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.


Burning Man: Order. Community. Transformation. Part Three

Transformation.  Ah, now we’re down to it.  The third—and to my mind the most important—aspect of ritual is transformation.  The whole purpose of ritual is, like the Hero’s Journey, to change the individual and his society.

From simple rituals like shaking someone’s hand upon being introduced to them [now our social interaction is different than it was a few moments ago] to bar mitzvahs [now the boy is a man] to Catholic confession [now your soul is unburdened by your sin] to GHP [now the student makes intellectual, emotional, and social connections that he/she didn’t before] to Burning Man […], we do not remain the same after undergoing the ritual process.

With a labyrinth, as I’ve said before, the change is entirely internal and personal.  Simply walking through a labyrinth is not likely to produce a change.  The trick is to walk it mindfully, to be open to its suggestions.  It is amazing to me the different ways my own labyrinth can speak.  Sometimes it’s the turning from one direction to another.  Sometimes it’s the approach to the center.  It has spoken through the length of the path; the return journey; what I was wearing (or not, as the case might be); the sculpture/totems at the compass points; the calligraphic patterns in the bowl in the black granite center; the chakra/rainbow candles along the Western Path; the view from the center.

I have taken problems in with me and found solutions.  I have had problems present themselves.  I have found peace, and I have found perturbation.  I’ve had profound revelations, and trivial realizations.  I’ve expressed gratitude, joy, bitterness, grief.

And it’s the ritual that does it.  Getting up from the fire (usually) and making the decision to approach the Path.  Standing for a moment at the entrance.  Walk. Listen.  See.  Stand at the center.  Return.  Exit.

Meaning and transformation: I haz it.

Who knows what we will find at Burning Man?  We’ve already talked about the structure of what we will offer, but we do not know what transformations that participants will end up with.  We cannot know.  We cannot even know what transformations will be wrought upon us.  But if we offer a ritual, and Burners approach it as a ritual, then transformation will occur.

Burning Man: Order. Community. Transformation. Part Two

Communitas is the second of the products of ritual.

It is easy to see why this is so: for a public ritual such as 3 Old Men, people come together to participate.  They have agreed, corporately, that this action is good and appropriate and that it must be done.

And by doing so, they bond themselves into a community.  They are part of something larger than themselves.  Indeed, they have crossed that line of liminality into something universal.

Note that this communitas is not tribalism (although certainly tribalism uses ritual to reinforce itself).  Those who commit to a ritual come to understand that they are part of the Order created by the ritual, and more importantly, the others in the ritual are part of the same Order.  They are a Community.

With the 3 Old Men, we offer the Burning Man community a ritual of passage: a hero’s journey from the outside to the center and the return, ending with an agon that assumes meaning according to the metaphor constructed by the participant.

One thing that interests me about our ritual is that it differs from the experience of a regular labyrinth. A regular labyrinth offers one path in and one path out, usually the same path; the ritual is a meditation, seeking meaning and metaphor in the walk, undisturbed by conscious choices. In our labyrinth, on the other hand, choice becomes an integral part of the journey.  I don’t know if you’ve traced the pattern, but each of the four paths branches twice before returning to itself.  It is not a maze; there are no dead ends, and you cannot get “lost,” but you must at least pick a path (twice) on your journey to the center—and that’s after picking which entrance to use.

Once in the center, choosing an exit reverses the process, only this time, your choice involves a choosing, if that makes sense: more than the direction you exit, there are officiants standing outside three of the four exits, each offering a different agon.  Indeed, choosing to undergo an agon or not becomes a major part of the ritual.

More: the question arises of what happens when you have chosen to exit towards the officiant who offers a blessing, for example, and while you are making the journey outward, the officiants make their procession to another entrance.  Do you continue your path, exiting to an agon (or the absence of one) different from the one you had hoped to encounter?  Do you stop, return to the center, and exit to your original choice?  Can you do that?

Thus those who participate in the 3 Old Men’s ritual will find themselves involved in a communitas which they may not completely understand—it makes no demands of them to join a “community,” but it does lead them into a confrontation with a structure offered by three mysterious elders, a structure that asks them to regard the choices they make—and the choosing—and to construct their own meaning of those choices.  It offers them a brief liminal experience in the middle of the hurly-burly of Burning Man, and my hope is that that’s a good thing.

Tomorrow: Transformation.

Burning Man: Order. Community. Transformation. Part One

Ritual, such as the labyrinth, provides us with Order, Community, and Transformation.

ORDER in ritual is two-fold.  On the one hand, ritual tends to be, well, ritualistic.  This is pretty self-evident, since one thing humans crave is repetitive comfort.  Have you ever tried to skip a page when reading a favorite bedtime book to a child?  Or not do the funny voice?

Worse, have you ever suggested to a Presbyterian that for maybe this one service they might consider changing the order of the service in order to drive a metaphorical point home more clearly?

