What is Ritual III: Power

Ritual is the thing itself. It is power; it acts and it actuates.
--Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice1

We have seen how the focus of ritual is communication, and how it can be used to promote and implement social order. Within that communication, within that order, lies the the individuals that constitute the participants and observers of ritual, and their interaction with both the space and with each other, serves to create and promulgate power within that social order.

Germanic society was hierarchical, a hierarchy that has its roots back into the Bronze age and the very beginning of Proto-Indo-European societies.2 This hierarchy is based on a class of elites protecting and providing for the farming populace that would then support the elites through taxes. This dynamic was by no means an equitable exchange, but that does not mean that there wasn't obligations on both sides that had to be honored.

Enter Catherine Bell's Ritual Theory, Ritual practice. In it, Bell presents a working theory for Ritual in which all facets of ritual are a function of Power. For Bell, it wasn't simply the imposition of Power by elites, but rather the interplay of participants claiming for themselves power within the ritual action. This is not merely a one time exchange, either. Each time a ritual is enacted, the ritual space is realigned and the power negotiation occurs.

Power can be negotiated in many ways. The Obligations I spoke of earlier, of ruled to ruler, but also of ruler to ruled, are acknowledged and reinforced in the enactment of ritual. Someone has to host the ritual. Even if one were to host it in a public park, for example, there must be an organizer, a "giver" of the ritual. There are those who attend. This roots the giver in a position of power, but only if the person seeking that position can (1) get people to attend, and (2) get them to judge the ritual action taking place as successful.

Meanwhile, those attending a ritual are also engaged in their own power dynamic. Those who are part of an established group will be familiar with the ritual dynamics, and others, who are new, will be looking to them to signal the proper form of action. Others may be arriving with a very firm idea of what does and does not constitute right action, and their conclusions of the efficacy of the rite will be based on how the ritual enactor manages to meet, or even subvert, those expectations.

Back in 2012, I was responsible for the opening ritual of a regional event held south of Atlanta, GA by Iron Clay Shire. During that ritual, we passed a horn as part of the libation. I went to hand the horn to a Theodsman of no small repute. There was a moment of tension, in Theodisc Belief, in order to be Lucky and Right action, a horn should never be passed man to man without first passing through the hands of a woman. The whys and wherefores are of little consequence to today's discussion, but the moment was a profoundly dangerous one, if it were not for the quick action of a Theodswoman to take the horn and pass it, at which the rest of the libation went as normal. The specifics of theology, again, are not really important for this discussion. What is important is that the action lead to a moment of tension, a power play that existed despite my never intending there to be one. Ignorance forced our hands, but we had to negotiate the moment nevertheless. It forced the Theodswoman to make a second power play, and for I to accede to that powerplay, so that that neither would be insulted at being forced, by me (unintentionally but nevertheless forced) to break taboo to maintain proper guestliness. By acceding to the irregularity, I negotiated the dissonance and the ritual moved forward to a successful conclusion.

Another example, this time from the opposite end of the spectrum. Another event, this time in Florida. The officiant stood up and said it was now time for ritual. I and my fellows from ICS immediately stood up and moved to remove our cell phones and pocket knives, since such items are taboo to take with us into the ritual space. We then turned back to follow the procession outside, only to find that the host was using the common indoor venue to conduct his ritual. While he was doing so, some chose to participate, others continued to do the crafts that they were engaged with when the announcement came. Overall, the ritual impact, which is to say its efficacy, seemed negligible, and I found myself as observer both uncomfortable and as a participant urging the ritual to a quick end by doing only the minimum required of my participatory role and passing that role on to the next. The only outcome of value from that ritual was a firm decision on my part never to conduct a ritual like it, to ensure that my rituals featured a lead-up warning, as well as a specific closed off space for ritual action. Rituals in dining halls are not felicitous.

While not everything in ritual is explicitly about the power dynamic, the power dynamic touches everything. The act of kneeling, for example, can both be an expression of submission, and include an element of resistance.3 A pause, or hesitation may communicate more to those keyed into the language of ritual than an outright refusal to participate can. In a ritual landscape, everyone's senses are heightened, because everyone knows what should come next. When that action fails to materialize, or that situation fails to be realized, we zero in on that failure for it is the signal amidst the noise.

The total action of ritual is not just about power, but the generation and imposition of power dynamics does play into ritual. The social order, secured and guaranteed by viewing ritual and Girard's lens, is still a place where the order is negotiated and reaffirmed by its participants. And it is through that power play that changes are introduced and accepted or rejected based on the outcome of these interactions. A proper understanding of this facet of ritual is vital simply because it gives the ritualist the tools to negotiate and navigate the ritual landscape, ensuring that ritual vitium is corrected and where possible prevented.


  1. p.195

  2. An excellent introduction to this concept can be found in David A. Anthony's Horse, Wheel, and Language, and the way that PIE peoples became sort of a "franchising" operation is discussed in detail in Chapter 9.

  3. "Rappaport makes a similar point in describing how the act of kneeling does not so much communicate a message about subordination as it generates a body identified with subordination. In other words, the molding of the body within a highly structured environment does not simply express inner states. Rather, it primarily acts to restructure bodies in the very doing of the acts themselves. Hence, required kneeling does not merely communicate subordination to the kneeler. For all intents and purposes, kneeling produces a subordinated kneeler in and through the act itself. On another level of the strategies of ritualization, such an act may in fact set up a bifurcation between the external show of subordination and an internal act of resistance." Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, p99-100

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