Thursday, July 4, 2013


A ritual is a series of actions, gestures perhaps, and offerings which may be real or symbolic, all performed to achieve a specific goal.  In many rituals, intent is important, in some cases as vital as the specific actions.  The celebrant must wish the outcome with an earnest motive.  Insincere performances of the ritual will undermine the outcome.

The goals of some rituals are simple, straightforward practices directed toward the goal of remembrance.  The thing to be remembered might be a person, an animal, an event.  Some rituals are performed to protect things such as fields in which crops are grown, while other rituals are performed to provide the rain necessary to nourish crops.  Rituals also welcome young persons into  society, neophytes into cults or organizations.  You could consider various stages of education as rituals, degrees paving the way to higher status, from a bachelor of arts or science to a master to doctoral, and even beyond to post-doctoral.

Anthropologists and archaeologists do not often agree, each approaching the other with a suspicion born of cynicism and basic differences in approach, bound by mutual respect for scientific gathering of data, reasoned approaches to drawing inferences, even more reasoned approaches to arriving at conclusions.  Both groups have been gathering data on rituals for a few hundred years, their approaches becoming more refined, their separate revisions of previous conclusions becoming an accepted adjunct to modern practice.

Although we tend to think of ritual in terms of religious or shamanistic terms, there are splendid opportunities for ritual in secular, social, even business contexts.

In its personalized way, completing a manuscript is the result of ritual, where intent is an emphatic presence.  In such cases, intent has potential for a number of turns, there is intent to publish, intent to ratify information (physical or emotional), discovery, justification, entertainment, the common good, propaganda, influence.

You don't approach a potential project with a sense of ritual, but by the time you are well along the way to discovering what the project wants from you and your attempt to measure what the project wants from you, you've noted a distinct effect on your intent.

For the purpose of essay, which is in itself a kind of ritual, you're about to compare something you have some familiarity with against something you have only scant information, nearly all of it from written accounts.  Thus your comparison of writing for discovery with the Snake Dance performed by a clan of the Hopi tribe.  Both rituals are performed with earnestness, both with a specific goal in mind.  Both rituals involve some form of transformative behavior.

When you sit to compose, there are numerous aspects of yourself you feel the need to set on hold, focusing as much as possible on the result of discovery.  What will the characters do?  How will their actions effect them?  How will they feel along the way?  How will they feel after having accomplished or failed to accomplish their goal?  What will you discover from your close associations with the characters?  How will this discovery effect you?

As you understand the goal of the Hopi Snake Dance, the goal is to provide a series of rituals involving the snakes, which are then released at the four cardinal directions, in hopes that they will carry the news to the appropriate deity that the required rituals were performed correctly.  Now, message delivered, the appropriate deity will be pleased and reward the rituals with rain.  At the beginning of the dance, the members of the appropriate clan who will be the dancers, have a dab of ritualized cornmeal placed near each eye bu the clan chieftain, who informs the men that they are no longer men but kachina spirits.  When the dance is ended and the dancers return to the kiva gathering place, the clan chieftain rubs off the corn meal, telling the dancers they are no longer kachina spirits, they are mere men again.

Snake Dances do not always bring rain to the Hopi mesas, but the two times you witnessed the dance, as you drove away from the gathering, the windshield of your car was splattered with drops which became more of a downpour and, then, tangible rain.  Coincidence?  By which question you mean, did the dance produce the rain or was it the result of atmospheric conditions that would have produced the rain under any circumstances?  The sceptic in you enjoys the argument that the rain would have appeared, dance or no.  The aspect of you fond of the Hopi culture wants to believe those kachnina dancers drilled it.  In most matters, you have internalized this schism.  You lean toward scientific explanations for phenomena.  Your walls have at least six Hopi dolls on them, two Navajo fetish dolls, and one totemic carving from the Haida of the Pacific Northwest.

Working on a manuscript, sometimes even a seemingly inconsequential book review, you find your involvement carrying over to those remarkable moments where you are active in pursuit of sleep or emerging from having been asleep, almost to the point in each case where you can feel the gears in your brain shift from state to state.  You are well aware of the project at hand, often to the point of composing lines of it in your mind.

You are aware of the difference in composition in waking and sleeping stages, the sleeping stage taking on a greater range of association, even to the point of bringing in individuals you know have no rational purpose in the narrative.  Other times, you find yourself dealing with characters who have strange names or goals, names and desires completely foreign to you.  Coming out of the dream, you are often reminded of the chief of the kachina clan, reminding his dancers they are human again, no longer spirit messengers.

You are awake again, you tell yourself.  Remember you are a mere human, no longer a writer. Then, you settle in to see what, if anything, you've learned from this unexpected near-dream, actual dream, and waking states.  Some of the things you set aside when you sit to compose are back with you, the thought of coffee, for instance, the quick consultation with your appetite to see what degree of breakfast will attract you.

Much depends on the meanings you've sorted out from your cogitations and wild, dream-state rides.  Coffee can be slurped computer side.  A toasted raisin muffin, slathered with peanut butter and strawberry jam or marmalade can be snacked on while sitting before the screen.

Was the ritual of intent successful?  Was it strong enough?  Were you sincere enough about wanting a result?

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