfect correspondence which can be discovered between the obsessive actions of certain obsessional patients and the religious observances of believers all over the world. Some cases of obsessional neurosis actually behave like a caricature of a private religion, so that it is tempting to liken the official religions to an obsessional neurosis that has been mitigated by becoming universalized. This comparison, which is no doubt highly objectionable to all believers, has nevertheless proved most fruitful psychologically. For psychoanalysis soon discovered in the case of obsessional neurosis what the forces are that struggle with one another in it till their conflicts find a remarkable expression in the ceremonial of obsessive actions. Nothing similar was suspected in the case of religious ceremonial until, by tracing back religious feeling to the relation with the father as its deepest root, it became possible to point to an analogous dynamic situation in that case too" (pp. 205-206). In the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17a [1915-17]), after noting an economic difference between ceremonials in obsessional neurosis and those of communities, the former expressing a defense against repressed sexuality and the latter against narcissistic and aggressive impulses, Freud granted the importance of "extremely strong sadistic impulses" in obsessional neurosis. The taboo against touching, whether actual or metaphoric, that is evident in the phenomenology of ceremonials thus becomes intelligible. In fact, the fundamental theme of any ritual having to do with "touching" is the "first aim of object-cathexis, whether aggressive or tender," wrote Freud in Totem and Taboo (1912-13a). If we add that the psychic position necessary for any ritual is narcissistic, or animistic from the collective point of view, and that it presupposes the omnipotence of wishes and thoughts, it becomes apparent that the underlying obsession in any ceremonial is that of the contagion of instinctual impulses; this explains the prevalence of magical actions and thoughts having to do with contagion—by contiguity, similarity, isolation, and retroactive annulment. Throughout his writings Freud described and gave a detailed analysis of various rituals: scatological, money-related, rituals of washing, for going to sleep, or for beginning something. Collective rituals such as those governing relations between son-in-law and mother-in-law, rituals relating to the dead, to chiefs or enemies who have been killed, and rituals relating to defloration and marriage have been extensively studied, in addition to the totemic meal and its repetition in the Christian sacrament of Communion, based on the idea of the murder and consumption of the primal father of the horde. Ceremonials, as compromise formations, presuppose a repression, and the primary processes thus play a part in their creation. Displacement and the condensation of a multiplicity of fantasies in the ceremonial lead to overdetermination; an absence of contradiction that enables the ceremonial to actualize both wish and defense. In addition, the abundance of symbolism is unmistakable. From an economic point of view, the pleasure principle prevails, and Freud emphasized the sexual excitation that occurs during ceremonials. In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d) Freud explained that from a topographical and dynamic point of view, regression, linked to powerful aggressive impulses, results in "the erotic trends being disguised" and that accordingly, "the struggle against sexuality will hence-forward be carried on under the banner of ethical principles" (p. 116). The ego "recoils in astonishment" from suggestions of cruelty emanating from the id, and "[t]he overstrict superego insists all the more strongly on the suppression of sexuality, since this has assumed such repellent forms" (p. 116). The theme of guilt is omnipresent, which phenomenology alone reveals, as is the theme of punishment. There is thus continuity between ceremonials and taboos. Moreover, the persistence of unconscious wishes and their fulfillment in ceremonials, no matter what the defenses have undertaken, provokes excessive scruples in their enactment and systematic doubt as to their propriety. The ceremonial's common compulsion to repeat seems to depend on the same factors. In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, written in 1925, Freud lamented the fact that "no one has as yet collected [ceremonials] and systematically analysed them" (p. 116). With regard to their emergence, often during the latency period, he noted: "Why this should be so is at present not at all clear; but the sublimation of anal-erotic components plays an unmistakable part in it" (p. 116). Sublimation remains a lively issue in psychoanalysis. The compulsion to repeat, as linked to the death instinct and to masochism, is another. Lastly, the generalization of the obsession with touching or not touching, in our ostensibly secular culture, seems more misunderstood than acknowledged. Thus, ceremonials, rites, and rituals are an area that awaits further study.

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1912-13a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
  2. ——. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Part I, SE, 15]]
  • [[Part II, SE, 16.
  1. ——. (1924f). A short account of psycho-analysis. SE, 19: 189-209.
  2. ——. (1926d). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.
  3. Reik, Theodor. (1975). Ritual: Psycho-analytic studies (Douglas Bryan, Trans.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. (Original work published 1949)
  4. Van Gennep, Arnold. (1960). The rites of passage. (M. B. Vizedom and G. B. Caffee, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1909)