Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Ritual, The Wicker Man and yer local crem job

A couple of unusually demanding funerals lately plus plenty of the more expected sort, so no posts for a while. Here we go again:

I recently saw "The Wicker Man" for the first time. Yeah, I know, everyone else saw it at least 35 years ago, but we don't like to rush things at Mundi Mansions. 

The community on Summerisle needs to secure good harvests, and carried out assorted pagan-type rituals to bring them about. Just as cultures used to and no doubt still do. Bearing in mind our efforts to develop profounder, more psychologically effective rituals in funerals that do not simply follow Christian (Muslim, Jewish, etc) ritual patterns, I was interested in the rituals Lord Summerisle and his people had developed. 

Some bits seemed to me a bit daft. Songs round the maypole, perhaps because the actual songs seemed rootless and silly to me, and the moves at the climax of the film:

The bits of ritual that worked came from existing remnants of ancient ritual - 'obby 'oss, for example, and the rapper-type swords. Maybe it's the difference between ritual that seems to be about ritual, i.e. it has easily spotted designs on us, and ritual that enacts at a deeper level. Maybe it's just because I know that 'obby 'oss is ancient.

These issues echo the ones we face as we develop funerals to suit our diverse belief populations. If we try to invent totally new ritual, will it seem rootless and a bit silly? If we stay close to existing ritual elements, whill they still work in our rapidly-changing culture?

So in funerals we still process, we bow heads, we sometimes wear dark clothing etc. We light candles (when we are allowed to), bringing through from church ritual something ancient and powerful about light in darkness, life-in-death-in-life.

The masks in the film were very powerful, but I guess that might be a step too far for your average family.... 

So we think and feel and discuss our way forward.


  1. Well, I guess every ritual needs to have its rationale, whether symbolic or practical. Any symbolism needs to be explained, understood and its significance assented to. Candles can be made to symbolise all sorts of things, and people are normally very quick to sign up. They don't dig their heels in and say, Sorry mate, to me that's just a candle.

    Ritual movement can be harder to get people to sign up to unless it is linked to a practical outcome -- like moving a dead person from A to B. Once the purpose is understood, you can ritualise it -- ie, make the process somewhat elaborate.

    Perhaps what ritual does best is harness the power of silence.

    But I don't suppose you can satisfy everyone in this. One person's deeply moving ritual is always likely to be seen by the literal-minded as just so much poncing about -- though naked women, as above, are likely to suspend the critical faculty!

    Thank you for sparking up the bean once more, GM. Speaking as someone who has never seen Star Wars, I confess I have never seen The Wicker Man. I shall put him on my (pause for storm of boos) bucket list.

  2. Bucket away, Charles - Wicker Man may make you giggle (not it's purpose) but it is, or was for me, thought-provoking. It also has Britt Ekland dancing about with no clothes on. (Thought I just ought to warn you...)

    And you've got me thinking about symbols. yes we do need to understand them enough to accept them. But one view of a powerful symbol is that it is not entirely comprehensible. "Heads of the characters hammer through daisies" writes Dylan Thomas in "And Death Shall have No Dominion." But in the context of the rest of the poem, with some powerful lines that are more amenable to me, it works powerfully.

    A fine balance, maybe. Some of Dylan's symbols just leave me out. Some, like the above, are more approachable but not totally explicable. Others are in the clear light of day. "The mussel-pooled and heron-priested shore." Simple description (mussels) followed by an image that anyone who's seen a lone heron at the water's edge immediately relates to.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. A pleasure, GM.

    An essential feature of a ritual, I think, is that it must be performed without self-consciousness.

    You're right about needing to 'get' a symbol in order to accept it, even if you do not wholly grasp it. I guess this works at the intuitive, subconscious level. If it's reckoned to be no more than a theatrical accessory, people are bound to be cross and feel they're being emotionally exploited.