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.


A short break

I want to chat about how the 3 Old Men and their Labyrinth coheres with some of the aspects of ritual as outlined in Ronald Grimes’ Beginnings in Ritual Studies, but I have been overcome with an urge to get back to my little notebooks and do some thinking/planning about how to actually construct the thing.  I’ll be back tomorrow.

Labyrinth: the new West point

You may recall that last weekend I bought a limestone bowl at the American Craft Council show in Atlanta.  This was for the express purpose of installing it at the west point of the labyrinth.

The labyrinth is aligned to the compass, with the entrance at the eastern end.  (When you see photos of the center, the bricks are in line with the points.)  Back in the day, the four elements were each associated with the four directions:

  • East — Air
  • South — Fire
  • West — Water
  • North — Earth

Easy enough.  Over the last six years, each of the four points has gone through various incarnations as I get a better feel for what belongs in the space, and water was the last of the points without a permanent feel to it.  I had settled for a glass bowl that I found at Ross (Dress For Less) for cheap—I had the local glassworker remove the pedestal and reattach it upside down in the bowl to serve as a place to put the candle while the bowl was full of water.

But it froze and broke during the polar vortex, and I decided that this time I would find a permanent solution.  As soon as I saw Brooks Barrow‘s creation, I hoped this would be it.

Oh yes.

Here it is in situ.  I cleaned out the new ivy growth and raked a bit.  Just now coming up are the Japanese painted ghost ferns that grow in front.  I could plant a couple more there just for effect; they’re such lovely plants.

Here’s a long shot of the bowl, from across the center of the labyrinth:

So last night some friends and I had an installation ritual; we used all four elements, with me carrying a bowl of water over to the new bowl.  I poured it in, lit the candle in the center and was immediately struck by how perfect it is.

It’s just this luminous pool of water floating there—perfectly stunning.  Because the bowl’s interior is shallower than the outside, you get a “big bowl” look from the outside, but the inside is this perfect little scoop of light.

Here’s the long shot:

Ta-da!  Finally, all four points are finished to my satisfaction.  I should pull all four together and do a blog post about them as a group.  (For one thing, they have rather tidily arranged themselves from tallest to shortest around the circle: Air–Fire–Water_Earth.)

So there we are, a new piece of the labyrinth.  Stop by and see it.

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: Ritual

Ritual is an often-misunderstood term these days.  To too many people it means “an empty gesture,” or “sequence of actions meant to effect a quasi-magical (or even magical) result.”

But to those of us who study such things, ritual is very much a living process.  Ritual offers Order, Community, and Transformation to its participants; those who are already familiar with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey will be familiar with the pattern.

Any ritual worth the time will provide the same Separation/Revelation/Return that Campbell’s monomyth does.  Indeed, all the literature that uses the pattern provides the reader with ritual-by-proxy.

I am often asked how/why my labyrinth is used/useful, and here is the correct answer, although I know it does not clear up any confusion for most questioners: labyrinths provide a first-hand Hero’s Journey to those who walk them.  You enter, follow the path.  You bring your concerns and questions, and the curves and turns and compass point sculptures all offer you ways to filter your thoughts.  You listen for answers, you formulate metaphors.  You reach the center, where an omphalos provides a focus and/or a platform for viewing the compass points.  Finally, you turn and make your exit, retracing your steps and revisiting your metaphors. Around my firepit, we say

Take the Pathway
to explore

Return to the Fire
to confirm

Order. Community. Transformation.

Very mystical, but when it works, it works.  (Sometimes a walk in the labyrinth is just a walk.)

The purpose of all ritual is liminality: a border which you must cross that separates you from your normal frame of reference, either physically, mentally, or spiritually.  It is designed to offer you new perspectives on your reality, to transform you either in small or large ways.  Ritual is everywhere.

Burning Man itself is a ritual: after a great deal of preparation, you trek into the desert under extremely harsh conditions, where you live for a week.  You encounter amazing/bizarre/beautiful objects and experiences.  At the end, the dominant figure is communally but completely destroyed. The community is dissolved, and you return to the “default world,” as the Burners call it, changed in some way.

The Governor’s Honors Program is a ritual: take 700 gifted high school kids and separate them from their homes and social structures.  Open with highly structured, highly formal meetings, then create new challenges and experiences for them, not the least of which is each other.  After a period of time, bring them together for one last Convocation, now raucous and emotional—itself a ritual event—and then  dissolve their community. Send them home, changed.  (N.B.: anyone who does not understand this and attempts to operate this experience as merely a summer learning opportunity for smart kids is doomed to failure.)

You see the pattern.

Tomorrow: Order. Community. Transformation.