3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 6

: Ritual action :

[original post here]

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?

So much questions…

One thing I found fascinating was the way we arrived at Alchemy with having gone through the ritual only once, and yet it was cemented, fully formed—and it was still allowed to grow in a very organic way.

For example, no one determined that after donning body paint each Old Man would wait to enter the labyrinth until the Man before him had reached and left the center, yet that became our standard action.

There was no prescribed method of painting oneself; everyone did as they felt best (especially as it got colder!). Personally, I think we looked best as a group when we covered our entire torsos.

Our solutions to initiating a walk to the next station evolved, and I remember the first time we did that, Joe just naturally walked from the west to the east, not stopping at the north entrance where the paint was. It seemed right, and so that’s what that part of the ritual became. It also worked when Wolf showed up with a fully worked out protocol for those who wanted to be relieved by another Old Man—thank goodness, since I was the first one to succumb, to dehydration I think.

The opening of the ritual I think was nearly perfect. I think our decision to strip and paint ourselves was the right one. Not only did it play off the infamous “drop-trou” atmosphere of Burns, it underlined the ritual transformation of campers into Old Men: we shed our daily garb; exposed our bodies and marked them with the other-worldly white of the body paint; took the journey into the labyrinth, stopping in the center for whatever private moment we each made there and then emerging to our station; donned our skirts and took up our staffs; and there we stood, newly born as officiants.

(And then of course, the reverse process: stripping off the skirt, retracing our steps into the labyrinth, and emerging to reassume our daily personae.)

As for the “qualities” of these actions, it seemed to me that we all invested our time as Old Men with seriousness and grace. For our participants, there was room for laughter, for talking, for serious meditation and blessing, for shenanigans; throughout, the Old Men were protective and alert.

The question I had of making the installation of the labyrinth a ritual—still unresolved. That might be a good excuse to get together next spring out at Craig’s and explore. For one thing, Old Men Who Aren’t Dale should be able to construct the labyrinth without me. More work is required there.

Craig has talked about developing a “walkabout” ritual, really the original concept for 3 Old Men: us in our skirts and staffs walking through the Burn. I think it would be very easy to institute: effect the transformation, then line up and head down the road to the Promenade and up to the Effigy. What would we do once we go there? More work is required.

We also need to develop a more betterer “acolyte” role, one that Christine created on the spot. Perhaps the idea of a carnival barker is not particularly apt, but we need to work on ways to invite the rubes passersby into the experience. More work is required.

Anything else? It’s tough analyzing an ineffable experience.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 5

: Ritual sound & language :

[original post here]

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?

The ritual itself, the transformation of Old Men, was done in silence, and I think it was good that way. I don’t know what others were doing, but I was soaking in the energy and trying to return it to my fellow Old Men and to the space. I think also that the visual of the Old Men performing their ritual in silence—as if we’d been doing this for years instead of for the second time in our lives—was quite compelling and beautiful.

(Think about that last bit, guys: we’d literally done the ritual only once before, at the runthrough out at Craig’s in September. We had no official way of making assignments or changes—and yet we did. More than one burner was astonished to find that we were Alchemy virgins, and a lot of their impression came from watching the solidity of the ritual. It looked ancient.)

Of course language was important to the agons—we had to engage the participant with the blessings/struggle. As far as I know, we didn’t actually codify the language there, although I don’t think anyone strayed very far from, “May I bless you?” / ”Will you bless me?” / “I offer you a struggle.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

And then language became critical for the experience: either our improvised blessing or theirs, and the choice of the struggle. Silence played its role as well: I never explained the struggle to the participant, just pushed into the space and did what felt right. Question for discussion: did anyone else develop specific language/actions for their versions of each agon?

As for talking about the rite, many people did and thought it was important to do so. I agree. I like to hear what people brought to the experience and what they got out of it. I think Craig’s instincts are correct that we should eventually provide a “decompression” space, perhaps with food and/or music.

