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Miscellaneous Thoughts on Ritual


These are just some random thoughts and essays on ritual that didn't fit into the more complete parts of this section of the website. Some are complete essays, and some just short notes. There is some overlap among them.

(In the following, some Proto-Indo-European (PIE) terms are used. These are:
Ghosti- Proto-Indo-European word meaning "someone with whom one has a reciprocal obligation of hospitality.
Swā́rtus (pl. swā́rtūs) – That part of the Xartus that belongs to an individual.
Xártus – The living and changing pattern of the universe.
Yewésa – The rules of ritual.
A colon after a vowel marks it as long.)



A ritual is an enacted, ordered, and ordering system of sensations and the signifying presence and/or absence of signifying speech acts, objects (which can include space), actions, and sensations, intended to establish, maintain, or utilize a mapping relationship between the actual and the Ideal.

Further, rituals are performative in the operative sense and performative in the linguistic sense.

Rituals commonly have the following characteristics:

1. They, the elements of which they are formed, and their enacting are marked.

2. Their performance is considered meaningful to their performers.

3. They are repeated.

4. They are like plays and play.

5. They are traditional.


Rituals may be analogized to utterances. In such an analogy, the words, acts, and objects of a ritual would be the words of speech, the ordering syntax, and the ritual as connected speech.

That its elements are ordered is a crucial characteristic of ritual. To use the analogy of language, a ritual without order would be like a sentence without syntax, or a paragraph without an organizing structure; an utterance which didn’t contain any meaning or, if it did, contained one imposed by the intent of the observer rather than that of the one who has uttered it.

More important, rituals are intended to express the order of the divine world, or of the mundane world as seen from a divine perspective, or of our relationship with it. A collection of words, acts, and objects which had no order would either not correctly express the Order of the Cosmos and be useless, or impose its own lack of order on the Cosmos (or, at least, on that part of the Cosmos which surrounds the person who is conducting the ritual) and therefore be dangerous.

The words, acts, and objects must themselves have meaning. Otherwise they would be like words the meaning of which are not agreed upon by the speakers of a language: if the elements do not possess meaning, their collection cannot express one, and a ritual becomes a waste of time – not connection is established with the divine.

Like words in an utterance, the elements of a ritual may possess more than one meaning. Which meaning is intended must be made clear; otherwise there can be no understanding of the utterance (that is, of the ritual) as a whole. Sine the meanings of elements of a ritual may possess an arbitrary meaning (like most words), these meanings must be agreed upon beforehand by those who will participate in a ritual. I like to say that even though the German word for tree, Baum, sounds a lot like the English “bomb,” German trees don’t explode.

This agreement has often been learned considerably before the ritual, and may have been learned unconsciously. For instance, one may never have been told that kneeling is a sign of respect, but still have learned, by observation, that it is done at those moments of a ritual when respect is being expressed.

The meaning may also be learned consciously. For instance, a Wiccan wand “means” air (i.e., by manipulating it the element of air is believed to be manipulated). This meaning has been imparted by conscious training; it has been explained explicitly by one’s teacher.

The analogy with language is that the meaning of some words is learned through observing their use, often unconsciously (this is especially the case of words acquired in childhood), or by looking them up in a dictionary. In either case the goal is for their meaning to become so internalized that the meaning doesn’t have to be consciously recalled when they are heard or used. So, too, a goal in ritual is for there to be nothing between the elements and the meanings which they express.

Like a small number of words – “bang,” “meow” – a ritual element may have meanings which are echoic, which directly express their meaning in a way which is less obvious than most. To give something, for instance, is always an expression of the transfer of valuable items. This direct connection is more common in ritual than in language.

Which of the meanings of a multivalent element is intended to be expressed may be determined by those around it, or by a greater context. For instance, counter-clockwise motion can be seen as either dishonoring or disestablishing. Its meaning at a particular point in a ritual will be determined by its use – is one performing a cursing ritual, or separating sacred space from mundane by dissolving the connection between ritual space and mundane space?

More than one meaning of an element may be intended. For instance, in Michael Dangler’s prayer to the Earth Mother, “Uphold me now as I give praise”, “uphold” may express an acknowledgement that we perform a ritual in a particular location, or express a desire for the Earth Mother to maintain the ritualist in their actions.

Conversely, a single meaning may be expressed through more than one element. In the cosmology prayer I use, the words are accompanied by gestures that depict the cosmology. They are also sung, and the notes of the song map out a similar structure.

It may therefore be said that a ritual may be composed of symbols with more than one meaning and meanings with more than one symbol.

Finally, in order for a collection of elements to count as a ritual it must somehow involve a relationship with the divine. This is sometimes obscured by the use of “ritual” to describe what might more accurately be designated as ritualistic acts and ceremonies.

Ritualistic acts share some characteristics with rituals. For instance, many are repeated at specific times and have an established order. One’s morning ritualistic acts may be composed of the same acts every morning, and be in the same order – get up, feed the cat, put the coffee on, go to the bathroom, take a shower, shave, brush teeth. But as these are not connected with the divine, they are ritualistic rather than ritual.

It is possible for a ritualistic act to become a ritual. For example, a shower can be accompanied by a prayer which turns it into a rite of purification, or one thought while brushing one’s teeth can ask for the power to speak truth that day. Nonetheless, brushing one’s teeth is not in and of itself a ritual at, even if it is done at the same time each morning and as part of an ordered collection of acts and objects.

Some of the elements of a ritual are ritualistic acts. To give someone something is a ritualistic act, but it makes a world of difference whether it is a libation to a deity (ritual) or coffee to a co-worker every morning (ritualistic).

Ceremonies are ordered collections of ritualistic acts that are secular in purpose. A ceremony may include a ritual act, but so long as the overall intent is secular we are dealing with ceremony. For instance, a graduation may include a prayer, but while the prayer may be ritual, the graduation is ceremony.

