On Ritual

by George Draffen of Newington.


Ritual has existed in various forms for thousands of years, it is to be found all over the world wherever man has settled himself. Any doubt on this point can be at once eliminated by reading Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough, a classic on the subject of early ritual and ceremonial.

When man ceased to be a wandering hunter and settled down to cultivate the ground he soon found that the vicissitudes of the weather seriously interfered with the growing of his crops and, therefore, with the supply of his food. Instead of attributing the vagaries of weather to natural phenomena he regarded them as an expression of naughty temper or serious displeasure by the various gods who made up his spiritual hierarchy. It was obviously necessary to propitiate the gods and consequently we find the rituals and ceremonials of Fertility Rites among the earliest recorded. Some were simple, others were complicated; some made use of human sacrifice, others were content with a symbolic object in place of the living victim; all were taken very seriously. As a variant of fertility rites in respect of the crops there were, of course, fertility rites in respect of flocks and herds of animals and, indeed, in respect of wives.

Among the early rituals and ceremonials we find the Initiation Rite. This was, and still is among the more primitive people of the world, one of the most important rites. When a young man reached puberty it was necessary to introduce him to his duties as a member of the tribe so that he could take a full part in its three principal activities—the obtaining of food, the defence of the tribe against its enemies, and the perpetuation of the tribe by the procreation of children. Many of these initiatory rites were both long and complicated, often lasting days and even weeks. They frequently involved trials of strength and stamina, long and dangerous journeys, the performance of some difficult task (such as bringing back the severed head of a member of an enemy tribe). Some of these tests have been carried forward in a symbolic form until one finds the severed head of an enemy becoming the rescuing of a damsel in distress by a postulant Knight.

As a general rule Initiation Rites were confined to the male members of the tribe, but there is evidence to show that there existed androgynous rites in which the females of the tribe were initiated into their duties, i.e. the preparation of food, the making of clothing and domestic utensils and, possibly the most important, childbirth and the bringing up of children.

The numerous forms of early Initiation Rites are so varied that it is impossible to compare satisfactorily one ritual initiation with another.

As man developed a spiritual sense and created for himself a hierarchy of gods, before the rise of the three great monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—he enveloped the worship of his gods with a variety of rituals and ceremonials. Some of these ceremonials have come down to us, but few in great detail. Some portions may have been carried over into the monotheistic religions when they began to arise.

It is interesting to observe that Christianity, Judaism and Islam all began as very simple creeds with few trappings in their services of worship. As time passed the services whether within a church, a synagogue or mosque began to grow more and more elaborate. In so far as Christianity is con¬cerned the rise and development of the ritual ceremonial can most easily be comprehended in The Shape of the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix. Dix's book shows very clearly how the simple and primitive worship of the early Christian Church gradually developed into the highly complicated pattern of Pontifical High Mass. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the ceremonials used in the synagogue or the mosque to be able to offer any similar develop¬ment in Judaism and Islam, but it is possible that such exists.

With such a development as I have mentioned in the Roman Church, and considering how widely scattered were the little groups of early Christians, it is not surprising to learn that there were a wide number of variants on the central theme of the Christian worship. As the early Christian Church grew and coalesced into one or other of the two great branches (the Western Church and the Eastern Church) these variants became not only a stumbling block to intercommunication and intercommunion, but frequently a source of strife. In 1568 Pope Pius V (1504-1572) decreed that in the Western Church one standard form of Mass would be used by every church, cathedral and abbey unless it could be proved that another form of the Mass had been regularly celebrated for a period of one hundred years. The consequence of this decision is that only some three or four of the old forms of Mass still survive today, of which perhaps the best known is the Bessarabian Rite celebrated in Toledo in Spain. This idea of a standard ritual for church worship is, of course, also to be found in the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England. It is perhaps not commonly realised that the Book of Common Prayer is in fact part of an Act of Parliament and that it is technically quite illegal to use any other form of worship in any Parish Church in England. The English Book of Common Prayer has its variants which are to be found in the Book of Common Prayer used by the Episcopal Church in Scotland, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and in the various Anglican Churches in the Commonwealth.