Music was always welcome. Will’s Bach suites were amazing, and of course after sundown we always had Incendia for company. I do wonder how, if we added drumming, bells, or flute laying as a regular thing, that would work with Incendia going full blast.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 4

 : Ritual identity :

[original post here]

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?

Again, I think there are two rituals going on in our camp: the ritual we perform to become Old Men, and then the ritual experienced by those who walk the labyrinth. I’ll try to keep them straight as I move through this section.

I don’t know how others felt, but I for sure felt as if I were elder, priest, and occasionally a shaman while I was in our ritual. The transformation from Alchemy camper into Old Man never failed to ring true for me. I felt not necessarily exposed, but opening to the onlookers: “This is my body,” if you will. “I mark it, I draw attention to it, I show you the way in, and now I become an Old Man who can assist you. Follow.”

While officiating, I felt very calm—outside time—while at the same time alert to the participants and their choices. I found myself reviewing the original list of traits: solemnity, compassion, serenity, wisdom, openness, and groundedness, and trying to embody and project those to onlookers and participants.

Someone commented that they noticed that I smiled much of the time. Truthfully, it was a conscious decision on my part to return all the positive energy that I was absorbing to the environment. Alchemy and 3 Old Men made me very happy, and I wanted to give that back.

It is interesting that in the original post I was still dithering about the body paint and the nudity. I was fairly sure that it was what we needed, but at that point the troupe was all my theory and no real practice. Needless to say, it was amazing to perform and to watch. I’ll have more thoughts about this element in a couple of days when I talk about ritual action.

I am very curious as to what people’s feelings were when they walked the labyrinth. That’s one thing I want us to do better in the future: collect responses, either through interviews or with some kind of book people could write in.

Was there room for “eccentricity, deviance, innovation, and personal experiment”? You betcha. I think that’s one of the strengths of 3 Old Men, that we opened the labyrinth for others to build their own experiences. It never bothered me to see people romping through it, or stepping over the ropes to be ‘clever’ in ‘finding the way out.’ Everyone brought what they needed and took what they needed.

As I said in the original post:

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.

And so it was.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 3

I’m revisiting my explication of 3 Old Men in terms of Ronald Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies.

: Ritual time :

[original post here]

At what time of day does the ritual occur—night, dawn, dusk, midday?  What other concurrent activities happen that might supplement or compete with it?  … At what season?  Does it always happen at this time? Is it a one-time affair or a recurring one? … How does ritual time coincide or conflict with ordinary times, for instance work time or sleeping time? … What is the duration of the rite?  Does it have phases, interludes, or breaks?  How long is necessary to prepare for it?  … What elements are repeated within the duration of the rite?  Does the rite taper off or end abruptly? … What role does age play in the content and officiating of the rite?

The Great Ritual, i.e., Burning Man/Alchemy/wherever, determines when the 3 Old Men emerge from the mists and perform their ritual.

As I posted earlier, we had decided on dawn, sunset, an hour after sunset, and midnight as the four times we would perform the ritual—but the exigencies of weather convinced us to dump the dawn and add noon instead right off the bat.

The fact that I misunderstood the chart I used to determine sunset each day (neglecting to account for DST) meant that we had submitted a schedule to the central committee that had us out there at sunset and an hour before. (At our very first performance of the ritual, it seemed to me that it was very much daylight; nothing like taking your clothes off in front of a steady stream of traffic arriving at the burn.)

But we stuck with it, just in case someone out there had downloaded the schedule and came looking for us. It worked, although I think next time we will go with the actual sunset and an hour afterwards. We look awesome by the flickering of the tiki torches.

I’m also fine with our canceling ritual performances when it’s too freaking cold to smear liquid kaolin over our naked bodies, although that last performance with the blankets/shawls was great too. We could legitimately make actual shawls/serapes to wear if it’s chilly.

As for supplementary or competing activities… Well, that’s what makes it a burn, ne-ç’est pas?

I like the fact that we were available most of the time to assist those walking the labyrinth even when we aren’t out there in full regalia. I like how people felt comfortable sitting and chatting. I think our canopies could be better deployed as a decompression area.