The most important aspects of ritual, then, is that it is made up of symbols, is ordered, and is directed towards the divine.

--

A ritual is an ordered collection of symbolic actions, frequently involving the manipulation of sacred objects or tools. Such objects may include special garb, tools representing a symbolic reality, incense, objects that produce sound, etc. These tools may be symbolic themselves (such as the elemental tools of a Wiccan) or brutally practical (such as the knife used to cut the victim's throat in a Roman sacrifice). They may, of course, be both; indeed, it is common for such practical tools to acquire symbolic interpretations. In Vedic ritual, for instance, virtually every object is imbued with symbolism in the Bra:hmanas. Ritual may be either public (in which case it is sometimes called "liturgy") or private.

Ritual is intended to create an effect. This effect can be material, such as prosperity, or spiritual, such as an increased awareness of the presence of a deity, or anything on a sliding scale in between. More than one effect may be sought in a ritual, or by different people at the same ritual. These multiple effects may be related. For instance, the invocation of a deity may be considered to be necessary for the attainment of material ends. The immediate goal of an individual may depend on their role in the ritual. For instance, a ritual may be performed for the prosperity of a given person. He is obviously looking for a material effect. The priest performing the ritual, although responsible for achieving the effect of prosperity, may personally be more interested in achieving and/or maintaining a relationship with a deity or deities. Or such a ritual may include a number of people, each of which is looking for prosperity, but prosperity may mean different things to each person.

I have said that a ritual is made up of symbols. It is important to note that these are only considered to be symbolic when the ritual is looked at from the outside. During the ritual, things are as they are; the symbol is the reality it expresses. In this way the actions performed have a real effect on the cosmos. An act treated as symbolic during a ritual would only have a symbolic effect. For instance, if one were to be purified with the words, "With this symbol of purification, I rid you of all evils," one would only have been purified of symbolic evils. The actions must be considered as real within the space and time of the ritual.

"Ordered collection" -- the symbols are not combined haphazardly. This structure depends less on the purpose of the ritual than on the ethnic tradition according to which the ritual is constructed. However, there are elements that are so common that they may be considered to make up a standard order. This order, especially in Indo-European tradition, goes like this: creation of sacred space (made up most commonly of marking the borders, delineating the space (sacred space is cut off from non-sacred space) and lighting fire(s) (creating a means of transformation between the profane and sacred worlds, and establishing the holy)); invocation of the deity or deities to whom the ritual is dedicated; offerings to them (some offerings should be part of the invoking -- presents create presence. These offerings also invoke the ghosti-principle; by making offerings, we establish ourselves as hosts, requiring the response of the gods. They know the rules); a request, praise, or thanksgiving (either in words or offerings); a thanking or good-bye to the deity or deities; and the disestablishment of sacred space. There are picky details, such as divining to establish that the time is auspicious and later to assure that the ritual has been acceptable to the gods, but the forgoing form the basic framework.

--

We are too afraid of silence and stillness in our rituals, all spaces must be filled. God forbid there should be dead air.

But the chorus waiting for their lines, the brahmin repeating the ritual in his head, are performing vital roles. The monks meditating silently are an essential part of the ritual.

The fear is for the congregation. It is taking a while for the fire to catch. Are their minds wandering? A priest leaves the sacred space to make an offering to the land spirits. Are they wondering what will come next? The sacrificial food is being distributed. Are they looking ahead to their turn?

Let them. Let their minds wander, let them wonder, let them think ahead. Let them think, “When will this be over?” Let them ask themselves why something is being done. Let them wait their turn. Let them be bored.

Above all, let them be undistracted by external events. Let them be forced to engage with what’s going on by the fact that nothing is going on. Do not fill all of their time, leaving none in which to absorb the ritual.

Give people a chance. Trust them to find their way without their hands being held. Give them the opportunity to have their own experiences. Give them dead air.

--

Non-officiants – members of the congregation, if you will – have responsibilities for the success of a ritual that are almost as great as those of the officiants. They will, of course, have specific things to say or do. They will process, take part in litanies, sing, affirm prayers with words like “so be it,” etc. They need to do much more, however.

Affirmation is an important role. It needs to be not just in words, though, but in attitude. A participant needs to listen attentively, and to use body language that says they’re part of the ritual. Actors talk about the energy they get from the audience. This isn’t just laughs, applause, gasps – an attentive audience changes a performance just by being there.

The officiants will also be monitoring the reactions of the participants. Even if they are caught up in the ecstasy of a ritual, if they know what they are doing they will be doing this in the context of everything that’s going on, and this includes the attitudes of the participants.

This is something for officiants to remember. They do not own the ritual, they are its servants. They have a responsibility to draw the others in. If the audience isn’t giving the actors energy to feed off of, it might be that the actors are bad (or that the script is bad, something liturgists need to remember).

When a priest is pouring a libation, then, they are pouring it for the congregation. The congregation plays its own part by attending to the act closely. Those who wish to express this as “sending energy” may do so; the point is, simply recognizing the ritual act increases its efficacy, and the more intently it is recognized the more effective it is.

--

I have said that the perfect ritual is a reflection of the Xartus of the time, place, and participants of that ritual, and that ritual has a form derived from tradition. There is no contradiction here. The Xartus of a time, place, and participants is determined by what came before; we are now is based on where we have been. Participants in a ritual bring their cultural background and its traditions to it. The deities are part of a cultural tradition themselves, and the ways in which they with to be worshiped became part of the traditions of their culture. Thus to write a ritual according to tradition is to place it in the cultural contexts of both the worshipers and the worshiped, which is to say, in the context of the Xartus.


To take part in a ritual is to establish a link between you and the other participants, the consciously and unconsciously, mentally and physically, through the apparently mundane and the obviously sacred. The participants include not only the people there, but also the gods. The linking well be more or less effective depending on the skill of the ritual's composer, the openness and other preparation of the participants, and the will of the gods.