So the fact that most rituals include repetitive elements provides us a comfortable and comforting order.  There’s more, though: just like the child getting ready for sleep or the Presbyterian preparing to enter God’s presence, the comfort of ritual order provides a structure for liminality, for crossing the border between the daily world and the space in which we encounter the Infinite.  You might consider it to be the same kind of repetitive structure that engenders hypnosis, and indeed some rituals are designed to induce meditative or trance states.

On the other hand, ritual creates order from chaos, both social and universal.  Many magical rituals are explicit in their goal of make the universe and its matter “behave” in accordance with the desires of the participants.  I would include most religious rituals in this pattern.

Many rituals are used by social groups to restore a broken or disrupted order.  These can range from the stereotypical “husband bringing flowers to an angry wife” through a rain dance (or—forgive me—a Texas Baptist church’s prayers for the same effect) to the elaborate tribal rituals studied by Victor Turner (PDF, p. 361)—all of which are enacted in order to make things right.

The Labyrinth of the 3 Old Men will offer the structured order of ritual to participants.  Of course, we make no claim that the ritual is designed to restore order in any cosmic sense; that is up to the individual participant.  However, the path of the labyrinth and the presence of the Old Men as officiants, as well as the agones offered to the participants upon their exit, provide a reliable order for each participant to approach liminality on their own.

I was going to do all three aspects today, but that’s going to make for a very long, text-heavy post, so let’s split it up into three separate posts.

Tomorrow: Community.

Burning Man: Labyrinthine elaborations

Having selected a labyrinth pattern to be a part of the 3 Old Men ritual, our next issue is construction.

Remember that whatever we use has to be dragged out into the middle of nowhere, set up, and then struck, leaving no trace.

Despite the fact that a city of 68,000 occupies the Playa for over a week, the Burning Man organization is very protective of the the desert floor.  They have to be; otherwise, the federal Bureau of Land Management will not give them permission to return the following year.  Digging is therefore frowned upon; a turf labyrinth is right out.  Plus, who wants to scrape out a trench in 100° weather?

I’m thinking tent stakes and rope are our best bet, but how will we lay out a circular labyrinth that way?

Geometry to the rescue: we will make it octagonal.

… becomes …

Now it becomes a matter of calculating the number of tent stakes (144) and the length of rope (1900 ft) and how to lay it out.

For the record, it’s 40 feet wide, with the paths two feet across.  The site plan also allows for a ten-foot swath around it for the officiants to stand.

Here’s an image of the labyrinth with tent stakes:

I show this because if you look a bit at the patterns of the tent stakes, it’s not hard to imagine the outline of the Man himself therein:

So that could be a fun thing, outlining the Man with glowsticks or something.  If we had a techwad like Kevin McInturff on board, I bet he could make solar-powered lights that outline the Man in all four directions, fading from one to the other.  Yeah, that would be cool.  But Kevin McIntuff is chicken to go to the Playa and pretend to be a dirty hippie freak with me.  Wait, did I say that out loud?

To set the thing up onsite, I’ve devised a plan:

Click to see full size image.

I even have a detailed, step-by-step process to do it, using the 8-foot staves to lay out the central octagon and then proceeding to use the layout triangle to place the tent stakes in an orderly fashion.  The above image, FYI, is from my online workspace at Mural.ly—I highly recommend it as a collaborative workspace!

Burning Man: New ideas

Shortly after coming up with the idea for 3 Old Men, I had lunch with my partner in crime, Craig.

He immediately suggested that we include a labyrinth as part of our ritual offering.

Well, OK.  I’m all about the labyrinths, of course.  But the issue is still cost and transport: what do you build it out of, and how do you get it there and back?

Craig talked about an experience he had in a psychology class, a “final exam” consisting of rituals, including a “birth tunnel,” from the participants would emerge into an altar area and then encounter different experiences past that.

So, perhaps a multi-cursal labyrinth?

Click to see the original work.

This is from a 1557 publication, Devises heroïques, by one Claude Paradin.  It has four entrances, but I thought it was odd that the East/West entrances don’t actually lead to the center: they go up to the wall of the center, but then you just turn around and go back out the way you came.

So I punched holes in the walls:

Now all four entrances lead to the center, which adds an interesting fillip to the experience—not only can you choose your entrance, you can also choose your exit.

So now the 3 Old Men, rather than trekking across Black Rock City and its surrounding Playa, make their trek around a labyrinth, stopping at the entrances.

In the months I’ve been working on this, I have struggled not to call the Old Men guardians of the labyrinth, because they’re not there to keep anyone from going in.  They’re not there to protect the labyrinth.  Officiant is the word I’ve settled on for the time being.

Now we have three officiants who take up their posts outside the entrances to the labyrinth.

