Its always been done this way. It worked for Joe Schmo back in 1872, it should be just as relevant for us today, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Do we cast our circles with this certain element in that particular cardinal direction, or can we change things up? Is it set in stone that this is the way that ritual has to be done, or can we alter things without angering the Gods and Goddesses? Essentially, it comes down to tradition versus experimentation. Or if you prefer, structure versus free-form. And I sit somewhere in the middle of this entire conversation. Because, in the end, its not a debate. Its a matter of personal preference.
There are elements and appointments that are ascribed into the very stone of our ritual souls. Water goes here, Fire goes here, Air goes here, Earth goes here, Spirit goes here. Rarely is there an element of argument as to “why”, and even more rare is the question of “what if we change it up by putting Air over there instead?” And nearly every traditionalist I know is gasping for breathe. Well, possibly. But it does begin to beg the question of whether change can be a good thing or not.
Major League Baseball is going through some of this right now. Changes to the rules concerning how intentional walks are conducted, where a pitcher must throw four pitches outside of the strike zone. Now, the change decrees that a pitcher merely has to point at first base and the batter automatically goes there. No pitches thrown. All done to “speed up” the game. Instant replay has made it to baseball. Certain types of plays can be challenged by the manager. Previously, the manager could challenge the play all the way to the next pitch that was thrown. Now, managers have thirty seconds to make the same challenge. And there is an unlimited number of challenges that can be over the course of the game. Ironically, this one aspect has lengthened the time of the games, nullifying the no-pitch walk. Now, there is talk of removing the Wins/Losses statistic from a pitcher’s accumulated statistics. Its considered to be a poor metric of pitcher performance, given that a Win or Loss is determined more by team play than it is via pitcher performance.
Every single one of these changes, along with the proposed statistical change, have been met with skepticism and outrage from old-school baseball types, such as myself. It changes the game, and evolves it into something that is slightly different than it was before. But the essential rules of the game are still the same. There are nine-innings that have to be played. Each team’s chance in the inning happens until three outs are made. The bases are still 90-feet apart. It still takes three strikes to get a hitter out without a batted ball into the field of play. Four balls outside of the strike zone give the batter a free pass to first base. The scoring rules have not changed whatsoever. In essence its the same game it was.
The same holds true for ritual – to some degree. Change any of the elements, and it changes the formula for the ritual. But the intent of the ritual is still the same. And for me, the formula based aspect means far less than the intent behind the entire ritual.
Now, let me add a few notations of where I am coming from. I am a firm believer in free-form ritual. Outside of the framework that OBOD provides for ritual, I have never done the same ritual, intentional or not, in the same manner. I merely utilize whatever comes to mind at the moment. One short ritual I did down near the banks of the Red River went along these lines: face each cardinal direction, say the word “Please” out loud, and then step right into main aspect of working – which at this time was merely making a quick space where I could meditate for a few moments. Rather than reaching through a long, somewhat wordy intonation, my single word request was enough to quickly build what was necessary for me. For me, its not the framework that really places the emphasis, but rather the mindset that I had at that moment that mattered most. In fact, I could call to the cardinal directions with a simple “Yo!”, so long as my mindset is in the right place.
There is; however, a matter of decorum and respect where the Gods and Goddesses that comes into play as well. Given that the Gods that I work directly with are Tricksters, irreverent perspectives are sometimes quite welcome. So, I would note that free-form aspects are not useful where Gods and Goddesses that require strict, proper form within rites, requests, and prayer.
Free-form ritual works for me. The simplicity of my rituals lends to the easiness of how being fluid with style, and framework is useful for me. Were I to do a more structured ritual, where certain things must be done at certain times, in certain manners, and stated in certain ways; I would follow the syntax as stated. Coloring outside the lines would likely not be useful or obtain the desired results. For certain aspects of celebratory rituals, I can see where bending the rules is a bit more appropriate. Or as Morpheus tells Neo in the movie The Matrix: “Some rules can be bent, others can be broken.”
Because adaptation is the key to evolution. And yes, I do believe that Paganism is evolving. I do not believe that the rituals we present to our Gods are the same as the ones presented to Them back in the mid 1800s. Nor do I believe these rituals are the same as the ones that go back into the mists of Time. I also do not believe that our rituals of today will be the same rituals presented to our Gods in the 2100s or even beyond. Our rituals today are the rituals we have today. Some will change. Some will be altered to one degree or another. Some will never be utilized again. But these are our rituals today, in whatever form we give to them. Much like baseball has changed over the years, and will continue to change going into the future – so will Paganism. Because change is inevitable.