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Elements of Ritual

Ritual Space
Having a time and a place are very important for a successful rite! Not just any time or place will do, they must be significant, and the participants must understand the significance: Holding a Winter Solstice ritual at the Winter Solstice is sensible, but if the participants don’t know what the Winter Solstice is, or why they might want to celebrate it, any ritual, however elaborate or well-designed, would be empty.
Ritual places need to be laid out carefully. The symbolic acts and performances of ritual require a stage, but the stage has to represent the totality of the cosmos: the material world, the community, the heavenly world, the inner world, the spirit world, etc. A common way in which this is achieved, (by many diverse cultures), is to mark out the cardinal points (Borders of the Nation/Cosmos), North, East, South and West, and to associate these with material elements (e.g. East = Air, South = Fire), and with aspects of the psyche (e.g. East = thought, South = spirit). Some symbolic systems go further, and associate directions with virtues, animals, plants, and so on.
How participants enter a ritual place is very important too. If arrival at the ritual place is informal, then this sets the tone for the whole ritual as being light-hearted and not too important. However, if arrival is very formal, such as in procession, then this sets the tone of the ritual as being solemn and important.

Continuity, Traditionalism and Eclecticism
Any event marked by a ritual doesn’t exist in isolation. Summer is preceded by Spring, and followed by Autumn; a Coronation is preceded by a funeral or abdication, and will be followed by a jubilee or another funeral; Naming is preceded by birth, and followed by “Coming of Age” or a funeral.
In most ritual systems, each ritual makes reference to other rituals in the system. This can be in the form of a story that is recited at more than one ritual (e.g. a story of the seasons may be told at more than one seasonal rite), or symbolic acts or performances that follow on from each other (e.g. the breaking of the Lamas loaf at the start of harvest, leading to the full communal harvest feast at the end of harvest).
This continuity adds a sense of meaning to a ritual, and also helps to create a sense of community: “We were there at the last ritual, we’ll meet again at the next one”.
The idea of traditionalism takes continuity a step further. In the same way that a work of art will be appreciated partly in the context of “what came before it”, so a ritual will be experienced in the context of a history. Celebrating the Spring with some symbolic act denoting emergence and awakening can result in a moving and meaningful ritual. However, relating that symbolic act to “Centuries of tradition” adds a sense of shared history, ‘symbolic potency’, and widens the community to include the community of the ancestors.
As modern ‘pagans’ have shown, the history doesn’t need to be correct! As long as the ritual participants have a “sense of history”, and agree (roughly) on what that history is, then the experience of that ritual will be deepened. But a sense of history can be divisive: We tend to see history as “our history”, especially ancient history (Even in this exhibition I’ve focussed on European ancient history). This is why I try to draw on traditions from across the world when designing rituals. With eclectic rituals, we can appeal to everybody’s ancestors, from all parts of the globe, and hopefully, maybe, begin to construct a sense of global community.

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