W. Hunter Roberts & Associates
Transformative Arts

The Need for Ritual

There are events, changes, and passages that occur in every life, which are beyond human ability to fully comprehend, even with all our science and literacy.

Consider death. One moment you are holding someone’s hand. You can feel its warmth. You can see the blood pulsing, feel their heart beating. You can see their chest rise and fall, as the breath moves in and out. Then the next moment, for some reason we do not fully understand, it stops. No more breath, no more heartbeat. That which was warm, breathing, moving and changing, is now still and cold. How do we explain this complete and profound shift from the state of alive to the state of dead in an instant?

We can cite the cause of death, to cancer or old age. We can explain the mechanics of how the heart stops pumping. But this does not really enable us to wrap our minds around the inescapable and profound fact that someone we loved and shared our lives with only yesterday is gone, dead, not here today.
Likewise, consider the seasons’ passing. Only last week, I was frolicking at the beach, letting my skin turn brown. Today I feel a chill in the air, and I note with sadness that yesterday was the autumnal equinox. While I have a reasonable working knowledge of the way in which the Earth moves about the sun and rotates on its axis, and the way in which a seed ripens under the ground, there is another level on which the passage of summer into autumn, or the rebirth of the year from winter into spring, is as much a mystery and a miracle to me today as it must have been to cave dwellers many thousands of years ago. The Earth’s passage is a mystery beyond my simple ability to fully apprehend.

Life is full of such mysterious passages on large and small scales. Some are personal, some are social, some cultural, and some global.
Though we understand increasing amounts about genetic reproduction, this does not fully prepare us for the mystery of a new life when a baby is born into a family or community. In some cultures wild celebration, fireworks, special foods and drink mark the baby’s arrival. In our culture there are remnants of these customs in the giving out of cigars, sending announcements, baby showers, and baby baptism or naming ceremonies, which are becoming popular.

With each year’s passing I acquire more wisdom and more wrinkles, I note as I celebrate my birthday. I blow out candles on a cake, and friends and family applaud. By this act I am ritually recognized for my passage into another year of life. The recognition affirms my transition
from one year to the next.

