Ancient Efforts at Ceremony and Celebration

Joy mattered among our hunter-gatherer ancestors who expressed it in their rituals. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes in her iconic study on ritual, Dancing in the Streets, ecstatic ritual was part of the “hunter-gatherers of Australia, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India.”  

Traditional Lakota ceremony song. Posted originally to Youtube by Wakiyan Luta.

Europeans called ecstatic ritual and ceremony “savagery,” because it often led to trance and resisted “the contagious rhythm of the drums….”  Indeed, on first encountering the dance and celebrations of indigenous peoples, Ehrenreich points out, Westerners resisted.  Indeed, the very essence of our mindset, and particularly the Western male, upper-class mind, was its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums. To wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.

Among our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors ritual insured a “kind of spiritual merger with the group” and this in turn healed and brought joy.  Our post-modern times are welcoming that “contagious rhythm” back.  Rap is part of that new and ancient language.  An important argument can be made that ritual is as old as human beings, as old as language and music and dance and community and the urge to share joy and put celebration into practice.  

Lakota person dancing during pow wow. Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash.

Ehrenreich describes these ceremonies this way:

Land on the right moonlit night or seasonal turning point, you might also find them engaged In what seems…to be a gratuitous waste of energy: dancing in lines or circles, sometimes wearing masks or what appear to be costumes, often waving branches or sticks.  Most likely, both sexes would be dancing, each in its separate line or circle.  Their faces and bodies might be painted with red ochre.   

Short documentary showcasing traditional Native Alaskan hunting. Posted to YouTube by Indie Lens Storycast.

We have seen these stories recorded in places all over the world on rock—including Arica, India, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Egypt.  “Well before people had a written language, and possible before they took up a settled lifestyle, they danced and understood dancing as an activity important enough to record on stone.”  

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not just dance for joy but also for survival.  The energy awakened by ritual became a way to face off collectively against predatory animals—banding together in a tight group, stamping their feet, shouting, and waving sticks or branches. 

Man in traditional body paint for a festival in Papua New Guinea. Photo by Jordan Donaldson | @jordi.d on Unsplash.Photo by Jordan Donaldson | @jordi.d on Unsplash

If done in unison, the animal might think it is one very large being and would go away.  

Hunting too inspired such group chanting and ceremony to prepare for taking on large animals.

Thus ceremony was a survival mechanism.  It still is.  Ritual practice and liturgy is a survival mechanism for those who undergo oppression, whether slaves from Africa, survivors of the holocaust, persecuted Christians and others.  

Ritual and Ceremony bring the people together in a great, collective, act of Remembering: Remembering their ancestors and their teachings and example of life and values; Remembering the good days and the difficult times, struggle and hope, “wellness and woe” as Julian of Norwich puts it.  “Do this in memory of me,” as Jesus put it at the Last supper.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, pp. 45f.

Banner Image: Young child dancing during the 2016 Last Chance Pow Wow. Posted originally to Flickr by SheltieBoy.

Queries for Contemplation

What lessons do you recognize in this meditation that might apply to our needs in community today?

Recommended Reading

The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine

To awaken what Fox calls “the sacred masculine,” he unearths ten metaphors, or archetypes, ranging from the Green Man, an ancient pagan symbol of our fundamental relationship with nature,  to the Spiritual Warrior….These timeless archetypes can inspire men to pursue their higher calling to connect to their deepest selves and to reinvent the world.
“Every man on this planet should read this book — not to mention every woman who wants to understand the struggles, often unconscious, that shape the men they know.” — Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God

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4 thoughts on “Ancient Efforts at Ceremony and Celebration”

  1. Avatar

    Yes I totally agree – thoughts from morts
    Ritual gets us there it connects us – it recalls, it remembers, it reminds and gives us energy for the road ahead and beyond. Its like the duracell battery that lasts longer than others..
    We urgently in our times need new forms to connect pre modern wisdom for post modern times.
    So I was especially deighted to here you talk of how “Our post-modern times are welcoming that “contagious rhythm” back. Rap is part of that new and ancient language.” Indeed rap but also other forms

    I strongly really feel that how we communicate our wisdom traditions in the next ten years will have a huge bearing on real change and salvation – which has to, in my opinion, be understood in a cosmological way.
    The traditional forms are indeed powerful and clearly work but we need also new forms that bring the young with us – in fact that bring us with them. A synergy of the two is that respects and honours all healthy spiritual traditions but also engages with post modern creative technologies in a healthy way.
    The work The Black Chapel Collective do hopefully in our own humble way explores this.
    Here is a brief link I would appreciate and feedback on this from yourelf and any other members of this group.

  2. Avatar

    Hi Matt — Thank you for this post. As I say in my book, The Power of Ceremony, if you go back far enough in time, you’ll find that we ALL came from a ceremonial culture. Too many of us have lost touch with those ceremonies. That’s why many of us look to the indigenous peoples — they’ve had less time to forget, and some of them are still in touch with that power, as you well know.

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