In tackling the subject of ritual praxis I think it is most useful to tackle head-on what ritual and ritual praxis is, why we have ritual praxis, and then, how and why we develop it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of a ritual is:
1. A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
1. Practice, as distinguished from theory.
2. Accepted practice or custom.
The purpose of ritual praxis is that it is an established body of beliefs and actions rooted in serving a specific end. In devotional work this is fostering right relationship with the Holy Powers, that is, Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. In magic, ritual praxis is established so that enactment of the ritual ends in the aims of the magic being attained. Generally, we will be talking about the former: devotional ritual praxis. If devotional ritual praxis is how we establish and reestablish right relationship with the Holy Powers it makes sense not to have to consistently reinvent the proverbial wheel with each new polytheist.
A refrain I heard a lot when I became a Heathen was that Heathenry is “the religion with homework”. What this ends up meaning is that folks will often throw a book list at people and say “Go read and then when you’re ready to talk I’ll be here.” This approach may be keeping out a lot of folks who could be good community members if the barrier to entry was not there.
Do not mistake me, I actually employ a variation on this approach. However, the diference is that I give people interested in the Northern Tradition, especially those interested in joining Mimirsrbrunnr Kindred a book list with a mix of academic and spiritual work-oriented books rather than merely academic texts. The reason for this is to establish that the person is willing to put in work, is willing to adopt and adapt to a Heathen mindset, and to show that they are willing to put time and effort into the Kindred. In other words, show they are worthy of our time.
This is not where I have seen folks direct the “religion with homework” idea. Often, the would-be Heathen is given an exhaustive scholarly book list with little-to-no instruction on how to be a Heathen. The question is not how useful these resources are to a Heathen, but whether or not their use is to the right end. The ‘right end’ in this case being the teaching of, and eventual integration of a Heathen worldview into a Heathen newcomer’s life. It is worth reflecting on what sources we recommend to those showing interest in Heathenry. It is worth reflecting how useful our sources are to the stark newcomer so that we are not merely flinging books at people or building in an assumption that books are the best and/or only way to learn how to be a good Heathen.
I put far more emphasis in my instructions on working through the reading materials, on the doing aspect of the materials, than I do on the academics. The reason is twofold. First, I need to see that the person is actually willing to join the religion not only in mind but also in heart and conduct. Second, I know that some of the material can be damned challenging if not near-impossible to navigate. I found Culture of the Teutons to be a very useful book, one of the best exploring luck, honor, hamingja, outlawry and the like in ancient Heathen cultures. I do not assign this book in the reading list. I had a hard time working through it, and while useful, many of the concepts within it can be effectively condensed into a talk, lecture, or workshop.
The difference between doing the homework vs consistently engaging in what amounts to amateur debates is part of what I see holds Heathenry back. We have experts within our communities both academic and religious. Rather than have each and every Heathen engage in what amounts to lifetime research projects, I would rather see Heathens and polytheists in general develop materials for children and adults who are becoming polytheists. In ancient times intensive studies would have been for ritual specialists alone. Ritual praxis, meanwhile, was on everyone. Everyone knew their roles, and there was little question as to who did what because traditions, including beliefs and ritual praxis among them, had been passed down the generations. If we are to be lived religions, then this approach is the one to aim for. My long-term hope is that the approach I take to prospective members of the Kindred becomes obsolete primarily through oral teaching and intergenerational transmission of the worldview, Kindred traditions, including the Kindred’s Heathen religion and culture.
Where to Start?
The start of right ritual praxis, aka orthopraxy, is in right belief, aka orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy form the ground from which polytheism grows and matures. The two concepts are not in opposition, but rather, affect and inform one another. Some very basic orthodox beliefs in regards to polytheist orthopraxy are:
- That the Holy Powers deserve to be worshiped and honored.
- That ritual is a good way to worship and honor the Holy Powers.
- That well-done ritual foments right relationship with the Holy Powers.
- That there are ways of doing ritual correctly and incorrectly.
