The Place Of Ritual
The Place Of Ritual
If we understand the where of ritual we are closer to understanding the why of ritual. That is, understanding where ritual takes place is a key to understanding the place ritual takes. The intent of this article is to explain both of these; the why in terms of the where.
Obviously a ritual is celebrated in a physical location, which has certain physical characteristics. It has shape and size, it is oriented in a particular direction (or not), it contains and may be marked out by objects. None of this is an accident, or, if it is, it is an accident with some serious repercussions. The material has its own importance, and the physical aspects of ritual space affect the meanings of that space as well.
There are other aspects of sacred space, however, and they include the ritual and the cosmic. The ritual aspect is made up not only of the acts and words by which the physical space is made divine; it also involves the way the physical aspects of the space interrelate. Each physical aspect has a ritual effect, and each of the relationships between physical aspects has a ritual effect. It might be said that just as the participants interact, so too do the physical aspects.
The cosmic aspect might also be called the mythical aspect. This aspect answers the question of how the physical and ritual aspects relate to the way the universe is organized mythically.
When seen as an organized whole, the Universe (at least the ordered part of it) is called the Cosmos. The great Cosmos out there is called the Macrocosm, the "big Cosmos." It is common in many religious and magical traditions to also posit a Microcosm -- the "little Cosmos." This is the essence of each human being, the soul if you will. Microcosm and macrocosm are generally seen to be the same thing in some way. In some traditions, such as Upanishadic Hinduism, they are believed to be identical.
Indo-European Paganism, though, is about relationships rather than identity. From the Indo-European (IE) point of view the elements of the microcosm are not the same as the macrocosm, but they correspond in a one to one manner to them. In mathematical terms, the microcosm maps onto the macrocosm. For those who, like me, are mathematically challenged, a more literal image might help. A map (at least a good map) relates precisely to that which it represents, but its ink and paper are not the stones and soil of the land mapped. A map thus both is and is not the thing mapped. The two stand in relation to each other.
Besides a macrocosm and a microcosm we can define a mesocosm -- a "between Cosmos." The exact nature of this will vary according to the context you need; it can fall anywhere between the two extremes, and there is a whole lot of room between them. Just as microcosm and macrocosm map onto each other, the mesocosm, lying between them, maps both ways.
What I will be showing in this article is that ritual space is a mesocosm, and therefore maps onto the microcosm (us) and the macrocosm (everything). I hope I can show that not only is this true but that it is at the very heart of ritual.
How is sacred space laid out, and in what way does it fulfill its role as defining a mesocosm in which ultimately meaningful acts might take place?
The first characteristic of sacred space is that it is sacred. To be sacred is to be cut off. Most IE words used to describe sacred space derive from roots conveying the meaning "to cut" -- templum, temenos, ve -- the sacred is that which is cut off.
Cut off from what? If a sacred space is to be a Cosmos, it must be cut off from Chaos. Not only is it ordered, but this order is defined in relation to disorder. This is one of the purposes of the offerings to the Outsiders in ADF ritual. We do not merely "buy off" the Outsiders or scare them away. By recognizing them we establish our space as being in opposition to the Chaos they inhabit and represent. We mark it out as Cosmos, we define it by that which it is not.
The physical space of a ritual is, in IE religion, generally square or rectangular -- the Romano-Celtic temples and Celtic Viereckschanzen, Roman templum and Greek temenos, Zoroastrian pawi, Vedic sacrificial ground. A square or rectangle is oriented towards the four spatial directions; it maps the macrocosm, which is oriented in this way. It is also oriented towards the four personal directions (front/back, left/right) -- it maps the microcosm. The mesocosm of ordered space thus maps in both directions, forming a link between them. This linking is further expressed by the etymological connection between "right" and "south" -- compare Latin dexter, "right," with Sanskrit dakshina, "south," both coming from Proto-IE *deks-, "right." Microcosm and macrocosm are here defined by the same terms.
A square space clearly represents the balance expressed by this connection. It is the same in each of the four directions. But what of a rectangular one?
First, rectangular ones offer a practical advantage, and even the most important of symbols must sometimes bow to practicality. A temple (a house for the gods) can be built at one end of a rectangle with room for people to gather at the other.
I would like to suggest a more symbolic meaning. IE cosmology includes an axis mundi, a center of the universe about which all is organized. This is expressed mythically in the image of the Well and the Tree. The Well extends downward and the Tree extends upward, forming together the axis mundi, the pillar about which the Cosmos turns. The world extends out from this point of joining.
