Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 4

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

: Ritual sound & language :

What is the role of silence in the rite? … Do the people consider it important to talk about the rite, avoid talk about it, or to talk during it?  Are there parts of the rite for which they find it difficult or impossible to articulate verbalizable meanings? … How important is language to the performance of the rite?  What styles of language appear in it — incantation, poetry, narrative, rhetoric, creeds, invective, dialogue?  In what tones of voice do people speak?  … To what extent is the language formulaic or repetitious? … How much of the language is spontaneous, how much is planned?

I don’t have answers to any of these.  I have deliberately postponed any kind of planning on language/sound until Craig and I (and others, hopefully) get on our feet, as we say in the theatre, and start to play with it.  All I know is that when a participant exits the labyrinth, I must in some way connect with that person and offer one of the agones.  I honestly have no clue about how this will work.

I imagine that the offer of the agon will be formulaic, but then the rest of it is going to have to be improvised.

As for music/sounds, I’m not planning anything, but that could easily change as well.  As I said in our Theme Camp application, we would welcome drum circles and other musicians to contribute to the ritual as they see fit.  If our camp were bigger, say ten or more people, we could plan to have our own drummers in attendance.  As it is, we each have our own bells/bowls/shakers we can bring with us, but how we implement them I will leave to more shamanic minds than mine.  I can easily see a participant singing or playing an instrument or singing bowl or shaker while walking the path. It will be very interesting to report back what happens on the Playa as the community participates in the 3 Old Men ritual.

: Ritual action :

What kinds of actions are performed as part of the rite, for example, sitting, bowing, dancing, lighting fires (!), touching, avoiding, gazing, walking?  In what order to they occur?  … What are the central gestures?  … What actions are not ascribed meaning?  What actions are regarded as especially meaningful and therefore symbolic?  What actions are regarded as efficacious rather than symbolic?  What meanings, causes, or goals do participants attribute to their actions? … Which actions are repeated?  What gestures mark transitions?  What are the recurrent postures?  What qualities of action persist—quickness, slowness, verticality, hesitance, mobility, linearity, exuberance, restraint?  Are parts of the rite framed theatrically? … What parts of the body are emphasized by participants’ kinesthetic style?  … How do the social and environmental contexts influence the actions?  What actions are done with objects? …  What actions are optional, required?

Again, a bucketload of questions, some of which we can answer, splitting our focus between the officiants and the participants.

For the Old Men, for this Old Man anyway, here are some answers:

  • Performance includes standing, walking, dancing/movement (during the walking), and touching.  I would include the agones themselves as actions, and they are to my mind central and especially  meaningful.  I think from my perspective they are in fact efficacious rather than symbolic, although of course I have no control over the actual efficacy; I can only offer a gesture that I hope is effectively meaningful to the participant.
  • The agones are repeated, and they are themselves the transition from the journey of the labyrinth back to the world at large.  They are, however, optional: the participant may decline the offer, or even choose to exit where there is no officiant.
  • Again, not having gotten on my feet I’m not sure of the “qualities” of these actions.  In my head, I sense they should be slow, deliberate, nonthreatening, even the ‘struggle’ agon.  But I will not be surprised if, out on the Playa, the Old Men choose to become exuberant at least part of the time.
  • Body parts.  This is very important to me, since the whole impetus behind the 3 Old Men is of course our aging bodies.  The skirt will emphasize our torsos, specifically our bellies, which among our current participants are not taut.  I think too our arms and hands will play a large role by dint of holding the staff and engaging in the agones.  Also, if we go with the nude walk through the labyrinth as our opening, then all kinds of body issues will present themselves as part of the ritual.  One question that arises: do we paint just our heads and torsos, the visible parts of our bodies once we don our skirts, or do we paint our entire bodies for the trip through?  That will require some discussion.  (Sorry about the mental image…)

One question I have not resolved for myself is whether installing the labyrinth is part of the ritual.  I think it will be for me, although once we arrive on the Playa and set to work, it may become just a bloody chore.  Certainly we have no plans to take the thing down and re-erect it every day.

For our participants, the ritual action is pretty straightforward:

  • Approach the labyrinth.
  • Choose an entrance.
  • Enter the labyrinth.
  • Journey to the center.
  • Choose an exit.
  • Journey outward.
  • Choose whether to engage in the proffered agon, and if so, engage.

What meaning our participants assign to these actions is, as I’ve said before, anyone’s guess.

And that fact leads me to question whether what we’re doing is a ritual at all, since it is not part of an actual culture that produced it other than that of dirty hippie freaks like me and the 68,000 other Burners.  Still, my experiences with my own labyrinth have convinced me that this offering to the Burning Man community will in fact be received as a meaningful experience by those who participate.  In any event, I have an interesting anthropological study ahead of me.

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