Ritual: Creating a Context

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Why The Gods Do Not Have Standing Permission to Visit

“Trick or treat, mortal!”

The other day, I was sitting and chatting with my S.O., having one of those stupid couple conversations, like you do, and my housemate asked me a question.

I screamed like a church lady.

It’s not that I’m afraid of my housemate. He’s one of those big, fluffy, lovable types who volunteers at an animal shelter and refuses to pursue a career that doesn’t help people.

The thing is, I thought my S.O. and I were alone. I wasn’t prepared to accept a third person into my reality at just that moment. I had no warning, and I was caught with my shmoopy-face on, being vulnerable, like you do when you are talking to someone who has been sleeping in the bed where you fart for over a decade. It was the wrong face for my housemate.

It was like being caught with my pants down.

I tell you all of thus because you can probably relate, and because if I had asked you, without context, how you would react to seeing your beloved Patron or Patroness in the flesh, “blood curdling scream” would probably not be the first words to come to mind. Yet, we can all admit that we can be startled by people that we love and trust, and that when we are startled, we aren’t entirely ourselves.

It isn’t about fearing the individual in question –though, admittedly, the notion of Hermes being angry at me does make my blood run cold, just a little– but rather, anxiety or momentary fright caused by a rapid change, or violation of, perceived context. It is acculturation, together with ritual, that provides us with a frame work for what is and is not acceptable, in terms of manifestation, and what we will or will not see, hear, or do in ritual.

How Ritual Helps

Authority and gravitas need not come from the past. Beauty, reason and rightness are often even more important than historicity. We communicate with the symbolic minds of living people, not dead ones.

“I had a longing for ritual, something I could cling to, a routine to make me feel well and contented.” — Jack Dee

When we perform a ritual, we are establishing rules, expectations and contexts for our space.

This is true when a judge performs the various legal ceremonies to open a hearing, and it is true when we cast a circle — we control our expectations by adhering to the appropriate customs.

We do religious rituals to establish the religious and spiritual context. We have the luxury, at that point, of including divine manifestation, of a culturally appropriate sort, as a part of the expected order of things.

The more authority we perceive the customs to have, the more secure we feel in the context, and the more control we can exert over ourselves in the situation.

The Rules of Reality

“Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life.” — Marilu Henner

Hint: Not what Flanders expects to see during “Grace.”

Rituals set expectations. They set standards not only for how we expect to behave, but what we expect to see. A person in a bikini on the beach is no big deal, but if someone was wearing one and walked into a judicial hearing, eyebrows would certainly be raised.

Expectations are not set by the rituals. They are, rather, an ingrained cultural (or sub-cultural) response to rituals. We are acculturated, by our up-bringing, or by our conversations in and associations with sub-cultures, to behave and to have expectations that make sense in light of the cultural values surrounding the context that the ritual creates.

Aye, There’s The Rub in Modern Mythology

“What I do favor is the attempt to make sense of things by living within a story. The Christian story, for good or ill, is my inheritance.” — Elizabeth J. Andrew

No one expects the Apocalypse.

The Christian Apocalypse isn’t coming, and neither is Ragnarök. It isn’t that these mythologies are invalid. Quite the contrary. It’s that Ragnarök and the End Times are defined, by the mythologies that use them, as inherently being in the future. The time is never now. If the time was now, there would have to be a story about it, and people would have to stop saying things like, “I’m going to be standing in line until the Eschaton/End of Days” and not mean, by that, that they’d be standing there forever. The expectation, mythologically, is that these events will happen in the far future. As long as Christian mythology does not change, it will not matter what year it is, the Apocalyse will always be happening in a distant future with respect to the people speaking about it. That is to say, almost no one would fail to be surprised if it actually happened. Put another way, no one will ever expect it to happen. Or, to be brief: It will never happen.

Paganism has something similar. We are always talking about “bringing back the gods.” Engrained in the way we speak about the gods is a certain understanding that they are inherently creatures of the past and not the present, that magick was then, and not now. We talk about an aspiration that they should return, but that day is as far off as the Christian Eschaton, in a mythological sense. If we do not change the way we think about it, the way we mythologize it, then our rituals will never facilitate that end, and our aspirations are a joke.

Should we do that to our aspirations?

Dionysos does not understand how you could do this to him.

And how are our gods to respond? They don’t have permission to be here, because their place is the past and the future, but never the present. We expect that they will show up, like ghosts, to be channeled by physical creatures, and never allowed to speak for themselves. If they were to do so, our expectations would be violated, and they’d have a mass of panicked creatures, not a group of spiritual people seeking communion.

Setting New Expectations

“The human soul can always use a new tradition. Sometimes we require them.” — Pat Conroy

Like this.
Not Like This

“All your Western theologies, the whole mythology of them, are based on the concept of God as a senile delinquent.” — Tennessee Williams

The first step is the obvious, and the most important: we need to change the way we talk about the gods, if we want them to manifest for us. We need to stop talking about them as though they couldn’t. We need to stop talking about people who experience them as real and present as kooks. We need to stop fearing that a direct experience of the divine will make us kooks.

We want the experiences that are spoken of in our mythologies. We should not penalize ourselves or others for actually having them.

The second is less obvious, almost as important, but incredibly difficult: we need new ritual to match our new mythology, or we need to completely change our understanding of the rituals we have. We need to understand ritual for what it is. It is a tool for us to set our expectations of what we will see and do. We are creatures that hate the unexpected. We need to be slowly weened off of banality. We need to feel like we are in control the whole time, and like we know what to expect.

A good ritual helps us to make the transition from ordinary to non-ordinary, and a good spiritual path provides us with a culture and mythology that support, rather than hinder that process.


  1. I am completely blown away by this post. Not only do I whole-heartedly agree with you, my eyes were also opened. Although I already speak of the Gods in the present, I had never considered that the mythology too needs to live and breathe and expand in the here and now. Thank you for this. Much to consider.

  2. Reblogged this on Epistrophia and commented:
    I cannot praise this post enough: Excellent writing that changed the way I will look at mythology from now on. -M.

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