Basic orthodox beliefs of polytheism includes the baseline of polytheism itself: the belief in and worship of many Gods, and that of animism: that all of Creation is, or potentially is, ensouled. Other beliefs would includes the foundational Sacred Stories of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir as we have them and/or are taught them. The Sacred Stories we pass on help to inform the content of our worldview and from this, our rituals.
Right belief is vitally important. Without it ritual is rendered without meaning. Likewise, right action is important. Without it, right belief is rendered without root in the world.
This does not mean that one’s belief in the Holy Powers must forever be ironclad. One’s belief in the Holy Powers may not be very strong or well defined. What needs to be strong is the belief that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits), the Holy Powers, are real and deserving of good rites. In regards to offerings, the belief that the Holy Powers are real and worthy of offerings is all one truly needs to begin, or begin again, to have a strong connection with the Holy Powers. It is why I recommend making offerings and developing devotional relationships to absolute beginners fresh to polytheism. It is not that the academic background knowledge of the Holy Powers are unimportant, but a matter of prioritizing the development of relationship with the Holy Powers over the development of the person’s collection of books and book-knowledge. Ideally, I would have the two develop hand-in-hand.
So if we understand that right ritual praxis is conducted from right belief, then, how do we develop rituals? Baked into polytheism’s cake is the assumption that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are real and that They are active agents in relationship with one another, the world, and with us. How do They respond to us? Through divination such as sortilege and the reading of Runes, and through spontaneous forms of communication, such as omens or direct communion.
If we accept that the ways the Gods can communicate with us are many and active then it stands that some of the ways They may choose for us to develop rites will differ greatly from one another. With that said, what I lay out here are guidelines for the development of ritual.
Step 1: Determine the basic purpose of the ritual.
What is the basic purpose of a given ritual? Is it celebratory, offeratory, or a magical operation? Is it a very formal prayer, or one given to a Holy Power extemporaneously?
Step 2: Determine what the ritual is about.
What are the specific purposes of the ritual? Is it a celebration of a cyclical harvest festival? Is it a weekly offering to one’s household Gods? Is it a magical operation involving the Runes to a certain end, such as healing of a broken limb or protection on a long journey?
Step 3: Determine if there are special considerations for the ritual.
Are there taboos to be adhered to, special needs for spiritual specialists and/or laity, or specific requirements for the ritual to be done well? Are there to be certain offerings made, or a sacrifice to be held?
Step 4: Determine the set up of the ritual’s space, including boundaries, altar(s), and so on.
How is the space to be set up? Are there certain Gods, Ancestors, and/or vaettir who need to be present? If so, how? Is the ritual area completely inviolate during the ritual itself, or are people able to come and go as needed? If there are special methods for a person coming into/out of the ritual space, what if any means are there to mark the space and tools/instruments/people to make this so?
Step 5: Determine the order of ritual and the roles of spiritual specialists, celebrants and/or operators.
What kind(s) of purifications are to be done? How are the celebrant(s)/operator(s) to be prepared for the rite? How is the ritual to be blocked, if it involves certain prescribed ritual steps or dramatic enactors? How is the space to be held, i.e. festive, solemn, silence?
Be a Good Host, Be a Good Guest
If a rite is to be more contemplative, such as a meditation space, the ritual space may be more permissive in celebrants coming into and out of space. It may need more seating space, and different kinds of seating arrangements for folks with different mobilities, and potential body restrictions. If the rite is to be festive and wild, then the considerations of places that will be accepting of louder noise, places for celebrants to catch their breath, the provisioning of food and/or water will need to be considered. It may be that some celebrants or operators wish to be part of a rite, and have need of special consideration.
Not all celebrants/operators may be able to handle hours of dancing, but may still wish to participate in a wild, festive rite. Consider this in setting up the ritual that folks with mobility issues may need areas designated for them to be safe such as space for a seat and/or mobility aid, walkways, and so on. Consider that some folks have dietary requirements or restrictions, such as needing to eat at certain times or not eat certain foods, so be sure that everything food and drink wise that you have a list of ingredients for these things on hand so all your participants may be informed and safe. Most of these seem to be common sense, yet simple set up for seating in an especially long rite can be overlooked in the early planning stages and later bring great distraction to an otherwise well-planned ritual.
