Back in March, I blogged a lot about the theory and practice of the 3 Old Men ritual troupe as I prepared to head out to Burning Man. This was before I found out that we were not able to go this year. We did, however, go to Alchemy, the Burn-like event in north Georgia, and as I reread those posts from March I thought I should go back over some of the ideas and talk about them as they eventually played out in real life.
The background is Beginnings in ritual studies, by Ronald L. Grimes, and I did a series of posts on his chapter of “mapping the field of ritual.” What I’d like to do is spend a few posts looking at his questions again and see if there were any unanswered questions or surprises in the event itself.
: Ritual space :
Where does the ritual enactment occur? If the place is constructed , what resources were expended to build it? Who designed it? What traditions or guidelines, both practical and symbolic, were followed in building it? … What rites were performed to consecrate or deconsecrate it? …. If portable, what determines where [the space will next be deployed]? … Are participants territorial or possessive of the space? … Is ownership invested in individuals, the group, or a divine being? Are there fictional, dramatic, or mythic spaces within the physical space? [Grimes, p. 20-22]
Rather than the vast and inhospitable Black Rock Desert, Alchemy takes place on a green tract of farm land in North Georgia. Hilly, wooded, with roads, a lake, and even camp showers, it’s not quite as an austere environment as Nevada. It did require—when I submitted our application to be considered as a theme camp—knowledge of the territory, which I didn’t possess but on which my fellow Alchemists were happy to advise me.
As it turned out, we were placed right at the entrance to the site. There’s a giant windbreak/hedge across the eastern side of the property, and the main road cuts through it—and there we were, first camp on the left. Nice, flat, and accessible. At first I thought we might have been slighted as newbies; for the first 36 hours of our experience, there was a steady stream of traffic pouring past our camp, not quite conducive to quiet meditation. But the team leader who actually placed us there told me he thought we would benefit from the foot traffic to our neighbors across the street, Incendia, and he was right.
Consecration was simple—I smudged the circle and the center, and then our team members, and we were off. In the future I would like to incorporate that moment of sacralization for each time we perform the ritual.
In March I talked about the Great Ritual of Burning Man itself and of the smaller rituals such as 3 Old Men. Because of the smaller scope of Alchemy and shorter life-span (both in terms of longevity and of duration), I did not sense a Great Ritual there other than the liminal experience of crossing that boundary and committing to life with the dirty freaking hippies for four days. Lots and lots and lots of smaller rituals, of course.
We had interesting territorial issues, in that the 3 Old Men’s performance was compelling, but daunting: it turned out that many passers-by were so impressed by the ritual that they regarded entering the labyrinth as a real test. Most looked interested but avoided participation. As we worked through the weekend, we developed ways to make it clear to people that they were welcome, and as word spread we got an uptick in participation. I think as we continue to attend Alchemy and other events, we will build a reputation and more people will be willing to take the plunge. Still, I’m kind of impressed that what we had made it clear that this was not a silly thing.
Ownership did become invested in the group. While I think everyone still looks to me as a guiding force, I was delighted that everyone felt comfortable in creating new aspects to the experience.
Besides the labyrinth itself being a mythic space, the center became more important as a focus, a fact I’ll talk more about in the section on Ritual Objects tomorrow.