Two people, who lived single lives yesterday, today are considered a legal unit through a ceremony of union, in which they declare their unity before their families and community. Although the ritualizations vary greatly from one culture to the next, and even from one couple to the next, marriage is still, in all societies, a highly ritualized occasion, probably because it marks a major life transition that occurs through declaration and agreement alone.
After years of hard work and angst, you receive a piece of paper that states you are officially qualified to practice in your field. A graduation ceremony marks your passage from student to practitioner or master.
Your son’s voice deepens as he suddenly shoots up three inches in height. Your daughter’s shape is changing, and she has her first menses. These young people have entered a new phase of life, open to the mysteries and the dangers of sex. Because there are no socially accepted, effective rites of passage for them into the adult world, they will oftentimes devise their own, by smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, having sex, even joining a gang with its own initiation rites.
After forty-five years of work and saving, you are at the stage called retirement, in which you will not have to work for a living any longer. Perhaps a party is held in your honor at the workplace, in which you are recognized for years of service. Too often there is little or no recognition of this venerable passage, and the retiree leaves wondering of what use their life was to society.
The trees that were bare only last week are sprouting buds that will soon flower.
The first asparagus of the season arrives at the vegetable market.
The first tomato of the year ripens in your garden.
The grapes are ready to press.
It is dark by five o’clock. It is the longest night.
The earth heaves, wiping out entire villages filled with people and animals.
Someone you have loved for a lifetime has passed.
These events are just some of life’s mysteries and passages, social, personal and seasonal, which somehow remain unchanged by the age of computers and jet travel. They are at the heart of what it means to be human and alive in the world that we share. Although we may mark them in many different ways or not at all, they are nonetheless awesome and filled with mystery.
What is it that allows us to apprehend things that we cannot fully comprehend? How can we engage with that which we cannot explain?
Human beings relate to life’s mysteries best and first through the language of symbols. We affirm our commitment to another person through the symbolic exchange of rings. We bind ourselves to our country and its laws through pledging our allegiance to its flag. Placing a symbolic handful or shovel full of dirt on the casket or scattering someone’s ashes helps us to accept a death. Lighting a candle helps us to remember someone who has passed. Through our relationship to symbols we make something coherent of our lives. We name and relate to that which we name through its name. We have a relationship to that which has a name. It exists for us at a different level. It is differentiated, distinguished from the rest of the world. Likewise that which we symbolize. The developments of symbols and of language go hand in hand, all language being symbolic of a thing or idea. Symbolic reality creates shape and meaning.
By manipulating and interacting with symbols in a highly specific manner in a particular time and place, we act to accept, affirm, release, bind ourselves to, or alter a particular reality through our symbolic interaction with it. The frame or context in which we do these things is a ritual.
Older than reason, ritual helps human beings grasp and traverse life’s passages, integrating biological and cultural events at a level that reaches beneath the rational mind’s ability to explain them. Because ritual reaches into all three parts of the triune brain structure of humans, and works on both right and left hemispheres, it can reach beneath the cognitive to disseminate information on a precognitive level. Through the use of repetition, rhythm, and shock, ritual engages reptilian, mammalian, and neo-cortical layers of the human brain. People are able to grasp events and information at a deeper and more embodied level, in such a way that they are able to incorporate the changed reality addressed by therite, and go on with their lives. Ritual “allows for the acquisition of much new knowledge, in paradigmatic and symbolic form.” Such rites were very likely how Paleolithic people educated their younger members into full adulthood in the clan. They are still used in tribal societies for that purpose, in places where the tribe’s survival depends on the education of the young into the ways and story of their people. Ritual shapes the fundamental meaning systems in a culture at a pre-cognitive level, which precedes the rational. It forms the basis of what ‘feels right” or does not. It educates our hearts and bodies through repetition and surprise, as to who we are and what our place is in the world.
Ritual is far older and more basic to humans than any religion or theology. Neanderthals are thought to have placed flowers on the graves of their dead hundreds of thousands of years before what we now call civilization. The first human music ever made was probably the drumming and chanting where people gathered to celebrate the seasons, to pray or give thanks for a successful hunt, and to bind their lives to the mysterious turning of nature's wheel. The first art found on cave walls, pots, and in burial sites was symbolic art, probably used in magic and ritual initiation.. It is unlikely that Paleolithic people first sat around a fire theologizing about the nature of the universe or the meaning of life. No, they drummed and danced and went into trances and made symbolic actions in awe of life’s mysteries. They communed with the gods, as they knew them. Their meaning systems were then taken from the ritual.
Ritual comes first. The impulse to do it may be innate. “Everything points to the supposition that our remote ancestors were ritualizing before they became human . . .Ritualization is . . .the source also of speech, of religion, of culture, and of ethics. It is not as true to say that we humans have invented rituals as that rituals have invented us.” It is generally only after ritualizing that people seek to explain what they were doing through theologizing. People did not stop and consider whether or not God was female when they paid homage to the Great Mother; rather, it seemed natural to them as they saw all life being born to mothers, that the Great Mother would have given birth to all life.

