Ecstatic Ritual

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“The Youth of Bacchus” (detail) by William Adolphe Bouguereau

“Do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet can­dles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?”

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

Neo-Pagans resemble other religious liberals in that they are anti-authoritarian and nondogmatic, but unlike many other reli­gious liberals, Neo-Pagans embrace ritual and religious ecstasy. There are different kinds of Neo-Pagan rituals. Some are celebra­tory. Others are initiatory, involving some kind of rite of passage. Others are ecstatic. Some rituals combine elements of all of these.

Ecstatic rituals are intended to bring about a shift of conscious­ness. This is accomplished by using various ritual tech­niques, including drumming, altered breathing, chanting, sing­ing, and dancing. In special instances, more controversial tech­niques may be used, like ritual sex or BDSM. But explicit con­sent is always the rule in all Neo-Pagan ritual. Aesthetics like fire, candles, incense, music, and poetry are also used. Many of these techniques involve rhythmic behaviors that have a scientifi­cally predictable effect on the human brain. Neo-Pagan ritual combines this neurological effect with sacred content like myths and religious imagery.

When a ritual “works,” the participants are able to temporarily silence the thinking or “talking” part of their mind and give them­selves over wholly to the experience. Some Neo-Pagans call this state “trance.” Once a state of trance is achieved, a person may experience a deeper sense of connection with the world. In extreme cases, a person may experience a temporary quieting of the ego and a union with something greater than themselves, however that “something” manifests and by whatever name it is called. The hope is that participants will carry this consciousness with them for a time even after the ritual has ended.

It should be emphasized that, for Neo-Pagans, ecstatic experi­ence does not involve a disassociation from, but instead a greater sense of connection to one’s body and the material world. Religious studies scholar, Robert Puckett, explains:

“These methods represent the attempt to form epistemolo­gies by which to demonstrate the fallacy of the separation of the otherworldly and this-worldly realms. These techniques are able to perform this func­tion precisely because they mediate this gap through their embodied nature: they are tied to the body in this world, while allowing ecstatic access to otherworldly power, energy, or charisma. Through embodied ritual praxis, magic allows its practitioners to participate in the immanence of the divine in this world. These techniques, by seemingly working through the body and bypassing the rational mind, subvert the formal rationalization pro­cess that has led to disenchantment.”

Ecopsychologist, Adrian Harris, and Pagan elder, M. Macha Night­Mare, explain it this way:

“Neopagan ritual can put us back in touch with the ‘wis­dom of the body,’ a deep knowledge of our connection with the other-than-human world. We believe this recon­nection can help us heal our relationship with the planet. Most Neopagans would agree that modern life has led to in­creasing alienation from nature and one another, and that ritual can—at least temporarily—shift our aware­ness to a more connected state.”

Whether a person ultimately experiences this shift in conscious­ness depends on both the attitude of the person and the mechan­ics of the ritual—as well as a bit of luck! Sometimes the experi­ence does not happen during the ritual, but the ritual pre­pares the person for it, and the experience comes later.

Updated 2019

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