If you haven’t had a chance to look at the demographics recently released by Huginn’s Heathen Hof, I suggest that you take a look. The reason that I mention this is because those demographics showed some interesting facts about those who responded. Mainly, that we have a lot of solitary Heathens who are fairly new to the faith and of a younger age.
The reason I’m mentioning this is because these statistics can serve as a good snapshot of who the audience for this article is. This particular article is aimed at newer Heathens who aren’t as comfortable in their religious practices and are perhaps not yet settled into the how’s and why’s of performing rituals. There is also a good possibility that some individuals may have some reticence towards participating in ritual due to baggage brought over with them from former religions. Honestly, it is alright if you take the time you need to figure out what works for you in terms of ritual or whatever your participation in your religious practices looks like. This is especially true if you are solitary. Whereas if you’re fortunate enough to have access to a face-to-face community, that community is quite naturally going to shape how you practice and what you have the opportunity to participate in.
I mentioned a study in Part 1 that showed that the participation in rituals – even arbitrary ones with no true meaning—fostered a sense of trust between individuals. Knowing that, it makes sense that ritual plays a huge role in our religious practices whether or not we are a part of a community. Even if you’re a solitary practitioner, ritual can have an impact. It changes how your mind is functioning. It can give you more confidence, a sense of calm, or (if you’re inclined such as I am to believe) can foster a connection with spirits and deities.
E.M. Zuesse defines ritual in The Encyclopedia of Religion vol. 12 as “those conscious and voluntary, repetitious and stylized, symbolic bodily actions that are centered on cosmic structured and/or sacred purpose. (Verbal behavior such as chant, song, and prayer are of course included in the category of bodily actions.)”
That is a broad definition, and fortunately so, because it covers a wide range of expressions across all modes of religion and faith. There are no doubt behaviors that some people engage in that they wouldn’t think of as being a ritual per se that fall within the scope of this definition.
The rituals that we participate in as Heathens are naturally going to vary. They’ll vary based on the experiences of the individual, as well as their inclinations. A reconstructionist, for example, is going to perform a different kind of ritual from someone who is more inclined towards being intuitive in their practices. The rituals that a solitary practitioner performs are going to be necessarily different from those performed by a kindred. The purpose of all of these varied rituals is, however, going to be similar.
Ritual is enacted communication that may be intercepted or shared by other humans but that is directed primarily toward an efficacious god or intermediary. It can record, reenact, even reactivate an earlier act of communication in the here and now, drawing on a symbolic idiom established during a seminal communication in the past. It can persuade its supernatural audience to act favorably towards the human community (DuBois, Nordic Religions in the Viking Age, 122).
Aside from all the shifts and changes ritual makes to our minds while we are engaged in it, it is a clear and intent filled signal that we are attempting to communication something. Whether that something is a need, a plea, an acknowledgment or an expression of gratitude. It all comes down to communicating with something beyond ourselves.
I find that rituals are easier to perform when we have routines that we adhere to or something that is the same each time. This somewhat operates in a rather Pavlovian manner. If you see a specific drinking horn that you always use for Blót, your brain will be signaled that you’re about to engage in a ritual. That signal is just like the ringing bell for Pavlov’s dogs, only instead of our mouth’s water, our brains will already be primed for the ritual. And who knows, maybe your mouth will actually water because you have a taste for the mead that you drink from that particular horn.
The signal for our brains to prepare themselves for a ritual that we participate in multiple times does not have to be a physical object. It could be a phrase. It could be a place.
The fact that a specific place can help us shift into ritual mode is one reason why the creation of “sacred space” can be important. If you participate in rituals in one specific place often, that space will start to have a specific feeling to you. If you’re someone who is inclined to be sensitive towards such things, you may pick up on this without the help of any kind of Pavlovian conditioning. If you’re not sensitive in that manner, it is going to be the repetition and that mental priming that will make you feel a certain way as soon as you get inside your ritual space (or set it up, if that is what you have to do).
