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2023 Carol R. Ember Book Prize winner

2023 Sharon Harris Book Award winner

2023 British Academy Book Prize finalist

Ritual is the oldest, and certainly the most enigmatic, thread in the history of human culture. And it presents a profound paradox: people ascribe the utmost importance to their rituals, but few can explain why they are so important. Apparently pointless ceremonies pervade every documented society, from handshakes to hexes, hazings to parades. Before we ever learned to farm, we were gathering in giant stone temples to perform elaborate rites and ceremonies. And yet, though rituals exist in every culture and can persist nearly unchanged for centuries, their logic has remained a mystery - until now. In Ritual, pioneering scientist Dimitris Xygalatas leads us on an enlightening tour through this shadowy realm of human behaviour. Armed with cutting-edge technology and drawing on discoveries from a huge range of disciplines, he presents a powerful new perspective on our place in the world. In coronations, in silent prayer, in fire-walks and terrifying rites of passage, in all the bewildering variety of human life, Ritual reveals the deep and subtle mechanisms that bind us together.


available in print, ebook, and audiobook formats


What people are saying

"A fascinating, well-researched book about a fascinating subject. You will learn a lot."

— Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute & UN Messenger of Peace

"A deep, engaging, magnificent book ... Xygalatas walks through fire himself, literally and intellectually, to share great wisdom about the human condition."

— Nicholas A. Christakis, NY Times bestselling author of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

"An exceptional combination of meticulous research and vivid prose, a first-rate scholarly book which has garnered attention well beyond the academy... A book which enlightens and entertains."

—Sharron Harris Book Award

"An important intellectual contribution and a true delight to read."

—Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and author of, most recently, The Sweet Spot: The

pleasures of suffering and the search for meaning


"Rich in ethnographic detail, personal narratives and psychological experiments,  Ritual tells us how we can use this new science, and the wisdom embedded in ancient traditions, to elevate our lives, improve our health and strengthen our communities. "

—Joe Henrich, Professor and Chair of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, and author of The WEIRDest People in the World

“A gripping guide to rites and customs around the world” 

— New Scientist

One of the best studies of ritual in years... A superb introduction both to classic anthropological theory and the modern science that extends its insights.  Xygalatas shows that humans are indeed the ritual species.

—Tanya Luhrmann, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Anthropology at Stanford, and author of How God Becomes Real

"In this striking, wonderfully written, and original new book, Dimitris Xygalatas unravels the mystery of how rituals--from the mundane to the bizarrely violent--can be the source of transformative power. "

—Michael Patrick Lynch, author of The Internet of Us and Know-it-All Society

"Packed full of engaging case studies and experiments, this book is an entertaining and engaging introduction to the cognitive science of ritual by one of the pioneers of the field."

— Dr. Edward Slingerland, Slingerland, Professor of Philosophy and author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

"With a knack for showing how 'strange' behaviors are closer to home than we realize, Xygalatas masterfully explains how what binds us to other human beings are our most mysterious activities — rituals."

—Jesse Bering, Professor of Science Communication at the University of Otago and author of Suicidal

"Xygalatas' account of how our tendency to conduct weird routines can make us feel better individually or as part of a group is a thoroughly satisfying scientific detective story. His evidence may be culled from around the world but the lessons apply to all of us."

— Richard Wrangham, author ― Catching Fire, and The Goodness Paradox

"An elegantly simple and deeply persuasive argument which generalises to other forms of delusional belief."

—Mark Solms, author of The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness

"Reading this book helped me better understand various aspects of my life in ways I hadn’t expected"

—Avram Alpert, author of The Good-Enough Life

"Trailblazing anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas takes us on an electrifying tour of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals"

—Max Beilby, Darwinian Business

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