The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Fellowship: Ritual and structure

September 23rd, 2014 · No Comments · fellowship, ritual

Quick recap: Go to the Fellowship category there on the right to see all of the Fellowship essays. This continues from a recent set of essays here and here.

Ritual is rightfully a topic of research and invention in and of itself, and for its own sake. It is distinct from , belief, habit, mime, and dance. Ritual is a set of tools and techniques that reliably initiate specific reactions in the physical and mental systems of participants and observers. With the right mindset, changes on a spiritual realm can also be observed.

The use of ritual in a religious context is a deliberate choice, so the tool or technique chosen should be harmonious with the principle being honored and the people performing the ritual. Time of day, the weather or the space itself may help determine appropriate activities chosen. The key, then, is to not be hung up on what ritual tool is used, but to give people several different tools to use at their own convenience. Some rituals require specific gear and costume, location and time, others require none of these things.

Visualization skills can help make a ritual seem more real and be better remembered. Projecting imaginary lines of light or energy as needed into the environment helps keep the ritual oriented and focused. For solitary ritual, visualization of the entire ritual can be sufficient, while for group rituals, more effort must be exerted to sharing a visualization. From experience: so long as the ritual leader has a clear visualization of the ritual, it can aid the larger group in “seeing” it as well.

Ritual is a stylized transaction between two or more people. In the context of ritual, the definition of “people” is very flexible. Human brain function has evolved with human inter-personal activities given the greatest slice of the cognitive pie. When a human face or personality is applied to a force of nature, what had been an unapproachable phenomenon becomes something that can be remembered, understood, even negotiated with. This principle drives a great deal of pantheistic ritual, such that gods and spirits are encountered as if they had a human presence, because that is the thing we are most comfortable dealing with, remembering, and understanding.

The structure of ritual is fairly consistent. First the space is prepared, then the participants are prepared, the gods and/or ancestors are invoked then greeted as arriving guests. Any gifts or offerings are presented before making requests or announcements. This is sometimes followed by a meal, a song, or some other presentation in a group setting. In some situations, divination is performed, talismans are charged, or oracles consulted. The ritual is concluded with farewells to the invited guests, and a bonding of friendship among the participants.

With just one to three people performing ritual, typically much of the performance element is left out, and visualization is heavily used. It may be as brief as a greeting, an offering, divination, and closing. With groups of 7-13 people, shared activities like chanting, singing, and dancing can be used to great effect. With large groups of people, care must be taken to insure as many as possible can participate, meaning more of the performance is done by a limited group held apart, perhaps on a stage, while participation by most limited to group chanting or simple movement.

Planning a ritual for many is well served by the use of theatrical-style scripting. Defining the space in terms of stage and seating, walkways and storage The best use of a particular space is often determined through trial and error, although very small locations may only allow a small number of participants. Planning for a ritual with a very large number of participants requires several extra levels of management to handle logistics, people management, and security, along with more requirements for artificial lighting, sound amplification, seating, parking, and restrooms.

The content of a ritual is surprisingly diverse: this template can accommodate a great many different occasions and situations. Generally, content is determined by the reason for the rite, be it a sacred remembrance, a change in family structure, or the launch of a ship. Relevant gods are determined by the situation, the participants, and the preferences of the ritualists. Astrological connections by meaning or event can also suggest colors, incense, sounds, and visualization clues. A good deal of preparation for a ritual can be in the research of appropriate god forms and relevant decorative elements.

There are many sources for deities from various cultures across the planet and throughout time, but there is no particular reason why new names can’t be discovered. The ritual for the unnamed god is used in situations where the deity related to a particular location or activity isn’t familiar — perhaps the activity is new, or the peoples that had known that location were all gone away. As a part of the invocation of the nameless god, the areas of dominion are carefully described, and the relationship between the deity and the participants is clearly defined. Sometimes, after a period of divination, a name can be determined, along with relevant associations. Sometimes a name is chosen by the participants, based on similarities to gods in other pantheons.

With events like Pentafest or a seasonal celebration, there may be several rituals within a larger ritual, there may be more performances, and more participant interaction. Some rituals, done individually be each person at specific times or occasions, are entirely idiosyncratic. The ritual template is a generalization, not a rule, and effective ritual can take many shapes. Be ingenious when creating ritual and the impact will be stronger.


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