On Rite Conduct

I want to take a minute and discuss something that has been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks – piety. “Pietas” is a Roman word and referred to one of the virtues expected of a man (*gag*), wherein a man “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect.”

I hate the fact that historically this word has such gendered connotations. But – as with all concepts from the ancient world that we try to resurrect – we’ll have to do the best we can to overcome that bias. I’m also not very keen on the fact that having pietas also involved a man’s commitment to country – but we are talking about the Romans, after all. Of course, the concept has had a life since the Romans. Groups with roots in the Mediterranean world have all developed their take on pietas and, down through the centuries, Anglophone culture has inherited a Christian sense of the word “piety” that emphasizes psychological humility.

I’d like to go back to the drawing board and construct a new kind of piety, but a piety re-grounded in the aspect of “pietas” that emphasizes ritual propriety. Of course, propriety is all a matter of taste, and “Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition.” I’m not trying to lay down rules and regulations for how you should interact in your rituals under the auspices of your gods. But, I would like to see pagans and new polytheists enter into deeper conversations regarding ritual conduct and the theological implications inherent therein, and then to go about including their conclusions regarding ritual conduct into their ritual practices. My wish is that this piece of writing can inform some of those conversations.

So, I’d like to define piety as respectful and harmonious conduct in the presence of gods. Thus, I see two sides to piety: ritual piety and personal piety.

In order to discuss the relationship between ritual piety and personal piety, first it will be useful to outline a distinction I first encountered in J. Van Baal’s article on “Offering, sacrifice, and gift,” which has done a lot to shape my ideas about domestic polytheism and ritual. The distinction I’m referring to is between “high-intensity” ritual situations and “low-intensity” situations.

Say that you’re a rice paddy farmer in medieval Japan. Life is going well, the crops are coming in, and your family is well fed and healthy. Every day when you wake up, you greet your family’s ancestor shrine and leave an offering of a handful of rice or fruit, and then go on about your day. This daily offering (accompanied only by a short prayer mumbled quickly, but with genuine gratitude) is given in thanks for your ancestors’ assistance in making sure that all remains well. Throughout your day, you make sure to present visitors to the ancestors enshrined in your home, say certain phrases before meals, and observe other taboos called for by your ritual relationship to your ancestor shrine.

All of this is “low-intensity” ritual. Your offerings and conduct are meant to maintain right (rite) relationship with the spirits and powers who effect your life.

Now imagine that you (still a rice farmer) have a daughter who becomes seriously ill. You have exhausted all available medical options (say you have run out of all available forms of medicine, and a hospital is too far to risk a journey), and so you call in a few friends from your religious community and (perhaps) a ritual specialist in order to perform a healing ceremony – or perhaps you perform the ceremony yourself. This ceremony requires the recitation of certain texts, the burning of offerings and incense, and the collection and use of specific ritual tools and costume.

This would describe a “high-intensity” ritual. This is not the every-day stuff, but arises out of specific need. Other examples of “high-intensity” situations could include rituals to try and get a job (desperately needed) or find a lost object, or keep hostile people away. But large devotional or seasonal rituals could also be considered “high-intensity,” for although these rituals would involve no other “end” than the maintenance of right relationship with a deity or deities, such an occasion would still require more intense effort and work to accomplish.

Both “high-“ and “low-intensity” ritual is necessary, I think, and all at the appropriate time. Not all meals are dinner parties, but sometimes it’s important to break out the nice silverware. And, of course, we’re talking about a spectrum and some actions might cross the imaginary line that this distinction forces.

((Aside: I think a major problem with Neopagan ritual praxis today is that many pagans have lost sight of any “low-intensity” practice, and all kinds of religious acts, even the most simple, when attempted, take on the trappings of “high-intensity” ritual “workings.” Prayer, which is the epitome of “low-intensity” ritual, is almost gone from Wiccanate ritual, while “working magic” is emphasized even when not called for. This is an imbalance.))

The reason I bring this up is this: We can think of ritual piety as piety (right/rite conduct) during high intensity ritual, and personal piety as piety during low intensity ritual (which includes daily life in general).

Ritual piety would include many things, but essentially it’s what you say or do, how, and when. In high-intensity ritual, perhaps you decide never to turn your back toward an altar, or clap before making a formal invocation. Now, perhaps you’re worshipping Dionysos and so ritual piety would include getting as drunk as possible and falling to the ground making baudy jokes! I’m not making judgments here, and I myself have done exactly that!