In so far as our masonic ritual is concerned it must be remembered that it is not a ritual for worship but a ritual for initiation into a brotherhood. The fact that there is within it a number of prayers does not of itself make it a ritual of worship. In the initiation rites of primitive tribes prayers to the local gods are frequently found and they have the same objective—to support the candidate spiritually through the trials and tests required for his initiation and ultimate full membership of the tribe or the brotherhood.

An examination of all true rites shows that they have much in common though they may be expressed in different ways and sometimes apparently be absent. Among the common factors are Preparation, a Ritual Journey, a New Name, Refreshment, Symbolic Rebirth, a Reward and an Investiture with power or authority, coupled often with special clothing.

Preparation frequently takes the form of divesting the postulant of his normal clothing, either in part or in whole, and sometimes in clothing him with a special garment, usually white to symbolise purity. He is sometimes required to wash his hands; this again being a symbol of purity. His head may be covered and he may be blindfolded. It is interesting to note that as the postulant progresses toward the ' Higher Degrees ' the hoodwink ceases to be used on the assumption that he is now, though not fully at least sufficiently, mentally advanced not to require this part of the preparation.

The Ritual Journey occurs in almost every degree and it is to be found in all the Mysteries going back through the centuries to those of which we have the earliest records. In the Mysteries of Egypt the ritual journey was long and distinctly perilous and many a postulant lost his life in attempting to accomplish it. Today there is, of course, no risk of this sort of thing, for the journey is purely symbolic. I might interpolate here that in the Scandinavian Rite the journey is certainly long, quite difficult and if not perilous at least more than a little disconcerting. The Ritual Journey may or may not involve symbolic dangers or sudden halts. It is sometimes not realised that the halts or stops made by the candidate during his circum ambulation are intended to be danger points or testing points which he must overcome. It is important, too, to note the direction in which the ritual journey is taken. In most of our Masonic Degrees the journey is made clockwise round the lodge room, but there is at least one Degree in which the journey is made anti-clockwise or 'widdershins'. The expression ‘widdershins’ is an old term for death and witches and ghosts are, traditionally, supposed to travel from place to place in a widdershin or anti-clockwise direction. In the particular case which I have in mind the symbolism is not death directly, but rebirth following death.

The New Name does not occur in many of our Masonic Degrees. I am only familiar with two, but there may be others. In one of the two the new name is conveyed to the postulant in such a way that he, and he alone, is aware of what it is. This idea is very old and is still to be found in South Africa where many of the indigenous inhabitants still believe that for one person to know another person's real or true name is to have complete power and control over him. Thus while in common custom a man may refer to himself as Mr Odanga and be so called by his friends and relations that, in point of fact, is not his real name which he alone knows.

The factor of Refreshment occurs in at least two of our Masonic Degrees and in both cases the liquid part of the refreshment is wine. This refreshment is sometimes given in the middle of the ritual journey and sometimes at the end. There is also a possibility that it may be linked with the idea of Reward—being a reward of a minor nature for having got so far in the ceremony.

The factor of Rebirth is, of course, to be found in the Third Degree and it is also found in others. The symbolism can be as clear or as complicated as the postulant likes to make it, but basically, of course, it represents the New Man ready to undertake his full duties.

Reward and Investiture. I take these two together because they are generally so intermixed as to make it difficult to separate them accurately. In a sense any investiture with power and authority is in a way a reward for services rendered. The Investiture itself takes many forms; clothing with an apron, garbing with a robe, placing a crown or a special hat on the head, girding on a sword, putting a jewel on the breast and, perhaps the most ancient of all, placing a ring on the finger as a symbol of unity and binding the postulant to his brotherhood as it were in wedlock.

There is much about our rituals which I have left unsaid; there are common factors which I have not mentioned. This because I feel it undesirable to force my own views on the interpretation of any of these symbols which I have mentioned and because it is a good thing for each brother himself to search out and discover what the rituals of the various degrees of which he may be a member have to offer.

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