Rivers of Ritual


The Pagan Experience’s Monday Musing: Ritual – What is your definition of the word “ritual”? What are your rituals- mundane and spiritual? How do they inform each other? Is ritual a necessary component to spiritual practice?


A rite is a religious or other solemn ceremony or act, and ritual is the prescription or customary order that is regularly followed when performing a rite. I think the distinction between custom and ritual is the more ceremonial and intentional aspect of ritual. Magic and spiritual practice can be done without ritual, but they tend to be more potent or perhaps easier with ritual. Much like using a recipe when cooking. You don’t have to have a recipe, but it can help if you’re looking to make something specific.


I think of ritual like the riverbed or valley carved into time, the psyche, and maybe the collective consciousness (when not private but communal) by the river of a rite. The longer it has been done that way, the deeper it is engraved and guides — and even defines — the actions and the experience. Over time, rivers change and branch, get new inlets and outlets, deposit new land areas into the landscape, but the valley it has carved generally guides it. The purpose of a rite will generally be couched in this valley, so even if the ritual steps change and the course is altered a little or a lot, the need for the rite will shape the flow when it comes through, being performed yet again by the community who saw the need and invented the rite in the first place, and still sees the need and dances through that valley to attain whatever it is.

I haven’t paid much attention to ritual in my adult life. I had a bit of resistance to prescriptions, preferring creative and pioneering experiences, to discover life in a more wild way, unconstrained by social expectations and traditions. I tend to climb around the mountains wherever, path or no, rather than get carried swiftly down the rivers and out to sea. But I do feel the gravity and depth of those valleys, the power of those rivers, and they can be intoxicating. I do sometimes swim in the rivers and feel the pull of connection to the spirit of past and future rites — the participation in my human family’s collective experiences, and the world of spirit’s engraved landscapes.

That connection… it is part of the bindings hinted at in the roots of the word “religion”… the sharing of spiritual or human experience with others, even those who are not alive in the same place and time as you are. Ritual lets us participate in the experiences of ancestors and descendants. When I say those words I don’t mean only the biological lineage, but spiritual ancestors and the human family (and even the non-human family) that we share the Earth and existence with, even if not in the same time and space and dimension.

Ritual childhoodWhen I was a child, I was much more ritualistic, and not only with prescriptions I learned from the world around me, I had some ritual issuing forth from within. Ceremonial sequences that I just made up. Perhaps I liked the feeling of serious intentionality, giving importance to acts. I’m not even sure where I learned that, since my family’s religion disavows repetitious ritual (despite having plenty of rites whose prescriptions cannot be varied and traditions that seemed eternal). My small rituals weren’t even really rites, they didn’t have purpose that I can recall. Just an instinct toward talismanic collecting, sensing the gravity in what others called insignificant, and a tendency toward the ceremonial and the spiritual. I remember being enthralled when I read a novel called “The Egypt Game” in my youth, and deeply recognized how the rituals described felt even though I had never actually worshiped in that way. I seemed to know exactly why they were doing it, and how thrilling it felt for the characters and even for the people who actually worship(ed) in such ways. It felt like home, in some way. It felt like the grown-up, official society version of my small, personal ceremoniousness. But it was ancient history, and nothing like anything going on in the society around me… which seemed rather dull in comparison. 🙂 This may be where my interests in magic and ancient cultures were born. Luckily, it isn’t actually relegated to ancient history.

I no longer even like the word “worship” and I have no hierarchy of god(s)-over-humans that requires worship like tribute. But as I get older and more interested in community rather than lone-wolf exploring, I seem to be tapping back into that stream of connection and the power of ritual… the human heritage of ritual. I’m exploring it with some spiritual practice and circling with others, and I’d like to include both communal and private, prescribed and spontaneously created ritual. I can see the appeal in temples with priestesses and priests, or monastic orders. There’s room in a life for various different paths, and I’m grateful to have trod more than one. I’ve spent a long period doing little to no ritual, and so, now on.. on with the sacred dance of sequenced steps with spirit! I’m sure I’ll take to it like a fish to water.

One thought on “Rivers of Ritual

  1. It is an old ritual to tie a piece of string around your finger in order to remember something. I have often thought that rituals are more for our benefit than that of any divine Spirit. Rituals help us remember what we have learned and teach those things to others.

    Should we speak to a real and living God with rehearsed words and actions, or should we speak from the heart? I have been impressed with this question from my youth, but I find it to be deceptive. The care and consideration given to creating a prayer, ritual or rite can instill more energy into an act than simply speaking off the cuff.

    Words do have power, particularly heart-felt words, but there are times when words are inadequate. The Tao that we speak of is not the real Tao because our words are inadequate to provide a true representation of the most divine. The written word lacks the power of the spoken word because we find people depend on intonation, facial expression and body language to understand each other better (it’s that breath thing.) Similarly, our words can transmit our intentions, but rites and rituals enhance the power of the intention being transmitted, much as intonation, expression and body language enhance the understanding of written words.

    Rites and rituals are expressions beyond words. The care and consideration invested in these things imply respect and devotion. We should not treat the divine as icons or graven images, but rather as living Spirit. However, should not living Spirit also inspire some respect, awe and devotion?

    I will speak simply and directly with Spirit, particularly in times of dire need. However, I find the time contemplating the divine nature of Spirit and creating/adjusting rites and rituals accordingly to be personally much more fulfilling. Rites and rituals are performance art oriented primarily for a divine audience. For this reason, your allusion to dancing seems particularly appropriate.

    Rites and ritual are like a flowing river; it is always the same and always changing. I imagine this can be explained by the difference between a temporal and eternal perspective. What seems like a long time of stagnation to us is a but a moment to the eternal Spirit.

    You have written an excellent piece here. I feel certain that you will take to it “like a fish to water.”

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