Ritual Dramaturgy

A friend had bugged me ages ago about writing on “ritual dramaturgy,” and the idea made sense, got me thinking, but despite making an outline and starting to draft something, it fell by the wayside because it got boring. I was approaching it in the wrong way, and I was very much overthinking it or thinking at it in the wrong way. I think many folks do.

What is “ritual dramaturgy”? Dramaturgy itself pertains to the theory and practice of drama, of performance. It can refer to the ways in which plays create meaning and significance through the various elements of theater, such as use of and movement through space, decor, costume, props, speech, dramatic structure/plot, and so on.[1] A ritual dramaturgy would consider these elements as theatrical technologies in terms of ritual and ritual outcomes. I came at the topic originally from within the academic contexts I first knew dramaturgy—English majors writing about Shakespearean drama—and trying to write about ritual dramaturgy started to feel like as much fun as writing instructions for kids to play pretend. So, I dropped it, or let it idle since March 2016 or so.

I would say that much of the blog’s attention has been along adjacent lines, and as I was thinking with Langston Kahn’s recent appearance on Rune Soup and Alkistis Dimech’s recent talk at the release party for The Brazen Vessel, I realized that, really, in thinking about ritual dramaturgy, what I’ve been thinking about is how we embody the imaginal (and/or spirit) and how we do so most effectively. My earlier attempts at trying to write about the topic had been so much analytical overlay, and the topic is best approached through the doing, through the flow of mind, body, place, time, and other persons (human and more-than-human). How do children make rituals? They start doing them. And they will start reacting and responding to the ritual that develops and unfurls with them at its center.

So, I’m going to come at the topic here in far terser contexts that I had ever originally planned.

Intention

You can ritualize anything, and it’s probably fruitful to think with what that can mean. To ritualize an action—say, cooking dinner—is to make that action conscious and intentional. And, indeed, you’re bringing that dinner into alignment with the imaginal or the spiritual in some way, even if that imaginally/spiritually-entangled intention is to prepare a nourishing, blessed, enjoyable meal. You imagine the meal you want to create and endeavor to do so.

Note that I’m being completely serious about a ritualized preparation of dinner: many cultures have traditions and “little” rituals about preparing dinner, saying “little” prayers as herbs and veg are added to pots. I use the adjective “little” here not to diminish these rituals and prayers so much as to call attention to how they aren’t Rituals (capital R) or Prayers (capital P) that many in the West conceive of these things. Many of these rituals flow out from older agricultural and slaughter rituals, too.

Of course, beyond what most magicians and witches might conceive of as “rituals”—I did just share my eclipse rituals—humans can ritualize other seemingly mundane activities, like paying the bills, going to sleep, cleaning the house, and more. And note, many cultures have a wealth of “little rituals” that the West dismisses as “superstitions.”

I find myself thinking back to Mircea Eliade and the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Although Eliade frames the topic in grand terms of cosmogenic moments and things like this, what distinguishes a “high church” ritual—for spirit contact or to unite a couple in matrimony or to christen a child—from blessing food or nightly prayers before bed is less some kind of on-off switch—well, sorry, this is only profane dinner with your family, no sacredness here—than a slider from sacred to profane. Most of the time, Westerners live wholly profane lives broken up with almost accidental oases of sacredness, to the point that we probably mistake those islands for mirages. And, to be fair, life under materialism and late capitalism likes to package those mirages for us, so we’ll mistake them for the real thing long enough to give them our money and attention. Nonetheless, I suspect the perspective to adopt is less “We should all be eating sacred dinners” and more “We can make the preparation and consumption of dinners more sacred.”

I want to also touch back on that cosmogenic element in ritual–creating a universe or world–and argue that, yes, even preparing dinner can wind up having cosmogenic significance, though perhaps not as explicit significance as in the more formal rituals. However, when you make your dinner with intention, as a ritual of some kind, you are in a very real sense creating a particular kind of world, and that world is a more sacred one.

Not everything needs to be approached ritually. I don’t need to ritualize a committee meeting, unless I need to. There is an enchantment that comes with Robert’s Rules of Order, and there’s enchantment in breaking them: intentional structure and intentional anti-structure.

