Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #80:

The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Six: Ritual Structure

With thanks to Christopher Allen and a plethora of ritual structures

by Shannon Appelcline

July 11, 2002 - Last week, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #79, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Five: Ritualizing Backstory I talked about ritual and its connections to holidays all over the world. However, that was really only half the story.

Holidays are an excellent example of unstructured rituals. They contain many symbolic elements and are often representative of past events, as I discussed last week, but they're pretty freeform. There's another side to the coin — structured rituals — or, to be more precise, ceremonies. You run into lots of these in real life too, from the sacraments of the Catholic church to the specific ceremonies centering around presenting a birthday cake.

This week I want to discuss how you can create ceremonies of your own for online games. Pretty much everything I discussed last week still applies here. Your ceremonies will still have one of two meta-purposes:

  1. Embodying backstory.
  2. Giving you a foundation to build backstory from.

And you'll have a number of different options for specific content when you create a ritualistic ceremony: exact recreation of past events; symbolic recreation of past events; recreation of past emotions; et al. Go read last week's article to catch up on it all; I'll wait.

The thing that's different with a structured ritual is that... well... there's a structure to the whole thing. Most of this week's article is going to discuss a specific structure that you can just plug into your online game to create ceremonies.

The structure in this week's article is at heart my own; most of the writings on ritual structure are really specific to various types of religion (most frequently pagan) and thus some work needed to be done to generalize them.

However, I did have numerous sources including: Ritual by Emma Orr; The Ceremonial Circle by Sedonia Cahill & Joshua Halpern; The Art of Ritual by Renee Beck & Sydney Metrick;; and Joelles' Sacred Grove. Finally, it was Christopher Allen who put me on the path to this article and also contributed some notes of his own.

What follows is a structure for ritual.

Part One: Prepare the Ceremony

Unless they are divinely inspired within your gameworld, your ceremonies will start off with preparation; the participants have to know what they're going to do. This is work that is done long before the actual ceremony begins.

Prepare the Participants: There's only one element that must be a part of all ceremonies: people. Participants can actually fall into four different categories: leaders, who know the ritual and help others to engage in it; actors who take prominent, often symbolic roles in the ritual; followers, who participate in the ceremony in a secondary role; and viewers, who watch the ceremony without actually taking part.

Not all rituals will have participants in all four categories. Some rituals are entirely personal, meaning there is only one participant — a leader. Most rituals seems to involve leaders, followers, and viewers. Take the Catholic communion ritual as an example: the priests lead, the Catholics followers, and the relations who have been dragged to church out of a sense of obligation view. Rituals involving actors are less common in modern society; they were seen more frequently in Classical ritual-plays where some participants took on the roles of gods or spirits when reenacting mythical events.

As a gamedesigner, at this stage you'll need to decide which types of participants your ritual has and who they are.

Prepare the Props: There tend to be three types of objects used within rituals: stage dressing, such as altars, curtains, and chairs, who's purpose is mainly decorative; tools, such as incense, gongs, and hammers, who's purpose is mainly utilitarian; and symbols, such as bread, wine, and birthday candles, who's purpose is mainly symbolic.

Actually, anything can be symbolic in a ritual, including the tools and the stage dressing. In the original forms of rituals, probably many of those other elements were symbolic; clothing might have been a certain color, representing a certain thing. A specific-shaped tool might have been used, again as a symbol. Sometimes these symbols remain, sometimes they're lost entirely, and sometimes the physicality of the symbol remains, but its true meaning is lost.

In gathering together the props, you'll have to figure out how they represent the backstory you're trying to portray, and how they'll work together. This is really the heart of the ritual.

Determine the Space: Lastly, you'll need to figure out where your ritual takes place. Is there a specific holy place, or does it happen wherever people happen to gather? There may or may not be deep meaning behind this decision, which ties back into your backstory.