The latter is quite important. Although the gods operate by the ghosti-principle, they are 1. free beings, who may choose for reasons of their own not to reciprocate, and 2. beings that know the Xartus better than we do (the completeness of their knowledge depending on how large a part of the Xartus they are responsible for), and it may be part of their wisdom to know that a request is not in the best interests either of us or of the Xartus. Whether they grant our requests or not, though, they are worthy of worship.

--

All acts that take place during a ritual are ritual acts, no matter how accidental or incidental. If a tool has to be put down in order to pick up another, the act of putting down is as ritually important as that of picking up; it isn't merely a practical act, one required for the picking up. To put something down is to perform an act of separation, to pick up is to perform an act of connection. Both actions mean something. This may be termed the seamlessness of ritual.

That things within a ritual are the things that they are seen to be, and not symbols, and that ritual is seamless, means that at no point in a ritual is there a space for any part of it to be seen as symbolic. Inside the ritual there is no point which is outside it.

It may therefore be said that anything in a ritual both has and does not have meaning. It has in the sense that after the ritual it may be reviewed and its meaning investigated. It does nothave in the sense that at the time it occurs there can be no question of meaning -- it just is.

--

A ritual may be performed for material ends -- prosperity, health, etc. It may be performed for spiritual ends -- a closeness to a deity, a thanksgiving, etc. But even the material rituals require the spiritual goals, since it is the gods who bring the gifts asked for, and even the spiritual rituals bring material rewards, since a relationship with the gods will always bring blessings. There is no sharp dividing line between the material and the spiritual.

But whether the main purpose is for material or for spiritual ends, a ritual succeeds best when it is in accord with the Xartus of the moment. It is always our goal to be in accord with the Xartus, of course. Might a ritual succeed if it is not in accord with the Xartus? Of course, just as any action might not be in accord with the Xartus and yet bear fruit, so too with a ritual. The Xartus is a living structure, which may be modified by our actions. But to do so is like trying to work against a rushing stream. Better to know how the currents run and to shape your actions accordingly than to try to work against it. The perfect ritual is thus perfectly in accord with the Xartus. A ritual must be in accord with the Xartus to a certain extent, though, or it will probably not work.

A ritual can be effective in three ways: 1. It may invoke a deity, and that deity will accomplish the end. In this case it is clear that the Xartus must be followed, since the gods follow the Xartus and will not grant your request, or sometimes even be contactable if the ritual does not follow the Xartus. 2. You may use the Xartus itself, gaining power from its flow. It is obvious in this case that the Xartus is followed. 3. It may have a psychological effect; that is, it may be performed to change one's state of mind (or it may have that effect even if it is not planned). In this case, if one's mind is in accord with the Xartus, the ritual effect will be in accord with the Xartus; if not, then not.

How might a ritual be performed in accord with the Xartus? First, one might learn what the Xartus is through divination, meditation, or other techniques. Second, one can follow the virtues which are themselves expressions of the Xartus. Third, one can develop a strong relationship with the gods, since they follow the Xartus. Finally, one can perform ritual according to the yewésa, the rules of ritua. (The singular is yewos.)

The yewésa may be said to be of two types. First there are those that have been worked out throughout the years by liturgists. These represent thousands of years of experience by thousands of people. They have been developed by both trial and error, and the direct apprehension of the Xartus by their composers. It is not for one person at one time to lightly thrust these aside and do what they wish, unless they are in direct contact with the Xartus, unless they know perfectly the Xartus of the moment. The actions of such a one, whether in ritual or not, are always right. But for the rest of us, it is best to follow the yewésa.

The second kind are those that did not originally rise from the Xartus of the moment in which they were first performed, but which have, by constant and faithful repetition, been woven into the Xartus as it has come to us. By following them, then, we follow the Xartus as it exists now.

In either case, regardless of their origin, the true yewésa follow the Xartus, and to act in accord with them is to act in accord with the Xartus. A perfect ritual is a perfect reflection in our world of the Xartus. The closer one comes to a direct awareness of the Xartus, the closer one comes to conducting a perfect ritual. In the end, through the practices such as divination, meditation, virtue, etc., and through the frequent participation in ritual, one's life becomes a ritual.

--

The perfect ritual is perfectly in accord with the Xartus of its time and place, and with the swe:rtu:s of its participants. For this one perfect moment, their swe:rtu:s coincide, and are brought together with the Xartus to form one entity, one series of actions.

Now this can only happen perfectly if they lose themselves in the ritual, if they so empty themselves that they do not act, but rather the Xartus acts through them. This acting must be unconscious, it must be without thinking; a submerging of the self into the moment.

It is for this reason that I am opposed to group meditations, led by a priest for the benefit of the ritual's participants. These are attempts to force the issue, to make people in accord with each other, to make their swe:rtu:s coincide. This must just happen, as the participants lose themselves in the dance of ritual. Will this happen for everyone at every ritual? Of course not. But it must be allowed to occur without forcing, or it will never occur. To attempt to force it will be to lose it.

It may be objected that the participants not used to the ritual will not automatically slip into its flow. Perhaps this is true. But they will never learn to slip into the flow if each time the liturgist attempts to force them into it. Through repetition of the ritual, they will become more and more attuned to it, until, like the opening of a flower (naturally, simply, beautifully) the attunement happens. No forcing, nothing conscious. It will simply happen.

It is the job of the ritual writer and of its main celebrants to bring together the differing swe:rtus of the participants, to knit them together in the ritual so that the perfect moment might occur. The ritual writer cannot be expected to do this perfectly himself, of course, because he will not know who will attend the ritual, and thus he will not know their swe:rtu:s. He will have to rely on the yewésa, to which the swe:rtus of the participants will naturally resonate. The celebrants, on the other hand, must be as aware as possible of the flow of the Xartus and the way in which the swe:rtu:s of the participants interact with each other and with the Xartus as a whole. It will be his responsibility to make sure that this weaving together occurs during the ritual. This requires an intimate knowledge of the yewésa and a mystical awareness of the Xartus and the swe:rtu:s of the participants. It is impossible to do this perfectly, but just because something is impossible does not mean it is not worth doing.