The first thing you should do when preparing your own rituals is to determine what your intention actually is. It can also be really tempting to just load a ritual with too many intentions. I have to watch this tendency myself. It is also easy to have unclear or vague intentions, or intentions that leave you wriggle room to avoid failing, or give spirits wriggle room to not do anything. It can also be difficult to identify what we actually want and need, and magic very much makes you confront those questions. I think there’s also an uncritical terror of making a Monkey’s Paw, and folks will laden an intention with qualifiers and clauses and so forth and so on.

That said, there is an art and method to effective intention setting. I really hate it when someone decides to use the passive voice in an intention. I would also argue folks should consider syntax and sentence-level logic when constructing intentions, and in general avoid elements like negative language or negation. Some people may be disciplined and intuitive enough to project and flow into the proper shape of an intention in a non-linguistic manner, but I don’t trust that most folks can do so consistently, and I’m not sure I’d trust myself to leap into an intention that way. All that said, I would think that the linguistic form of the intention is a seed that, through enactment and repetition and embodiment, becomes the locus for attracting the desire and manifestations of desire that often erupt through deeper-than-linguistic ways.

Like a thesis statement, the intention in a ritual should be clear, and the form should be apt to the intention and your audience. Through ritual, you are communicating your intention—and more—to your unconscious, to the universe, and to other persons within the universe. That said, if you’re a lawyer and are adept in thinking in lawyerly ways, and you’re adept enough for all that to make sense unconsciously and consciously, then you might deploy very lawyerly intentions, such as when making pacts.

Furthermore, the purpose of ritual is to physicalize, embody, or otherwise make manifest the intention and the desired outcome, and ritual does so through physicalizing, embodying, and manifesting the elements involved in making that intention happen.[2] Thus, I am focusing more on practical enchantment rather than rituals that may be more immediately devotional in nature, but even the Orphic Hymns describe rituals in which devotion, praise, and offerings are made, but something is expected in return. We also see similar give-and-take in other rituals, like I’ve recently talked about here.

Stage and Setting

people at theater

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To be honest, I want to resist the urge to comment or pontificate too much here. The place for a ritual is wherever you need or have available to make the ritual happen. I did a ritual cleansing and healing bath the other day. I did it in the bathroom because I wasn’t going to do it in my usual space. I could’ve done candles and more, but I didn’t. So, the stage was the only place I was going to be able to take a bath in the first place, and I put more of the ritual weight elsewhere, on materia and speech and actions, which I think is something good to sit with when trying to figure out how to do a ritual for a particular goal.

Otherwise, honestly, you have to listen to your intuition and be playful with design considerations. Approach preparation of place from the perspective of play (and consider why we call plays plays). Note that I’m not advocating an anything goes approach here. What you wind up designing should make ritual sense, should be apt for the intention and its “audience,” human and more-than-human. If I was gonna call up Saint Gertrude of Nevilles for some cat magic, then I would hopefully question the impulse to include satanic imagery or props. Play, but do some homework and due diligence, too.

sphynx egypt

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Let me offer you an example. I recently made the acquaintance of Pharaoh Sobekneferu. I first heard about her via Paul Weston’s descriptions of her and the synchronicities and stories surrounding her. Someone posted a picture of a painting they’d commissioned of Sobekneferu, based on other visionary work, and she got my attention.

After a bit of existential footsie (including some divination), I pondered some kind of ritual to attempt contact, so I printed out a copy of the painting and framed it. I have a few stone pyramids I’d acquired for different reasons, and I had the idea of incorporating them into a small on-the-fly shrine. I continued playing with my diorama or “Sobekneferu playset,” deciding on two candles and the incense placed closer to the portrait. I recalled a dream whose full context had gotten lost in waking up, but I remembered while playing with the shrine the dream statement, “Keep a full glass of water for her.” I had the sense that the arrangement I made was evocative in a suggestive manner of the general arrangement of the Giza complex—not that she’s at all associated with the Giza complex, but I had the idea that the Giza complex has a structure that I could use in helping build my little star port for her. The water, it occurred to me, was akin to the harbor that once was at the complex, and I had the sense that I wanted the water between me and her. I picked a time that made sense, and I fired everything up. And it sang. I’ll tell you that I found my “dead magician” to chat up, and I’m planning to write more about that topic in the future.

