Designing Ritual

Updated 4/24/08

Authentic rituals combine the aesthetic, the sacred and the medicinal in varying proportions and without discrimination amoung them. This combination creates a model, a replica, in which circumstances may be forcibly perfected or variously, manipulated for the benefit of the individual or community.

Circumstances upon which the model is based may be anything in the environment which is thought to be worth controlling or influencing; the model may be represented in effigy form, or re-created in a verbal formula with the idea of coercing it, beseeching it, propitiating it or disarming it through adoration. The original may be the environment itself, in which case the ritual becomes a replica of the natural world as a whole, to be manipulated or transfigured, with the intention of influencing communal and personal destiny.

Rituals combine art, medicine and religion.

Rituals are controllable replicas of larger events, circumstances and situations.

Rituals are employed as a way to maintain balance and control in the face of fear and chaos.

The essence of ritualistic philosophical thinking, which provides a rationale for the means used to cope with sickness or other misfortune, is the belief that the universe is an all-inclusive unit in which each element, from the tiniest object or creature to the most stupendous, including man himself, is interrelated in an orderly but delicate balance governed by the principle of reciprocity. As long as this balance is maintained, humans enjoy a state of harmony, beauty, blessedness, normality and goodness. These terms refer to whatever circumstances or entities are favorable to people as opposed to all that is unfavorable or evil, this is the basic value concept of ritual.

Every ritual is related to a particular group of causative or etiological factors and also to certain supernatural powers, personalized as beings somewhat like humans or capable of assuming human form. In ritual every object or phenomenon, real or imagined, may be personalized and endowed with power and thought of as persons. Every thing or process then has an anthropomorphic inner form or essence, a Holy form. Once a thing or process has been personalized it can be dealt with.

It is man's responsibility to maintain harmony between himself and the Holy People. These Forms are for the most part indifferent to humans but may be persuaded or coerced to help cure or correct misfortune. The ethic of reciprocity operates here, for prayers and offerings are designed not to glorify or thank the Holy People but to attract and obligate them.

Ritual rests on two principles: anthropomorphism and reciprocity.

Rituals have two major functions: to create or correct. When circumstances are perceived to be out of balance or incorrect, ritual is employed to set matters right. Relationships and connections between humans and the Holy People govern a person's welfare. Rituals connect and control. The major instrument in ritual is reversal--to reverse what is or has been into what will be. All rituals by their very nature are attempts at reversal. And lastly all ritual is intended to reduce anxiety, and a ritual's ability to accomplish this is the measure of its success.

Realize that what we're presenting here is a finger, not a moon. We will use the form and format of Navajo thought and methods because they contain and exemplify what we're trying to convey. In this case they serve as a metaphor only--a finger pointing to a moon--a way to talk about things.

Ritual can be divided into four major categories:

Purpose Degree Action
General Expand
General Restrict
Specific Expand
Specific Restrict

The first two categories are reverses of each other as are the last two. The first two categories are also reverses of the last two. The first two deal more with cosmic matters and the last two with individual matters, though a broken arm, for instance can be treated by any of the four. A causal determination must first be made in regard to the injury. Was the individual out of balance with the cosmos? (Holyway) Was he hexed? (Evilway) Is he out of balance in his life? (Lifeway) Is he out of balance in his body? (Injuryway)

Global issues such as weather or community are dealt with by Holyway or Evilway, while for more personal issues any of the four can be used. Any successful ritual contains elements of all four categories in differing proportions. In a sense, a ritual just reshuffles the order in which the different Ways will be applied. An interplay between general and specific is constantly at work: general to specific or specific to general. Therefore it is conceivable that a problem such as acid rain could be treated with Injuryway (a regional problem being turned into a local problem). Again reversal is the key.

To design a ritual the following ritual elements need be included and in the order shown.
Realize that ANY successful intervention (personal, interpersonal, intrapersonal, transpersonal, etc.) contains these elements in some form.

1. Causal Determination
As noted above, a causal determination must be made in order to pick the correct Way which becomes the Lead Way. Then the other Ways can be assigned their supporting roles. Pattern is the major element of this step.
(In which quadrant of the Physiology Map did the difficulty occur and which quadrant will be used to rectify the problem? Which shifts in attention are necessary?)