Clearly laying out the expectations for the spiritual specialist(s), celebrant(s)/operator(s), and/or guests is a must. It may not prevent a disruption in ritual, yet it can help mitigate issues as they come up in a ritual. Letting people know who to turn to if they forget a step, or how to say certain ritual phrases will make the ritualists jobs’ easier and make the rite flow smoother. That said, if people become disruptive or antagonistic to the rite, it is far better to eject a person than it is to try to keep soldiering on. Ignoring a disruptive or rude person may be directly insulting to the Holy Powers, or lessen the usefulness of the working at hand. At the end of the day, for the people involved being a good host to and a good guest is key to ritual going well.
The Small Details of Ritual
If a ritual is a a ceremonial act done in a prescribed order, then it follows that as many great details to figure out, there are small details to consider a ritual ought to go. Should cleansing be done with the right or left hand? Should one enter into ritual space on a certain foot? Should an idol be approached only by an initiated priest? Are there exceptions to these rules, where an idol which is usually only approached by a priest is shown to the laity?
Notice I said these details may be small -not unimportant. Especially as polytheists develop their own traditions of worship with Holy Powers the disposition of small details may become more important to the completion of a good ritual. There may be good reasons related to cosmology for offerings to be laid down a certain way. For instance, in offering to Gods of Muspelheim one may be directed to lay them down in a southerly direction, as in lore it is said that is where Muspelheim may be located. For Gods of the Underworld, or for those spirits who are located beneath the Earth, such as the Dvergar, placing offerings for Them in an elevated place may be insulting, so you place offerings on or in the ground for Them. Rivers may be seen as running throughout the Nine Worlds, and so, disposing of offerings into running water may be seen as near-universal for the disposal of offerings, or only for certain Holy Powers, depending on one’s view and relationships with the Holy Powers. Since all the Nine Worlds hang on or are within Yggdrasil, making offerings at a special tree serving as Yggdrasil’s proxy may be a good place for offering to any of the Holy Powers.
The consideration of the small things may be the entire point of a given ritual or magical operation. If the small things are unattended to, the rite may be spoiled or the operation fouled. Something as seemingly small as not setting down an offering in an exact order, or circumambulating with a censer or blessed water may seem minor to us. If our point is to worship and honor the Holy Powers, then even our small things need to be oriented towards this.
It is worth remembering that in many of our rites we are reenacting cosmological principles in even the small gestures we make. Going sunwise, then, is not just something we do in many of our Heathen rights because it is something we brought in from Wicca. The Sun, through Sunna’s chariot, brings the blessings of warmth, growth, and life through Her cycles. By not following Her rhythm in a ritual, say, to bless a garden, we may be bringing in other cosmological influences that are not in accordance with the rite. In this instance, by passing our hand over the garden against the sun or counterclockwise, we may be asking for Mani and the Moon’s blessing or Nott’s influence in darkness to vegetables that need a great deal of sunlight. The symbolism we employ, whether or not we realize it, is alive with meaning and import to each ritual, even, and sometimes especially in these small gestures.
The Roles of Divination
Divination and other forms of spiritual communication are a good part of how the balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy is kept in polytheist religions. It provides direct communion and feedback with and from the Holy Powers. The methods of divination available to a diviner are likewise hooked unto orthodoxy and orthopraxy. On a basic level, the orthodoxy of divination, and divine communication in general, is that the Holy Powers are real, and can and do commune with us. The basic orthopraxy, then, is that in the act of divination we are open to change as well as reaffirmation of what has come before, both in terms of our orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Divination serves a number of functions in the creation and execution of ritual. Among the uses for the creation of ritual itself are:
- The creation of a ritual calendar/cycle.
- For whom a given rite may be dedicated.
- The timing of a ritual/series of rites.
- Determining the proper order of a rite.
- Determining the sacrifice(s) for a rite.
- Who should be doing what before, during, and after the rite.
Among the reasons one may wish to divine during a ritual are:
- That the set up for a ritual is good and acceptable to the Holy Powers, that things are in order for the rite to begin.
