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Ross, M.E. (1982). The Concept of Liminality In Two Tribal Rituals. Am. Imago, 39(2):133-148.

(1982). American Imago, 39(2):133-148

The Concept of Liminality In Two Tribal Rituals

Mary E. Ross

When Freud presents his views on religious ritual in Totem and Taboo and “Obsessive Acts and Religious Practices,” he offers some important and insightful observations on the complicated issue of the psychology of ritualistic behavior. Important and insightful, but not exhaustive—there are aspects of ceremonial conduct Freud leaves untouched. I believe one of these is the quality of liminality—the spontaneity, creativity, and playfulness that Victor Turner regards as a critical component of most rituals. My goal in this essay is to sketch a psychoanalytic theory of ritual that encompasses the qualities Freud detects as well as those Turner describes, and to consider two rituals in the light of this theory. In order to bring Turner's theory in line with psychoanalysis and its developmental perspective, I will link the idea of liminality to D.W. Winnicott's concept of potential space: I will argue that the origins of liminality can be traced to the area between mother and infant where the infant, through the use of transitional phenomena and adoption of transitional behavior, creatively contends with his realization that he and his mother are separate.

The definition of ritual that will form the backdrop of my discussion is a combination of definitions from Steven Lukes (1975) and Clifford Geertz (1973). It goes like this: Religious ritual is a formal, repetitious activity of a symbolic character which draws the attention of its participants to a conception of a general order of existence. In ritual, this conception, this ideal world, is united with the empirical world and thus becomes concrete, factual, compelling; the result is a combination of the imaginary and the real that creates long-term social effects by establishing enduring moods and motivations in its participants.

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