Note: This essay was originally published in multiple posts at Atheopaganism and is copyrighted. It has been published here with the explicit permission of the author.
The Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox is for sharing religious technologies drawn from diverse sources in order to deepen our Naturalistic Pagan practice. If you have discovered a spiritual technique which works for you that you would like to add to the Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox, click here to send me an email.
I’m the first to admit that I’m kind of crippled. I am the product of centuries of European cultural “bleaching out” of human wildness in favor of manners, rectitude, forbearance, privacy, and shame. Of steady alienation from the body in favor of the mind. Some of that was probably inevitable, given cold weather and high-density living, but some of it is unquestionably the legacy of Protestantism and its naked hostility to all things pleasurable and bodily, and the narrow range of emotion that is allowed to men under our patriarchal culture.
Underneath all that, though, I am what we all are: an animal.
Yes, an animal. A thinking one, but an animal nonetheless, who eats and shits and sweats and fucks.
And as I get older, I find I treasure more and more the times when I can experience my animal self. Singing. Dancing. Howling at the moon.
In ritual, there are techniques that make it easier.
Ritual Technology #1: Scent
The most powerfully evocative of the human senses is the sense of smell. The olfactory centers are in the most primitive parts of the brain, and they can summon vivid memories in an instant, simply from a remembered scent.
For thousands of years, people have burned incense and aromatic herbs such as sage, yerba santa and sweet grass to alter the mood and atmosphere around them. They have daubed themselves with perfumes and oils, brought bouquets of aromatic flowers into their homes and temples, and scattered flowers over their dead. Indeed, we have evidence of flowers in burials of Neanderthals from 60,000 years ago; whether this was because they were pretty or because they smelled sweet is a matter of conjecture.
These practices are documented throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and early Native Americans all prized their olfactory treasures.
And there is good reason to do so. Pleasant scent can fill us with a comforting sense of ease and relaxation. Frankincense is a known antidepressant, and I would bet that other resinous incenses such as myrrh, dragon’s blood, and Russian Orthodox temple incense are as well. I use them in my rituals and they create an instant mood of sacredness.
One common practice with burning herbs or incense is smudging: wafting smoke over a person with a fan or feather, typically as they enter the ritual space. Some think of this as “purifying”, but I’m with Shauna Aura Knight and don’t believe in purification, myself: everything in the Universe is as pure as it needs to be. So I see smudging as something we do to help participants to enter the Ritual State, to help their minds understand that Oh, things are different now.
I probably have two dozen kinds of incense, and each creates a different mood. Likewise essential oils; I only have a few of these, but they are extraordinarily evocative. Cedar oil, for example, which I associate with the wood of a coffin, I have used as an anointment in Hallows rituals.
In the case of personal scents, in my opinion less is more: a faint note of something can be enticing and delicious, while a reek of scent is off-putting.
Scent may also be used very subtly, as when a sprig of rosemary is dipped in water and used for asperging, which is similar to smudging except sprinkling water instead of wafting smoke.
In any case, we must be considerate of those with allergies and sensitivities, which seem to be on the rise. People who are allergic to scent products can have powerful and dangerous reactions to them, so if you’re going to use incense or scented oils in a ritual, be sure to notify participants of your plan in advance so they can let you know if this will be a problem.
In most cases, you’ll have better luck with flowers: Sterling Silver roses or Stargazer Lilies or hyacinth can fill a room with their marvelous scents, for example; carnations or petunias are more subtle but lovely as well.
Experiment with scents! You’ll be amazed at what they add to the felt sense of your rituals.
Ritual Technology #2: Sing!
After scent, the second-most powerful sense in terms of emotional impact, is sound—particularly, music. Music has the capacity to transport us, to evoke a wide range of emotions, and it is something in which we may participate, rather than being passive recipients.
If magic is the ability to transform consciousness, then music is magic. In fact, by that definition its entire purpose is magical.
And music, we can make. Our bodies contain the means for making music, in the form of song.
Singing is a core skill for the ritual practitioner. You don’t have to be a professional-quality singer, but you need to be able to sing a tone, at least, and better, to be able to sing a melody with reasonable accuracy. Especially if you’re going to be working in a group.
Singing requires deep breathing. It engages the body and the limbic system and tends to help disengage the thinking mind. In other words, it helps participants to enter the Ritual (brain) State, also commonly known as trance: a liminal state of focus, clarity, and Presence in the immediate moment.
When people sing together their breathing synchronizes. Even their brain waves sync up. Singing together is a way of creating something of a group mind–a collective entity larger than the individuals within it.
