“Group rituals should be about fostering cohesion and community among the group. The more diverse the group, the harder that can be. There is always some manner of common ground, but the mistake we often make is trying to look for it among religious or political ideology. Sometimes the very fact that people are coming together for a particular event is enough of a basis to build a ritual, and through that a community. I’m pretty sure that’s how it works with Burning Man.”
I’ve been talking about Heartland Pagan Festival for a while.
One of the features of the festival is a large ritual, that is often separated across three nights. There is traditionally an opening ritual, a main ritual, and a closing ritual. And these rituals are very complex and delicate operations.
Heartland is open to people of all Pagan and Pagan-friendly folks who want to come out for a good time. Which means that the Spiritual Experience Committee is responsible for devising a ritual that is appealing to as many people as possible, intense enough to provide a meaningful experience, and yet is not offensive to the hugely diverse and very left-of-center (and hence more likely to be offended) crowd in attendance. And they have problems pulling it of with a bang, on occasion.
This year’s ritual was very pleasant, based upon the Wu Xing phase cycle and working in the full moon. It centered upon listening to, telling, and passing on stories. It spoke very strongly to me, and I came away with a lot.
Other people complained that it was racist, because white people aren’t allowed to employ Chinese magical systems, or something.
So you can see that there are a wide variety of potential responses to these rituals, and there is a lot of room for dissatisfaction.
The ritual last year apparently contained elements of violence, with male figures destroying altars tended to by female figures, and the result was so strong and negative that many had to engage in ritual and magical work to recover and heal from it, and some didn’t come back this year as a result.
While last year’s fiasco was certainly an extreme case, the fact remains that there is a great potential for dissatisfaction, loss of interest, confusion, or even harm in a group ritual with that diverse of a crowd attending. And the fundamental issue is one that many pagan groups have had to deal with.
How do you craft a ritual that allows people of extremely diverse practices and backgrounds to come together?
Wicca seems to be a “safe” default position. When in doubt, a lot of groups like to fall back on a Wicca or Wiccan themed or inspired ritual. And this has its own problems, especially for Pagans like myself who are not Wiccan, and for whom some Wiccan assumptions about the gods and reality are completely incompatible.
Eclectic rituals can be fun, but also run the risk of confusing, conflating, and even offending some religious sensibilities. I don’t like to work with gods that I’m not familiar with, and I don’t like feeling like my gods are being handled by someone who doesn’t understand their natures. (Don’t try to tell me Minerva is a Mother Goddess. I will react unpleasantly.)
So the thought that occurred to me is to have a ritual that features the one thing that all attendees to the festival have in common: that they are at the festival? All of the people there are there at one location to share one event. Why not focus upon that? Why not invoke the genus loci of the site? Why not create an egrigore for each festival, and petition it for a positive experience?
And why aren’t more large festivals doing that?
I’ve never been to Burning Man, but from what I understand, this is similar to what happens there. Once you go, you’re a Burner, by the very fact that you’ve been. It is the coming together that is sacred and celebrated, and honored in other Burners.
Perhaps if more larger festivals started something like this, it would help foster a more cohesive sense of community. It just might provide us with a more intense sense of belonging to the Pagan Community, because we will know more concretely that we are all apart of something together, by nature of the fact that we have come together.
If anyone has experienced a ritual like this, I’d love to hear it, as well as any other thoughts.