--

The Cosmos is different from, but connected with, Chaos. Chaos is, in fact, the food of Cosmos. Since it is also the place into which all our deeds go (the fruit fallen from the Tree), it is a great repository of wisdom and knowledge. It is thus to be sought out.

However, we are creatures of Cosmos. We are unable to bear Chaos long, or in its unmediated state. To do so would be to damage who we are. It is in this sense that the creatures of Chaos, the Outsiders, are seen as the enemies of Cosmos.

But since it is Chaos that feeds Cosmos, we must make contact with Chaos if we are to truly live. Since pure Chaos destroys Cosmos rather than enlivening it, it must be mediated. In the cosmology this mediating function is performed at the point at which the tree meets the flaming water which rises from the Chaotic waters beneath. In our own lives, it is provided through ritual. Through ritual, Chaos is connected to Cosmos, and allowed to infuse it, but in a controlled manner. In this way, Chaos and Cosmos are reconciled, in a process governed by the yewésa.

In order to mediate Chaos ritually, certain steps are required. First we must create our own ritual version of the Cosmos. We is cut off so that it can be separated from Chaos, so that it can be pure Cosmos. We construct in such a way that it embodies, in symbolic form, the structure of the Cosmos. When the Outsiders are then expelled from this space, what is left is pure Cosmos.

Then, within the ritual, Chaos is allowed to reenter in a controlled manner. One of these re-entries is through sacrifice, which commits the living to the dead, submitting it to entropy. In PIE terms, it is through sacrifice that the Cosmos we have created is maintained. It is the little bit of Chaos that keeps the world going. This bit, however, is brought in according to the yewésa, which themselves reflect the Xartus, the structure of the Cosmos. In a controlled manner, then Chaos is admitted and bent to our purpose. This allows more Chaos to enter, still controlled, but very powerful. In ADF this is symbolized by the Waters of Life. These are the waters from the well of Nechtan, the Iranian Xvarenah, the Vedic Soma, and all the sacred drinks of the Indo-Europeans. These are the fiery water which unmediated or approached by the unworthy brings only destruction. Properly mediated through ritual, approached by the ritually pure, it gives instead wisdom and power, renewing the Cosmos.

After partaking of the Waters, after infusing ourselves with a bit of Chaos, we are capable of approaching the Outsiders once more. This time we approach from a positions of strength. We are ourselves a bit of Chaos, our internal Cosmos has been empowered.

At the end of the ritual, when we dissolve our pure Cosmos and return to the mixed universe that is our lot, we return fortified by both Cosmos and Chaos. We return with the blessings of the gods, who will continue the process and ensure that our Cosmos is not overwhelmed by Chaos, but rather is fed with the proper amount.

--

There is a distinction made in Indo-European thought between two types of the divine. In English these two types can be expressed by the words "holy" and "sacred." The holy is unreservedly benevolent. It poses no threat, but is the outpouring of divine power for the purpose of blessings. It is represented in personal terms by cow and hearth goddesses. The sacred, in keeping with the Indo-European principle of dividing things into good and ambivalent, is the ambivalent half of the divine. It is a source of great power, but like all sources of pure power it must be used carefully. If not, it is very dangerous. It is represented in personal form by mare goddesses and threshold gods.

Ritual may be said to have one of two purposes: 1. to put one in contact with the holy and thereby receive its blessings, and 2. to mediate the sacred in a safe and protective manner.

These two are combined in many rituals; one must deal with the sacred in order to contact the holy. Ritual purification is a protection against the dangerous aspects of the sacred, allowing us to approach and appropriate the holy.

--

The Xartus and the Yewesa

The perfect ritual perfectly follows not just the Yewesa, but the yewesa for its particular place, time, participants, weather, etc. And the perfect Yewesa are perfect reflections in the ritual world of the Xartus. Thus the perfect ritual is a perfect model of the Xartus for its moment.

There is no such thing as the perfect ritual.

When you perform a ritual, let it be as a dance to the music of the Yewesa and the Xartus. Each movement should be a natural outgrowth of that moment's music. This is not to say that rituals should all be done spontaneously. Only a master ritualist, at a ritual attended only by other master ritualists, could succeed at that. But when you write your rituals, listen for the music of the Yewesa and the Xartus; listen ahead for the music of the moment when the ritual will be performed. It is possible to do this, and learning how is something ritualists must do if they are to become masters.

The yewesa reflect the Xartus. By acting according to the yewesa, by performing a ritual written according to the yewesa in a perfectly concentrated state, you will be acting in accord with the Xartus. Thus would a ritual be made perfect.

Of course, as I've said already, there is no such thing as a perfect ritual. But it's worth the effort to try to perform one.

--

The yewesa must fill you. When you act in a ritual there must be nothing extraneous, no distractions, internal or external. There must be only the ritual. In this way you will dwell in the yewesa and, through them, the Xartus.

--

The practice of ritual is an expression of the state of the universe. Through the careful and concentrated practice of ritual a mystical oneness with everything is achieved; one takes one's place in the universe. By acting in accord with the yewesa, one is acting in accord with the Xartus. When nothing else but the ritual exists, nothing else but the Xartus exists.

--

Ritual is often condemned as empty. Ritualists are condemned for repeating words and acts with no understanding. But a proper ritual is its own understanding. Through a complete immersion in it one comes to a complete understanding not only of All That Is, but of one's place in it. Through taking part in the ghosti-relationship enshrined in ritual, one is taking part in the ghosti-relationship that is at the center of the All That Is. Empty? Perhaps, but it is the emptiness that allows the All to flow in. It is the infinite emptiness into which the infinite All may enter. This is what one opens oneself to when one performs ritual according to the yewesa, with perfect concentration, with no one there, with only the yewesa operating.

