Ritual Language

Yesterday, Sorita d’Este raised the issue of how we use and understand ritual language. How important is it to know where the words come from and what they mean? I think this is a big issue for Druidry, so wanted to take some time to reflect upon it.

When I started exploring druidry, I knew very little about it. I started by attending rituals, where I was hearing ritual prayers with no idea of their source. I was educated enough to know that anything truly ancient would have been through the hands of a few translators, at the least, and that I would not be getting ancient Druidry in the raw. However, beyond that, I knew nothing whatsoever about druid history. I started reading around, finding conflicting ideas, but eventually I got some handle on what druid history there is, and some sense of where ritual words come from.

It would, however, be very easy to turn up casually to rituals, have no sense of where the language comes from, believe you are interacting with ancient druidry and continue accordingly. I think mostly what this means is that if we run ritual we have some responsibility for making sure that those attending know what’s going on, in terms of the source of words and content. I feel increasingly that rooting inspiration in individual humans is also important: it makes clear that we have had a hand in it, that it is not pure divine inspiration. There’s a whole other blog there waiting to happen.

But what about meaning? If we share the words of Iolo Morganwg, or some unnamed Mediaeval author, can we know what they meant? Can we hope to understand the significance of the words at the time of their being put together? I think we can’t. In fact I’d go further and say that we cannot understand what the words meant to any author, living or dead. I write things, and when I come back to them weeks, or months later, I don’t always know what I meant at the time, and as life changes, my understanding of my own words can change. Original meaning is probably a myth and unlikely to be useful.

What we do need, absolutely, is our own understanding of what the words mean. One of the effects of ritual repetition is the ease with which the words turn into ‘te tum te tum te tum te tum’ with about the same level of emotional resonance. Whatever words you are using, and wherever they came from, it pays to think about them. Contemplate their significance. Work out what they mean to you. Say them with an awareness of that meaning and they will become powerful.

One of the reasons I like working without scripts and formal language is that it reduces the risk of just rolling out the stock phrases, without consideration. When words have to be found in the moment we go that bit further in trying to make sense, and to reach after meaning and significance.  It is harder work, but worth it, I think. Ritual forms give a good framework, and familiarity with standard ways of calling for peace or to the quarters can be a great help, but having that freedom to think and create in the moment keeps us away from the te tum te tum te tum problem.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

3 responses to “Ritual Language

  • Carol

    when me & my grove wrote our moon ritual, we wrote out everything and had each part memorize their lines as much as possible. So, in the beginning we are pretty much script reading, but I think its ok to do that to instill confidence and comfortability…the goal is that, after a few rituals, we get to the point where maybe we start adding to or altering our lines as the moment calls for (letting inspiration in).
    I do agree….knowing their significance and being aware of the power of the words is of utmost importance in ritual – at least in my personal opinion 🙂
    Great post as always!

  • Athelia Nihtscada

    We tend to have a standard opening and close with everything in the actual ritual coming from the heart. I know that many traditions will insist on using ancient languages, which is nice if one knows them, but I don’t. Sure, there are stock phrases, but they are just that to me: stock phrases. Ritual is best done from the heart with absolute meaning behind what is said, in my opinion. Thank you for posting this!

  • sacredbells

    Thank you, a great blog! The debates Sorita starts are often very thought provoking and leads me down all kinds of avenues of thought and checking myself too.

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