Women and Ritual
Fanning the Flames of Ancient Wisdom
By Aninha Esperanza Livingstone, Ph.D.
Common Ground ~ The Women Issue ~ Oct. 2013
There was time when our ancestors knew how to meet life and death and all of the passages in between. So too, was there was a time when our female ancestors passed on rituals from grandmother to mother to daughter, and felt held by a deep wisdom of which they knew themselves to be a part. Ritual was a way of meeting and creating change, as well as of maintaining balance between the seen and unseen worlds.
The term ritual originated from the Sanskrit word rtu, meaning menses. The origin of rituals specific to women’s creative power and to the fertility of the earth date back to at least 6000 B.C as evidenced by ancient artifacts found throughout Europe. No one knows exactly when women began using ritual to meet what is often referred to as the blood mysteries: menarche, childbirth, matriarch and menopause, but we do know that it is a cross-cultural pattern seen throughout time.
For the majority of people today, ancestral traditions have been lost. As a result, ritual can feel foreign, contrived, or forced. And yet, it is anything but foreign. It lives in our bones. Anthropologists believe that humans have been creating ritual for at least 100,000 years.
The language of ritual, rooted in the realm of symbol, metaphor and myth, is a powerful tool for our times regardless of gender or age. The retrieval of this lost art can be especially powerful for girls and women as an alternative to the cultural response to women’s development, which tends to be profit driven.
Whether it be the pharmaceutical drug Lybrel which offers the complete elimination of menstruation, and is presented in middle school sex education classes, the rise in cesarean sections which are more lucrative than sometimes lengthy and unpredictable natural births, or the “menopause make-over” that plastic surgeons offer, women’s changes are treated as a cash cow, not a sacred one.
Although much has been lost, there is beauty possible in its wake. There is a collective retrieval of soul at hand, and each person who feels drawn to exploring ritual will weave a unique thread into the tapestry.
In honor of the Women’s Spirituality Movement, which encourages trust in one’s own unique approach to, and relationship with Spirit, I offer you a wide spectrum lens on ritual:
1. A daily practice, one that may be contemplative and solitary. Perhaps you feel drawn to meditation, dancing, journal writing, or sitting in front of a personal altar filled with images that speak to your soul.
2. A spontaneous arising. Have you ever intuitively met a life event with a symbolic act, such as burning, cleansing or burying something of deep significance? Do you trust the impulses that arise in you, and follow them?
3. A cyclic practice that honors a connection to the rhythms of nature. Are you stirred by the phases of the moon, the changing of seasons, the ending of a calendar or natal year?
4. A marking of thresholds. Is it important for you to honor and acknowledge life’s passages? As women, our biological changes are clear outer markers of deep internal shifts. Of course, the thresholds extend beyond biology to include all the events of our lives in which we feel our sense of self is in a state of metamorphosis.
5. A cauldron of transformation. Do you long to shed the western conditioning that we need to hold ourselves together at all costs? Here, no aspect of self is exiled, whether it be grief, rage, ecstasy or even numbness. We surrender in a well-defined container, created by ourselves, or held by others.
6. A spiritual, or religious practice within a specific lineage. Do you feel drawn to being initiated into a set of practices that have been handed down from generation to generation? Is there one in particular calling you?
At any moment in time, we all find ourselves somewhere along the continuum of the three great forces of nature: creation, maintenance, and decay. Where do you find yourself right now? How might you ritualize this?
Here are a few guiding principles I find indispensable in my work with women and transformative ritual. Unlike ceremony, ritual has two parts, the part that is planned, and the part than cannot be planned. To embark upon a ritual is to engage the metaphoric mind in the design, and to allow that structure to act as a bridge to the unknown.
The first step is to set your intention. A powerful question to ask is: “What is wanting to die, and what is wanting to be born?” This creates a compass that guides the process of ritual. Once this is clear, see if there are symbols or symbolic acts that would serve to externalize your inner experience.
Secondly, create the container. Marking the entrance into sacred space signals to the psyche that we have left the ordinary realm and that it is safe to loosen the hold of conditioning. This can be as simple as lighting a candle, or as elaborate as using drums or rattles, calling in unseen powers, and speaking the truth and longing in your heart.
The third step is to embody your ritual. Use the symbols you have chosen, and enact what you have planned while remaining open to images, feelings, thoughts or sensations that inspire spontaneous action. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
Lastly, close the container. For example, you might blow out the candle with words of gratitude. The act of consciously closing the container honors the gifts that have been received, and marks a period of integration.
As we explore ritual, we may bring the threads of our ancestors for whom ritual served to feed the individual, the collective, and the more than human world. We may also bring the spark of our uniqueness, as it exists now in these very different times. As women, and as a people, it is clear that we are no longer held by a unifying and life-affirming story with accompanying rituals of renewal. Nonetheless, we can listen to the ancient echo that still sounds in our soul, and create beauty and depth on this human journey.