Going with Craig’s memory of emerging from a ritual to encounter a variety of experiences, I came up with the idea that each officiant would offer a different encounter, an agon if you will, to the celebrant emerging at his exit.

  • One would offer to bless you.
  • One would offer to be blessed by you.
  • One would offer to struggle with you.
  • At the fourth exit, there is no officiant, and you would encounter no agon.

The nature of these blessings and struggles are undefined for the moment.

At the same time, a new image entered the mix:

Now the 3 Old Men are wearing long, draped skirts.  They seem to have lost the hazmat mask, but they are still bare-chested and painted white, and they still carry staves.  (The parenthetical reference is to a costume design I did for Pericles, Prince of Tyre at the Newnan Community Theatre Company in 1987.)

Who knows where the skirt idea came from?  I like it, though: the skirts would emphasize the effort of moving forward.  It’s otherworldly enough to pique the interest of your average Burner, and would actually photograph better than the loincloth idea.  It also makes us look more like officiants and less like ascetics.  Those guys are no fun.

Burning Man: Origins of 3 Old Men

Here’s where we are: three old guys who need a schtik, preferably ritualistic, that can be transported across the continent so that we can Participate in the Burning Man Festival.

Here’s a funny thing about inspiration and creativity: sometimes—just sometimes—an idea will come to you fully born.  That’s great, because then all you have to do is justify it.

So it has happened here.

Remember back in December when I gifted myself with all the little notebooks, waste books?  My life is littered with them now, and one set is the Burning Man set.  I’m on my second one.

I opened that first notebook and wrote Three Old Men at the top of the first page, and then made a sketch:


Craig David Me
leather loincloths,
long-nose masks
Butoh paint on bodies/heads
single-file — unison movemeneet
dance breaks — slow-motion staff dance

Some interesting points about this page.  Notice the note about Pantaloon.  That comes from the commedia mask, which would resemble the “long-nose mask” I envisioned.  (And the mask was actually a hazmat particulate matter mask: the Playa is very dusty.)

The problem of course is that Pantaloon is the antithesis of the Crone-equivalent we’re looking for.  He’s a figure of ridicule, decrepit and impotent.

The other notable thing, which might seem trivial, is that by the bottom of the page I was writing in all caps.  That stuck—the rest of my input is in all caps.  It just feels right.

Anyway, here’s a further sketch of an Old Man:

Gas mask: check.

Loincloth: check.

Saggy manboobs and belly: check.

(Notes on Butoh—ignore those for the time being.)

At this point, we’re good to go.  All we have to schlep across the country are gas masks, loincloths, and staves.  We can buy the ingredients for body paint when we get to Reno.

If you’ll imagine our setup: three old men, nearly naked and painted white, their faces covered by almost alien looking devices, walking silently in single file across the Playa or through the streets of Black Rock City like some new priesthood.

They stop.  Silently they raise their staves and begin a sequence of movements that seem ritualistic, a cross between martial arts and Butoh dance.

Finished, they resume their trek.

So far, so good.  Like all good and perfect ideas, it changed almost immediately.

Burning Man: Maiden/Mother/Crone

In doing further image searching for this post, part of a continuing series on my plans for Burning Man, I came across this:



This is “Dr. Jeffrey Life” after and before his personal transformation.  I can certainly understand looking at oneself and wanting to be more fit, but there is something to be said, I think, for moving on into the last phases of life.  I know plenty of men my age and older who are slenderer than I, who have watched their weight and kept up with their exercise, but if you were to see a photo of their torso you would not mistake it at first glance for a 30-year-old weightlifter.  Again, that’s “at first glance,” because it doesn’t take long to see the good doctor’s body as a simulacrum of youth.

Women of the wiccan/feminist variety have a handle on this:

This is a plaque depicting the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone, pictured here in reverse order.  The youth of the Maiden, the fecundity of the Mother, the age and wisdom of the Crone—all three are present and available to women throughout their lives, and it’s a pathway from power to power.  The seemingly useless old woman has been reclaimed as a sorceress, a queen, a figure of authority and knowledge.

This motif is ever-present in ritual studies.  A Google image search reveals an unending supply of variations on the theme.

Here’s the deal, though: there is no male equivalent.

Part of the issue is that the female archetypes present themselves readily based on women’s ability to bear children, but men do not have that defining role.  Our ability to procreate does not end as women’s does, and that does lead to some problematic archetypes.  (“Problematic” for our Burning Man ritual purposes, that is.)

Mostly the image of the older man in culture is like this:

(See also, also, and alsoThis appears to be an anomaly.)

Or this:

The first is Silenus, tutor of Dionysus; the second is Shakespeare’s Falstaff.  This is what is embedded in our heads as archetypical “old man”: fat, drunk, lustful without cause or hope of consummation—in short, an impotent laughingstock.  Hardly a counterpart to the Crone in terms of dignity or power, and so it’s no wonder that Dr. Jeffrey Life, after taking stock of himself in the mirror, might want to take steps to turn himself into this:

Yes, well, wouldn’t that be nice?  (For the record, I never looked like that in my life, not even close.)