But the yewesa require an exchange -- this is the ghosti-principle -- and exchange requires two. Thus the emptiness of the perfect ritual is not the negation of identity. It is the perfect expression of identity. No one home? Certainly. The one who is home is the one who is a perfect participant in the ghosti-relationship. They take their part, and aside from this there is nothing. They are completely the ghosti-relationship.. They reach out and the gods reach back, and both become the ghosti-relationship. Men and gods meet in the middle, and the ritualist rests with the gods, in the in-between of the ghosti-relationship.

But the part that is taken is everything. In it the nothing, the empty vessel, is reconciled with the everything, which pours into it, and then from the now full vessel into the now empty. All in a perfect ghosti-relationship.

But ritual can become a meaningless repetition, comes the objection. The practices become empty in the bad sense, in the sense of something that is done only because it is required. It becomes dead, it leads to legalism, to actions without spirit.

The actions are the spirit. If the actions are performed, they are themselves the expression of the spirit, they are indeed the spirit.

If you do not feel the mystic oneness with the All That Is when you perform the ritual, do not worry. Perform the rituals, only perform the rituals, only perform the rituals with complete attention, and the oneness will be there. You may not feel it, but it will be there. It must be, because you are performing the acts which express it. It is not necessary to feel it. It is only necessary that it is.

Whether you feel it or not, it is there. Perform the rituals with perfect attention, and it will be there. Continue to perform the rituals with perfect attention, and not only will it be there but it will irrupt into your life. The rituals, which seemed dead, never were. It was your perception that was dead. With perfect continual performance you will become aware of the spirit behind the ritual. It may come slowly, a deepening through time, a quiet contentment, a sureness that is absolutely convincing. It may come in a flash, a sudden realization that carries all away before it, an experience that is absolutely convincing. It may come in fits and starts, with sudden realizations alternating with deepening. But it will come. Continue to perform the rituals with perfect concentration. The identification with the Xartus will come. It will come. Do not worry. It will come.

--

The Outsiders are those beings or forces who are outside – outside our interests, outside our realities, outside our intents, outside our rules; outside in any sense at all. They may be neutral (so outside they don’t even care one way or the other), malevolent (overlapping our areas of interest, but with agendas of their own), or benevolent (not fitting in with our rules, but coinciding with our interests on a particular occasion).

I say that they can be either beings or forces because, unlike the deities, they are outside our rules. This is not to sway that the deities are bound by our rules, but that they are actors in the cosmos in which we live – if they weren’t, they’d be Outsiders. One of these rules is that there are rules, one of which is that the divine beings come to us as, in fact, beings. The Outsiders can be in violation of the rules in any number of ways, so although there are Outsiders who are beings, but who violate the rules in other senses, there are also Outsiders who don’t even follow the rules to that extent. These are forces, not beings.

That the Outsiders may be neutral, malevolent, or benevolent, is an obvious result of, and factor in, the Indo-European form of duality, which does not oppose good to bad, but order (good) to chaos; rules with not-rules. It must be possible for forces or beings who are not-rules to be encountered in differently desirable ways, or they would be following rules; if all of the Outsiders had to be malevolent, they would be following a rule, and would be incorporated into the ruled, ordered inside. They would not be Outsiders.

This may lead to different ways of dealing with them ritually. Perhaps the negative ones should be repelled by force, the neutral ones appeased with offerings, and the benevolent ones welcomed in some way. If the last were possible, mistakes in the ritual which nonetheless had benevolent effects, could be seen as the actions of such Outsiders. Alternatively (or as well), the fire-in-water mystery could be seen as doing just that; drawing in the benevolent Outsiders and accepting them into ourselves. This might be seen, however, as imposing Order on the Outsiders. (it would certainly be imposing Order on Chaos (perhaps “weaving Chaos into Order” would be a less antagonistic way of putting it)), which would remove the “outsideness” of the Outsiders, something which they may or may not like. Perhaps the set that can enter a ritual as still Outsiders, but benevolent ones (adding a bit of creative Chaos to Ordered ritual, while still keeping their outsideness) can be welcomed into the ritual in one way, and those that desire to enter Order itself, to come Inside, can be welcomed in another, by being brought into the fire-in-water ritual. It might be appropriate to give the Outsiders the “leavings” of the sacrifice, the ritual meal being specifically stated to be over, meaning that a ghosti-relationship would not be established.

Something the Outsiders are not, however, are negative things about ourselves. They are not our negative emotions, or intents; are not the discord we have in our community. Those simply can’t be Outsiders, because they are already inside. Instead they are impurities, things which are inappropriate to our intents. The are things which we want to be Outsiders. They are dealt with in ritual through purification, a different part of the ritual, and one which would be unnecessary if our impurities were Outsiders – they would have been dealt with in the Outsider part of the ritual.

So now the question is what order to put dealing with the Outsiders and purification. I would say that the Outsiders must come first. Contact with the Outsiders must necessarily be polluting, so a purification would have to follow it. If purification is before dealing with the Outsiders, another purification would still have to follow, which seems excessive. We should also consider the possibility that the Outsiders would be repelled by someone who is already pure. That’s fine if the intent is to just repel them, rather than buy them off. In order to buy them off, however, we must come among them. It might not be possible to do that without offense in a perfectly pure state.

If purification is making outside those things which are inside but inappropriate, then it might be good to deal with the Outsiders after purification, so the cast-off Outsiders can be dealt with too.