Ritually one would expect to find the same thing. However, it is rather difficult for a physical well and tree to exist at the same spot. For either of them to be in the exact center of the space would be to exalt it at the expense of the other. The axis mundi must be separated, with the Tree (or its representative) on one side of the center and the Well (or its representative) on the other. In order for them to be in some sense the center, they must be on one of the two centerlines. The connection between "south" and "right" shows that the standard IE orientation is towards the east, so the east/west axis is the one to use. Choosing that axis also allows for some additional symbolism -- the tree in the east (where the sun comes up) and the well in the west (where the sun goes down). Although not physically in the center, these two, balanced about that center, are there in a ritual sense.
I will talk more about the center and what goes on there in a physical and ritual sense later. I would now like to turn back to the sacred.
Since the sacred cuts off, it is a border. It defines the difference between that which is inside and that which is outside.
Borders must themselves be defined. They must be marked physically, established ritually, and reflect a mythical reality.
The mythical reality is first that the Cosmos is itself bounded. (Interestingly enough, the current scientific view of the universe is that it is infinite but bounded.) As implied before when discussing the nature of the sacred, the bounding, the border, is between Cosmos and Chaos, between the Macrocosm and Disorder.
Second, this border is conceived in IE thought as formed of water. This water is one of the three worlds -- land, sky, and sea -- which composes the IE universe. I have discussed this in depth and given my reasons for proposing this model in Serith, < >. One example is the Graeco-Roman belief in the world-circling ocean. Cosmos is encircled by, contained within, the unordered waters of Chaos. "Beyond here there be dragons" -- and dragons are spirits of Chaos, lurking in the depths.
A similar division is found in the microcosm. A person is clearly bounded. This bounding is not done with water, of course, but with skin and air, but there is plenty of history of the metaphor of "the ocean of air" which shows a connection in thought between air and sea.
With these two mythical aspects in mind -- the Cosmos is bounded and it is bounded by water -- we can now turn to the ritual and physical aspects. How is such a border between sacred space (Cosmos) and non-sacred space (Chaos) established?
Ritual space is cut off. When researching IE rituals for creating sacred space, I was surprised to find that they were in one way similar to those found in Wicca and Ceremonial Magic -- they involved cutting. I suppose I should not have been too surprised, since the symbol is, after all, pretty obvious.
Emain Macha was marked out with a brooch pin. Zealand was ploughed around to separate it from the mainland. Romulus created the sacred borders of Rome by ploughing. Temporary pawis are marked with a knife. The Vedic sacrificial ground is laid out by ploughing. Sacred space is literally cut into existence.
The evidence prescribes ploughing as the canonical method. Due to practicalities, and approved by the variations mentioned, a substitution is possible. What matters is that the implement be sharp and metal (the better to cut with). For instance, a spear could be used, which would add the rather nice symbolic touch of guarding the border. I myself use the shovel with which I turn over my garden in the spring -- my plough.
All of this leads us to the physical aspect. You have to be able to see where your Cosmos ends, in this way bringing the visual sense into the ritual.
In a permanent sacred space this would be quite simple. Wall of earth, wood, or stone could be built, or pillars places at intervals, perhaps with a rope or chain between them to enclose your space.
Temporary space is not that much harder to mark. Its corners can be shown with poles or rocks, which might also be placed at intervals along the border. For added definition, cord or ribbon can be strung from pole to pole.
Walls and cords are hard to pass through. That is the whole point. The border of sacred space is itself sacred. It is a dangerous thing, not to be crossed with impunity. Remus, to show his contempt for the walls Romulus had made, jumped over them. He was struck dead.
If you cross sacred boundaries, will you be struck dead? Of course not. What will happen will be worse. You will have undone the border's sacred nature. You will have dissolved the sacrality of your space and the rest of your ritual will take place in mundane space. You will have left the mesocosm.
This is not to say that IE sacred space is sealed tight. We are not talking here about a Ceremonial Magical or Wiccan circle, a bubble separated from all around it. To return to the story of the founding of Rome, when Romulus ploughed the borders at each place where a gate would be he lifted the plough. Since the gates would be crossed constantly, they had to be non-sacred.
In IE sacred space the non-sealed nature is also marked with a gateway. Traditionally this is in the east. When the borders are cut a door is left in the eastern wall through which people might pass in and out.