Personal piety would include many things as well, and sometimes the same things. Personal piety could be praying daily, or always wearing a certain necklace in honor of some god or goddess, or (less formally) clapping or bowing when passing an altar. Again, piety should match the circumstance.

So why? Why bring all of this up? I bring it up because, I have been in a mind to say recently, piety is the stuff of religion. Piety is relational, and describes our relationships to the entities we interact with in life, both human and non-human. Therefore, how can we – ostensibly those whose aim it is to create new religious traditions built from the collapsed bricks of old temples – hope to accomplish any of our goals if we do not inculcate a sense (senses!) of piety or rite conduct? Liturgy always* comes before theology, creating it. How could we possibly begin to develop theologies if we do not first develop our liturgy, where the driving force behind liturgy is piety?

(*: Perhaps I should say that liturgy always should come before theology.)


About John Harness
John Harness is an artist and educator in Chicago. He is a member of Socialist Alternative and the Klingon Language Institute. He writes about political activism and roleplaying games.

10 Responses to On Rite Conduct

  1. Ali says:

    Fascinating thoughts, as always. You leave me wanting to hear more of your thoughts on this matter…

    In my personal life, I have found it difficult to cultivate personal piety or low-intensity ritual in overtly religious ways. When I was working as a waitress, it was easy to transform the ritual of waiting tables – saying the same thing to customers over and over, and performing the same simple tasks of offering food – as a ritual of service, acknowledging divinity in each person. Now, without such structure, it’s become more difficult to incorporate religious rituals into daily life. Prayer before meals and some meditation in the mornings, perhaps, but beyond that….

    Any suggestions on how to overcome this stumbling block? It seems to me that personal piety through low-intensity everyday ritual requires some form of community support and structure, even when the ritual actions are performed as solitary or private acts. Any thoughts on this, or theories about why such low-intensity forms of ritual have dropped out of Wiccan-esque practice in particular?


    • cartweel says:

      To answer your last question first: You know that I theorize that Wicca is the linchpin of contemporary paganism, and that so-called “genero-pagan” ritual is all essentially Wiccan. “Traditional” Wicca is not a layman’s practice — on the contrary, its initiatory structure betrays that Wicca is meant to be practiced by specialists. Specifically, those would be specialists in the realm of Renaissance (and later) philosophic theology and occultism. By the time one would be performing Wiccan rituals (this is pre-US Wicca I’m talking about here), one would have been trained in the sort of formalized ritual that is, I think definitionally, high-intensity. Wiccan rituals are (relatively speaking) long and bulky, with many complicated movements and special tools, and all of this was meant to accomplish the “workings” of theurgy. Keep in mind that when Gardner wasn’t holding Wiccan circles (very high-intensity ritual), he was engaged in day-to-day low-intensity English Christianity. The problem, I think, is that Wicca (and Wiccanate paganism by extension) today has inherited the high-intensity theurgic liturgy but has rejected the accompanying low-intensity “dual faith” piety (nor has there been much emphasis on the creation of new low-intensity devotional life).

      Imagine the problems that arose when Wicca came to the US and the system of philosophical training through degreed initiation broke down! Now we’ve got non-specialists trying to turn theurgic workings into daily devotions and, in my opinion, not doing a particularly swell job at it. So, I suppose my answer to your question is a historical one, and I hope that brief description of my ideas makes sense!

      As for advice on your “stumbling block,” I’m not sure I’m the best to ask as I’m just beginning to stumble through all of this myself! But, I suppose I’ll say this: You seem to think that “Prayer before meals and some meditation in the mornings” is somehow *not enough.* Why do you not think this is sufficient? I would say pray, a lot, with whatever is “in your hands.” I said in the post that prayer is the epitome of low-intensity ritual, and I may want to amend that to say that *offering* — whether of prayer, or food, or candlelight and smoke, or whatever — is the epitome of piety. If you have gods (and I think you do!) give them offerings at the beginnings and the ends of your days, and keep them in mind prayerfully always. THAT will certainly be enough!

      I’m struck by your use of “overtly religious,” btw. I’ve taken a few classes and read up on religion in Japan (thus the metaphor in the post) and it’s constantly repeated that the Japanese are the most non-religious religious people. This is because so much of Japanese life is taken up with low-intensity ritual that is NOT overtly religious that many would say that they are not religious at all, they’re just doing what one does. There’s a phrase from Greek drama (but I forget the reference, atm) that I like “[They did so] in the way that was customary.” In the way that was customary — they just did it cuz, in the way that it’s done. That, to me, is piety.