2. Story Line
A story line must be developed which expresses relevant history, the nature of the reversal chosen and the expectation of the corrected version. This is the ritual's main pattern and should be learned until it becomes a non-conscious organizational tool. Pattern and time are the major elements of this step.
(What narrative will be attached to this intervention? This is the story of what happened to whom, why it happened and how it was made right. Story Lines have an analog in Songlines--the story of place.)

3. Creation of Sacred Space
A place must be selected, consecrated and protected. It is separated by definition from ordinary reality as what will occur inside will be non-ordinary. This non-ordinary context applies to all four change modes: space, time, pattern and physiology. Sacred Space is created by use of a Danger Line (see below).
(For extraordinary things to occur a special place is needed.)

4. The Holy People are notified
The Story Line will contain directions as to who is invited and who is not. Blessing, decoy and reversal are the major elements of this step.
(Who's help will be needed and who's interference excluded?)

5. The Holy People are obligated
Offerings are extended to attract the Holy People and obligate them to participate.

6. All participants are invited in and instructed.
Protection is established and roles assigned. Blessing and armor (see below) are the major elements of this step.

7. Main Action
The Story Line is enacted as a dramatic replica of the original events or situation. All parts are represented by substitutes which are occupied by their Holy form equivalents. Reversal is employed until a corrected or created story line is achieved. The Holy People can be stubborn or helpful. Negotiation and trickery are employed. It is important to understand that no Holy form has unlimited power. Each now has the personality of a human and can be dealt with accordingly. Each is limited in power by the constraints of its ordinary form. If the ritual is without error and the Holy People are pleased they are obligated to facilitate the desired outcome. All actions and elements can be employed in this step.

8. Closing
The Story Line is completed ("It is done."). Benediction and safe disposal of all materials made dangerous by this ritual are completed. Protection is established as the space and participants are returned to ordinary reality. Blessing and decoy are major elements. The central element of any ritual is the Story Line. It provides an explanation, an organization and is the replica to be manifested through specific ritual enactment. It includes all logic of natural phenomena and all dream logic. A ritual can perhaps be described as a dream manifested in reality, for within Sacred Space metaphor becomes literal and permanent. The Story Line contains personal history, tribal history, origins, values, hopes and, yes, dreams. Ritual joins the dream and real world into something we might call the Metaworld, where day and night become one. Ritual then is controlled and ordered dreaming. The fantastic and the mundane at last dance together. Again, the most significant difference between Tribal and Judeo-Christian ritual is the difference between reciprocity and retribution.

Navajo Philosophy

The universe is an all-inclusive unit in which all elements from the tiniest object or creature to the most stupendous, including man himself, are interrelated in an orderly but delicate balance governed by the principle of reciprocity.

Excessive activity of any kind is dangerous. Lack of harmony or imbalance is the cause for misfortune or evil. Man's responsibility is to keep out of the way of the Holy People and not displease them in any way. Knowledge is the only true power.

Trained practitioners possess knowledge which can control dangerous things, restore universal harmony and establish immunity to future contagion from the same sources.

Requirements and Guidelines for the Ritual Practitioner:

1. All skills, abilities, equipment and materials should be mobile. The simplest raw material plus memory and skill (the brain and hand) create whatever is necessary to accomplish an outcome.

2. Practitioners usually do not follow any religious calendar, but perform whenever their services are needed.

3. Nearly every item in the universe may be personalized, endowed with power.

4. Supernatural Holy People are attracted to the scene by invocatory prayers and offerings and by repetition which compels them to come. If they are pleased they must restore harmony, they have no choice. The act of being pleased restores balance, it is balance, it is beauty.

5. Prayers and offerings are designed not to glorify and thank the Holy People but to attract and obligate them.

6. All Holyway chants contain both invocatory and exorcistic elements.

7. All things are of equal importance. Large or small, complex or simple, concept or detail.

8. Chants deal with causes not symptoms. A practitioner is to be a master of causality, understanding and manipulating causation.