The Power to Name
Why does it matter what we call that which we cannot fully know? There is something beyond all our naming that does not care what we call it, only that we admire it and bask in its glory. In a world that celebrates diversity, it is important to honor the many different ways that people call and interact with the holy, by whatever name. As Gregory Bateson put, it, the map is not the territory, and our naming is merely the map. By the same token, what we find, even what we know to look for is determined by the map we are using. I will not go looking for New Jersey if I do not know it exists.
The manner in which we name or symbolize our Ground of Being defines the container through which we apprehend it and the lens through which we view it. True, what we point to when we speak of God is larger than any box we try to place around it and grander than any name we give it. It is neither man nor woman. However, our conceptions of it are described and circumscribed by what we call and how we symbolize it. If what we perceive is determined by the shape of the container in which we hold it, a male/ father shaped lens and container for the sacred will forever place men in a superior position, and keep women in the role of the “other.” “If God in `his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is the nature of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated.” It is clear, then, that it is not peripheral to women’s cause to radically transform the ritual and symbol system of the culture. It is fundamental.
Human beings seem to have a built-in mechanism for creating meaning. We are nature’s storytellers. In my class in Feminist Liturgy and Ritual I passed around a basket covered by a cloth. In the basket were five objects with symbolic portent: an egg, a mirror, a snakeskin, a sand dollar, and a knife. I asked my students to each silently raise the cloth, examine the contents, and write down the meaning of what they saw. Each student wrote a set of meanings slightly different from the next. Some wove the symbols together through a story.
All of these objects have archetypal content, yet none has intrinsic meaning. They are merely a collection of objects. The meaning is added. It is what we give them. It is this added meaning, and not the object itself, which shapes our understandings in a particular manner. The meanings accrete over time, with a patina added each time they are used in a ritual setting. A chalice is just a chalice if I am thirsty; an egg is just an egg when I make an omelet. Yet place the same egg on an altar, and it becomes a symbol of new life, of hope and birth. It points to something larger and more multi-layered than we could describe with a few words. An ordinary loaf of bread broken in a communion rite takes on the patina and the resonance of all the rituals in which people have broken bread together. The meaning and the action together are archetypal, yet they are not innate in the bread: rather they are intrinsic to our association to the bread. There is more depth to this action, and more meaning, than we could say in mere words. A symbol is always more than what we can say in words. That is why we use the symbol.
The meaning we get from a symbol depends on the meaning attached to it by the culture. A snake would portend magic and transformation if I were in ancient Crete; it symbolizes evil and temptation if I am a Fundamentalist Christian. Depending on which of these meaning/symbol systems has shaped my reality, I will react to the snake accordingly, probably without knowing why, thinking it is normal, thinking I am responding to the snake itself, rather than the meaning that is attached to it.
A symbol stirs something deep within us either because it calls forth something that is intrinsic to us by our nature as human beings, or through its repeated use in the culture. There are certain symbols that are probably universal, being nature based, like flowers. Others, which are culture based such as the cross, require us to be acculturated in a particular meaning system in order to respond to it as a symbol. An example of this is the sacred coke bottle that fell from the sky in “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” For the people in the movie, the coke bottle had an accretion of symbolic meaning to which only they would respond. We must not think, however, that symbols can be invented out of whole cloth. I cannot put a flat tire on an altar and declare it a symbol for failed dreams. It would remain merely anecdotal, stirring nothing deeper than amusement or shock, pointing to nothing larger than itself. It would lack numinosity, patina, and depth, and therefore could not rightfully be called a symbol, but only a sign.
Symbol and story organize our thought forms and culture in much the same way as our DNA organizes our bodies. They provide the categories for sorting information. Without them everything is random. For the most part we cannot perceive what exists outside our symbolic framework. If a concept shows up for which we have no context, it falls through the cracks of our brain. People who have many different words for different types of snow actually perceive different kinds of snow, which I, lacking the language, do not. In some important way, language and symbols are all human beings have. Out of the way in which we symbolize reality, we organize our world. Our symbols, while not pretending to embody ultimate truth, make all the difference in the world

Feminist Symbol-Making
It is in the realm of symbol and story disseminated through ritual that we influence the shape of reality. Feminists daring a vocation of mainstream symbol making have an opportunity to reshape the world according to feminist values. To do so we shall have to wrest the symbols from the hands of the patriarchy, and transform or replace them with symbols that empower women. This means appropriating the myths and archetypes that shape consciousness. Transforming the rituals that transmit the symbols that tell us who we are, it is possible to insinuate a feminist view into the world at a pre-cognitive level
According to Mary Collins, “Feminist liturgy aims to explore and celebrate a new order of ultimate relationships, one that is saving or redemptive insofar as it heals the destructive disorder wrought by patriarchal consciousness.”An empowering, female image of the divine is key to that redemption. It is not enough to de-sex God. What feminists want is not to castrate male power but to claim women’s own power as, at least, equal. Religious imagery has too long known God as male for gender neutral language to suffice to replace that image in our imaginations. There is no power in neutered language; it remains too abstract to grab onto viscerally, for a primary experience of the sacred. In the end we end up with a nothing but a castrated JHWH, placid and manageable as any castrati, but missing all the wildness and power we sense and need in a greater power.
Women need an image of the divine who is a reflection of all that has been rejected about the female in patriarchal religion. The Virgin Mary will not do as a stand-in for the multi-dimensional Goddess. She is too tame, too sweet, too easily turned to ends designed to subordinate women. Obedient to men and a male god, she provides the patriarchal model for “good “ women: mothers and virgins.
The Goddess is fleshy, carnal, immanent, fierce, powerful, autonomous, wild, transforming, and natural, as well as nurturant, giving, abundant, and comforting. She holds the power of death and decay in Her body, as well as the power of life and birth. She is solar as well as lunar. Her embrace covers the sky as well as the Earth. She is divine mind as well as divine body. She is woman identified and defined. She is primary and essential. She is generative. She is an archetype, not a stereotype, and She may not always be “feminine” in the common usage of the word.
“ . . .Like a snake gone opaque
She hides in the jungles of the chromosome
She lies at the hydrocarbon’s heart
She is the black hole itself
Between Her thighs
The universe is squeezed from spirit.”

