Ritual, Ordeal and Tradition

By Jack Wolf

A while ago I was having a conversation with a guy who was quite put off when he read about certain kinds of traditions held by various groups of Pagans. In particular he was quite uncomfortable with the idea of earning one’s way into a tribal tradition through various kinds of ordeals, such as sitting out, ordeal quests or even rituals which require certain acts of endurance. He was certainly not impressed with the Utiséta tradition of sitting out practiced by some Heathen groups or the process of Worthing as practiced within the Théodish community. Naturally there were other examples as well.

“You would think in this day and age people would be able to get past that kind of barbarian bullshit.” He told me. “People should be allowed into any tradition based on who they are rather than what they do. What is this, some kind of Pagan gang culture?”

I suggested to him that he might consider his words before referring to cultures he knew only a little about – especially with blanket statements.  I also suggested that there were plenty of Pagan traditions out there which did not require any sorts of ordeals… but that in my own estimation traditions who would just let any old person in and not have any particular kinds of quality control guidelines might prove to be quite prone to chaos. Possibly even cultural free-fall or collapse might occur.

It is said that there is no reasoning with some people and indeed it was the case with the person I was talking to. He had his opinion and was steadfast in its defense.  Our conversation dissolved not much later.

But it got me thinking about those traditions which this fellow seemed to be so offended by, and about the fact that there seem to be a good number of people – even in the Pagan community – who seem to think that the process of initiatory rites are somehow outdated, overrated or even obsolete.

I suppose that depends on the individual, their world view and perspective in general.

I personally do not think that rites-of-passage are outdated echoes of a forgotten time. In fact I believe that it is precisely because our western society largely lacks these kinds of rituals that we have so many problems today.

Think about it: In the old tribal times there were ceremonies and rites for many things. There were specialized mysteries for women, societies for men and there were certainly mystical or spiritual rites that most tribal people practiced. There were coming-of-age rituals for the youth as well as other ritual ‘markers’ which served as signposts of achievement and accomplishment along the tribal person’s life-path.

In our modern age we have little of this in our so-called first world society. Young people especially , seem  to have been left out in the proverbial cold when it comes to community recognition of them and their potential.

When I was coming up, in the late 1970’s and the early eighties for most of us ‘coming-of-age’ meant getting a driver’s license, smoking, drinking, abusing various mild narcotic substances and sex. Not much of a ritual marker for coming into adulthood if you ask me. Nowadays I hear from young folks (in their teens and twenties) that they don’t feel there is much left in the world for them. In many cases they feel lost, with little hope for the future, and they feel undervalued by society in general. Not a very nice feeling to have about oneself – especially in the prime of one’s young life!

But indeed, that’s the way it is for so many young people these days. Not all for sure, but a significant percentage.

What can be done about this? Well if you ask me, from a tribal perspective I’d say that these people – and also people who are older and who have never experienced it – should have the opportunity to participate in some rites-of-passage. This so that they might feel a bit of pride at having accomplished something, and as well for the chance that they might feel the spark of warmth that comes from that much desired need in most human beings – group or tribal acceptance.

I have noticed that in recent times a number of elders I know are opening up their Native ceremonies to non-Native people, so that the traditions and indeed the good power that is generated there might spread and help in the healing of humanity. In the Pagan community this is also happening and the intent I believe is the same: So that humans beings might regain some of the community spirit that is generated through good hearted folk coming together to heal and to empower themselves – and this in turn may help all of us to begin healing the Earth.

My own tradition is loaded with rites-of-passage. Most of these are not overly harsh in any way shape or form. They are designed to help our people commune with their innermost selves, the land beneath their feet and the connections which we all share with existence. There are birth traditions, naming traditions and death traditions – with other kinds of rituals and ceremonies in between. Part of the richness of any culture can be found in three areas, generally: The general attitudes and behavior of that culture’s members, the language (if any) or other ways that they might communicate/ express themselves in the world and the interface they hold with other cultures and beings in the Middle World.  At least in my own experience these things are made deeper and more powerful through rituals and other reminders of who we are, why we are here and what our purpose in the world actually is. Such things become a way of personal grounding, a set of starting coordinates for wayfinding on the trails of life.