9. Repetition enhances and amplifies power.

10. The original upon which a model is based may be anything in the environment which is thought to be worth controlling. It may be represented in effigy form and re-created in a verbal formula, with the idea of coercing it, beseeching it, propitiating it or disarming it through adoration. Or the original may be the environment itself, in which case the practitioner's work becomes a replica of the natural world as a whole, to be manipulated or transfigured with the intention of influencing communal and/or personal destiny.

11. Any error committed by the practitioner is serious as he is manipulating vast and powerful forces.

12. Sandpaintings are not created for any aesthetic purpose, but to act as magnetic fields and diffusers of supernatural power. They are a place of entry for the Holy People.


1. Attract the Holy People who come to admire their likeness.
2. Provide an identification for the patient with the Holy People.
3. Absorb evil. They function as a ceremonial membrane where spiritual osmosis happens both ways.
4. Serve as a visual (VEB) metaphor for the entire procedure--a meta-map. An allegorical blueprint.
Talismans accomplish the above four items. They must absorb and repel, attract and expel, providing protection in both directions.

The template for all Hawkeen "Sandpaintings"
(and it's clickable)

Within cultures which are ordered more by reciprocity than retribution, ritual takes place before the actual event it anticipates and attempts to direct future events. Rituals never take place after the fact and so are never celebratory. They do not fill a function of thanksgiving.

Ritual is, at its heart, elaborate and detailed planning.

People who are poor at planning are often drawn to ritual as a magical replacement for their own shortcomings.

If you plan and act well, with thorough and thoughtful intent, you'll be participating in ritual as surely as any tribal person who ever lived.

It should be apparent by now that ritual isn't an outside power but instead an algorithm, a device to organize and clarify an individual, community or situation. Additionally, it keeps the practitioner on track, organized, and confident.

Rituals are precise procedures which create structures into which we can apply ourselves.

The origin of all rituals was a human mind solidly in the Wind Quadrant.

A partial list of ritualistic definitions, practices etc.

