When rites are enacted, rather than preached, they have the power to transform those who enact them
Robert Bellah starts his examples among the Kalapalo, an isolated people of Brazil. They have stories and rituals but the rituals, it appears, last much longer than the stories told around them. This is the opposite of the way we expect things to happen. As children of religions of the book, we can easily imagine that the text, or at least the story, is the spine of any religion. This is wrong. Ritual predates myth; it may well predate language itself, and have made it possible.
There are monkeys who give a particular scream when they see a leopard, and a different scream for a snake. This is communication – other monkeys will react appropriately when they hear these different screams – but it isn't yet language. Language starts when sounds become signs that point to other signs. In that sense, metaphor is the first form of speech, and not some later and confusing acquisition. In any case, the development towards language and metaphor can't have happened in a single jump, nor to a single visionary. It's no use being the only person in the world to understand the use of metaphor.
Bellah quotes Terrence Deacon, a strikingly impenetrable but important writer, on the ways in which the repetition entailed in collective drumming and singing supplies redundancy, and redundancy makes the scaffolding on which signs and sounds can come to mean both things in the external world and the sounds and signs that represent such things. That is the great enrichment that makes language and it depends on music. So far as we know, humans are the only species to make music collectively. Birds sing, but not in harmony. Only humans can make voices into choirs.
Kalapalo ritual is primarily musical, with myth operating more as comment than scenario, yet the idea of the dominance of music is itself embedded in myth. The Kalapalo classify various beings according to the sounds they make. The "powerful beings", who were there "at the beginning", express themselves through "music". Human beings use "speech". Other animate beings, including animals, have "calls". Inanimate things make "noises".
The stories told around these rituals are not exactly about gods, but about "powerful beings". The differentiation between them and humanity is neither complete nor absolute. Bellah writes:
The earliest human beings, the Dawn People, lived in close relation to the powerful beings and were in many ways like them. People today, descended from the Dawn People but lacking their ability, must be wary of powerful beings, with their enormous creative but also dangerous energy.
Some Kalapalo rituals can take more than a year to prepare. The rewards correspond to the effort: the powerful beings are sung to, and simultaneously sung into being.
So what is transformed in this way? Obviously, some of these rituals are concerned with health, but the main effect seems to be the transformation of the dancers themselves into a community. The celebrants see themselves as Kalopalo, rather than as members of their particular family group.
There is a consequent merging of self with what is being sung about: just as in myth powerful beings participate in human speech, so in ritual, human beings participate in the musicality of powerful beings, and so achieve some of their transformative power.
Economically, it means that everyone is obligated to participate, but everyone receives regardless of contribution. Ifutisu, the most basic value of Kalapalo life (subsuming the notions of generosity, modesty, flexibility, and equanimity in facing social difficulties, and respect for others) is extended beyond the domain of family to all people in the community.
It's worth noting, at this point, that the genders are segregated in these rites, as they are in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish worship to this day. But though we see this as divisive or hierarchical, it may be better to understand it as the breaking of old and entrenched divisions between families and their replacement by weaker, if more universal loyalties.
Because these changes are enacted, rather than preached, they have the power to transform those who enact them. To deal with gods, or powerful beings, is not just to change your role but your whole personality, in a lasting way. Some of these things are obviously true of some forms of religion even today. Pentecostal Christianity in its modern forms is built around transformative rituals and repetitive music. But the Kalapalo maintain a fundamental equality which is later lost. They have no lasting and permanent division between performer and audience, or priest and people. With the rise of agriculture and accumulation of goods that leads to civilisation all this will change. The first sign of state building will be human sacrifice.
Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Religion in Human Evolution, part 3: the primacy of ritual over language". The Guardian. Posted: July 30, 2012. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/30/religion-in-human-evolution-rituals