- Checking in when an incident or accident occurs during the rite, such as someone being burnt during the rite to see that it is merely an error/accident and not a response by the Holy Powers to the occurence.
- That the offering laid down are accepted.
- That any messages the Holy Powers have for those gathered are received.
Divination itself is beyond the scope of this post. Like ritual craft, divination is a craft unto itself. Like ritual craft, divination requires you to do it to learn how to do it better.
Bringing the Rites Home
Generally speaking, a good chunk of ancient polytheist religion was lived in the home every day. It makes sense that the majority of polytheists today are in a similar boat. While folks may read everything above and think of it in terms of larger group ritual, such as a Kindred or similar group getting together, it matters just as much, if not more so, to the people in their homes. After all, if the majority of polytheist religion is practiced in the home, thinking about why and how we approach ritual has immediate impact on how we relate to our home cultus.
So why do rituals in our home? It’s where we live when we’re not working or running errands. It’s where our roots are set. Our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, then, should be where the roots of our lives are set. Many of us live in places where going outside to do ritual is impractical, lack an outdoor space which would be undisturbed and kept sacred to the Holy Powers, and/or lack a temple space outside the home. By necessity then, the home is where most modern polytheists do ritual.
For my family the rituals we do as a family the most often are prayers to our Gods each day, each meal, and each night. We have rote prayers we have memorized for these, both because when we started to do them it was far easier to teach than how to do extemporaneous prayers. Doing things this way provided a set of common prayers for how to address our Holy Powers, a common well that we draw from in all our home rites. We do weekly offering rites which incorporate prayers, gestures, and the giving of physical offerings, usually water, food, and/or alcohol. We may celebrate the seasons and holy days doing much the same.
The beautiful thing about polytheism is that no one’s home cultus has to look like another’s. The how of how we do ritual in our home’s is individual. While my Kindred and I share similarities in home cultus, it is unique to each of our families. For instance, our altar setups are different. We use resin statues from Paul Borda of Dryad Design for many of our Gods, whereas another family uses statues from Unicorn Studio. Many of our offering vessels are clay, wood, or glass from garage sales and thrift shops. Our representation of Gerda is a corn dolly that came from a thrift shop with a wooden rake in her hand.
We also place different emphasis on different Gods depending on the household. In our home Odin and Frigga are the head Gods we worship and offer to, and then we offer to the others. Thor and Freyr may be the first Gods in other Kindredmates’ homes. Even between members of our family we have different emphasis on different Gods, even though we collectively worship the same Gods. Our son, for instance, has an altar to Thor and the housevaettir in his room that he takes care of on his own, while I emphasize Odin in my own practice and time where we do not worship as a family.
What unites us as a family and a Kindred is a shared worldview where the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir are to be honored and worshiped, and shared ritual structures. What each of our Kindredmates does in our own home will have variations from each other depending on some combination of our relationships with the Holy Powers, what we have to carry out our rites with, and what we are able to do.
The Unfolding is Ongoing
As Heathenry and the Northern Tradition Pagan religions are lived through, rather than merely being set down in a book or series of books, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are continuously unfolding. Sometimes certain orthodoxy are held throughout one’s life and continue on through the generations, such as the Holy Powers being real and worthy of worship. Likewise, orthopraxy such as the giving of offerings for the Holy Powers are held right along with them. Some orthodoxy, such as the belief it is wrong to offer certain things may come to fall away with orthopraxy of divination to determine what are good and right offerings.
In the polytheist understanding of orthodoxy and expression of orthopraxy is that we are in living relationships with our Holy Powers. There is reciprocity consistently between ourselves and Them, lived in every thought we give to why and how we do what we do, and in the doing of the thing itself. There is reciprocity in the asking of “what should we do and how?” and following up on those questions. Why we do this is to live in good relationship with our Holy Powers. How do we do this? Eventually, all comes down to our relationships with the Holy Powers and Their impact on and in the lives of our communities, our families, and ourselves. As our relationships unfold with the Holy Powers, so too will our orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and along with these, our worldview and ritual praxis unfold.
We will explore how one can start to worshiping the Holy Powers in the next post.