      Now, as you point out, to have custom (a “way” that is customary), you have to have tradition to draw upon and, if at all possible, a community. BUT, as I mention, I think it’s the task we’ve set before ourselves as pagans and new polytheists to start creating that custom for ourselves, and then to pass it along. That’s why I don’t have any specific advice (at the moment) for creating customs — I look at the practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans, (yes) the Japanese and Vietnamese Buddhists, Hoodoo, and Missouri farmer folklore to cobble together a custom, and right now that’s the custom that’s followed in my house! It could change, it’s a project, not everything works out. But, since we’re dealing in new religions, we’ve got to make the attempt to create custom, and then we can get on with following it!

      • Ali says:

        Thanks for the terrific response! What you say about the history and development of Wicca makes a great deal of sense – and I have to admit, I’m not all that familiar with it simply because it hasn’t been of much interest to me. 🙂 I know more about the origins of Druidry and its Revivalist traditions (and where they overlap and inform/are informed by Wicca as it developed), but only just. So your delving into it was very helpful.

        It also reminded me that, in many ways, it was exactly the “high-intensity ritual” that Paganism offered that first drew me to this path in the first place, and I wonder if this is true for many others. For several years, I considered myself a Christian Druid, supplementing a usual (as you’d say, “low-intensity ritual”) lifestyle of ordinary Christianity with the more formal, higher intensity personal ritual offered by Druidry. These personal rituals were infinitely more intense and meaningful than simply showing up to church every week (which I ceased to do by then, anyway), and I saw them as an extension and ritualization of my poetry writing, which was my primary form of spiritual devotion. Christianity just didn’t have many opportunities for similar “high intensity ritual” beyond Christmas midnight mass, weddings and funerals. Yet now that I have moved further away from a Christian community which both models and supports low-intensity everyday ritual, I find that it’s precisely that type of daily devotional structure that I crave.

        I feel as though I’m rambling – it’s been that kind of day – but again, thank you for your thoughts and for the opportunity they’ve provided to mull over these things! Personally, I’d be very interested in reading more about the kind of low-intensity customs that you follow in your house, and how you’ve developed and experimented with them… you know, if you’re looking for ideas for future posts. 😉


      • cartweel says:

        Indeed! In fact, you’ll be hearing all about my domestic practices as soon as Ruby Sara’s Intrepid Spouse comes over with his fancy camera so that I can take pictures of a few things!

        (As my roommates will tell you, mostly it involves burning a lot of candles!)

  2. Erik says:

    Great thoughts, and I was in the “amen corner” all the way* up to the penultimate sentence… which I’m having a lot of trouble getting past. To say that ritual reinforces theology, absolutely; even that ritual codifies and modifies theology – that I also agree with. But to say that ritual *creates* theology… if there is no concept or experience of Deity (the gods, the sacred, the ancestors, etc) as something other that can be entered into relationship with, then why does the desire to do ritual arise? Even if it’s as primal as making an offering during a thunderstorm so that the lightning doesn’t kill you, or praying forgiveness from the spirit of the animal you just hunted – it seems to me there has to be at least a basic theological understanding *before* there can be ritual.

    Could you elaborate?

    *With the exception that I do believe service to country can be an aspect of piety…

    • cartweel says:

      Erik, I have not forgotten about you. Your questions are very good and I have been having to think about them, and I am taking my time in coming up with a response — so much so that my answer to you will probably take the form of one of my one or two next posts.

  3. flameinbloom says:

    This post has been bouncing around in my head for the past few days, and I have come to the conclusion that there are some very important ideas here, especially as it relates to the growing need for a place for laity in neopaganism. As you mentioned, thus far, paganism has too much considered high-intensity ritual performed frequently to be its major focus and expression, which leaves little room for people who are just pagans but lack either the time or inclination to do a full-scale circle casting or the like on a daily basis. I have found that low-intensity ritual frequently and high intensity ritual only a few times a year (not even the eight sabbats, and certainly not the eight sabbats AND thirteen full moons, more like four or five holidays I find the most important) is what I have the time and energy for. And doing more than that makes me feel drained and, frankly, a bit silly.

    I do think that there has been a tendency in paganism, thanks to Wicca considering everyone a priest or a priestess, for everyone to consider themselves a priest or priestess with accompanying high-intensity ritual all the time. I would like to see more of a push toward low-intensity ritual being the normal, with high-intensity being seen as something rare and that should be done when it’s necessary, instead of what we have now, which is high-intensity being the normal ritual type, leaving low intensity ritual as seeming somehow lacking.

    So basically, thanks for this post. It’s been giving me a lot of food for thought.

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