Every person engages in some form of ritual behavior. For as long as human beings have existed on this planet, we have created and acted out rituals of every variety. From a morning coffee routine to participating in Sunday mass, rituals guide and shape our lives. This article an introduction to what will be a series of articles on modern ritualism. I hope to explore how we, as pagans in this modern society, can work to better our lives by refining our rituals and methods of worship.
A difficulty people often face when approaching paganism is finding a mode of worship or set of rituals that conforms to their needs. There is so much information out there, and most of it points the reader in wildly different directions. When we approach from the outside, coming from backgrounds of scientific materialism or the worship of monolithic omnigods, it can be difficult to settle in to the more freeform and less guided nature of paganism. Unlike followers of the Catholic church (or most dominant modern belief structures), with its numerous strictures, commands, and well-known rituals, we are often left to parse the fragmentary knowledge left behind by our ancestors. Knowledge that has, in many cases, been intentionally destroyed or obfuscated. We are left to divine and create our own foundations.
It is important to consider, first and foremost, our needs and the needs of the planet (which are one and the same) when we decide upon a form of worship. This should be the ultimate goal of any spiritual practice; to guide and refine our actions to best suit ourselves and our environment. We must ask ourselves: How do we conduct our rituals in a way that is most beneficial to us and the world at large? How do we disengage from the destructive modes of thought that have been hammered into us by rigid outside forces from the moment we were born?
We make choices. We observe. We open ourselves up to the world; other people’s experiences and the experience of the planet as a whole. We step back and take stock of the paradigms that surround us. As pagans, heathens, druids, and heretics, we have a responsibility to ensure that our own modes of thought and worship are not perverted like so many that have come before. We must build our own foundations upon which to stand, allowing the past to guide, but never own, our souls.
The Dangers of Worship Without Consideration
There is a great value in old (or “common”) knowledge and ancient ritual; but with this value comes danger. There is an insidious aspect to the comfort that comes from unexamined “ancestral wisdom.” We must regard these ancient constructs with a keen eye and a guarded heart. All too often, rites and rituals born of deep thought and critical examination are corrupted by dogmatism and mindless repetition. It is our duty to know, to understand, why we do what we do.
We have seen numerous examples of the dangers of worship without consideration; of ritual without thought. We have seen, time and time again, hatred and stupidity spew forth from those who believe themselves to be in the right. They feel justified in their actions by their own unquestioned faith in bastardized and outdated rituals. They are often led by gilded charlatans; reinforced in their shallow beliefs by “holy men.”
It is important to note that our rituals do not have to come entirely, or even primarily, from within ourselves. It is irresponsible to “toss the baby out with the bathwater” as we create the frameworks for our worship. There are many benefits to drawing from other sources, old or new, as we form our rituals. (In fact, part of the mission of the The Toutā Caillte project is to meld ancient structures of belief onto a modern, actionable framework.)
However, we must always remember the foundational reasons for our rituals; the Why that supports the How. In this way we bring our beliefs beyond hollow playacting and project them into the world in a tangible way.
How Do We Form Our Rituals?
So, keeping all of this in mind, how do we venture forth into the creation of our own rituals?
1. We examine the spiritual niche we hope to fill. (i.e. “I want to feel more connected to nature.”)
2. We consider the best ways in which we can shape our rituals to fill this niche while contributing in a real, physical way. (i.e. the spreading of seeds; the planting of trees; the fertilization of soil.)
3. We tie these practical rituals into our mythology. (i.e. consider the life force of the seeds that you spread; commune with the saplings as you plant them in the ground; say a prayer to your deity or deities of choice as you spread compost into the soil.)
4. We communicate these rituals, and the reasons behind them, to others. It is important to keep in mind that the Why (you worship) is more important than the What (you worship), and equally important to the How (you worship). It doesn’t matter if you worship the Very Specific Goddess of Trees or the abstract concept of nature. Both of these things are compatible with similar methods of worship (encompassed by a term that I love: “ecological mysticism”).
5. We safeguard these rituals against corruption. We do this by remembering the purpose behind our rituals; by never allowing them to become a simple routine.
For example, I am a mushroom picker. The time I spend in the woods, on the hunt for edible mushrooms of all kinds, is also time spent in worship. When I find a productive patch of mycelium, I say a silent “thank you” to the mushroom goddess. By using mesh bags to hold my haul as I journey through the woods, I work to spread the mushrooms’ spores. By scattering chunks of the mushrooms in their preferred habitats, I help to spread the mycelium. (For those who are unaware, pieces of the fruiting bodies of mushrooms will grow out into more mycelium if given the proper environment. More mycelium equals more mushrooms in the future.) My bountiful harvest of free, delicious food helps to contribute to these forest ecosystems as well as my own physical and spiritual wellbeing.
What is the Alternative?
As a species, we are perched on the edge of disaster; careening headlong into destruction on a scale that is almost unimaginable. Humankind’s beliefs, our rituals, have a very real effect on the world. We need to break free from the predominant forms of worship that are actively working to strangle the life out of the planet to which we are so intimately connected. Monolithic materialistic religions, capitalism, and rabid nationalism are waging war against us. Right now, they are winning. Only by examining and altering the way that we live, worship, and interact with the world can we prevail.
Every day, children across the United States stand, hands held over their hearts, and pledge allegiance to the flag. This is a ritual that has been created and perpetuated, quite intentionally, to separate us from all other modes of thought. It is a ritual of indoctrination, and its prolific presence in the fabric of the United States chills me to my core. We are not taught to revere the land with which we live. We are not taught to care for anything outside of our shallow and materialistic culture. We are taught to worship the symbol of a nation, a symbol of bloodshed and conquest, above all else.
Our souls are at stake. Our planet is on the line. We must create new rituals. We must engage in more beneficial forms of worship. We must demonstrate to others that there are better ways to live. In doing so, we, as pagans, heathens, druids, and heretics, can shape the world.
In future articles, I will be writing more in-depth about the ritualistic nature of nationalism and the worship of capital that has taken hold of our societies. Also in the works is an article on the concept of “Chapel Perilous,” and how it’s probably best to just embrace it.