This column is for sharing ideas for religious technologies which we might use or adapt to deepen our Naturalistic Pagan practices. It includes the ideas and experiences of others, as well as some of my own, and I welcome you to send me your ideas for sharing in future posts. If you have discovered a ritual technique which works for you that you would like to add to the Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox, click here to send me an email.
“Ars Poetica” by Archibald Macleish
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should not mean
One of the challenges of being a humanist or a religious naturalist, is that we tend to be a heady bunch. This is reflected in a lot of naturalistic Pagan ritual, which is often discursive, sometimes verbose, and, at its worst, didactic. Some of the best (or worst) examples of this, I think, are rituals where the centerpiece of the ritual is a sermon or homily on the meaning of the Sabbat. In many cases, naturalistic “ritual” consists more of talking about an experience, than actually having an experience.
Part of the excessive wordiness of Naturalistic ritual arises from a distrust of symbolism. I have heard the complaint by some humanists that we should just “say what we mean” and dispense with symbolic language altogether. In their view, symbolic language is just a clever literary construct, a rhetorical flourish, which obfuscates truth.
I think this betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of symbolism, as well as overestimates the power of representational language. Symbolic language or poetry is not representational language; it is evocative language. When I speak of symbols, I don’t mean a metaphor or analogy. Metaphors have known and finite meaning, but a symbol has a surplus of meaning which cannot be conveyed through exposition. A metaphor points to a single referent (a=x), but a symbol connect us to a complex web of associations with a practically infinite range of meanings, which will vary depending on the cultural context and personal history of each individual. Ritual uses visual symbols, symbolic movements, and poetic language to evoke this surplus of meaning. This is why the meaning of a ritual, like a poem, can never be fully explained.
B.T. Newberg has explained the symbolic nature of myth in this way:
“The allegorical tradition has a venerable pedigree indeed. However, I can’t help but feel that each in their own way has somehow gotten it wrong. Interpreting myth x to signify meaning y has an air of finality to it that silences other interpretations.
“What myths really are, in my opinion, are deeply resonant images to which the human imagination responds by creating meaning. In the act of searching for the ‘true’ meaning, a new meaning is created. Myths are not reservoirs containing meanings waiting to be found; they are creative stimuli midwifing the birth of the new. Each allegorist is startled to see in it something no one else has, and feels compelled to go tell it on the mountain. In truth, however, they are simply participating in an eternal process of meaning-making.”
The same is true of symbolism in ritual, as well. When I invoke a deity in a ritual, I am not signifying an idea that I have simplistically personified; I am evoking an experience. Dionysos does not “represent” wine. Thor does not “represent” thunder. Rather, the invocation of these deities connects me to every myth I have heard or read about them and every association I have consciously and unconsciously drawn to them. These webs of meaning evoke the memories of remembered experiences and the moods forgotten experiences, not just the general experience of intoxication or the experience of a thunderstorm, but specific, idiosyncratic experiences of intoxication or specific thunderstorms.
Symbolic language, like poetry, is a rich resource which we can and should tap in order to make more our rituals more emotionally powerful and personally and collectively transformative. This requires more than just adding a poem into a preexisting ritual. It means using poetic language as a substitute for all discursive language in our rituals. In fact, it means treating the entire ritual as a poem.
And we don’t need to write our own poetry in order to do this. Although we can if we want. Mark Green’s “Atheopagan Prayer” is a wonderful example of this, as is B.T. Newberg’s poetry on this site. But if we don’t want to write our own poetry, we have Schiller, Holderlin, Byron, Wordsworth, Swinburne to draw from. We have Mary Oliver, Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry, David Whyte. And so many others whose words resonate with many naturalistic Pagans and can be borrowed for our rituals.
Here are a few examples of poetry — ancient, modern, and contemporary — which I have use in my rituals. Share yours in the comments below.
Unknown: “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare” (for Imbolc)
e. e. cummings: “O sweet spontaneous earth” (for spring equinox)
Willa Cather: “I Sought the Wood in Winter” (for spring equinox)
Carolyn McDade: “Rising Green” (for spring equinox)
Unknown: The courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi (for Beltane)
Unknown: Egyptian Coffin Text 330, “Whether I live or die I am Osiris …” (for Mabon)
Unknown: Laments for Tammuz (pp. 88-89)
D.H. Lawrence: “So when the fire is extinguished …” (for nighttime)
Herman Melville, Moby Dick: Ahab’s soliloquy (pp. 500-501) (for thunderstorms)
Sharon Knight: “Cross the River” (for initiations)
Frater Achad: “The Fox Glove” (for feminine divine)
For many occasions:
Geoff Bartley: “The Language of Stones”
Teilhard de Chardin: “The Spiritual Power of Matter”
Joyce Sutphen: “From Out the Cave”
Dave Carter: “When I Go”
Patrick Murfin: “We Build Temples in the Heart”
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which was previously hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.
To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.