The Balance of Ritual, Performance, & Ego

Hi all!  I’m in Book Jail for Sigil Witchery, just a couple more days to go, so I’m pulling this post from the archives (2014) –  Relevant at any time!

Photo of Tempest by The Dancer's Eye

Photo of Tempest by The Dancer’s Eye

Where is the line between Ritual and Performance?
Not only for Sacred Dance (which can be a hot topic along the lines of “Can or should a trance dance be performed? How appropriate is that? And under what context?”) but this is something that can be considered for almost any kind of ritual.  I’ve seen and participated in a lot of Ritual and Performance over the last two decades, and lately I’ve been thinking about what works…and what makes me want to bang my head on the nearest hard surface.  Of course, to each their own, but it still makes me wonder the why and how things work or don’t work for me.

First, we must consider the question, what IS Ritual?
Ritual is a very misunderstood entity. When most people think of ritual, they picture a very intricate, ornate, long, and intense ceremony. Ritual can be that, but it’s most often not. Humans are ritualistic beings (not unlike cats), and do certain things every single day in order to make progress within that day or evening. It helps to bring meaning and order into daily living. Despite its mundane nature, it’s a form of ritual. So between these two extremes, we see that ritual is done to bring meaning, purpose, and order to something. It can be very elaborate, or simple, as long as it works for you.

The following is one of my favorite explanations of ritual:“It is believed that the human need for some kind of formal, often public acknowledgement of significant events is one of the fundamental forces of our development as social beings. At the same time, ritual allows us to transcend our individual selves to gain a sense of participation with the greater environment of the forces controlling our singular and communal destinies.” ­John T. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine

Ritual is also “a fusion of the powers believed to be inherent in the persons, objects, relationships, events, and histories which are represented by the ceremony itself.” ­(Victor Turner)

So what about Performance? By simple definition it can be “an act of staging or presenting a play, concert, or other form of entertainment.” I think a key element to consider is that Performance is done for some sort of audience, to communicate some sort type of idea, art, or other form of expression.  It opens up a dialogue and creates a shared experience.

Who is the audience? Depending on where and when Ritual is done, the audience can be active participants (part of a group activity/service), an observing contingent (such as a seated, paying audience in a theater), the performer/practitioner themselves (especially in solitary), and/or something/someone metaphysical (deity, spirit, elemental, ancestor, etc).  In that consideration, all Ritual contains some element of Performance, and that there are a lot of angles and nuances to consider when crafting Ritual.

Which brings us to Ego. Ego can be defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”, “the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity” or “a conscious thinking subject.”  I think Ego, when it’s integrated with Ritual and Performance, becomes the crucial element that makes it all work – or not.

Photo of Tempest  from Hexenfest 2014 (?)

Photo of Tempest from Hexenfest 2014 (?)

How so? Well, it is definitely important to be confident in your abilities to accomplish what you have set out to do.  When focusing intent and working metaphysics, you cannot be shy or unfocused about what needs to be done.  You need to understand the parts you are bringing together, have a sense of timing and flow, and have a voice. The sum of these parts signifies a healthy Ego. It does not mean believing that you are MORE important than anyone or anything else (especially your audience), that it’s your job to instruct, bestow, or pander to the audience – or completely exclude them all together. The “look how powerful/dark/smart I am” shtick falls flat and will be obviously hollow to a grounded practitioner.

So how does one avoid that trap?
-First, don’t take yourself too seriously. Those who are truly confident don’t feel the need to over-dramatize/demonstrate that point. It allows you to have permission to be more open to what’s happening, to be more expressive, and communicate more freely. The more your try to show how “important” you are, the less it will work.
-Don’t be afraid to laugh or to make a mistake – you’ll actually trust yourself more.
-Don’t put yourself above anyone else – we’re all in this together and you never know who’s watching.
-Do consider what it is that you wish to accomplish and how it can affect not only yourself, but others.
-Less is More. You don’t have to over-explain everything, and don’t rely on props to get your point across. Make them count, but don’t make them the focus.  Also, don’t believe that longer = better. Ask yourself is everything you’re incorporating truly necessary to accomplish your goal?
-Clean up after yourself; physically and metaphysically.

Keep these simple ideas in mind and you will be on your way to crafting Ritual that will work in more ways than you could have ever imagined!

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About Laura Tempest Zakroff

Laura Tempest Zakroff is a visual artist, author, designer, dancer, and Witch residing in Seattle, WA with her partner musician Nathaniel Johnstone and their 3 cats. She has identified as a Modern Traditional Witch for over two decades, viewing her path as one of vocation, craft and practice, spirituality, and way of living.