Singing is creative. For those who are able to harmonize, even a chant repeated over and over can be an endless opportunity for creative variation. And harmony adds to the evocative richness of music, to its beauty and emotional power.
Repetition, too, can help to evoke the Ritual State. Chants tend to be repeated, but good ones somehow never become boring. Instead, the experience of singing them—particularly as a part of a group—simply leads to deeper and deeper entrainment, emotional openness, and joy.
For those of us who aren’t accustomed to singing, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to start. Yes, it feels awkward at first, and you may be shy about it. But especially if you hope to lead rituals with other people, it is a skill you simply must have.
Start in as easy a manner as you can. Sing in the shower. Play music you love in the car, and sing along. If nothing else, you can hum while doing your personal rituals at your Focus. Anything which helps you to become more comfortable as a Person Who Sings will serve you well in your Atheopagan ritual practice.
Ritual Technology #3: Light & Beauty
Imagine being in a cathedral.
The hush, the dim light from stained glass windows and flickering candles, the faint scent of incense. The faint sound, perhaps, of sacred music through the profound silence. The architecture that sends the eye reaching up, up, to barely discernible vaults. Massive columns, larger-than-life statues of saints. Which, in turns, make the viewer feel small, insignificant by comparison to the soaring magnificence surrounding her.
That’s sacred space. The mind cannot help but to downshift into Present, liminal consciousness. Into the Ritual State, which is also known as “trance”.
These factors are not accidental. They were learned, over countless years, by those who meant for those who entered their holy structures to feel they were in the presence of the Sacred and powerful—in the case of the Catholic Church, a Sacred and powerful which dwarfed humans and which had to be obeyed and revered.
This effect is not supernatural: it is psychology. It is working with the mind to create a sense of portent and magic, of deep and sacred imagination.
Low light conditions such as moonlight, firelight, candlelight and the glow of stained glass windows tend to “turn off” cognitive thinking and encourage a more limbic/Present mental state. With less visual information available upon which to postulate what might happen in the future, the mind heightens its awareness of the Now. These conditions also make it easier for ritual participants to feel a little “anonymous”, and so less self-conscious about participating in ceremonial acts.
If you add beautiful ritual tools and furnishings to this low-light state, the senses can open into a delicious, childlike “oh YES” feeling that says that this is holy space, that profound things can happen here.
These tools and furnishings/altars (Focuses) don’t have to be expensive. I have made Yule Focuses with holly branches with their bright red berries, pine cones, candles floating in a bowl of water, and some Christmas ornaments. The point is to delight the eye and at the same time to evoke symbolic meanings that pertain to the ritual’s purpose, whether it is to celebrate a season, a wedding, the life of a loved one who has died, or some other hoped-for or recently occurred circumstance. Most of the time, a ritual will have one Focus, but in some cases there may be more, such as one at each of the points of the compass.
Beauty moves us. It thrills the part of us that longs for stunning sunsets and great vistas of mountains, that delights in the starry sky and the ocean. Being in appreciation of beauty is by definition being Present in the moment. So beautiful Focuses and ritual tools are a way to help us to drop into that liminal, Present space, where we can work with the magic of our own psychologies.
We are visual creatures. Working with our nature as visual creatures is a powerful set of ritual technologies which will help you as you craft your Atheopagan rituals.
The discussion of ritual technologies will be continued in Part 2.
About the Author
Mark Green is a writer, thinker, poet, musician and costuming geek who works in the public interest sector, primarily in environmental policy and ecological conservation. He lives in Sonoma County on California’s North Coast with his wife Nemea and Miri, the Cat of Foulness. For more information on Atheopaganism, visit Atheopaganism.wordpress.com, or the Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/godlessheathens.21.
Since writing these articles, I have stopped using the term “smudging”, which is a particular indigenous American practice, and refer to use of burning herbs or incense in rituals as “smoke blessing”.
The point of ritual is to move the participants to a place outside of ordinary reality and you are so correct that these are transporting elements. We can’t use scent anymore since one of our circle has a serious lung ailment, but I take advantage of everything else. I can’t use live flames, either, for the same reason, but this is a good thing in a way. Our last ritual had 24 electronic candles (which is SO much safer… no one set fire to his or her hair). I posted pictures and people had a reaction to just the photos. Those of us who were there were uplifted. And I am blessed to have several semi-professional singers in my group. And you are right, the singing is moving in a true sense. A round sung in 3 parts takes the singers (even the ones who are just being carried along) to a higher place.