Thoughts on a Ritual Calendar

If we make a commitment to ritual, it follows that we ought to commit to occasions for ritual.  Can we craft a ritual calendar for an American secular polytheism that provides occasions to celebrate the culture and its most venerable icons that draws on holidays which have strong associations in the hearts and minds of most Americans?

This is a possible calendar for ritual celebrations (with a possible focus for veneration for each):

New Year’s Day (Pan-cultural)

Martin Luther King Holiday (The People – minorities and the oppressed)

Presidents Day (The Ancestors)

Earth Day (The Land)

May Day (The Ancestors – international labor movement)

Memorial Day (The Ancestors – fallen warriors)

Summer Solstice (The Land)

Independence Day (Pan-cultural)

Labor Day (The People)

Indigenous Peoples’ Day (The People)

Hallowe’en (The Ancestors)

Veterans Day (The People – living warriors)

Thanksgiving (The Land)

Winter Solstice (The Land)

It can certainly be argued that Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving are religious festivals at their root, but they have long since passed into secular observance in the United States.  Hallowe’en keeps alive the traditions both of foolery and ancestor remembrance while Thanksgiving celebrates the bounty of the Land at the end of the traditional harvest season.

I would advocate for the secular New Year holiday and Independence Day to function as “hinge points” in the cultural seasonal cycle with the two Solstices marking the astronomical cycle that carries on independent of human culture.


Putting this all to work – A ritual

On June 20 of this year, I undertook something of a “first draft” of what a Romantic Polytheist ritual might look like.  The occasion was the public ritual celebrating the Summer Solstice of the local grove of the Neo-Druid fellowship I founded in 2006, FoDLA, in association with the Los Angeles Chapter of the Spiritual Naturalist Society.

The ritual was held in a public park in Encino, California, with about a half dozen attendees.  The general outline of the ritual was derived from the customary liturgy of the Mother Grove of FoDLA.

The order of service was as follows:

Chimes to signal beginning – Prayer for union of the attendees in purpose

Hymn to invoke poetic inspiration and kindling of altar fire

Prayer to Great Spirit (as Gitche Manitou) – Offering sage and water for cleansing and protection

Prayer to the Ancestors – Both of blood and spirit, heroes of immortal memory including the Founders of our democracy – Toast of cider

Prayer to Sovereignty – The Land as our partner and home, source of prosperity – Offering grain back to the Earth, pledging to be united with the Land

Opportunity for personal prayers and offerings

Singing of “Chant for the Seasons

Poetic Offering:  Wordsworth, “Ode (Intimations of Immortality)” (excerpt)

Sharing of the Sun’s blessings (traditional American foodstuffs):  Apple cider, cornbread, tree nuts and berries, rum.

Recessional hymn:  “This Land is your Land”

Chimes to close


Intentions in RP ritual

Richard Rorty’s explication of his concept of Romantic Polytheism as a new, secular-minded, American religion lays out the notion of the Democratic consensus as the ultimate good towards which the practice focuses.  How might that play out in an actual ceremony that brings individuals together for a worship service that doesn’t require belief in a supernatural God?

Drawing on Indo-European polytheist traditions (to the extent we know them), along with Shinto, the Japanese animist tradition that survives on a level of customary observances among people who self-describe as atheists, there are some reasonable stages to a putative Romantic Polytheist ritual.

–Assembling and preparing the participants.

One necessary step is gathering attendees and shifting their attention from the mundane to the spiritual.  Part of this is changing their perceptions of themselves.  Shinto (along with other traditions) places great importance on purification before communing with the spirits.  While this might seem close to an unwelcome introduction of the concept of “sin,” a useful metaphor from the tradition is “cleaning the dust off a mirror.”  Washing–or at least aspersing–with spring water and offering the remainder as a gift to the Land seems a good first step.

Focusing attention further with the clearcut signal of a bell or gong can be helpful.  This could even be couched in the context of reference to the ringing of the Liberty Bell (if only it weren’t cracked!).  Everyone’s focus goes to one action (the ringing), which signals the start of the ritual activity and can perhaps even serve to announce that all are gathered as free people and equals.

The nature of the space used can have an influence on this dimension of the ceremony:  In keeping with the overriding concern with an egalitarian sensibility, gathering in a circle around a central focus (a firepit or an altar) might be ideal.  But space limitations might preclude this.  A simple tool would be a “unity candle”–metaphorically, the “light of Reason” and practically, a strong visual focus point.

–Establishing the occasion

Rorty expounded on the notion of the poet as priest and the employment of literature in ritual.  Suitable poems or excerpts from literature suitable to the occasion can be shared.