Offerings to the Outsiders should of course be towards the beginning of the ritual, but they can’t be at the very beginning. That’s the appropriate point for the hearth offering, “Begin with Hestia.” If, however, there’s a sacred space ritual before the main one, then this problem doesn’t arise; the hearth isn’t part of that at all. Offering to the Outsiders before entering the space, whether there’s a sacred space ritual or not, would also work, since the ritual proper doesn’t start until the space is entered.


The hearth isn’t part of the sacred space ritual because it’s a ritual of sacred space. Well, duh. The significance of this tautology is based on the distinction between the sacred and the holy. The sacred space ritual clears and builds, but the space is “dead” until the placing of the holy hearth goddess enlivens it. This results in such a blending of the sacred and holy that the sacredness of the space can’t survive once the holy maintaining force of the hearth goddess is removed.


Ritual acts can be explained in words, but they can not be expressed in words. Otherwise there would be not reason to perform a ritual; one could simply say the words that make it up and those that explain it

Even the best of words can not explain ritual completely, though. Each act and object in a ritual can have more than one meaning, and each of these is meant in the performance. A ritual therefore is an interplay among these meanings, just as it is an interplay among the acts and objects that carry the meanings. This interplay includes all possible relationships. If act 1 has meanings A and B, and act 2 has the meanings C and D, then the ritual contains the meanings A, B, C, and D, and also the relationships AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, ABC, ABD, BCD, and ABCD. And it also contains these in different orders, since the apprehension of one provides a context which modifies the meaning of the one that comes next -- AB can have a different meaning than BA. You can see how quickly these interrelationships build up, especially when the number of acts and objects in a ritual is a large one.

It can be seen, then, that a ritual is not linear, but is rather a web of relationships. This is one reason why a ritual can't be expressed in words, and can't even be completely explained in them. Any ritual act or object might well require an entire book to explain, and even then the explaination wouldn't be complete, because it would lack the interactions with all the other elements.

Even if it were possible to explain not just one element of a ritual, but all of the interrelationships among all the elements, the explaination would still not be complete, and the expression even more so, because they would not include the performance of the ritual. Each performance, no matter how exacting, will be different. In fact, even if it were possible to perform a ritual twice in exactly the same way -- same intonation of voices, same positions of objects, same degree and manner of movement, etc. -- they would not be the same ritual, because their context would be different; the time between them would have made changes to the objects used, the people perfoming the ritual, and the universe in which it is performed. No explanation can take all of these into account, and will therefore be incomplete. The only way to explain the ritual completely, therefore, is in terms of its expression, which is found in the ritual's performance.


A perfect ritual exists in some world such as that of Platonic forms, and every performance of it is a physical manifestation of that form. Each performance, conducted in a world that is not made up of Platonic forms, will vary from the perfect one, and will be, in some sense, flawed. However, the perfect ritual is not actually perfect, because it exists outside of context, and context is part of what gives a ritual its meaning. For instance, a ritual intended to heal may exist in perfection, but that perfection does not include the particular person for whom it is performed. Oddly enough, then, the non-perfect performance may be more perfect than its perfect form, because it takes into account the moment of its performance, and is therefore more complete, more appropriate.


In a pefect ritual, each element is a necessary one; that is, it, and only it, may follow the previous one if the integrity of the ritual is to be maintained. Seen this way, a ritual becomes, not a collection of elements, but a single thing, a single pattern. Its elements may be taken apart and analyzed, but in doing so the ritual itself is lost, just as the notes of a symphony may be explained, but in doing so the music dies.


Ritual teaches its own meaning. It opens us up to the world in which it is true, allowing us to see the reality the ritual reflects, in its pure form. It also allows us to see ourselve in relation to the form, thereby giving us a context in which to place our extra-ritual actions.

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1. The meaning of a ritual as intended by the liturgists.
2. The meaning of the ritual itself, unintended, but nonetheless there.
3. The meaning of the ritual as seen by the celebrants -- what does it mean to do these things, individually and together?
4. The meaning of the ritual as seen by the attendees -- what does it mean to see these things? What does it mean to be drawn into these things? What does it mean to find meaning in these things?
5. The interrelationships among these meanings. What does it mean to be an attendee seeing a celebrant experience (and therefore express) a meaning?
1 and 2 are the raw material for 3-5.

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A great problem in Neo-Paganism in creating rituals is that it is done consciously. It is as if the ritualist has said, "This is the meaning, and no other." They have deliberately created a ritual out of meaningful elements, like crafting a story. Ritual, however, should not be compared to story, but to myth. A story is an artificial creation, not one that has grown our of a group experience of the divine. It is a public performance of a private vision.

Even more deadly, I think that a constructed Neo-Pagan ritual arises out of beliefs and symbols, whereas in Paleao-Paganism the beliefs and symbols often arise from the rituals. This is the greatest strength of Pagan Reconstructionism, I think; although there is still too much modern input, Reconstructionists try to allow the rituals to speak for themselves (as much as possible). There may still be reasons to change things once this is done, to reflect different circumstances (different context), but after letting the ritual speak for itself we will be able to make those changes with greater understanding of what we are doing, and of what each change causes.

This last is very important. We have to remember that a ritual is a network, that each element is connected to every other one. If any of them are changed, their relationship with all of the other ones is changed, and the entire ritual is changed. In order to modify rituals effectively, then, the entire ritual, and the network it represents, must be understood. This stuff is serious.

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A ritual is an enactment in physical space of ultimate truth; it makes the Truth manifest to us. Those who see the ritual, see the truth; those who perform the ritual, perform the Truth. They actually take it into themselves and become Truth; at first just for the time of the ritual, but as the ritual is repeated, they come closer and closer to it in their everyday life. (A good argument for rituals that are repeated, rather than made up for each occasion.)

