Rastafari and Ritual Criticism

Professor Ronald Grimes offered an assessment of the present state of rituals in Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990). Grimes asserts, But ritual in a postmodern culture cannot be a replica of ritual in a premodern or ancient one. A number of theologians, anthropologists, and drama theorists have begun to articulate the demands that postmodern culture makes on religion, on ritual specifically. One of these is the need to limit the role of narrative continuity in ritual performance. He goes on to write, “Clearly we need theories adequate to the task of handling the new forms ritual is taking in postmodern culture.” (Grimes, 24) Grimes assessment is, I believe accurate in many ways. But I also believe that, for many, the idea of the ritual creation in a post-modern society cannot occur while the world’s populations are left to autonomously deal with hegemonic capitalism system willing and able to engage in the deconstruction of ancient and premodern ritual forms and to prevent the emergence of new rites that would be psychologically and collectively beneficial to communities but economically detrimental to markets.

I plan to examine Grimes hypothesis by empirically examining the Rastafari religion in an attempt to assess both strengths and weakness of his argument. I will use Mary Douglas’ theory on Natural Symbols, specifically the Group-Grid hypothesis borrowed from Basil Bernstein, as a means to explain why ritual creation proposed by Grimes would ultimately fail for both the individual and the communal aspects of Rastafari. We can also interrogate Rastafari’s linguistic, symbolic and cultural rituals created to mediate between world capitalism, free markets, and Eurocentrism society, known to Rastafari as “Babylon.” It will also prove valuable to assess if linguists and other ritualists have the capacity for a type of critical deconstruction that would give rise to a ritualization postmodernism community.

Rastafari[1] is an African-based religion that was founded in 1930’s Jamaica. By the end of the twentieth century, the Rastafari movement had spread throughout much of the world, largely through the commodification of spiritual music of Rastafari, known as Reggae.   In the late 90’s there were, roughly one million Rastafari worldwide.[2] While it is a religion, it is by its nature a way of life. Rastafari was not founded by any one single spiritual leader but a number of prophets[3] and mediated to Rastafari communities through a liturgical structure that includes the gospel of reggae, a specific type of community gathering called “groundings,” and a deep belief in “Christian theology, whether western or eastern. While these more formal ritualized behaviors exist within Rastafari, there is no written liturgy, no set pattern of ritualistic behavior. Rasta religious rituals vary temporally and spatially. Its strength is its diversity.   Rastafari is as much informed by its juxtaposition against the forces of “Babylon”[4] as it is of its own mythologies. Its rise is directly related the displacement of African peoples throughout the Diaspora via the enslavement of and colonial occupation of black bodies as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (16th – 19th century).

Chant Down Bably

In her article Natural Symbols Mary Douglass offers us an illustration borrowed form the work of Basil Bernstein. The four-quadrant frame is divided into grid and group (independent variables-See Douglass, 61) to measure positional behavior of groups. Rastafari fits Douglass’ concept of a group: common name, and in some cases sharing common interest in property. The basic premise is that along the horizontal axis, as one moves from left to right, a measure can be taken to signify the boundedness of the group. As they move along the axis the structure of organization will increase concomitantly as these groups mature. Rastafari proves problematic. Since it’s founding in 1930, an attempt at creating a formal religion was undertaken. Until, the Reggae group The Wailers’ released the musical album Catch A Fire (1973), the movement remained with a few members mostly located in Jamaica and later the United States and England. During the forty-year period of development from 1930 to the release of Catch A Fire, Rastafari developed orders called Mansions, a billion dollar commercial musical culture, an unwritten religious and liturgical practice, a political and social mythological consciousness and religious symbols recognized world wide. This would be indicative of the group moving along the horizontal axis from left to right.

Yet, with the development of structure Rastafari developed a mythology that stressed abhorrence to formal structure. Rastafari has no organized hierarchical Church, no clergy, and no written liturgy. However as the religion grew in age, membership increased, the pressure for a formal organized structure began to take shape. Rastafari may have already shifted slightly toward but not completely in square C. For Rastafari to accept western conventions of formalized ritual would be nothing less than the acceptance of the existing hegemonic structures within the religion itself. However, as the organization shifted along the horizontal line a schism[5] develops making permanent relocation to square C impossible. A religion, whose mythology is based on a theology of oppression, cannot move along the grid from square B to C even in a post modern society?