However, more is necessary to lift the ceremony beyond the merely literary and into the spiritual.  The sine qua non of religion on a certain view is establishing a connection with the numinous.  Inviting meditation on or contemplation of a suitable “higher power” is important from this perspective.  Metaphoric beings (a la Romantic verse) can be held up for this purpose:  Liberty, Reason, Nature.  (Indeed, I would personally argue for this particular trinity, embodied as Columbia, The Founders, and The Great Spirit or Manitou, as being a quintessential set of American Gods for this purpose.)

The use of homiletics–oration to provide context for the occasion–should not be overlooked.  This can be by a ritual leader or attendees could be invited to share their thoughts (subject to light moderation, perhaps).

–Sharing hospitality

In both the ancient Indo-European and Shinto traditions, the main purpose of the ritual is typically the offering of a meal to the non-corporeal guest(s) of honor.  A selection of food and/or drink is often set forth and then becomes the basis for shared hospitality.  In some traditions, a portion is burned or poured out as the offering to the gods, ancestors, or spirits.  Certainly appropriate food and or drink could be offering to the land and the wildlife in an outdoor setting (or set out after the conclusion of the ritual).  In lieu of making a symbolic burnt offering of food or libation of drink, incense could be lit from an altar candle, if one has been used, which has the advantage of being consumed by the transformative fire and also providing a pleasant fragrance to all attendees.

In Shinto ritual, distinctly Japanese offerings are usually brought forward:  sake, rice, and such.  For an American ceremony of this sort, perhaps a similar custom can be established, with offerings like maize (or cornbread), cranberries, blueberries, walnuts, maple syrup, and cider.

As a last expression of unity, a song probably ought to be sung by the attendees.  This could be something well known, secular, and American (“This Land is Your Land” comes to mind).

One last action (apart from making appropriate thanks) would be to mirror the beginning with the ending, using the same musical signal to end as was used to begin.


Some Objects of Veneration?

The premise of “romantic polytheism” qua religion is to take democratic consensus as a highest good.  It seems to me that this misses something important about the religious enterprise, namely the function of connection with an Other (the “wholly Other,” if one follows Rudolf Otto).  Put another way:  It may be that a representation of democracy (if not an outright embodiment of it) is needed as an object of religious activity, particularly if undertaken by a group.

In considering America as the ground of the religion, some possible “deities” seem viable:

  • Liberty – We are used to seeing Lady Liberty not only in her incarnation as the “Statue of Liberty,” but also on American coinage and other civil uses.  Prior to the early 20th century, Americans were accustomed to the image of Columbia as the embodiment of the United States and specifically of its role as a new democratic nation in counterposition to Britain’s monarchy.  The iconography of Columbia draws on deeper traditions of democracy, e.g., the inclusion of the Phrygian cap from the Classical Hellenic world.
  • The “Great Spirit” (or “Manitou”) – If “Liberty” or “Columbia” can represent the nation created by Europeans in North America, what of the Land itself?  And the people who inhabited it?  Although the “Great Spirit” associated in popular culture with the spirituality of the “American Indian” is a mix of oversimplification, stereotype, and Christian proselytization, there is–especially among the Algonquian cultures–an animistic tradition of seeing all things in the world as partaking of a shared spirit, often identified as “Manitou” or related terms.  There is a helpful resonance with the Deist views of many of the American “Founding Fathers,” which saw “God” as more or less identical with Nature.  More than that, though, offering respect to the indigenous cultures–and acknowledging the appropriation of their lands, often by genocidal means–seems essential to any systematic veneration of the American enterprise.
  • The Founding Fathers – There is a deep tradition in Indo-European mythology and religion of emphasizing the way in which heroic ancestors achieve immortality through memory and the telling of their exploits by subsequent generations.  In addition to individuals offering due respect to the personal ancestors who preceded them, an honest and informed custom of acknowledging and celebrating the actual deeds and ideals of those who set in motion the tradition of American democracy seems critical.  The “Founders” have been appropriated in a haze of pseudo-history by political factions eager to apply the imprimatur of the sagacious, if imperfect, individuals who forged the nation and it is important to reclaim their words and deeds for what they were, not what we wish them to be.
  • “Uncle Sam” – The embodiment of the United States as a nation (rather than of its underlying ideals), Uncle Sam has been around since the early 19th century.  He has become highly emmeshed in commercialism and militarism over time and risks dragging a spiritual enterprise into a caricature if not employed judiciously as object of veneration.

This small “pantheon” seems reasonable to approach as the objects of various ritual activities and none require a supernaturalist understanding to embrace.  All are able to be approached as the Romantic poets approached Nature and all its aspects and this comports well with the “Poet as Priest” aspect of Romantic Polytheism.