This seems to counter the idea of separating out a space; it seems to create a leak through which Chaos might enter and Cosmos escape. And that is exactly what it does. It must, or ritual space would not map to either microcosm or macrocosm.
There is a peculiar but beautiful thing about the IE Cosmos. It is not completely separate from Chaos. Take the Norse cosmology, for instance. This very famous cosmology preserves the Proto-IE one almost perfectly. The World Tree stands at the middle of the Cosmos. At its foot is a well (or wells) from which it is watered. From the Tree honeydew drips down into the well.
The well represents Chaos. Water is unordered, and the well connects with the underground and surrounding sea in which Chaos dwells. This means that Cosmos is fed by Chaos. In turn Cosmos feeds Chaos (honeydew drips into the well). The nature and functioning of this reciprocity rewards study, and I recommend it to all. For now, though, observe that there is an influx of Chaos into Cosmos, and that that influx is necessary.
Note also, though, that Chaos does not overwhelm Cosmos. Rather, Cosmos orders the inflowing Chaos in order to continue living.
This is the macrocosm. In the microcosm we have an even more obvious example. We quite literally have openings in our body. Through one Chaos enters in the form of killed life. Without this influx we would die. It does not overwhelm us, though. In fact, we transform it into the energy with which we operate and the very structure of our body.
Think for a second again about the directions. If the south is to our right, what is to our front, where our mouth is? We face east. Indo-Europeans "orient" themselves when they pray; the gods are spoken to while facing east. And east is just where the gateway is in our physical sacred space. When we pray to the gods, facing east, we face the gateway. Not a bad idea in a very obvious sense; you don't want to turn you back on danger. In a more subtle sense, though, notice that the gods are seen as being in the same direction as Chaos. They are not chaotic, of course. Then why do we face both Chaos and divinity in the same direction?
Like the Cosmos, the gods are fed by Chaos, transforming it into order. They might be said to ride Chaos into sacred space, keeping it from overwhelming our mesocosm. They protect us from Chaos by mediating it.
Ritual space is not only sacred, it is holy. Edgar C. Polome (1982) has shown how the distinction between these two plays out in Indo-European thought, even to the extent of different words for the two (Latin sacer and sanctus, for example). We have already seen that the sacred can be dangerous, and well it should be -- it is on the border between Chaos and Cosmos, where warding power is need. By being dangerous it can serve as a guardian for the holy, which resides within the space the sacred marks out. The holy is unreservedly benevolent. One of the major intents of ritual is to make contact with the holy and absorb its blessing. The holy pours out into sacred space, filling it and bringing with it the blessings of the gods.
The sacred must be crossed to get to the holy. The sacred is wild power, dangerous and difficult to restrain, but necessary for the establishment of microcosm and macrocosm. It is the border, the surrounding water.
The holy is not dangerous at all. In fact, it is necessary if anything is to exist at all. The holy is the center. It is fire.
In the center of the microcosm, fire is the spark of life within us. It is the body's furnace which transforms the chaos that is ingested into the cosmos of the body. It is the altar on which the offerings given by the world are burnt and shared with the divine life.
The place of fire in the macrocosm is harder to see. That is because its equivalent does not exist in the form of fire. It is, rather, the point where the Tree and Well unite, the instrument by which the Chaos flowing from the Well is transformed into the Cosmos which is the Tree. The water from the Well pours through the fire, forming the fiery water that is one of the central mysteries of IE religion. (See Puhvel, 1987, pp. 277-283 for a short discussion of some aspects of this.) This is one of the meanings of the Waters of Life, a topic which deserves its own article.
In ritual space the holy is represented by a fire in the center. Remember how I said that the representatives of the Well and the Tree could not both be physically in the center, even though they were mythically there? The two are equally important; since both can't be there, neither can be there.
Fire, though, is the most important thing in the ritual. Remember that in the macrocosm the fire is at the most central point of all, both on the vertical and horizontal planes. It is found at the exact point where all six directions meet. That is the ultimate center.
For these reasons, then, we put the fire both physically and ritually at the center of the mesocosm (our ritual space and actions), just as it is mythically in the center of micro- and macrocosms.
The central physical fire is square. In this way it equates to the four directions of the micro- and macrocosms. It also reflects the square sacred space. It is the space writ small; the space is itself a container with a fire at its heart. The fire and the space map onto each other.