But, well, I took things I had on hand—and I had several pyramids that already had significance for me from previous rituals—and I played with the elements until I got them like I felt they needed to be. There’s a deep and probably long discussion to be had about thinking with Eduardo Kohn’s forest language[3] for operational shrine or ritual space purposes, but not today.

Otherwise, I sat there and had a chat with her once it all got underway. The “stage” for the ritual was where I was sitting and where she was sitting in and on the other side of the painting and my little Giza complex “playset.”

Timing

Some rituals have obvious timing. Do your ritual for making food while you’re making food. Do your ritual for manipulating eclipse portals during an eclipse. Do your prayers about pleasant and restful dreaming as you lie down to sleep.

Rituals (and magic) demand appropriate timing. You wouldn’t say grace while brushing your teeth. You wouldn’t do your wedding vows while taking a dump, unless you want to really make proceedings extra awkward (or confuse yourself and the universe). Similarly, don’t consecrate a solar talisman with a Mars timing. You would probably be better served petitioning Aphrodite during a Venus hour rather than a Saturnine one.

Accordingly, invest in a timing system, or several that you can Venn diagram together. The mundane calendar has potential for operationalizing it, as Weston has shown. However, teach yourself about planetary hours and days, and figure out what you might do for a Moon hour or for a Moon hour on a Saturn day. The Hygromanteia can be a starting point for this. Dial up your complexity as you can handle, but yes, there’re diminishing returns after a point. That said, go full electional astro-nerd, if you want.

That said, don’t belabor your timing to the point of inaction. Find as good a timing as you can that’s still apt, or consider how to reframe the ritual to fit a timing you can do instead. Consider the condition of the Moon. If nothing else, bother to learn some of the basics of electional astrology (including what you should have and what are “deal breakers” to avoid). Hint: The Moon is really rather important to magic.

Characters, Dialogue, and Invocations

Consider who else needs to be involved. This matters for group rituals, of course, but it also matters as to which spirits or other beings your ritual is involving. I did a ritual consecration of something to and with Athena, and I already have a relationship with her, and I know what I get with their Orphic Hymn and the kinds of offerings to make when chatting her up. From there, once I had her attention, I spoke my intention clearly and in a mood/mode that seemed fitting.

I didn’t ask or beg: within the structure of ritual, that would tend to give other beings more wriggle-room to just take the offerings and give nothing in return. Instead, I spoke from a position of my authority in relation to their authority—one magical person to another—I give you these things. I consecrate NN to you, so may it bring [things this being is apt for asking for, especially in relation to the thing being consecrated]. And while that consecrated thing is yet to unfold, I very much felt what I’ll call a breath of approval. I had the sense the ritual had gone well, they had paid attention, appreciated the structure, the structure enacted its purpose, and so on.

I would encourage you to explore relations with different potential partners in these regards before diving into hitting someone up for something important. I have a gang, extended family or posse of saints, faeries, spirits, “gods,” angels, demons, guides, and more. I occasionally find myself interested in or directed to someone, and sometimes they’re on board with doing business, and sometimes they’re just not into me. To be fair, there are plenty of folks I’m not into. Saint Cyprian and I get on far better than I do with Saint Columba, though I get on more with Columba than I do with…Anthony of Padua, it turns out.

And sometimes, I wind up calling up more than one person, but I want to make sure they’re down for being in the same place together, let alone on the same team at once. That said, I also would caution against trying to do some kind of crossover event with too many participants: avoid making a Justice League or Avengers “group” for a ritual without a concrete reason to do so. Like fuzzy intentions or wriggle-room invocations, avoid muddling the action “onstage” by having too many folks being present.

museum of statues

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I haven’t really pointed to going to established “scripts” or ritual set pieces, thus far. However, when it comes to getting the more-than-human’s attention, this is where you want to look into appropriate prayers (with adaptation) for saints, hymns for other beings and spirits, knowing the names, titles, epithets, and mythical deeds of a being who can help you—let alone the right names and words to say to get their attention in a (hopefully) friendly manner.

