What is Ritual? Part I

There are a number of ways of approaching a system. One can look to look at the thing from a distance, and then seek to understand its component parts, say with how one reverse engineers as a motor or some other mechanical device. This is possible because when one reverse engineers, say a motor vehicle, there is some understanding what the purpose of that motor vehicle is. We understand the concept of a motor vehicle, what it is, how one operates it, etc. By understanding the big picture, we can reverse engineer the various subsystems and mechanisms by which the system functions.

But what happens when you don't understand the big picture? What happens when you're not sure what the purpose of ritual is -- or worse, you only think you understand it's purpose? How can we hope to reverse engineer a system under those handicaps? Instead of approaching the concept from the big picture inward, disassembling each component in order to see how it works, you first have to look at the evidence and make some claims.

In the case of our hypothetical automobile, for example, we might make the following claims:

  1. This is a piece of machinery; it consists of different moving parts.
  2. It is large enough to contain multiple people, but does not contain features that one would expect as a purpose built habitation.
  3. While it may, or may not, have been purely decorative, the features of this contraption would suggest a utilitarian purpose.

These assumptions are all valid, and become ever more valid as the sample size grows larger. From those assumptions, one can begin to look at the data and try and understand what the purpose was, particularly if you are able to find more data points, across a period of time, and a breadth of geography.

In our approach, I'd like to offer some assumptions. Each assumption is in some way based on the preceding one.

  1. Our Ancestors were not stupid. In many ways, they were smarter than we are, as they survived on more limited information and had to intuitively grasp certain things where we can logically explain them.
  2. That our Ancestors spoke language.
  3. That this language was related to other languages, and shared similar qualities that caused them to be related to other languages in the region.1
  4. That they had a system of beliefs.
  5. That this system of beliefs was communicated through the use of language.
  6. That these beliefs may have varied across time and distance, like language, but that underlying the surface of those beliefs was a system of understanding the world that was, while not uniform, were of a related systems of a particular type, also like language.
  7. That this system of beliefs worked. That is, the belief system satisfied the needs of its adherents2 and fulfilled the necessities of what a religion does, anthropologically speaking.
  8. That this system of beliefs operated from a prepositional logic that makes sense, so long as you understand the underlying world view.

From these assumptions, we can derive several principles that will guide us as we try and understand ritual. These principles are that there was a purpose, which is to say there was something that they wished to accomplish, to what our ancestors did, and that there was a utility, or a return on their efforts, in what they did.

In order to understand purpose, we must revisit Wyrd. As I have suggested before, the repetition of an act increased the gravity of that act, that it increased its reality and thus the impact that action had on the rest of the pattern. A gift given, for example, indicates a relationship has started, but a gift given in return tightens those bonds, strengthens and renews them. Each action in ritual is an attempt to relive myth, to reenact it, and strengthen that mythic act3, even as the physical act is strengthened by the mythic.

I have also suggested the idea of a pattern to Wyrd, that Wyrd has a shape. That shape is, I believe, the key to understanding ritual. The shape of the pattern, its action, is how we communicate to beings that are not omnipresent nor omnipowerful, but are yet so vastly more powerful than ourselves, that to say that they communicate in language is to do them a great disservice. The language of the Gods engages every sense-perception we have, in four dimensional space time. To communicate with the Gods, to experience that hierophany, one doesn't do it in words, but rather in symbols expressed directly into our very being4.

Thus, I believe that one purpose of ritual is communication. It communicates outward, into the cosmos, by the shape of the ritual, and the way it recreates Mythic time, but also inward, towards the community. In communicating these cosmogenic or commugenic themes, we recreate those actions, reexperience them, and renew them, and in doing so are recreated, rexperienced, and renewed by them.

If we communicate, either with gods or with each other, we must therefore engage in an exchange. The exchange of gifts is the vector by which our communication is transferred. Ours is a religion of gift giving, our rituals are offerings. We sacrifice objects that we turn into offerings. We offer libations of mead and other precious liquids. These things we do in hopes of obligating the Gods to bestow gifts upon us as well. An exchange of gifts consists of two parts, mirrored. We give, and we recieve.

Thus what we have here is an image of two vectors to ritual. There is the Cosmogenic/Commugenic vector, and the Giving/Receiving vector. If you have any set of two vectors, you can create with them a cartesian plane. In this model of ritual, which I will flesh out each week, I will demonstrate that all rituals in Heathenry map out somewhere on this plane. Each aspect of ritual will emphasize, or deemphasize one of these four directions: Giving, Receiving, Cosmos, Community.

Next week, I hope to visit some of the utility of ritual by looking at ritual scholarship and theories of what ritual is, to show how these purposes (communication, gift exchange) lead ultimately to the utilities observed by ritual theorists like Mircea Eliade, Catherine Bell, and René Girard.

Notes

  1. This by necessity ignores the concept of language isolates. However, as we are not studying linguistics here, or the culture and religion of a people who speak a linguistic isolate, I think it is safe to ignore it for now.

  2. Honesty dictates that we mention the possibility that the ancient religion did not in fact, satisfy the needs of the population, and hence this is why the religion died out. However, I think current scholarship, specifically Russel, Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Dunn, The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, and Murphy, the Saxon Savior, show in many ways that the conversion process took advantages of some systemic features of Germanic Kingship to drive Elites over to the new religion, and spent the next seven to eight centuries stamping it out.

  3. This may seem counter intuitive, coming from someone who often will make the claim don't mistake myth for religion, and that myth is created to explain ritual action, ritual action is not created from myth. The appearance of inconsistency is only appearance. Cultural and mythic drift does occur (see above on language and belief systems). However, the religious actions, which is to say ritual, is extremely conservative. For example, see the Carmen Arvala in Rome.

  4. This is neither to say that the Gods don't understand language, or that there is no utility in language in communicating with the Gods. If you come away from this statement thinking that either I have have erred greviously, or you have. But, without getting into too much of a digression, language is important.

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