If you are coming from a Neo-Wiccan background, or traditions influenced by Wicca in some way, you’re probably familiar with the creation of sacred space in the form of casting a circle. You may or may not have (at one point) called the corners, or called upon the aspects of the God and Goddess in order to sanctify that space. This creation of sacred space is very distinct and very specifically shaped. You may or may not have had actual physical visual cues for the edges of the circle that helped you differentiate between the sacred space and the mundane space beyond. Moving from this very specific practice, and into something a little more Heathen flavored, you have the Hammer Rite. The Hammer Rite is essentially the same thing, only you’re using a hammer to call on the cardinal directions and you’re not as beholden to geometry. This is probably not something that you’re going to want to do if you’re a recon because it has no real historical basis beyond stemming from Wicca. If you’re coming to Heathenry from Wicca, Neo-Wicca, or some other form of Neo-Paganism, you may have some interest in performing the Hammer Rite to create sacred space as it will at the very least be somewhat familiar to you. There is no shame in doing this. There’s no shame in having that kind of background. Find what works for you. That’s going to be my mantra for much of what I write because I believe different things work for different people.
For me, a part of setting up sacred space to perform a ritual is cleaning. So, one of the reasons this is a part of my creation of sacred space and ritual performance is the fact that my “sacred space” happens to be in my living room in front of my fireplace. Because it is my living room, it is lived in, and there might be an errant dog toy that doesn’t need to be a part of my communication efforts. Cleaning also gets my wife and I working together and talking, which makes the performance of rituals easier in and of itself. After we finish cleaning, we Cleanse the house. This process includes recaning (smoke cleansing) with a juniper and thyme mix and swatting everything in the vicinity with a horse’s tail. The horse’s tail has no historical correlation that I am aware of, it just seemed a very natural thing to include as I started to define my own practices. I happen to have a horse tail, so that is what I use it for amongst other things. Again, the purpose of these practices is to engage my mind in the ritual. They also “stir up” the energy of the house and help me to focus my intent. I also believe that this starts calling in the intention of the spirits and deities that I am attempting to communicate with.
I also sing, hum, chant or generally chatter while I’m doing this. Again, the point of this is to call the attention of the spirits and deities to what I am doing. If you’re going to communicate, it generally helps to draw some attention to yourself. You can’t really expect to pick up the phone and start talking if you don’t dial. I will discuss the role of song in a later post.
The semi-permanent aspects of my sacred space are my altars. They do change from time to time as I switch objects out, or give and replace offerings. Their placement and purpose remains consistent. Whether I engage in the whole production that I described above or not, they have a sense of gravity and sanctity to them because I have performed rituals in front of them many times, and because I view them as true space for my gods. They are a way my gods can be “present” in my home. They’re a mental connection for me. Whenever I look to my altars, I think of the deity that they are honoring and I feel that connection.
Outside my home, near the stream that cuts through our property, there is a stump that we have dedicated to the landvaettir. We take offerings to it there, go there to speak with it, and generally acknowledge its presence. The more we use this space, the more sacred it begins to feel to us. The area around it has started to feel like an acceptable place to give offerings to our gods as well. Earlier this week, we took fresh cream and eggs down to the stream as offerings. The more we use the space, the more present the spirits and gods feel, and the more our brains engage in “ritual mode” as we stand within that space.
The purpose of sacred space then is to provide the background for your ritual. It helps engage your brain, and give you that security of repetition that ends up acting as a shortcut. This is a huge benefit when you find that you don’t necessarily have a lot of time to gear up to a ritual but that you need to perform one. This can also be helpful when you find that you need help feeling connected to your faith in some way. Repeating certain acts, anchoring specific energies, to a space and objects is hugely beneficial in fostering that connection.
That connection, between the individual or group and the divine or spirits… that is what it is all about. So, whatever you find that helps you improve or create that connection, use it. If laying grandma’s doilies out on a coffee table before you try and honor your ancestors helps give you a sense of connection, do it. If (safely!) maintaining a flame for Thor helps you feel connected to him, then by all means… do it. It is your responsibility to find what works the best for you.