In the original post, I talked about the Great Ritual of Burning Man vs. the small ritual of the labyrinth. I think the same concept can be applied to 3 Old Men itself: the Great Ritual of the officiants vs. the open labyrinth the rest of the time. Four times a day, the Old Men would take their places at the entrances to the labyrinth and offer the agons to participants. Otherwise, the labyrinth lay open for exploration and meditation. I think this worked. I do want to continue to recruit Old Men so that we can offer more/longer sessions. I think it would be great if we were “open,” so to speak, the entire time Incendia was up and running, for example.

I think we ended up manning our posts about 30 minutes each time. It seemed adequate; more officiants would allow us to tag team and keep going.

As for “age” as a determinant for participation, I really like the fact that all of us were over 45 at least. For me, the entire experience was a profound meditation on being an Old Man and how powerful that was. I don’t know how I would feel if a young man (say, the kid who stripped and painted himself) asked if he could camp with us or officiate.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux, part 2

I’m revisiting my explication of 3 Old Men in terms of Ronald Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies.

: Ritual objects :

[original post here]

What, and how many, objects are associated with the rite? … Of what materials are they made? … What is done with it? … What skills were involved in its making?

Back in March, I talked about the staffs and the skirts and indeed those became the major ritual objects, but there’s a lot more to discuss now that we’ve actually done it.

When we met in September for our technical runthrough/final dress rehearsal, it was clear that the four of us had had a wonderful time designing and making our staffs. Mine was the simple blue staff with the rings of wire and the copper lizard. Craig’s was hand-carved with a serpent surmounting it. Michael’s was a spiral-cut wooden curtain-rod which he had painted and trimmed along the spiral grooves. Joe’s was this phantasmagoria of styles, a different look-and-feel every foot or so, ending up with a steampunk top into which he could insert a glowstick. (We also had a fifth one for volunteer Old Men; Michael made it and I’m afraid I don’t have a firm memory of it.)

The staffs became therefore a focus of our own particular energies and styles. I’m sure none of our participants paid the slightest attention, but it made a difference to me.

One thing we did not use the staffs for was to lay out a central octagon for the labyrinth. It was completely unnecessary: we measured the space so that we’d have room for the entire thing, then staked out the center, aligned the points of the compass, and then used the triangle to place the stakes. I did use the markings on my staff to place the stakes at the appropriate distance from either side of the short “blue” rope, so that was both useful and necessary.

The skirts were particularly fine as objects: they set the Old Men apart as Other in a really beautiful but undefinable way. Together with the staffs they left the viewer with no choice but to understand that these men were figures of power.

Back in March I posited creating stands at the four exits, one for each of the four elements, but Black Rock Desert’s windy environment wouldn’t permit it. They would have been superfluous, as it turns out.

I did whip up a stand for our bowl for the body paint, and that turned out to be very effective. We moved it around from exit to exit until we settled on the north side, which was the side by the road—almost literally by the road. By creating a place for the body paint, it gave the ritual itself a beginning and ending in space. Once or twice participants used the body paint themselves, and that was nice. (Only one, a much younger man who had spent some time chatting with us about the whole thing, stripped and painted himself before walking the labyrinth. I thought we’d have more.)

At the dress rehearsal, Craig suggested that I bring my gong/bell from the labyrinth, and that was an amazing addition. As the weekend progressed and we actually developed details in the ritual, the bell became an important part of that. (See the discussion on ritual action in a couple of days.)

Craig also built a little altar in the center for people leave and take ritual items, and by Cthulhu that worked! People seemed to know without being told what to do—or maybe that’s a universal dirty hippie freak thing.

Finally, the labyrinth itself was fabulous. We could if we wanted make the construction more ritualistic, but it didn’t feel to me as if that were a problem. The tawdriness of the materials—the fluorescent orange and yellow in particular—might be problematic in establishing the sacred nature of the space (well, it is for me), but I keep coming back to the basic issues of visibility and safety. I don’t know that it bothered the audience.

3 Old Men: mapping the field of ritual, redux

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 :

[Original post here]

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.