This is where Feminist Spirituality veers sharply from some trends in Women’s Spirituality. Feminist Spirituality is rooted in feminist analysis and theology. It puts forward a critique, implicit or explicit, of patriarchal religion in its treatment and image of women. Feminist spirituality stands for women’s religious, social, and political emancipation and power. Its fulfillment would result in the freedom, actualization and fulfillment of all women. Women’s Spirituality, on the other hand, could be, and often is, rooted in a male defined notion of the “feminine” and of woman.
Let us address the question of “The Feminine” for a moment. Is there any such thing? There is a great deal of literature that talks of “the Feminine’ and “the Masculine” as if these were real things, actual boxed sets of qualities set to swoop down from Jungian heaven at the birth of a boy or a girl baby. Yet the question of what, if anything, is intrinsically masculine or feminine beyond our actual biological sexual characteristics, remains a mystery, despite a proliferation of research on sexual dimorphism in everything from language to brain functioning. We just don’t know enough yet to state clearly if there are authentically sex-linked characteristics that are entirely innate.
Margaret Mead demonstrated long ago that, while all societies have distinct notions of what is masculine or feminine behavior, the content of these definitions varies widely from culture to culture. For example, in Victorian England, it was an accepted fact that men had a greater sex drive and interest than women, yet in other parts of the world it was as completely known and accepted that women have the greater sex drive. Sexual aggression was described as a masculine or feminine quality, accordingly. In both cases the phenomenon was observably true. Yet clearly, in at least one of the positions, it was a social artifact. Likewise logic and business sense are said to be alternately women’s domain or men’s, depending upon the cultural norm.
Nevertheless there is a persistent set of qualities that is cross-culturally defined as “feminine” as opposed to “masculine.” These are characteristics that transcend particular sex-roles, and embody essential qualities said to be feminine. These are the qualities referred to as archetypal. But where do they come from? Is there, as Plato suggested, an unchanging ideal or archetypal realm in which “The Essential Feminine” and “The Essential Masculine” can be said to reside, pre-existing unchanging, and informing the material realm? Is this realm one in which the Great (no doubt male) Dealer deals human qualities like cards in the archetypal card game? Does he divvy up the qualities of human being so that we all have some of both, but well-adjusted women have more of one kind (feminine) and men have more of the masculine? Or is it a 50/50 split? Was it different before Jung discovered his anima? Did men have the entire masculine repertoire then, while women had all the feminine? And while we’re at it, what are these qualities? Are they an even hand, or do some trump others?
Boiled down from sources covering the I Ching to Jungian psychology, the wisdom of the ages tells us that man does; woman is. The masculine is the positive, active energy; the female is the receptive. The masculine is light; the feminine is darkness. The masculine is the sun; the feminine is the moon. The masculine represents consciousness; the feminine is the unconscious. The masculine rules the realm of thought, while the feminine is said to rule emotion and intuition. Men embody the creative principle; women embody nurturance. Man acts; woman is acted upon. Man is spirit; woman is matter. So the feminine embodies darkness, the unconscious, the material, and the receptive characteristics missing and undervalued in the culture.
Apparently these attributes are not randomly dealt. It would seem that the so-called masculine qualities are those designed to keep men in power. They are the subject qualities, the qualities that empower autonomy, generativity, and creativity. They are valued in our world. The so-called feminine qualities of receptivity, on the other hand, valuable though they are, are not self generating or initiatory. They are object qualities. They exist only in relationship to the masculine, therefore can once again be said to put women in a position of “otherness.” While society needs to reclaim these darker qualities for spiritual balance, let us separate them from gender. Attributing them to the feminine could consign women to a position of passivity that would keep us “in the dark” for another thousand years or so.
This gendered essentialism rising within the Women’s Spirituality movement comes dangerously close to resurrecting the Gnostic spirit/matter dichotomy, in which the divine and natural worlds are separate, and in which the masculine stands for the active spirit needed by the feminine to animate her inert matter. It is metaphysical pap to claim by way of explanation, that women are endowed with an “inner masculine” and men with an “inner feminine.” Such notions simply hold in place our stereotyped, and male-defined, images. Moreover, such rationalizations obfuscate the obvious “ghost in the machine” metaphysic of spirit/ matter, in which the so-called male principle is the spirit, or (no doubt holy) ghost, and the so-called female principle is the matter, or--(you guessed it) the machine.