From the fire, from the center, the holy ones enter the world. Although we may call to them facing east, it is through the center that they come. We call to them in the direction of the rising of the macrocosmic fire (the sun), and they come to us through our mesocosmic fire, that in the center of our space. In ADF terms, the center fire is the Gateway. It opens both ways; through it the gods come to us, through it our offerings go to the gods.
The space where the fire burns is an altar. Many Neo-Pagans think of an altar as a place to put their ritual tools. But that is not the Paleo-Pagan view. An altar is two things. It is the place where the gods sit, and the place where offerings are made. It is a table, yes, but it is the table at which we sit down in fellowship with the gods and eat a communion meal.
In an Indo-European Paleo-Pagan sacrifice, the gods were given small, usually inedible, parts of the animal. The rest was cooked and eaten by the people attending the rite. Some of the meat was thus transformed as a gift to the gods, born on the rising smoke of the fire. The rest was transformed into a gift from the gods -- their divine fire transformed the animal into something sacred by cooking it.
The fire is where this miracle takes place. ADF does not sacrifice animals, so there is no meat to burn or to cook. We do, however, send our prayers and offerings to the gods, and they respond with the Waters of Life -- fiery water.
In the mesocosm, then, the divine transforming of food into body (in the microcosm) and Chaos into Cosmos (in the macrocosm) is performed ritually by the transforming flame in the center.
There are actually two fires in Indo-European ritual space, though. There is the fire of offering, the square one, and there is a round one. I have been talking about the square fire, the one in the center of the ritual space. This is the public fire of offering.
The round fire is the domestic one. It is the representative of the home's hearth, the original offering fire. I have given the evidence of this in Serith, < >. Here I will just comment on the garhapatya fire in Vedic ritual. This fire is lit by coals taken from the hearth of the person for whom the sacrifice is being offered, and is tended by his wife. It is used to light the square fire.
This is very important. The round hearth fire is the source of the square public one. Not only is the square fire lit from the round one; if the round fire goes out the ritual must be stopped. Thus although the square fire is the focus of public ritual, it is the round fire which is primary.
So where does this round fire fit into the micro-, meso-, and macrocosm model I am proposing? Ask yourself where it comes form. It comes from the home.
Home and world are equated in many traditions. Mircea Eliade covered this far better than I could, but just keep this in mind. The home mediates between the family and the outside world. It is, then, a mesocosm. In our everyday life we live in a mesocosm, and now in our ritual we are living in another. From our daily life we bring the fire to empower our ritual life. Our ritual life will then empower our everyday life. The round fire represents our everyday life in our ritual space.
Physically, the round fire is, of course, round. It can burn in a cauldron or a round fire pan. It can be laid on the ground in a round fire ring.
The round fire is located between the square fire and the gate. It is thus a stage on the journey from the everyday to the divine, from the world outside sacred space to that space's center. It is firmly established within sacred space, but since its mesocosm is of a different order than that of the public ritual it has is own center and is not in the center of the ritual space.
The round fire may be carried into the space already lit if that is convenient, as it would have been carried from the home of the sacrificer in ancient times. It can also be prepared in the ritual space. That fire would be like coals carried from a hearth to the square fire.
A question immediately comes to mind -- whose hearth do we bring fire from? ADF ritual is not performed on the behalf of a particular individual, but of the community as a whole.
In ancient communities this would be no problem. The king or chieftain was the ritual center of the group; his hearth was the group's hearth. ADF has no kings or chieftains, though. Even a grove's Senior Druid does not take this function.
A public hearth must be established. This has fine Indo-European precedent; the temples of Vesta and Hestia, as well as that in the convent of St. Brighid, were such hearths. Some groves actually keep an eternal flame burning, and that is the obvious source for the fire. Alternatively, a group hearth can be established as part of the creation of ritual space. This can be a simple as lighting a candle or oil lamp with a ritual identifying it as such. Or a fire can be lit some time before the ritual, even the night before, and then tended by grove members until the ritual, and then coals taken from it and carried in a fireproof container to the ritual site. After the coals are taken the group hearth can be extinguished or watched over by someone during the ritual. A fire can also be lit once the ritual participants are within sacred space. This would be a hearth newly lit in a new home which they share. This home would then be further sanctified by being transformed into a temple.
