Crafting simple ritual

I’d like to spend some time to think about ritual, taking it back to basic principles and ditching some of the stuff we do simply as a result of habit and fuzzy thinking. For me ritual is about carving out a sacred space, to mark our paths (individually and communally) through life, and to acknowledge and honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities (I’ll come back to what I mean by spirits and deities in a later post). In communal ritual it’s also about fostering a sense of community and shared intent.

Firstly, I think for it to be a ritual it has to be done regularly, regardless of whether that is daily, monthly, quarterly or yearly. Therein lies its strength. A sense of familiarity arises as instinct takes over from cerebral thought and the mind is freed to focus on the intent and respond to any subtle changes and outside influences that may occur. It also creates a relationship between the ritual participants and the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities that they gather to honour. If it’s a one-off then it’s a rite rather than a ritual.

The first stage of the ritual should be to state the intention, to focus the minds of the participants and to announce to the relevant spirits or deities that the purpose of the ritual is to honour them. I disagree with the practice of invoking or ‘calling in’ spirits in the High Magic tradition; it’s arrogant to think that these entities are waiting to be invited in at the whim of the ritualists, at a time and place of their choosing, and on their terms. If a spirit or deity is interested in what is going on, he/she will choose their level of involvement. Announcing the intention of the ritual and being open and responsive to the flow of events is sufficient.

A lot is made of protection and the need to ward off bad spirits, and even to cleanse bad spirits already ‘within’ or ‘attached to’ the participants. I don’t really believe that there are any such things as malevolent spirits out to get us. At worst a spirit may be indifferent, but on the whole I think they have better things to be doing than attacking unwary bystanders. The best ‘protection’, I believe, is humility, consideration and the ability to recognise and rectify any offence that might be caused during the course of the ritual. Negativity attracts negativity, so if there is anyone coming to the ritual with intent to cause harm then they shouldn’t be taking part in ritual in the first place.

As for the idea of cleansing people of negativity or bad spirits at the start of the ritual (usually by ‘smudging’) this strikes me as a little too close to the Christian concept of inherent or ‘original’ sin, that people are by default unclean or impure. There is an argument for cleansing in terms of leaving behind worries and preoccupations on entering the ritual, but I think it is important to stress that this is not due to anything inherently wrong with the participants. They need to recognise themselves as integral parts of nature, not something external that needs to be cleaned.

Nor do I go in for ritual washing. Dirt and sweat should be as much a part of the ritual as flowers and finery. Again there is the argument that the process of ritual washing helps the transition between normal life and ritual space. I’m in two minds about this as I believe that part of ritual should be to celebrate the mundane and to help dissolve the idea that only certain parts of experience are sacred, only to be brought out on special occasions.

It is important to mark ritual space as different, to help focus the minds of the participants on the present. There are ways to do this, however, without reinforcing distinctions between the sacred and the mundane. One way is to stress that everything is sacred, but that it is only by appreciating it as so are we able to forge a meaningful relationship with the land, ancestors, spirits and deities. Ritual space is differentiated as a place of heightened perception, and the celebration of what we see, feel and interpret.

Attention should be be focused the particular, including the peculiarities of the land, atmosphere and the current point of time within nature’s cycles. Ritual should be about celebrating the local, the particular and the one-off; it shouldn’t be a mindless reiteration, an archetypal pantomime divorced from place and time.

One of the few conventional elements of Pagan rituals I am particularly fond of is the circle, not cast to seal the ritual space off from the outside world, but merely as a shape used to focus attention. In communal rituals it is the most democratic of shapes, with everyone equal and able to have direct eye-contact with everyone else. The circle mirrors the cycles of the seasons, the tides, the paths of the sun and moon through our skies, and the horizon. It is a nurturing shape. The ritual circle is undoubtedly one of the best aspects of modern Pagan ritual.

In contrast, I’m not an advocate of the four quarters, particularly the Wiccan-style practice of calling in the four ‘guardians’. Even addressing the spirits of North, South, East and West in a non-invocatory style seems rather an arbitrary thing to do. To me these spirits don’t have a personality. It seems much more likely to me that our distant ancestors would have honoured the spirit of the forest, or river, or mountain, or thunder, rather than those of the cardinal directions, which gained prominence during the Middle Ages. That doesn’t mean that they have no merit, just that they are not essential, and (to me) counter-intuitive.

One of the perceived benefits of using the cardinal directions was their correspondences to the four ‘elements’ (earth, air, fire and water), and by extension the four humours, the four tarot suits etc. This whole cosmology again strikes me as rather medieval and out of place in modern ritual. Focusing on earth, air, fire and water however (though not exclusively or necessarily together), is a useful way to focus attention of the peculiarity of the ritual space and to celebrate nature. It is easy to imagine some of the earliest rituals taking place around a central fire, with participants taking turns to toast the spirits of the land and their ancestors in a similar vein to a modern Heathen blot, and I think this is still a very good practice.

Something I think still has a place in ritual is theatre, much as in the Mystery play tradition. An important element of ritual is to ground us, to allow us to position ourselves within the wider story of nature. Exploring cosmologies through drama is a good way for people to imagine their place within the world and so feel connected to it. From which cultures these stories and cosmologies come, or whether they are old or new, is not important, though if the intention is to honour a specific spirit or deity it makes sense to choose a story relating to them or to create a story within the cosmology they inhabit. To do otherwise would be rather insulting.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways to bring communities together, to create relationships between people and their worlds and to honour the spirits of the land, ancestors and deities. It is only in recent centuries that it has become divorced from spirituality. I believe that part of a ritualist’s role is to draw attention to story as the material from which ritual is crafted, and insodoing remind the participants of the unity that once characterised our relationship with the world, in stark contrast to the alienated individuals we seem now to have become.

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3 comments so far

  1. Joakim on

    Great post as it clears a lot of debris that just won’t go away unless someone, like you, sweep it out. One thing, though: The use of the four cardinal directions isn’t just a medieval thing – The Navajos use it too. In my own ritual practice I use the directions in the morning, saying thanks to the directions (as well as heaven, earth and the mystery, as do the Navajos), and in the evening I say thanks to everything around me, the spirits of the place.

  2. Joakim on

    One thing in your post I REALLY like: Throwing out the notion of ‘ritual washing’ – Finally! As if what’s been accumulated on us during our sleep or at work isn’t sacred! If we acknowledge the sacredness of dust and sweat during the transition between the non-ritual part of the day to the ritual one, I think the correct mind set can be reached anyway. I used to think differently about this, I was such a snob, but you really made me change my mind.
    Thank you.

  3. tangiblesanctity on

    Thanks Joachim! I quite agree about the washing, and thanks for the info about the Navajos use of the directions.


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