This idea has felled women’s power since the agricultural revolution. It places both women and Nature in the position of being passively acted upon, or animated, by male/spirit. Its reintroduction within a Goddess-worshipping subculture is none the less dangerous. More insideously, it may perpetuate the very systemof male and female selves critiqued by Catherine Keller, in which “to have a ‘feminine’ soul allows (the dominant male) to keep his ego in control and on top of his holdings in the world, while tapping the underground fluids of the psyche: the best of both worlds, without their mutual transformation.” One is reminded of Zeus swallowing Metis so that she might forever give him her wise counsel from inside his belly. Indeed he was in touch with his “inner feminine!”
This issue should raise a red flag for feminists. As feminists give way to Nouvelle Jungians in the movement to reclaim the Goddess, Her wholeness could be reduced. Without a feminist consciousness, the Goddess can become merely the internal feminine archetype, the all-giving, self-sacrificing mommy of our infant dreams, or a sort of sexually active Virgin Mary. These images, put forward by a non-critical Neo-Pagan or Women’s Spirituality Movement easily become expectations made of women. This does not serve the cause of women’s emancipation or empowerment.
Alas, even rituals of the Goddess can be used to subordinate women, if we use them without a feminist critique and without a clear commitment to all women, as women of the suttee would no doubt warn us. It all depends on whether we allow narrow, patriarchal, male-created definitions of the feminine to circumscribe our ideas about Her. Unless feminists are vigilant in insisting that archetype not be confused with stereotype, Her worship will just become more grist for the patriarchal mill, as happened long ago in patriarchal Greece and Rome as continues today in India.
Let us remember that Jung, brilliant though he was, was a Victorian man. I am not sure it serves our interests to hear him or any other man quoted as the last word on the Divine Feminine. If women allow Jung to be the source of authority for the new ground we are breaking in the realm of spirituality and religion, we may find ourselves back on the old, familiar ground of “soft power” promoted by women’s magazines in the 1950’s. Women risk identifying themselves and their deity with a stereotyped set of male defined “feminine” or receptive characteristics, which can be used to reinforce sex roles, (or which men can lay equal claim to, in their appropriation of the Goddess movement). The patriarchy will grind out ever more subtle and insidious propaganda on the soft power of the inner feminine as an obfuscation of the same old saw of the woman behind the man. Men will claim, as I heard one do, that equal representation women in important positions is of no consequence, so long as the men are in touch with their “inner feminine.”
Personally, I trust Nature more than I trust psychiatry. If there is any basis to the notion of a feminine, it is to biology, as a systematic reading of Nature’s tendencies and proclivities, that we should turn. This physical, biological force has little to do with metaphysical notions of masculine and feminine principles or gendered essentialism currently being popularized by Jungian psychology, and resulting in an unfortunate tendency to confuse the two. It is rooted in the natural world.
From this perspective, then, can we speak of the Divine Feminine? As a thing, I would say not. As a force, the Primary Generative Force of the Universe, I would say yes, yes, yes. There is indeed a force, a process in the living universe that is generative, birthing itself again and again in multiple variations. Anything that can reproduce itself is, by biological definition, female. The Divine Feminine is the sine qua non of biological existence on this planet.
This is not to place the feminine in a position of superiority. Superiority and inferiority are concepts superfluous in nature, where life exists in whole interdependent systems. It is to claim primacy, however, for the female as life giver. It is She who is unto herself, for it She alone who can create life. This is simply to say there is no life on Earth without reproduction and birth. There is no reproduction and birth without the female. The Goddess is the creator and transformer immanent in Nature, that mysterious regenerative process known as evolution, by which life creates, destroys, and recreates itself.
With the introduction of external genetic material come death and difference. This is the biological contribution of the male to evolution. His action is catalytic. He is Nature’s wild card, which allows life to evolve and transform. I believe there must be room in feminist symbol making to honor the God, Her counterpart and equal, as embodiment and sire of that force and process. Moreover, if we do not include the Primal Masculine in our symbolizing, men will be forced to remain linked to patriarchal symbol systems of male dominance in order to see themselves reflected in the visage the divine.
The following invocations reflect the bio-theological distinction of Masculine and Feminine as I understand them. The reader will note in the first invocation the primacy and wholeness of the force that is being described. This Divine Feminine cannot be tamed.