Perhaps Rastafari defies the logic of Douglass/Bernstein group-grid? But let us examine this further.   Rastafari’s Mansions known as Bobo Ashanti, Niyabinghi, Twelve Tribes, and Covenant Rastafari has, more or less, informal and formal styles and rules of dress, of worship, of eating, sleeping, and even rules of language in certain ritualized settings. Each Mansion has its own corporate identity, religious foundations and more or less act independently of each other. Identical Mansions can and do act independently and are free to create, revise, discard or incorporate any ritual practice. Rastafari of each Mansion are marked overtly by a distinctive and well-known hairstyle known as Dreads and distinctive style of dress. The distinctive nature of Rastafari costuming is directly in opposition to the dress worn by followers of Babylon. From a linguistic, cultural, social and political perspective In Rastafari is a postmodern & highly deconstructed performance.  We can say that Ihab Hassan is correct when he outlined several traits that inform the emergent sense of ritual: an innovation of silences; a will to unmaking; a fusion of high and low culture; genuine planetization or violent tranhumanization; a Gnosticizing of media; a worldview of interdeterminacy; and a sense for surfaces. Richard Schechner is also correct when he stated, “When I say that ritual replaces narrative I mean ritual in its ethological sense of repetition, exaggeration (enlarging, diminishing speeding, slowing freezing), use of masks and costumes that significantly change the human silhouette.” (quoted in Grimes 25)

Along the vertical axis individual Rastafari are not immune from being organized along conventional western ego centered categories. This again presents a problem for Rastafari. Rastafari decry racism, sexism and all known forms of prejudice. There can be no social roles outside of which God gave to man naturally. Babylonian categories of race, class, and sex are considered oppressive and hegemonic and are decried by its members.   So then how can Rastafari, which I believe is the quintessential post-modern religion develop a post-modern liturgical practice that would give Rastafari a much deeper sense of community? If we look at Grid Group b, it would be reasonable to expect that as individuals are increasingly involved in formal organized structure they would move along the line Z, as it represents the maximal involvement of the individual in formalized social interaction. Again, this is problematic.  Could in fact an organization that matures fail to move along either axis and remain stagnant even as it develops ritual practices? Perhaps ritual formation in Rastafari is an act of continual deconstruction? Perhaps within a larger study of participant observation and other empirical studies could further illustrate how this occurs.


[1] Members are known as Rastas, or the Rastafari. The way of life is often referred to as “Rastafarianism,” however this term is derogatory and offensive. The name Rastafari is taken from Ras Tafari, the title, Ras (king), and first name, Tafari Makonnen, of Haile Selassie I before his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930.

[2] Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, Chanting Down Babylon, Temple University Press; 1st edition (March 23, 1998).

[3] “Rasta’s” hold many Jewish and Christian beliefs and accept the existence of a single triune deity called Jah who sent his son to Earth in the form of Jesus (Yeshua) and made himself manifest as the person of Haile Selassie I, the Lion of Judah. During his coronation, of which the Ethiopian Orthodox Tahwedo[3] presided, Haile Selassie I was given 38 titles and anointments taken from the Bible: “King of Kings,” “Elect of God,” “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah the Author of Mankind,” “the Power of Authority.” Haile Selassie I was the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs of the Solomonic Dynasty. (1 Kings 10:13). The Rastafari community consists of mansions (John 14:12) Bobo Ashanti, Niyabinghi, Twelve Tribes, and Covenant Rastafari. These four mansions mediate between the vast number of horizons that are at play on both a personal and communal level.

[4] These European, American and western hegemonic forces that came to enslave people of African descent, decimate First Nations, and to colonize Africa are labeled “Babylon.” Rastafari stand in diametric opposition to Babylon, because without it there would be no need for Rastafari.

[5] My idea of a schism is not fully developed here but one should be able to perceive the conundrum here.