Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 3

Ritual is a set of gestures, words and actions embedded with a symbolic significance and aimed at achieving something; it is usually performed within a fixed calendar, but exceptions may arise if called for. In any case, it tends to follow a preset formula, personal if not according to communal tradition.

It is my view that if belief is personal (as stated in part 2), then ritual is traditional. It is performed based on the formulas inherited from the past, and it follows the pattern of gestures, words and actions set about by those who came before us. That’s the meaning of orthopraxy: correct (ritual) practice as prescribed by tradition. You don’t have to understand every part of the ritual and you may speculate about it – in fact, in Classical Antiquity the meaning and origin of several elements of religious ceremonies were openly discussed. Plutarch, for instance, in his Roman Questions 11, asks:

Why do they sacrifice to Saturn with the head uncovered? Is it because Aenas instituted the custom of covering the head, and the sacrifice to Saturn dates from long before that time? Or is it that they cover the head before the heavenly deities, but they consider Saturn a god whose realm is beneath the earth? Or is it that no part of the Truth is overshadowed, and the Romans consider Saturn the father of Truth

But despite these doubts, there was a clear notion that rites had to be conducted as prescribed by tradition, so, even if Romans were not sure why they should have their heads uncovered when performing a sacrifice to Saturn, they did it anyway. Again, that’s the meaning of orthopraxy. And this was true also for foreign cults welcomed in Rome, for just as native deities were given worship according to their native traditions, those from Egypt or Phrygia, for instance, had cults based on their ancient ritual prescriptions. There were of course exceptions and limitations, but that will be dealt with in parts 4 and 5, as that’s the key to prevent anachronisms or empty cerimonies.

It is also my view that ritual, taken together with the basic “I believe in the Gods”, is a much better basis to unite a religious community. We may not have the same beliefs, we may not share ideas on the cosmos, the afterlife and the nature of the deities, but there’s a more objective ground in the choice of gestures, words and actions. For if you cannot put a divine being on a stage and analyze Him/Her to discover beyond doubt His/Her nature and powers, you can observe the performing of a ritual and check with the ancient sources to see where the now and then match or not; you can see how the hands move, what words are uttered, if the head is covered or not, etc. Of course there is room for variations and options, even more if the traditions are partly or totally lost – and there’s a lot of that in reconstructing pre-Christian religions – but the fact remains that, from an orthopraxic perspective, what was done in the old days stands as the basis on which you build modern rituals.

There’s a sense of community when, no matter what your beliefs are and regardless of where you are in the world, you meet people who worship the same Gods you do using a ritual formula that you recognize as yours, too. Even if it has personal, family or regional variations, there’s a sense of hand-in-hand, together around the same altar in recognizable gestures and words. And this a challenge for all the Euro-American-Mediterranean polytheists out there: that within your specific traditions, while preserving room for variations, you are able to build basic ritual formulas that serve as a common element and bring back to life the notion of orthopraxy that still vibrates in ageless and living polytheistic religions, Shinto being the most obvious example.

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3 thoughts on “Belief, Ritual, and Morality: part 3

  1. Mais uma excelente artigo.
    Gostava que deixar aqui um comentário relativamente ao contexto do blog: Penso que devia traduzir os textos para a lingua portuguesa, contribuindo dessa forma para o enriquecimento da (pouca) informação e divulgação do politeísmo em português, pois os seus textos têm qualidade para tal!

  2. Devia fazer isso, Roderico. A ideia original era mesmo traduzir os principais textos e colocar no Penates Publici (que é o meu blogue em português), mas ainda não me deu para isso. Até porque a fraca audiência da coisa também desmotiva. A ver se esta semana trato de traduzir esta série sobre crença, rito e moral e publico em português.

    E obrigado pelo comentário 😉

  3. A fraca audiência é natural, e estou certo que tem altos e baixos. Eu não me preocuparia com isso, o conhecimento acaba por ser partilhado, mesmo que para poucos, e isso é importante.
    🙂

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