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.

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

Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual, part 2

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

: Ritual objects :

What, and how many, objects are associated with the rite? … Of what materials are they made? … What is done with it?What skills were involved in its making?

This is an interesting aspect of 3 Old Men for me, since one of the aims in designing this ritual was to make it as simple as possible.  You may recall that my original idea involved three old guys in loincloths with staffs: next to nothing to transport or keep up with.  The addition of the labyrinth added a lot more cost and transportation issues, but our ritual objects are essentially the same: skirts and staffs.

Are the skirts ritual objects?  Skimming ahead in the chapter, I note that costume is an element of ritual identity.

So that leaves our staffs.  They too are part of the identity of the 3 Old Men, since they are part of the archetype of the Elder, our reclaimed masculine version of the Crone, but I think they are more than that.  I’m sure everyone remembers Gandalf’s claim at the doors of Meduseld that his staff was just an old man’s prop.  Just so: our staffs are our support, but like Gandalf’s staff they embody/symbolize our power as Elders.

The question of how they will be used is still to be determined.  I know that when we proceed around the labyrinth, I envision our staffs marking time as we move in unison.  It is probable that we will incorporate some kind of ritual/dance movement into our peripatesis using the staffs.  The agon involving the offer of struggle: will it involve the staff?  If not, then the laying by of the staff becomes ritualistic.

There is one more use of the staffs for which I’ve already planned: whatever other decoration there may be on them—and we haven’t decided even what they will be made of—there will be markings on them which will guide us in the actual laying out of the labyrinth.  That means there will be four staffs, not just three: laying them out in a square will give us the corners of the innermost octagon.  There is also a centerpoint and the width of the path marked to help lay out the positions of the stakes.  Sacred geometry, folks.

There are other objects that keep floating into the plan but which I keep rejecting.  I would love to add small stands at each entrance, beside which the Old Men would stand, each with one of the four elements: a bowl of water, a bowl of earth, a brazier of fire, a bell or smudge stick (for air).  Participants could use those as they see fit, either before entering or upon their exit.  The problem with the stands is severalfold: transportation issues, of course, and stabilization issues.  The winds are fierce on the Playa; everything has to be staked and tied down, and there is—as I understand it—a prohibition on campfires, tiki torches, etc., so the brazier would be problematic.  Perhaps if the 3 Old Men have a longer life with the regional Burns, the stands can make an appearance.

: Ritual time :

At what time of day does the ritual occur—night, dawn, dusk, midday?  What other concurrent activities happen that might supplement or compete with it?  … At what season?  Does it always happen at this time? Is it a one-time affair or a recurring one? … How does ritual time coincide or conflict with ordinary times, for instance work time or sleeping time? … What is the duration of the rite?  Does it have phases, interludes, or breaks?  How long is necessary to prepare for it?  … What elements are repeated within the duration of the rite?  Does the rite taper off or end abruptly? … What role does age play in the content and officiating of the rite?

Again we are dealing with two overlapping rituals, the Grand Ritual of Burning Man itself and the inner ritual of 3 Old Men.  Naturally, the grand ritual takes place at the same time every year, with its separate questions of preparation, etc.  Interestingly, you might think that the grand ritual of the Festival ends abruptly: burn the Man and go home, but it is not nearly that clear cut.  These days the Man burns on Saturday night.  Many people then leave on Sunday, but many also stay for the burning of the Temple on Sunday night, which has become an equally important part of the grand ritual.  (That is our plan.)  And when you think about it, even those singular high points in the grand ritual don’t have a clear ending: thousands gather for what is essentially a big bonfire.  Who decides when a bonfire is over?

For the 3 Old Men, these questions have not been answered.  In fact, despite Grimes’s warning that his proposed map is not to be taken as a checklist, I think that they provide us a useful guide in deciding how to complete our plans for the labyrinth.  Will this be a daily event?  At what time of day will we take up our positions as officiants?  (Conversations with veteran Burners suggest that dusk is our best bet.)  How long will we remain stationed?  How will we decide when it is time for peripatesis?  How will we decide when it’s time to stop?  If we are able to add to our troupe so that we have back-up Old Men—which I think would be awesome—how do we effect the ‘changing of the guard’?