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Ritual reflects processes which either do not change (such as the laws of physics), or change very slowly (such as our identity as a species), as well as those which change more quickly (such as the seasons). It must further reflect that which is constantly changing, the reality of the moment. Since this last involves the others, it should be clear how ritual must be spun out from both unchanging principles (ultimate context) and from momentary context, the context of the moment in which a ritual is peformed. These form a sliding scale; at one end the ultimate context, at the other the proximate moment. It must be remembered, however, that the moment only exists in the ultimate context, and that that context must therefore be maintained if the momentary aspect of a ritual is to have meaning.

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Attempts to describe ritual are marred by the urge to find the defining nature of ritual. Ritual isn't a single thing, however. Something is identified as a ritual if it possesses a sufficient number (but not necessarily all) of a set of characteristics. The problems are to define what the members of the set are and what is a sufficient number.

Rituals are actions which express ultimate concepts. This does nto mean that ritual is subsequent to belief, however. Either may be the source of the other. A ritual may be designed deliberately and consciously or not,to give outward expression to interior belief. A belief may arise from a ritual originally intended ot express another one. This may be caused by changes in language or technology, collisions with other rituals, or other cultures, or many other things. Changes in a ritual for one reason may result in unintended changes. For instance, the change in the Roman Catholic mass from the priest facing away from the people was meant to incorporate the congregation more, and to somewhat "demote" the priest. Yet the priest was originally not facing away from the people, but in the same direction as them. There might, therefore, be an unexpected and unintended change from the priest as "one of the people" to him as center of attention. This might lead, in turn to a theology in which the priest is more important, rather than less.

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I work mostly with words. Good words appeal on a very deep level. Words that are poetic trick the mind into looking at them in a non-intellectual way. By “poetic” I don’t mean rhyme – that can theoretically have its uses, but I’ve yet to see any rhymed poetry that I’m impressed with ritually. I mean primarily meter. Words written with a good meter are like music, and have similar effects. Like rhyme you have to be careful; the “Hiawatha” meter might have worked quite well for the Kalevala (from which it was stolen), but that is an exception. I recommend reading a lot of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and the soliloquies of Shakespeare. Shakespeare does an interesting thin with rhyme in his soliloquies. The last two lines are often a rhyming couplet. This is a nice cap to the speech, and tells the listeners that it is over.

In actions, I prefer the stately and intricate. In that way they are like music and poetry; a meter arises, and a weaving of concepts arises.

The one that is most overlooked in Neo-Paganism, however, is repetition. I don’t mean repetition within a ritual (although that has its uses), but from ritual to ritual. Neo-Pagans, like most Americans, have a hunger for the new. There is also a misconception that the spontaneous is inherently superior to the planned. Now I’m sure there are those who can improvise in an inspired way, but I’ve yet to see it. More important, however, repetition wears a groove in our lives that allows us to go beyond surface impressions. There is also the case that there are things in a well-written ritual that aren’t discovered until the ritual is performed a number of times. Finally, each time you do a ritual you learn more about it, and are able to make minor changes, an editing process. If you start from scratch each time, you learn less.

Working with a variety of sensory inputs is important. I like to say that in a ritual there are meanings with more than one symbol, and symbols with more than one meaning. By the first I mean that the same idea should be expressed in more than one way at the same time. (Not every idea, by the way; that quickly becomes tiresome, and puts all of the ideas in the ritual on the same level – there will always be things you want to emphasize, and they need a background against which to stand out.)

A more general piece of advice is to learn as much as you can about the theatre. Blocking, use of props, the power of words, etc., are as important in ritual as they are in theatre. Theatre work will also help you learn how to see a ritual in your head as you write it so that when it is actually performed you don’t find out that someone is expected to make an offering when their hands are already filled.

The most general advice is to read and go to rituals. I especially recommend reading Paleo-Pagan rituals; they were developed over a long period of time, and the kinks were all worked out. Even more important, we can know that the gods were pleased with them. Looking at them gives an idea of what good Pagan ritual should look like.

I especially recommend studying Zoroastrian ritual. Zoroastrianism has been woefully underutilized as a resource for Pagan ritual. Although it is not itself Pagan, Zoroastrianism has been very conservative ritually, and much can be learned about Pagan Iranian ritual from it. It has the further advantage of being still practiced, so we know about it in great detail.

And great detail there is. That is one thing that is missing from Neo-Pagan ritual – intricacy. A Zoroastrian ritual is like a dance; simply beautiful.

The Rig Veda is also a good source of material. It shows quite well how imagery can be manipulated for ritual purposes.

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A ritual is an ordered structure of symbolic actions, words, and objects that has the characteristics of performative speeck. It therefore has two apparently contradictory characteristics:

1. It is composed of symbols. Every piece of it (at least in a well-constructed ritual) has a meaning or meanings that extend beyond the ritual. Each stands for something that is not in the ritual. The ritual is embededded in a context, a language of symbols.

2. It has the characteristics of performative speech. This is a kind of speech which, nor surprisingly, performs rather than presents. If I say, "This floor is hard," I have presented you with somethng, I have conveyed information. If, on the other hand, I say, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," I have performed. My speech in this case is self-referential, and points to nothing outside itself. The speech is that which is being done.

All performative speech is ritual. The unique quality of ritual, however, is that it turns representative speech (in which I am including actions and objects thar represent, as well as words) into performative speech. For as long as the ritual lasts, the symbol does not present, it performs; it does not stand for, it is.

This is how ritual's two seemingly contradictory characteristics -- symbolism and performative speech -- are reconciled. The elements of a ritual are symbols prior to and after the ritual, outside of it, that is, while during the ritual they are the things which they symbolise, they are performative.

Ir is for this reason that to say, during a ritual, that something is a symbol is such a problem. If what is done in ritual is performative, then to state that something is a symbol is to create something symbolic, not something real, and to have symbolic effects, rather than real ones. "With this fire, symbol of purification, I purify you: does not remove impurities, it removes symbols of impurity. An error of categories has occurred, an error of context, in which the outside of ritual has been injected into the inside of ritual. The result is confusion, and a failure of the ritual to accomplish its ends. The breaking-in of the external mode has broken the ritual.

