Creating Rituals Through Symbolism

A well-described ritual can be an excellent tool: it lets storytellers create immersion, and allows RPG players to make their actions sound nifty and their crazy magical schemes just the slightest bit more plausible. But how to go about figuring out what they look like? In my experience, the best way to do so is to look at the heart of what has created ritualistic behavior for millennia: symbolism.

In essence, that is what a ritual is—a chain of symbols that to its creators seemed to evoke the desired result of the ritual itself, whether the ritual is known magic or a social behavior, known to always work when done correctly or based in belief. A ritual can be as straightforward as attempting to attain to the better qualities of a deceased individual by consuming her organs, or as complex and multistage as a Japanese tea ceremony, but in every phase it is possible to build a connection, however tenuous, between the action and what it is meant to accomplish.

When composing a ritual, I create two parallel chains of symbols. The first chain is one of images: to be exact, the steps in the metaphysical world at large that in the minds of the ritual’s creators would lead to the desired result. Often it recreates an existing myth, a natural process, or some other way of envisioning the purpose of the ritual. The second is a chain of action—the things that the person performing the ritual does to evoke those images. Despite the name, not everything symbolic in this chain is an act. This is the part where we bring in objects, circumstances, even people: this is where the limiting factors of the ritual come into play. In fact, a nice detailed ritual can justify many of the more exotic requirements; if people can tell why they’re needed, they’re less likely to complain about how difficult it is.

For instance, imagine a ritual a traveler performs to ensure a safe journey. Its chain of images breaks down to having the blessings of the spirits along her path, the guidance of the sun and stars so she doesn’t lose her way, the cooperation of the environmental factors (or at least their noninterference), and, of course, the traveler’s own health and strength. This one takes the form of a meal, cooked alone by the traveler, as she will be walking alone, the night before her departure. The food itself is chosen for two aspects: one, its association with health, strength and endurance (I shouldn’t have to explain why), and two, its tendency when cooked to create a great deal of fragrant smoke and/or steam (the scent, rising skyward, serves as an offering to the celestial navigational bodies). Before she begins to eat, she sets aside a small plate of food as a bribe for the spirits on her path, inviting them with her own variant on the stock invitation—the sentiment is universal, but the words are her own. Sometime during the meal, probably at an inconvenient moment, she is ambushed by a friend or relative armed with sopping wet washcloths, representative of the hazards of the journey; if she’s already been drenched before she leaves, might not luck and the road take pity on her and keep the rain off her back? And in the end, when she has finished every bite, she washes hands, face and dishes with those same saturated washcloths, resilient in the face of hardship, and goes to say her farewells.

Of course, the elements’ ties to their symbolism doesn’t have to be as obvious as all that. Ritual symbolism tends to range from the blatant to the obscure, often depending on how old the ritual is and how secretive those who practice it are.

Write on!

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