Even the question of the age of the officiants is not firmly answered: at least one of our hopeful participants, i.e., needs a ticket, is not an old man at all and in fact will probably be quite disgustingly fit by the time August rolls around.  Can a 30-something don the skirt and staff?  A question of ritual identity we will need to examine.

 Tomorrow: ritual identity

Burning Man: mapping the field of ritual

I highly recommend, if you are interested in the inner workings of ritual, Beginnings in ritual studies, by Ronald L. Grimes.  It’s introductory, nicely analytical, and clearly written, unlike that other pillar of ritual studies, The ritual process, by Victor W. Turner.  Also useful and readable is Liberating rites, by Tom F. Driver.  (This is how we know I will never write a book on ritual: I don’t have a middle initial, since Dale is my middle name.)  I have not read Ritual theory, ritual practice, by Catherine Bell; every time I look at it on Amazon, it seems thickly written and more about ritual studies than ritual.  Perhaps later.

Finally, I found Theater in a crowded fire: ritual and spirituality at Burning Man, by Lee Gilmore, an excellent book for anyone who intends to create a ritual to take into a desert and share with 68,000 hippie freaks for a week.

Ronald Grimes, in chapter 2 of Beginnings, outlines a “map” of ritual elements for the use of those who study ritual in the field.  He warns that the map is not a checklist but an overall guide, and that if used carefully can provoke more questions (and questions about the questions), which can then lead the observer to a deeper understanding of the ritual being observed.

So what would an observer make of our ritual?

I am going to pause a moment and remind everyone that this little essay is completely theoretical, since at the moment the 3 Old Men is nothing more than scribblings in a couple of notebooks.  What will happen when we’re actually on the Playa is anyone’s guess—we will revisit Grimes’s map in September.

Here are some pertinent questions (out of scores Grimes actually posits), and some tentative answers.

: 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]

We’re dealing with three simultaneous ritual spaces, of course: Black Rock Desert, Burning Man Festival, and the labyrinth, one natural, the others constructed.  Within the Great Ritual of the Burning Man Festival, to which the 3 Old Men are themselves pilgrims, there are hundreds of smaller, dependent rituals, all of which—if divorced from the Great Ritual—risk being seen as purely artificial entertainment, carnival rides if you will.  But as Theater in a crowded fire makes clear, Burning Man provides a ritualistic structure that empowers its participants to invest all the smaller rituals with true meaning.  The labyrinth derives its potential significance from the Great Ritual.

I explicate this theory because the answers to most of the above questions reveal an artificial construct: I and my buddies built it; I designed it; guidelines came from my own study of labyrinths and the Festival’s 10 Principles, which of course are part of the Great Ritual. Again, we can revisit these questions after the Festival and see if there was more meaning to the process than we might think at the moment.

There are a couple of questions which I have not addressed in previous posts that we should look at.  Are we possessive of the space?  In our discussions so far, the answer would have to be ‘no.’  We’re not concerned with how participants might approach our offering.  They may be partying fools or they may be earnest meditators—we will accept what comes.  What rites will we perform to ‘consecrate’ the space?  Still playing with ideas, but my favorite so far is that we begin in mufti, place our skirts and staffs at our entrances, return to the empty entrance, strip and paint ourselves, proceed through the labyrinth to our posts, don our skirts and take up our staffs, and we’re ready for business.

Who ‘owns’ the ritual space?  My hope—probably one of the reasons I’m doing this—is that the group will own it.  3 Old Men, whoever and  however many there may eventually be, become actual officiants, caretakers, of this experience.

As for “where next” the 3 Old Men might set up, it has already occurred to us that we can do the whole Regional Burn circuit, can’t we?  That’s the advantage of being a dirty hippie freak.

Already I can tell this examination is going to take multiple posts.  Tomorrow: ritual objects and ritual time.