Extraordinary Rituals | New BBC co-production

17th August 2018 at 9.00pm sees the first episode of Extraordinary Rituals, a new OU/BBC co-production on BBC 2. This series of three documentaries explores the spectacular and emotional world of rituals, and the Academic Consultant was our own Graham Harvey.

In Indonesia the Torajans put on the most elaborate funerals on Earth to secure their loved ones a place in the afterlife, while in Japan new hi-tech cemeteries store people’s ashes behind glowing neon plaques. In Italy, a passionate bareback horserace called the Palio is the ritual which keeps fierce rivalries between the districts of Siena in check. While in Malaysia, pilgrims carry massive burdens and their bodies are pierced to show their extreme devotion to the Hindu god of war.

Rituals can inspire us, but to stay relevant they must also adapt to our modern lives. In China, 21st century teenagers sing ancient love songs in a 7th century dating ritual, and follow it up by text. In Senegal, where wrestling has become the top sport, fighters still use amulets, potions and tribal dances to give them the edge in the arena.

Rituals are woven into the survival story of humanity. Among the Inuit in Greenland a boy’s rite of passage to become a hunter still demands he must hunt a seal on the sea ice. It’s a ritual of survival, but for those families that follow tradition, it’s also key to their identity. Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving on Earth, using fire ceremonies to shape the landscape over 50,000 years. Passed down from the ancestors, the Dow fire ceremony teaches the next generation how fire brings fertility to the landscape. Today, science has caught up – ancestral knowledge and modern technology has combined, as Aboriginal rangers protect the land by creating vast firebreaks from helicopters.

We will continue to invent new rituals, from street crews practising parkour in Gaza, to the building of a Temple at Burning Man in USA, where people leave their painful mementos before it’s burnt down as a ritual of release. These rituals could become the traditions of the future, alongside ancient ceremonies for modern times, to help us to make sense of our human experience

There’s a bunch of material at Openlearn, the OU’s free learning website, including short videos from the origins festival and several pieces on ritual by Graham Harvey. A breakdown of the episodes follows.

Ep1: Rituals – Cycle of Life | The key rituals on our journey from birth, to marriage and death. These are universal, yet we perform them in extremely different ways around the world. Rituals give us meaning, and they bind us together for the most extreme moments in the circle of life.

 Ep2: Rituals – Great Gatherings | Great Gatherings looks at rituals that bring us together in huge numbers, keep communities alive and reinforce our identity by joining the crowd. For billions of people, shared ritual experiences still help us to find where we belong and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Ep3: Rituals – Changing World | This episode explores how rituals adapt in our changing world. How do ancient ceremonies stay relevant and when do we invent new rituals to answer our needs.