Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 3

Continuing our examination of Ronald Grimes’s mapping of rituals, from the second chapter of his Beginnings in ritual studies.

 : Ritual identity :

What ritual roles and offices are operative—teacher, master, elder, priest, shaman, diviner, healer, musician?  How does the rite transform ordinary appearances and role definitions?  Which roles extend beyond the ritual arena, and which are confined to it? … Who initiates, plans, and sustains the rite?  Who is excluded by the rite?  Who is the audience, and how does it participate?  … What feelings do people have while they are performing the rite?  After the rite?  At what moments are mystical or other kinds of religious experience heightened?  Is one expected to have such feelings or experiences? … Does the rite include meditation, possession, psychotropics, or other consciousness-altering elements?  … What room is there for eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment? … Are masks, costumes, or face paint used as ways of precipitating a transformation of identity?

Well, that’s a lot to cover, isn’t it?

As for the role of the 3 Old Men in the ritual, I have noted in one of my Burning Man notebooks the following:

  • What are the attributes of the officiants?
    • solemnity
    • compassion
    • serenity
    • wisdom
    • openness
    • groundedness
      • not anger
      • despair
      • decay
      • aggression

I have avoided from the beginning calling them guardians, because they’re not guarding anything.  They’re there as anchors more than anything, providing a sense to the participants that there is mind behind the installation of rope and stakes.  They are also there to provide a sense of closure at the end of the journey, whether or not the participant elects to engage in the proffered agon.  (I think the Old Men can at least bow/nod/reverence an exiting participant—and I really need another term besides “participant.”)

So let’s just go with Elder, since that’s part of our gestalt anyway.

Transformation of appearances: this is one reason I’m leaning toward the idea of the Old Men opening the ritual by stripping from their regular clothes, painting their bodies, walking the labyrinth, then donning their skirt and staff.  It makes it pretty clear that we have become the Old Men.  The last question in the set addresses this as well, and I think it’s important.  Just as priests and shamans and judges put on specific garments to become their role, the 3 Old Men put on theirs.

The body paint thing is problematic, of course.  For one thing, it’s going to trigger associations with Butoh dance, with its visceral emotions and existential terror, and that’s not what we hope to project at all.  For another thing, it’s 100° out there and we don’t have showers.  Ew.  This is an idea that we’re going to have to consider carefully before committing to it.

Who is the audience and how do they participate?  All of Burning Man is the audience, all 68,000 of us.  Such is the nature of the festival, however, that we will be one of thousands of experiences available to people, and unless we are selected as an official theme camp and given a space where we might attract attention, we will be off on one of the side streets and will host whoever stumbles across us.

How our participants respond to the ritual is anyone’s guess, since nothing about it is prescriptive.  Our hope is that the experience is meditative and personally transformative.  (As for psychotropics… I’m shocked—shocked—that you would suggest such a thing might be possible at Burning Man.)  Our hope is that people find meaning in their walk through the labyrinth, and that engaging in the agon upon their exit gives an extra push to what they found in their journey.  Our hope is that they find themselves still thinking on it as they walk away or in odd moments during the week.

What room is there for eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment? Honey, please.  You just defined Burning Man.  We would be idiots to presume that we’re not going to host Burners whose Dionysian impulses make a mockery of the solemnity of our setup.  And that’s OK: clowns can be priests; fools can be visionaries.  I expect to see people walking the labyrinth in silence and prayer; singing and dancing; giggling and inattentive; naked; stoned and lost; smirking and cynical; hurriedly.  I expect drummers and other musicians to join us.  I expect people to be puzzled or put off by the offer of an agon; I expect some to accept it gratefully, with tears, with joy.  I expect to be quizzed—”What is this about?  How do I do it?”  I expect to be ignored.  I expect to have others expect me to be something more than I have offered.

And I expect to be transformed by all of it, to learn more about my identity as an Old Man.

Tomorrow: ritual sound & language, and ritual action

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