As the heart of the mesocosmic house, the round fire becomes, when brought to the sacred space, the representative of the microcosm. It is a physical representation within the ritual space's mesocosm of the microcosm. It is a spot where all the ritual participants can be said to co-exist. It is a shared microcosm; through it we are identified with each other, and since from it comes the square fire of offering, through the round fire we approach the gods as one people, the round fire, the hearth, giving us one home.
Both the microcosm and the macrocosm are present in ritual space and fires, then. And ritual space is a mesocosm that mediates between the two.
The idea that ritual space can be mapped onto both the microcosm and the macrocosm is not new. And of course the equation of microcosm and macrocosm is a commonplace. What is not usually realized is that 1. ritual space is a mesocosm, 2. this mesocosm maps in both directions simultaneously, and 3. it is not only the space which serves as a mesocosm, but also the actions within it. This is, of course, true of the ritual acts which create sacred space, through which the identity of the microcosm and macrocosm is established and strengthened. But since ritual actions take place within sacred space, all ritual acts themselves are mapped into both the macrocosm and the microcosm, affecting both. All actions taken within sacred space have an effect on both worlds. All ritual acts are effective acts.
What is scary is that all non-ritual acts, performed in sacred space, are also effective. This is implied in the fact that ritual space maps both ways. It is, in a religious sense, the same thing as both worlds, and what happens in ritual space happens in both worlds, whether intended or not. If there is disorder in actions performed in sacred space, there will be disorder both in the people performing and attending the ritual and the Cosmos as a whole. If, on the other hand, the actions are performed with grace, beauty, and order, the individuals and the Cosmos will be imbued with those qualities.
This puts a huge responsibility on those who attend ritual, and especially on the celebrants. The latter are responsible for ensuring grace, beauty, and order. If mistakes are made -- a bowl is tipped over, words are misspoken -- they will, if not dealt with, have negative repercussions on attendees and the Cosmos. A misspoken line, a missed cue, the spilling of a bowl -- each action is seen as an irruption of disorder into even the most carefully controlled mesocosm. This is in the nature of things; order is always threatened by disorder. If such mistakes are made, it is the responsibility of the celebrants, especially the chief priest(s) to weave them into the ritual so that they appear necessary, so that what is originally and error is instead shown to be a meaningful part of the ritual.
Where the celebrants can shine is by transforming the disordered act into a constructive one. The misspoken word is gently made right, the person who misses a cue is brought to say their words, the bowl is righted and refilled -- the fixing of mistakes in the most graceful, beautiful, and orderly way possible becomes a ritual act. Performed in sacred space, it becomes an act which fixes some of the disorder in the attendees and the Cosmos. Because of this, mistakes can actually strengthen a ritual, provided they are corrected properly.
This is ritual space, then. The border (sacred), the center (holy), and the space between in which we perform our rites. Protected by the sacred border, blessed by the holy center, both we ourselves and the universe about us are brought into alignment. By ordering physical space to create sacred space, both microcosm and macrocosm are similarly ordered. We and the Cosmos are made perfect, complete, and ordered.
Further, our actions in the mesocosm, which is so intertwined with the micro- and macrocosms, affect them, extending out into both directions. If we work our rituals with order and beauty, so will our micro- and macrocosms be. If we work our rituals in a disordered and slovenly manner, so will they be.
Since by performing certain acts within the mesocosm, we can create certain changes in the micro- and macrocosms, ritual can be performed for simple acts of material magic. Prosperity can be attained, healings can be done. In Paganism, there is no good/bad dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, so this is not a wrong thing to do.
But ritual can be so much more. The acts performed in sacred space (and time) not only link the micro- and macrocosms, they are them. Through the mapping both ways the ritual is identified with that on either side.
Ritual in this sense might be thought of as an artwork. It does nothing but express a truth of some sort.
Seen this way, ritual becomes its own reward. It is not goal-directed, but a thing in and of itself. It inspires in us a sense of beauty, and awe, and aesthetic appreciation of the way things are. By presenting us in an apparent way with the inner secrets of the microcosm and the outer secrets of the macrocosm, ritual allows us to observe the deepest realities of the Cosmos. By taking part in a properly constructed and beautifully performed ritual, we become ourselves participants in the very nature of the Cosmos.
Not a bad way to spend some time.
Squares and rectangles
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Ritual and Practice Categories
- (Re)Creating the Cosmos
- Fall Equinox
- General Rituals
- Home Shrine Rituals
- Ordination and Initiation
- Spring Equinox
- Winter Solstice