Also, regarding the criticism I was hearing in that conversation; about the desire of some communities to have newcomers prove themselves – well I believe this makes perfect sense. Most of us come from families which were long ago shattered by the social experiment known as the ‘nuclear family’. We have been spinning in the wind for generations in some cases and yet in the breasts of most human animals there is this deep seated yearning to belong; to be taken back into the circles of the tribes.  So many have this desire for a folk of their own and indeed many aren’t even sure what that means anymore. Some join social cliques, some join gangs, some join clubs or community groups, some join political movements and some – especially in the modern day Pagan community – some form new tribal entities with the hope that they might attract others of similar visions and interests.

Let’s add to this, that many kinds of Pagan people hold a belief that communities can hold collective wellbeing, good Medicine or luck. Can you really blame anyone for wanting to risk the overall wellbeing of their group by letting persons who may cause disruption into their circles? Would you hire someone who you suspected would steal from you or treat your customers badly? Would you share a home with someone who you suspected might cause your family harm? Would you befriend someone so radically different from you that their goals were the antithesis of your own?  It is very unlikely that most people would be willing to do any of the things I just mentioned and yet there are still people out there who expect unconditional acceptance. To my thinking this is very strange.

Taking new people into a tribe or group in the modern times can be a risky proposition. In the old days people were born into a particular culture and tradition. It is not so cut and dried anymore. These days it seems to me, so many want to have all the marbles; they want to know all the secrets and they want all the goodies, the respect, the recognition – all with putting little or no effort out.

That’s not the way traditional societies, kindreds, covens or tribes work. In order to be accepted there are usually vetting processes and often these will include rituals or ordeals – not always of course, but they do occur.

As more and more of us reawaken and indeed, as more of us find our interests turned back to the old ways we will often see that the traditions of older, tribal cultures are sometimes quite different from the way we have come to walk in the world. If we wish to learn from these old ways or even re-embrace some of them we need to open our minds to the reasoning behind many of these old ways. We also need to look for the ways where some of these older rites might be adapted to fit into modern times when such things might serve our empowerment, growth and healing.

To embrace the past is to learn from it. Learning from the old ways allows us to walk more powerfully into the future.

To me the rekindling of these old ways – and the spirit of these old ways –are anything but barbaric or bullshit. They are the opposite of this in fact. They are keys to doorways of the past which, if opened again may provide us with valuable insights on many things: Especially on how we can correct the damage done by so many fairly recent social detours.

The rites-of-passage; the ceremonies and yes, even the ordeals of more primal times, may prove to be a much more powerful key than many imagine: For healing ourselves and our world – and to open doors we haven’t even discovered yet.


About Jack Wolf

Canadian author Jack Wolf has been a practicing Pagan for over 30 years, walking a path that encompasses both his Northern European and Native American heritage. He counts the late Heathen Goði and writer E. Max Hyatt, Professor Mark Mirabello, Dakota tribal Chief William Hoff and American author Allan Cole among his mentors. An avid outdoorsman, Jack has spent a considerable portion of his life exploring the deep wilds of British Columbia, a vast province on Canada’s west coast. He brings a great deal of his wilderness experience to his spiritual path. Over the past 15 years Jack has studied and written about a number of northern pagan traditions, having published for the most part independently or in small journals, blogs or websites. His recent works for Mandrake of Oxford Have certainly opened up his writing to a larger audience. Jack is also the author of several other books, including Circle of Bones (2012), The Way of the Odin Brotherhood (2013), Blood and Stone (2014) co-author of Tales from the Red Moon Lodge (2014) and co-editor of A Voice from the Thornwood (winter 2014). Forthcoming works include The Thornish Path, Ullr’s Road and The Urban Tribalist, all of which are planned for a mid-2015 and early 2016 release respectively. Spiritually, Jack identifies himself generally as a Deep Tribalist and more specifically as Thornish. He is a member of a primal pagan tradition whose spiritual path involves questing for the First Knowledge – that held by our most ancient ancestors whose hearts and spirits were deeply connected to the land. The Thornish path is the way of the warrior-steward; a Deep Tribal tradition which Jack has practiced since the late 1980’s Jack holds a degree in anthropology from the world renowned University of British Columbia and has long held an avid interest in history, tribal peoples, spirituality and the reawakening of pagan peoples worldwide. He currently resides with his wife and co-author Cassandra Wolf and their daughter, in Squamish, British Columbia.
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