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My history in ritual:

I started writing rituals in the mid-seventies, back in high school. I was a sort of Wiccan then. I say “sort of” because this was before the Neo-Wicca started by Scott Cunningham, so it was Traditional Wicca, primarily Alexandrian, that I was working with, and you can’t be that kind of Wiccan without initiation. I hadn’t been initiated, so I wasn’t really a Wiccan. I did have access to some books, however, the most useful of which was Stewart Farrar’s What Witches Do (still first on my list of recommended books on Wicca, by the way). From these I wove my own rituals; I used every authentically Wiccan thing I could find and then filled in the blanks with my own words and acts. A friend and I were trying to start a coven, which never really went anywhere, thank God. He wrote some rituals as well. From these I wrote a Book of Shadows, rather short and unoriginal.

This sort of thing went on for a number of years, with the sources I had access to growing. I started a notebook into which I copied every ritual I could find. I also read books by academics, particularly Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. (I still recommend Eliade, and Campbell with reservations.)

In college I wrote another Book of Shadows, with more original material, but still primarily Traditional Wicca. I also got to perform some more full rituals, including a public one. This was also when I started my study of academic material on religion.

I then went into the Air Force. In 1980 I wrote a third Book of Shadows, with a fairly large amount of Eclectic Pagan material being added to the mix. I also did my own casting of the Wheel of the Year, for the first time working out a continuous myth. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (which is not on my recommended reading list; it has a large number of problems) was a major influence in both the rituals and the myth.

In 1982 I got the idea of writing another Book of Shadows, this time with a commentary, so that is what I did; the commentary involved both sources and theology. A few years after I got out of the Air Force I decided to write what turned out to be my final Book of Shadows, my fifth and last. This time, though, I wanted it to be completely original, and to again have a commentary.

I’m skipping ahead a bit, however. In the early 80’s, after my daughter had entered the picture, I wanted to develop rituals to be done within my family. My wife is a Catholic, so they had to be the sort of thing that wasn’t so heavily Pagan that she would feel uncomfortable taking part. I experimented for a while with horribly unsuccessful rituals. Then I encountered a group called the Reconstructed Celtic Folk Church. I acquired two of their rituals; one was for Brighid’s Day and the other one I forget. What affected me was their idea that the folk traditions could be celebrated on their own, with only slight Pagan overlays. I took this idea and incorporated it into my family practice. This led to my first successful family ritual, one for Brighid’s Day, which we still do to this day. I started writing rituals for the seasons, based on folk practices (mainly Celtic, but some Germanic), and then for other occasions. The rituals for the other occasions were mostly original, but based in pretty standard Wiccan/Neo-Wiccan/Eclectic Pagan tradition. One day I was talking to a friend (Beth, if you’re out there, please contact me; I miss you), telling her what we did, and she said, “You could write a book.” I laughed it off, but a few days later I had some free time, and I charted out a chapter list, looked at it, and thought, “Damn; I could write a book.” So I did, The Pagan Family. It was after that that I decided to write my last Book of Shadows. The idea was that since I had written a book on family practice, I would now write one on coven practice, and then one on solitary practice, namely prayers and offerings (the latter eventually became A Book of Pagan Prayer).

Unfortunately, the coven book was never published, being turned down by a number of publishers. With some encouragement, a few years ago I re-edited it – after all, I had already done the work -- and tried again. I had an agreement with a small publisher, but that fell through. I may eventually self-publish. It contains, in my opinion, some of the best ritual work I’ve ever done.

What I did for the book was to study Indo-European (IE) ritual and religion, particularly Celtic and Germanic, as much as possible. This meant a lot of time in libraries, photocopying and reading academic articles on IE religion, as well as diving into books on the subject. I then took Wicca, stripped it down to its essentials (the God and Goddess, eight festivals, coven structure, initiation, etc.), and rebuilt it. I threw out Ceremonial Magic completely, and even witchcraft. The result was a very interesting work that was totally original but still recognizably Wiccan. It was a very productive time.

During the process of researching the book, however, I became interested in the religion of the IEs as it was actually practiced. In short, I became a Reconstructionist, albeit of a somewhat mellow kind, and left Wicca behind. I had been a member of Á nDraíocht Féin (ADF) for years (I joined the first year, in fact), but hadn’t been involved in a grove. I found one near me, and joined it.

I joined at Lughnasad, and the Senior Druid, knowing I was interested in ritual, asked if I would write the Samhain ritual. Right; I just join this group and I have to write the ritual for the most important day of the year. I sat down with the basic ADF liturgical outline and started writing. There were parts of it I didn’t like, particularly the order, based on my research into IE ritual, so I rearranged it. Most of the words in the resulting ritual were mine, but the structure was ADF (albeit in a slightly different order). The specifically Samhain part of the ritual was based on a myth I had reconstructed from Irish sources that involved Lugh fighting the Outsiders. It was a very enjoyable ritual, with a flaming spear and everything. I thereby became the liturgist for the grove, to which I belonged for a year and a half, writing most of the rituals in that period. This was my first experience with seeing my rituals put on, and I learned a lot about such things as blocking.

After I left that grove, I was solitary for a while. I continued the research into IE religion and in fact started a book on Proto-Indo-European (PIE) religion. This involved reconstructing PIE rituals.

When I started a new grove, I took much of this PIE material and blended it into the ADF liturgical format. I must admit, though, that the result is more PIE than ADF. The words, except for a quotation from the Rig Veda, and some of the songs, are mine. I’ve written a few songs while I’m at it, since I don’t like most of the ones I’ve heard in ADF or in Neo-Paganism in general. So this how I started writing rituals. I started using other people’s rituals as much as possible, and then with research, experience, and a growing confidence I started writing almost completely individual ones.