I am not an expert in creating ritual. If anything, I am just barely a journeyman, starting to create outlines that work without mentorship. I have noticed something, and I wanted to talk about it. There are multiple ways to use speech in ritual. “Speech” in here in a broad sense, to encompass sign language and singing.
The first technique I have seen is carefully written and memorized speeches, such as the parts of the Gnostic Mass. The advantage of these scripts are many. First, making someone memorize something (or at least think very deeply about notecards) tests their dedication to the ritual and ensures that those who undertake the ritual are firm in their desires to do so. Scripts allow for a lot of nuance and care in weaving the relationships between the various forces at play. That is to say, scripts are more precise. This technique also seems to lend itself well to rituals that are meant to be repeated, making every single iteration of the ritual very alike.
There are downsides. Some people cannot memorize despite being very dedicated. For those, there is no shame in notecards, and if the notecards are made into a ritual object it does not interrupt the flow. Also, though other people seem to experience this differently, I do not find that heavily scripted rituals move very much energy. From my perspective, it feels like someone fiddling with the Universal Powers with a watchmaker’s tools: precise, subtle, but effective in the right situations.
One way to counterbalance this lack of energy is ritual hollering. One year I was blessed to be invited to a Passover Seder. (Is that capitalized?) The Seder had a script which the leader of the ritual read from. However, along with his very jovial tone and unhindered side commentary, he instructed us that we were allowed to holler, “FREEDOM!” or “LIBERTY!” whenever those words were said in his script. We were also encouraged to sip our drinks whenever the hollers occurred. Wine, juice, and water were provided so we could make individual decisions about how much alcohol and sugar to consume. The simple cue to holler helped hold my attention as a participant, and raised quite a bit of energy during the pre-feast ritual.
Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight shadowcast showings have a similar dynamic of speech. The movie is identical every time, and forms the script. The shadowcast, copying all the movements below the screen, have painstakingly memorized the movements. The audience, meanwhile, has several ways to interact with their voices. One, there are certain cues which can be learned in a matter of minutes, like shouting “ASSHOLE!” every time Brad’s name is said. There are jokes which are learned over the course of multiple viewings, such as tauntings of “We see you, Riff, but the virgins don’t!” in the opening scene. There are also cues to dance and throw various items about the theater, all cued by the script of the film. Participants are encouraged to try and make new jokes. A lot of energy is raised.
A particular kind of memorized speech is singing. Especially with short, repeated chants, this method of speaking is agile and can be used in heavily scripted rituals or in looser preparations. To date, I have only seen it used in more extemporaneous rituals, but I have heard rumors that it is used as a scripted ritual technique.
The second technique I have seen is improvised words. Every Reclaiming ritual I have been to has used this technique. Essentially, the outline of the ritual notes what the words need to do and when they are to be used, but the exact words are created on the fly. This provides a powerful challenge for participants to tap their creativity as well as the creative powers of the people around them. On the one hand, this technique creates a lot of energy and helps adapt rituals to the particular time and place they are being held. On the other hand, being called to add one’s voice causes some people to shut down.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I enjoy that. As much as I have tried to outgrow the elitism of my childhood, some part of me revels every time someone fails to step up and into their own power. “Yeah,” I think to myself like a snotty playground bully, “You can’t keep up. We gave you the perfect place to be held and to take the power you wanted, but you missed the lesson. Your power cannot be given to you wrapped in a little bow. You have to take it, have to face the same fear we all did.”
It’s a growing edge.
Open Mic poetry readings are delightfully weird mix of script and extemporaneous speech. MC’s often read the same words every time, though they do seem to tadd their own ad libs. People on stage can freestyle. I have seen poems written during the ritual itself be taken to the stage as well as poems that represent long hours of work. Much like RHPS, the Open Mic ritual has cues for audience members to speak, typically words of encouragement for the artist on stage. This ritual, more than the others, seems to be a strong container for the feelings of the artists, a sort of ritual cleansing of negativity and secrets. However, I have no idea how that effect relates to the way speech is used.
The final technique is one I only use in private rituals. I would love to see it used in group ritual: silence. In my private rituals, I usually say very little or nothing at all. The movements speak for themselves. A nod or bow toward an icon welcomes the power/spirit/deity. Another nod or bow dismisses. A pause and breath concentrates and summons my intent. Circles are made by the locking of doors and a careful movement of the ritual knife. I find silence helps me concentrate, and it is something I only feel comfortable doing when I am very safe and very certain I won’t be disturbed. Sound, for my mind, anchors things in memory, but it takes me out of the present moment a bit.
How have you seen speaking used in ritual? Have you seen singing used in a way that is the same every time the ritual is held? Have you seen a public ritual that was completely silent? How do you use speech? What ways do you want to experiment with? Comment below!