She is the Mother
She is the Lover
She is the Dancer...
She is the Devourer
Through her body all things are made new
Oh Lady give us new Life!
She gives -
And she taketh away
She is the storehouse laden with grain
She is the famine-ridden land
And she is the rain.
She flows in mountain streams and rivers
Her heart beats in the primordial seas’ ebb & flow
She is the sandy river bottom blown away on summer’s wind and the starry skies spinning constellations
And swallowing them whole
Through her body all things are made new.
Oh Lady Give us new Life!
She is all into all
She is our wildest dreams
And our worst nightmares
She is all in all
We ride her tail like a dragon
She is all unto all
She is before all
And she is after all
Through her body all things are made new
Oh Lady Give us new Life!

This invocation of the God is to a wounded God. So many men are estranged from the Mother, out of their fear of losing their independence! This invocation calls them home, calls even the Judeo-Christian God to give up His false pride and His pretense of being the sole creator of life.

Invocation of the Wounded God
(W.H.R. R.D.H. April 1991)
Oh wounded God come home
How much longer must you wander in your fear and pride?
Don’t you know that you are part of me?
You are my wildest dream and my worst nightmare.
You are difference, my ecstatic whim.
Wounded God come to me
Be my sweetness and surprise.
Take me where I would never venture alone.
Touch me.
Change me.
Let me feel your galloping hooves vibrating across my damp meadow
Your crash of thunder, Your flash of fire
Inundate my banks with Your rushing waters
Blow Your pollen deep into my waiting blossom.
Come wounded one, come foolishness
Place Your kiss of madness upon my lips
Your bloodroot thick with yearning between my thighs
Fear not.
Be the tender stroke upon my cheek
The sweetness in my breast
And I shall call your name Pleasure
And I shall call you home.

While the re-emergence of the Goddess could be central to women’s empowerment, it could equally well be another means by which women are kept in their place, told to be sweet and nurturant, to carry more of the “feminine archetype.” Patriarchy will use every weapon in its—and our—arsenal to prevent women’s power from gaining a foothold. If its agents can turn the movement to reclaim feminine deity to their favor, as an agent of sexism, they will do so, and with the help of many women, in the name of reconciliation, in the name of “balance.” If they cannot wipe out all memory of Her, they will try to tame Her, and us, and all the wild, fecund and fetid, unmanageable, holy life that whispers Her name. An image of the Divine Feminine is not in itself assurance of women’s emancipation. Nor is Goddess worship intrinsically or automatically empowering to women. It is not even automatically feminist. There is still the potential for reifying nature and objectifying the goddess, to appropriate her powers, tame her, and use her for patriarchal purposes. If on the other hand, women recognize and honor the Goddess in all her aspects and changes, as did our most ancient and gynocentric forebears, if we honor Her solar as well as Her lunar persona, warrior as well as midwife, devourer and virgin (woman-for-herself), as well as mother and lover, perhaps our love of Her will give us the strength we need to continue to fight for the freedom and dignity of all women and all life, as embodiments of Her.
In re-shaping symbolic reality, women have the power to transform the world. Symbol and story are mutible forms, willing to be shaped by the hands of those who wield them artfully. Symbols and archetypes are not static; they live and breathe and change and transform as we interact with them. Symbols are living reflections of human religious experience. As women reclaim the world of symbolic language for our own purposes, we claim the power to enter it and alter its future.

To download a printable PDF of The Need for Ritual (93KB), please click here

© 2005 W. Hunter Roberts. All Rights Reserved.