Approaching a new place or experience is done in stages (usually four) with a pause between stages for singing.
Blowing causes motion, speed and growth and may also make a thing steady or permanent. Blowing increases size and quantity; causes transformation, and is closely related to fitting and permanence. Blowing may cause or dissipate a storm.
Bowing means acknowledgement of superior power, also the sign of relative humility or respect. Surrender is signified by head between knees.
Breathing in. Face the power, stretch out hands, palms up, draw in, signifying acceptance.
Brushing Much used in Evilway and Injuryway. Part of cleaning and protection.
Chewing and spraying is a common ritualistic act. Usually connected with Wind.
Circle. Defines exclusion and inclusion.
Clothes are of great significance in myth and ritual. Distinction is made between dressed and undressed for objects, people and circumstances. Involved in representation, disguise and protection.
Compulsion An offering correct in every respect must be accepted. Obligation.
Dancing When accompanied by the proper sounds and behavior may indicate gloating or honor and respect.
Danger Line, Line of protection Physical or imaginary line demarcating that which is sacrosanct from that which is not. Elements which designate Danger Lines include meal sprinkling, flints, yucca, blood and mountains. On the other hand (reversal), meal sprinkling and pollen have blessing value in that they make the road safe for the traveler as long as he stays on the right side. The interpretation discloses the fundamental reasons for elaborate preparations and procedure for hunting, war and trading expeditions, which by their very nature cause people to cross the line.
Decoy. A form of ritual dissociation and/or enticement. Shadows are often used and sound is a common decoy as are effigies.
Decoy Fires set up a relationship between sex, incest and sorcery. Such devices can lead to the discovery of new people, places and experiences.
Drum. Sound can be used to attract or drive away evil. Using the sound as a decoy, evil influences can be gathered and confined into a controlled space, then dispensed with.
Dust Token . A small quantity of soil which is placed on a patient or in his shoe. Acts as a conveyance.
Feathers convey strength, speed, motion and deliverance. Whenever a transformation is about to take place feathers are employed. Feathers are instrumental in travel of any kind.
Fire. Bless fire only with sprinkled water. A distinction between flames and coals can be made.
Fire Jumping is an act of purification.
Flute is often used as decoy sound.
Food indicates success of a ceremony, strength, endurance and transformation. Rituals require certain foods, forbid others.
Hand Clapping is used for thunder and physiological entrainment.
Hand on Heart is a way of accepting offering.
Head Lifting indicates acceptance of new condition or status.
House Blessing (place blessing) is an initial rite of all ceremonies.
Incense is a protection. It purifies, drives away disease and immunizes. Often used as a conclusive act or benediction. Common in Holyway and Lifeway, rare in Evilway and Injuryway.
Jumping and Jumping Over both signify transformation or restoration.
Knots denote frustration. Often used in Evilway where they are cut or untied.
Medicine Sprinkling is a way to dispense good feeling and healing.
Mistakes may be corrected, usually by reversal and then correct repetition. A part of every Way should be dedicated to mistake correction whether they be discovered or not.
Names are full of power, ritualistic items of tremendous value. Naming stabilizes any action.
Odors are particularly useful in driving away spirits, especially if they are pungent.
Participation is an indispensable part of any ritual.
Passes or Feints are made with hands, arm waving, arm spreading and hand pointing in cardinal directions. Finger pointing within a ritual can be dangerous.
Pressing is a common procedure, meaning identification by absorption and/or shaping. Kneading and modeling should be included with pressing. It is assumed that until a person has been made Holy, he is not an image of the power he seeks to control, but after such a power takes him in hand, kneading, pressing or massage will make him resemble the Holy People.
Punishment is generally meted out by the Holy People for offenses against them.
Racing generates strength and fortitude, qualities which please the Holy People.
Restriction is a primary method of reversal. Included are taboos, sanctions and prohibitions.
Restriction on Looking signifies that supernatural power is about to be demonstrated. Sometimes the restriction is imposed when the power is attractive; again it may be enjoined with exorcistic intent. Also restrictions on looking backwards are used. Observance of looking taboos sometimes lead to transformation.
Rubbing is a ritualistic act related to pressing.
Saliva has very strong powers to use for good or evil.
Salt furnishes strength, protects against danger and is used for identification.
Smoke is associated with creation, clouds, war, power and purification.
Soot is used as armor, protection and as a decoy or disguise. The temples are often blackened because they are the seat of ghosts. Children have their palms blackened. The jaw is often blackened before crossing a Danger Line.
Spiral shapes create an escape from circles and also serves as Danger Lines.
Spitting has the function of identification and marking.
Stepping on as a property is distinguished from stepping over. It is dangerous to step on some properties, helpful to step on others often giving extraordinary powers.
Stepping over accomplishes restoration, transformation and increase; it is invariably an act of Holyway ritual. Stepping over things can restore them to normalcy.
Stretching signifies promise of aid and success.
Substitution is used for reversal and decoy.
Tests prove strength, power and predict the future.
Throwing Down an object is a demonstration of superior power.
Whipping is a ceremonial act that stresses fortitude, strength and purification rather than punishment.

So what are we saying? That ritual is a systematic, pragmatic method for solving problems (personal and otherwise) with a huge dose of necessary beauty thrown in. It draws on the personal and profane, the mythic and mysterious. It offers a way to think about problems and their solutions. Ritual is a means by which many threads at many levels can be woven into a meaningfully powerful tapestry.

The Thunder Boy story in The Structure of Delight (pp. 240-242) is an example of a Story Line or narrative mentioned above. It's direct concern is the treatment of depression and so is applicable to all instances of melancholy. Coyote's intent is to shift Thunder Boy's physiology from the Water Quadrant to the Fire Quadrant and finally, as the story ends, to the Earth quadrant. This is the story's underlying psychological path.

In brief, Coyote takes control of Thunder Boy's attention, shifting it from KIN to XEN, then he shifts Thunder Boy's physiology by inducing him to action. Thunder Boy's point-of -view undergoes a similar shift. In the end, Thunder Boy finds he can't return to his original state of psychology, that his existence has changed (becoming Thunder Man) and he's pleased.

If you were to take the Thunder Boy story (or any other), modify it to fit your needs, update and expand it where necessary, throw in the extra elements to bring it into the present, include all the steps as listed above, you would have a ritual which would be applicable to a great many people. If your were to do this and got good at it, you'd have something that could rightly be called The Thunder Boy Chant.


Navaho Religion by Gladys A. Reichard
Mind Game : Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists by Fuller E. Torrey
Southwest Indian Drypainting by Leland C. Wyman

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