What is Ritual IV: Meaning

We began by discussing what ritual is by claiming it is a form of communication. We presented a brief introduction to a model of ritual that seeks to synthesize several different theories of ritual into a single cohesive whole. This process is necessary, in that in order to understand the total phenomenon, we must understand that an action is not just a single discrete thing with a single, and irreducible, meaning, but rather that all social acts are replete with many different meanings, some mutually exclusive. We are currently in the process of exploring this phenomenon.

In spite of this necessity, this process is also replete with dangers, pitfalls to snatch the unwary or the unwise. I have been approaching this project with a fair bit of confidence, but do not think that I am unaware of the danger that I am wrong, at least in so far as the application of my theories. That ritual is not one thing but many, that it is order, power, meaning, and communication, that I have no doubt. Once you are aware of it, it becomes nigh impossible to perceive it any other way.

Ritual, among other things, is a storehouse for cultural meaning. When a ritual act occurs, it requires, demands, and confronts the enactor to engage with it. Even the most thoughtless bundle of gestures, done hastily and haphazardly, require the ritualist to stop and engage with the ritual itself. It is only unobserved that ritual ceases to have its reality. In orthopraxic systems with actual lineage (e.g. Hinduism), where ritual is received from the past, ritual is replete with meaning. Children, learning the rituals that mark their lives, naturally ask why something is done. The answers they are given form myth, which is then how they view the ritual act next time they encounter it.

Ritual is a marker of time, an orientation point for people to reconnect with their cultural meaning, to re-experience once again what it means to be. Ritual reifies the community. It is the manner in which a community will coalesce around a specific time and place and reconnect, invigorating themselves and sharing an experience that strengthens the bonds between the component parts of a community.

Ritual is a marker of status. Rituals form the manners in which societies acknowledge the changes in status. When a child becomes an adult, when two people become a couple, when a new life comes into the world; when an old one leaves it. Without ritual to mark these transitions, without a way of demarcating to yourself and to others that things are now different (for a definition of different), then things become ambiguous. Differences become blurred. There is, you will recall, danger in that kind of status. A lot of danger. Modern adolescence is deeply difficult in part because we don’t know when it begins nor when it ends. We just wake up one day and find ourselves becoming adults. And that is something that our ancestors never really had to deal with. Because they knew, on the face and in the center, when someone was an adult. Because they had undergone a ritual that recognized them as an adult, and they were introduced to the community as an adult. What does it mean to be an adult?

People have a need to understand themselves and their place in the world. One of the most human questions of all, the foundation of philosophy and the answer to which all religions seek to provide is “Why?” Ritual is the vehicle of why. When we engage in ritual, we, as Eliade describes it, step outside of linear time and enter into Mythic time. We become connected to the source of all meaning, because we believe we are doing the actions that our Gods and Ancestors did in illo tempore.[1] There are reasons that the sacred is separated, that it is demarcated and becomes a separate space that we enter and ultimately must leave. The threshold of the sacred space becomes the threshold of time itself. When we act in ritual, we not only imitate the mythic acts, we enact, or re-enact, those actions. They become them. Each action becomes a way that the world moves forward, that we ensure the ordered nature of the cosmos and continue to keep the forces of chaos at bay.

The careful reader would by this time no doubt wonder if the ritual precedes the myth, then the myth is somehow false, or made up. However, this fails to grasp the inherent conservatism of religion and ritual action. Mythic explanations for ritual action can only be successful when those explanations result in the correct action being done. Remember, harkening back to the concepts of causality and wyrd and the fundamental concept that only actions, only things that create effects in the pattern are reality. If the mythic explanation results in correct action, and that myth reflects the reality and meaning and mores of the community from whence it sprang, then that myth encodes all that information into the narrative and it is accepted, and passed on. If it doesn’t, then it is abandoned. Yes, the community can be influenced, and yes, there will be mythic and ritual drift. But that is in the context of ritual and mythic continuity. That continuity means that the drift is never so dramatic, that the changes never so drastic, that the fundamental religion changes. Over time and geography, we may see a wealth of different practices and beliefs. This is all to the good. But each belief and each continuity is still rooted in a shared past, and will share similar fundamentals. They will be related, in the same way that language and DNA drifts over time, so too does ritual and myth.

The challenge is that we do not have a lineage of ritual action; that there is no one alive today that we can go to and check our actions against. We must instead act with great care and rigorous attention to develop a system of ritual actions that the elder Heathen would recognize as being fundamentally actions of a similar type. We must look to the extant sources that we do have, and see how they interact with their myths. We must investigate myth, not on its literary merits, but with a firm grasp that myth explains things. Always, a myth explains why something is a certain way or how a certain thing came about. Careful reading of the mythic text allows us to ascertain certain things about ritual. And that is what we will discuss next week.

  1. ‘In that time’. Eliade had a vocabulary unto himself, that he used when explaining his ideas. Some of which came from other authors, such as Rudolph Otto, others were his own invention. For a list of this vocabulary, you may want to check out http://www.friesian.com/vocab.htm. ↩︎

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