But that’s not what a man’s body looks like or is supposed to look like as we age.

Here’s a set of photographs by Thomas Eakins, now thought to be of Walt Whitman.

This is an old man.  He brings his experiences,  his accomplishments, his gnosis, and while a 20-year-old may be prettier to look at, you will not learn from him what you will learn from Old Men.

The point of all this is that as I thought about heading out into the desert as a 60-year-old—and in celebration of that fact—I was interested in establishing our bodies as Old Men, as positive figures of wisdom, power, and authority, the male equivalent to the Crone.  To that end, some exposure is required, and although nudity is a thing out on the Playa, that’s not my main interest or a goal at this time.  Bare chests and bellies will make our point just as well, I think, without risking Total Sunburn.

So tomorrow we’ll look at the birth of 3 Old Men: a ritual troupe.


Burning Man ideas

You will recall that, having decided that I wanted to go to Burning Man Festival, I had to decide what to do that qualified as Participation.  It had to be transportable and not too expensive, and I at least wanted it to be meaningful.  I mean, I could  just grow a beard and throw on a tutu and that would be sleazy but part of the scene.  But I want more.

I’ve  spent a lot of time over the last two or three years studying ritual and how it functions in our lives—posts for another series, perhaps—and so naturally I began to think in those terms.  Another concern of mine has been that of aging, especially the relationship between our physical bodies’ decay and our interior growth.  What does it mean to be an old man?

First, the physicality.  There is no question that there is a difference between these three photos:


photo by W. Jeff Bishop,
Lichtenbergian Retreat 2012

Youth, middle-age (a 47-year-old Johnny Depp), and old age.  We look at these three men differently because their physical shapes are different.  We expect different things from these three men—socially, societally, physically, artistically—because their physical shapes are different.

That’s one reason I find this guy disturbing:


There’s just something wrong here.  His face tells us to expect one thing, but his pecs and abs are telling us another.  There is a conflict, too, between his buff physique and the actual skin he owns; it’s not the skin of the young man above.  He’s a chimera.

No—while I’m not completely happy with my physique, I am proud to have earned my 60 years, and my Burning Man offering should reflect that.  So, ritual and old men is where we’re headed.

Next: Maiden/Mother/Crone

Burning Man

So I’m going to Burning Man.

The question must be asked: Why would an aging East Coaster travel to a  desert two hours away from any city of note and spend a week with no electricity, no food, and no water, except for that which he brings with him?

The answer is not simple.  Part of it is that I am aging: I turn 60 in May, and this is a kind of birthday present to myself.  I’ve known about Burning Man for years and have been fascinated by it; especially after being let go from GHP last July, the idea of going really presented itself, although I had already thought about the possibility of taking off a week in August anyway.  So it’s kind of a bucket list thing.  In fact, it’s the only thing on my bucket list.

Another part of the answer is that I’d like to have a “life-changing experience” like GHP.  Sure, each summer was wonderful, but I was in charge.  At Burning Man, I will simply be one of 68,000 campers.  (For a week, this barren desert is Nevada’s third largest city.)  I get to experience the art and the music and the fun without worrying about whether someone’s going to have to be taken to the emergency room.

I figured I’ll document my journey there and back again, because what could be more entertaining than watching a stable member of the community morph into a dirty hippie freak?

Part of the deal that is the phantasmagoria of Burning Man is the Ten Principles which guide the entire enterprise. You should go and read them—they’re pretty solid.

The principle that I worried about first was Participation.  You can’t just go and watch; you have to be a part of the show.

That immediately raised the issues of expense and logistics.

If you go and look at some of the theme camps, you’ll notice right away that these people are committed: huge art projects, mutant vehicles, large structures where hundreds of Burners can gather—there was one guy who schlepped nearly a ton of king crab from Alaska and served it to whoever showed up.  (Another principle in operation here: Decommodification.  The only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and coffee.  Everything else is to be bartered or given away.)

Whatever I chose to do to participate, in other words, had to be dragged all the way across the continent, set up, and then taken down and dragged back across the continent.  (When they say Leave No Trace, they mean it.)

I should note that I’m not alone in this venture.  When I announced my intention to celebrate my 60th like this, my friend Craig said he’d join me for the same reason, and then another friend David said he’d like to go too.  (He’s turning 50, I think.)

So our parameters are: three men of a certain age, participation, inexpensive (or at least not involving either my life savings or fundraising), easy to transport.

I will pause at this point to allow everyone to consider the possibilities.  If there were any actual readers of this blog, they could leave comments.  (No fair peeking, those who already know the solution.)