Ritualistic behaviour comes in many guises, from religious ceremonies and rites of passage to everyday greetings. Rituals are a feature of all human societies, appealing to tradition, offering purpose, and even uniting communities.
Traditionally rituals have imposed order in the chaos of war, allowed families to grieve their dead and to even mark the celebration of new life. They aren’t inherently bad, something to be abhorred in a modern world where commodities reign supreme, but they can often involve cruelty and blood sacrifice, yes even in 2016.
Toro de la Vega, a Spanish festival widely known for its savage killing of bulls, has long been marked a ritual of brutality by animal rights activists. This month local authorities finally banned the practice of perpetrating violence against these animals. The medieval tournament, which takes place in the town of Tordesillas every September, saw bulls be chased through city streets before being lanced repeatedly. Though the bulls will no longer be killed, the event which coincides with Virgen de la Pena, will continue.
The running of the bulls is something that’s deeply enshrined in Spanish culture, the race in Pamplona being one of the finest examples of this. In Pamplona, the Encierro is key to San Fermin, a fiesta dedicated to honouring the town’s patron saint. Encierro has been somewhat hijacked by tourism in recent years, and as such has become less about a religious celebration than a cultural and monetary one.
Though the image of the Spanish matador is iconic and often romanticised in films and books, one perhaps a little less familiar is that of the Gadhimai festival which takes in Nepal every 5 years. The centuries old religious festival has seen as many as 200,000 animals sacrificially killed to please the goddess Gadhimai.
The festival, which has been recently banned, saw some 2.5 million Hindus take part in 2014. This enshrined ritualistic practice won’t be altered and adapted to fit with the modern aesthetic of what’s now acceptable overnight, and come time for Gadhimai to be celebrated again, it’s entirely possible many more Hindus could make the journey to Nepal.
Sacrifice and ritual in all their guises are an integral part of human behaviour. They have traditionally facilitated the worship of deities, marked natural disasters and given rise to the physical act of atonement.
Though the kinds of rituals that we perform and sacrifices we now make have evolved from that of our ancestors, we still need them to help make sense of the world around us, to navigate life and to show us who we are and what we stand for.
Unfortunately much of the spiritual and cultural meaning attributed to tradition has been lost in the commodification of customs. That being said, any ritualistic practice that involves senseless violence, pain and suffering, no longer has a place in modern society.