Why do we do ritual? What is the purpose? Why is ritual so important to us? I have to say I’m in agreement with some things that mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to. Ritual is important and it is often missing from our lives; I believe that rituals can help us with healing from things like break ups, keep us in touch with the seasons, and that in general, ritual is something that people do and must continue to do.
On the other hand, as one person put it on an email list, a lot of ancient rituals probably looked a lot more like a kegger than any formal ceremony, and many of our ancestors seemed to like to party.
I definitely agree that we need ritual. A lot of my work in offering public rituals to the Chicagoland community is to give people (Pagans, alternative spirituality, spiritual but not religious) folks a chance to come together and celebrate.
Context Changes Things
However, I also do rituals in the city, and in the modern era, and that changes things a bit. I can say that, if I ran an eco-village/commune out in the country and we’d just harvested our first corn, we would absolutely be out there in the fields with a fire, probably some home brew, and a heck of a lot of corn put out there to roast, probably some singing, hooting, and hollering.
Intuitively, I think this is pretty much what our ancestors did for many of their seasonal celebrations.
Yet, here in modern America, the first strawberry of the spring is not a miracle. It’s not the first fruit I’ve eaten since we started eating off our stores and supplies in November.
Actually, I can go to the grocery store and eat whatever I want at during any season.
When I do a ritual in Chicago, most folks have no context for what it was to be waiting and waiting and waiting for winter to break, so that we might get fresh food. The miracle of the seasons turning is not really a miracle any more. Sure, I get the winter blahs and spring coming back feels great, but it’s not what my ancestors went through.
Since there isn’t the ambient energy of seasons turning being such a potent thing, and since people have far less connection to those seasons turning, I work to offer rituals that have a transformative component in them when I do public work.
I use the seasonal celebrations for theme, but I focus the ritual work on people and their processes. I do this to give people some kind of an anchor, something that will actually draw them into the season, as well as a shared context for ritual work together in a community.
People can’t always get excited about Ostara and the first eggs, because they eat eggs all year long thanks to chickens raised with grow-lights. But they can certainly connect to, “What are the seeds you are planting?” People don’t deeply feel the impact of Samhain, of that last harvest before we’re shut in for the winter.
But they can connect to, “What is the harvest of your past year? What of this past year do you wish to hold onto to plant for spring next year, and what of the past year needs to die and become compost for the soil?”
Rites of Passage
I also think that more rites of passage in general need to be honored in a way that helps and heals. I think that weddings and funerals both get blown out of proportion and become these huge expensive things, whereas other rites of passage get short shrift.
Weddings–well, brides are expected to spend more than they have on their weddings and make a big deal about it, and I think this has gotten warped out of control. The expectations to do all these majorly expensive things is really ridiculous, and gets away from the basic spirit of the rite.
I say this, having orchestrated my own too-expensive wedding, even though I did organize a pretty cool costume masquerade ball very much on the cheap. I’ve participated in weddings that cost the bride and groom way too much and had them starting out their lives in debt, and I’ve stood up for friends who organized lovely meaningful ceremonies that didn’t cost an arm and a leg and certainly were no less loving for it. Quite the contrary.
Funerals–well, here again, I have to say that the cost of a funeral is something ridiculous. If we were in a culture where a chieftain was buried with grave goods, that would be one thing. But if you weren’t wealthy, your burial and funeral certainly wouldn’t be something that would impoverish your surviving family. In February of 2011 my father died, and the cost of that was staggering. Even though we did not embalm him, we did not purchase a coffin, we just cremated him and had a short memorial service at the funeral home, and that cost about $5,000.
There’s all these other rites of passage that we often miss as a culture, and I think people suffer for it. Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) offers some of these, which is really great. They do Croning rituals, as well as Young Men’s and Young Women’s rites of passage for our youth coming into adulthood.
Ritual for Community
Even the Transition Town movement that is focused on ecological sustainability suggests seasonal celebrations to bring the community together. These rituals are not about religion, they are about the season and community bonding.
I think that, whether you’re based in the myths and traditions of a certain culture, or even if you’re just looking to bring together a diverse community, ritual, gathering, and celebration is crucial. I think there’s a place for both celebratory and transformative ritual, and it all depends on what’s going on.
Ultimately, I think that the way I’m doing ritual more and more has nothing to do with Pagan, and everything to do with being human, being on an earth that turns and has seasons, being human in a community of other humans, and the way we gather changes over the course of those seasons.
More and more, I think ritual is just a way we are human together and help each other to be human, to celebrate our rites of passage, to honor our dead, to help each other get over the hurts and celebrate the joys.