We have thus far explored the different ways in which scholars have attempted to explain the ritual phenomenon, looking at ritual through the filters of Power, Order, and Meaning. I’d like to spend some time today talking about Communication. It was briefly discussed when we began this series, but I feel that to give short shrift to this vector is to fail at a comprehensive look at the ritual phenomenon. The challenge in this, at first glance, seems to be that Communication seems to be a vector, rather than a filter – the different filters of rituals we have examined so far are all impressed, or imposed, or transferred, which is to say, communicated, through the ritual act. However, to assume that communication is a mere vector for our ritual filters is to miss a very real, very important facet of ritual, which is its ostensible purpose.
Last week, we discussed the nature of cognitive bias in the 19th Century ethnographers who refused to grant validity or agency to the non-Christian rituals and religions of the peoples they were studying, while at the same time recognizing within them something of value. We have to be cognizant of that tendency, if we are ever going to approach a theory of Heathen Ritual that engages with heathen ritual on its own terms. This is the filter where we approach ritual with the question, “What are we doing when we engage in communication?” “What is happening when we do what we do?”
Before we answer these questions, some basic premises of theology must be laid out. First, we must recognize that in our religion, there is not a single god, but many. Accepting this first premise, we must move on to the second, that our gods are not omnipotent. They are beings of immense power and prestige, beyond our comprehension and knowledge, but they are not limitless in breadth and scope. They can be deceived, and there are things that are hidden to them. The Gods are shown to be elsewhere, unable to affect the situation due to their lack of presence. Therefore, they are neither omniscient nor omnipresent, either. They are limited, but those limits far exceed our own. When making assumptions of the gods, it is perhaps best to approach the question that while a god may be able to do anything, they are not capable of doing everything.
If, as we have stated, the Gods are not omnipresent, omniscient, nor omnipotent, then there are times when their attention is not on us. We must find a way to court it, to send them a signal, much in the same way we might use a beacon fire or a radio signal. Whereas in a beacon fire, the medium is light, or a radio signal, electromagnetic radiation, the medium of our signal is Wyrd.
At the beginning of the year, we discussed how Wyrd forms patterns of actions and reactions. Those who understand the pattern can interpret it and determine what might or will happen. But also, those who understand the pattern can look at it and see things that have happened, and read the past in the pattern of the present. Much in the same way a person might light a signal fire that spells help on the side of a hill for a passing plane to recognize, so too we, as human beings seeking to gain godly attention, influence the pattern of wyrd in such a way that the pattern contains meaning. The way we do that is through ritual.
Ritual is the medium by which we gain the attention of the Gods and engage in relationships with them. With this in mind, the focus on Orthopraxy, on repetition, and other quirks we have in ancient writing on ritual – particularly in Greek, Roman, and Vedic sources – suddenly becomes clear. Ritual, like our hypothetical bonfire, becomes a very high signal, low bandwidth method of communication.1 Most of Ritual is designed to create specific shapes to the pattern of wyrd that will draw the attention of those powers with which we wish to enter into gift exchange. Each action in ritual is designed with the idea of reaching out, or calling out, to the numinous, asking it to join with human beings in the guest-host relationship or *ghostis. If an action creates a series of reactions that form a pattern in Wyrd, then the repetition of that action should recreate a similar pattern. Repeated often enough, and the pattern begins to form of its own volition, in the same way that you might swirl water in a pan to create a vortex.
Ritual contains all possible elements of action: physical movement, language, music. Music and poetry and song and dance are all elements of ritual; they are the components by which the ritual message is crafted. Implements of ritual, the tools, the layout, the geometry of how we place things in and move in a ritual context all combine to create that signal. In the same way that a series of proscribed actions can cause someone to place two pieces of wood in a particular manner, and after completing the appropriate actions, generate flame, so too can ritual action, performed in the correct manner, and at the correct times, generate a signal that results in a hierophany, or manifestation of the numinous.
While it may seem like this would be the heart and soul of ritual, it’s primary purpose, you have to understand that there are times when a ritual does not seek the god’s attention; there are times when the purpose of ritual is insular, where our attention is turned towards the community and our needs, not to signal to the gods, just as there are times when we are focusing on the receiving of gifts, and other times when we focus on giving them. Symbel, as a ritual, has a vastly different purpose than blót, and the elements that make up the outward communication are de-emphasized (yet not entirely eliminated) and instead the signal is turned towards the community, and the target of the communication is each other. In those cases, the other filters of our ritual landscape may instead be emphasized.
Next week, I’m going to start looking at the specific vectors of ritualization as they exist in a heathen context, and how those different elements might come together to help us craft our rituals moving forward.
In this instance, I am using signal to mean the overall distance that a communication message can travel. Bandwidth is the amount of information it is capable of conveying. In our example, the bonfire being high signal means that, placed correctly, the fire can be seen from a vast distance. Low bandwidth in this case refers to the amount of information that signal can contain. The classic example of this is, for Americans at least, the story of Paul Revere and the Midnight Ride. In that case, there had to be two lanterns, because of the two possible routes of British forces. ↩