You should also consider how you present yourself during ritual. The Picatrix points to dressing in particular ways when calling up planetary spirits. The Solomonic method is all about very particular and specific ritual language and elements for doing business with specific beings in specific contexts, including how one presents oneself (in terms of costuming and props, vestments and regalia and tools). If nothing else, in general, go in having bathed and while wearing clean clothing. As Gordon White noted to me, scent matters.

Ambience matters.

Approach your business with reasonable pride in yourself. Be confident, appropriately respectful, but be agile enough to adopt the mode of behavior that seems most advantageous. Keep in mind that the dead, ancestors, and mighty dead used to be human, and especially with saints and elevated ancestors, you can be in a worse state and just plead your case and do reasonably well. I wouldn’t call up a demon from the Ars Goetia and beg. You’re likely to just get a deceiving spirit and parasite in such a case anyway.

There is much to recommend in also challenging a spirit if you haven’t trafficked with them before and can immediately recognize them as who they claim to be. You want to challenge them by some authority they have to, or better damn well, respond truthfully in response to. By the name of the dread god IAO SABAOTH, will you swear that you are Exagiel, angel of the North Node, angel of the Head of the Dragon? Pay attention to how they respond.

You also have to consider your ethical stance on the less savory parts of enchantment and ritual. Do you use coercion? Many spirits don’t want to do what you tell them, or what you ask nicely for them to do. Or, they’ll tell you they’ll do it and then not follow through. Will you write it off or will you try again with the same approach, or will you confront them and go, “You owe me.” Will you threaten a spirit with binding? Will you threaten a spirit with disrupting the cosmic order, like you see in several places in the PGM? These are questions you have to answer at some point.

And it may be that you have to come at your ritual dramaturgy in an “apprentice actor” mode for a time, preparing rituals that you can pull off, and look to the future where you’ll be a more seasoned practitioner. On the Shakespearean stage, actors generally don’t just leap into playing Prospero or Lear: they’ll start with Attendant Lord #4, hopefully score big with the lead in Hamlet when young, and then when they’re a veteran and have the years of experience, then they might do Lear.

Finally, I would encourage you to look at existing rituals and analyze their structure, their aesthetics, their feel. Stand up, hold the ritual in your hands, and imagine you were doing the ritual. (I’d avoid actually doing the ritual just on the fly, though.) What are the parts doing? How do you imagine being dressed? What’s burning for incense? How would you imagine an altar would be laid out? And then, at some point, start doing rituals, even “little rituals” that you’ve found or may already be doing.

Featured Image: sebadelval | Pixabay

[1] I have known professional dramaturges who have worked with theater companies on productions in order to help the cast and crew have a sense of context for a play text. For example, I’ve known Shakespearean dramaturges who helped the cast get a handle on vocabulary and contexts for all the Elizabethan dialogue they’re speaking, so they can speak it and know what they’re saying and how to emote it. (“Ohhhh, this is a joke?”) I’ve also known dramaturges for more modern productions—like plays critiquing minimalist art and those who collect it—and their job seemed to be giving the actors a crash course in art, artists, and so on.

[2] Some practitioners argue for a distinction between “meat space” rituals and “astral space” rituals, and I’ve seen arguments for how certain kinds of intentions may work better with one rather than the other. I’ve seen arguments for how “astral” rituals are “more powerful” than others. I will submit respectfully that people should just do rituals that wind up working while avoiding finding ways to rationalize their own Cartesian dualism and mind/spirit-body split. Do some kind of physical world ritual rather than convincing yourself that you should obviously master doing astral rituals instead and then never do so. I would concede that certain kinds of rituals may work better when approached within a journeying mode, especially if you are dealing with certain classes of beings or are hoping for particular kinds of or intensities of contact and feedback. I could also accept a perspective that advocates “astral” rituals where keeping the body’s responses coherent and safe would be a concern, or where an incarnate and kinesthetic approach would prove distracting, such as projecting one’s consciousness into the environment or structures or more, but I resist the notion that physically-performed rituals are somehow “less potent” than “astral” rituals. I think the history of magic disagrees with such an assertion. I would also say that, if you get embodiment done right, then the sacred and profane distinction, which seems involved to me, blurs into just being-in-the-world.

[3] Kohnian forest language is very much thinking about how meaning is embodied/physicalized in and through the world already and in reproducible and manipulable ways.

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