Part Two: Begin the Ceremony

Everything thus far is prelude, the work that you as a game designer does in preparation for a ceremony (or that, in real life, the ceremony leaders would beforehand). It's at this point that the ceremony actually begins. Some of these steps are more optional than others; not every ceremony has to include everything. Pick and choose as you think is appropriate to create an interesting spectacle within your game.

Consecrate the Space: Many rituals begin with a consecration of the space where the ritual is to take place. This clearing of the debris of life could be as simple as washing one's hands or sweeping the floor clean, or it could be a complex ceremony of its own. Many ceremonial spaces (e.g. mosques, synagogues, or churches) are actually consecrated well in advance.

Declare the Intent: At this point a statement is usually made about what the intent of the ceremony is ("Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today... "). The two main intents of ceremonies — reenacting past events and marking an occasion — are outlined in "Part Three", below.

Invoke the Sacred: This could actually happen before or after the declaration of intent, noted above. It is usually an attempt to invoke some larger "power" and is central to the relevance of the ceremony. Many may associate this power with "God" or "the gods", as most modern-day ceremonies are utterly religious. However, pagan ceremonies also tend to invoke the four elements. In the court room there's an invocation to the power of the government when everyone rises upon the judge's entrance; a similar invocation can be seen in the pledge school children must speak every day ("I pledge allegiance to the FLAG... "). People can also be invoked — mythical heroes, historical figures, spirits, or ancestors — particularly if a ritual is being conducted to remember or honor them.

Part Three: Observe the Ceremony

Now we get to the heart of the ceremony, and the hardest part to generalize because it'll be different for each ritual you enact.

Re-enact an Event: Many rituals are about the re-enactment of a specific event (or the emotions behind that event, or the general life of a hero, or something of the sort). For these rituals the tools and symbols prepared are of an appropriate type to engage in a short, symbolic reenactment.

or Mark an Occasion: Other rituals are more general, and instead have at their center a ceremony that is intended to mark a specific occasion. This may be a fairly important occasion (a wedding) or just a regular marking of belief (communion). Symbols portray the general moods and themes involved with the ritual.

Feel the Catharsis: The actual ritual might take seconds, moments, or even hours. At some point the core of the ceremony will come to an end. What usually follows is a, possibly unconscious, catharsis that all the participants feel — it is a releasing of emotional energy built up during the ceremony. This catharsis actually acts as the bridge between the observance of the ceremony and the grounding. In one courtroom ceremony the catharsis immediately follows the reading of the verdict; a similar emotion can be felt at the end of the national-anthem ceremony at a baseball game.

Part Four: Ground the Ceremony

Finally the ceremony must be grounded; the lessons learned within (or the power generated) must be connected to the real world.

Bless the Ceremony: Many ceremonies end with some type of formal blessing that once again acknowledges whatever powers were invoked at the beginning of the ceremony. This period might also involve thanks — to the leaders, followers, or actors.

Close the Ceremony: Following that may be some type of official closing which marks the end of the ceremony in an explicit, clearly defined way. This closing may also involve some sort of remembrance of the ceremony or an evaluation of what occurred. Many ceremonies conclude with feasting of some sort.

Integrate the Lessons: Finally, the participants of the ceremony step back into the real world, but in doing so they bring something with them out of the ceremony. This might be a power or emotion they feel within themselves (most often, improved morale) or it might be some power that they can bring back to their community.

Ceremony: A Summary

Before listing out a summary of these ceremonial steps, there's one important thing to note: structured ritual has similarities to the Hero's Journey. If you look back at Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #76, The Elements of Good Mythtelling, Part Two: Singular Plot in Theory you'll see a strangely familiar structure.

In particular, the three parts of the Hero's Journey are close cousins to the last three sections of my ritual structure: departure = beginning the ceremony; initiation = observing the ceremony; and return = grounding the ceremony. And, some of the results are the same: you can bring power back for yourself (becoming the master of two worlds) or for your community (the elixir offered).

This really isn't an accident because many ceremonies are reenactments of Hero's Journeys and because both ideas plumb the same deep wellsprings of mythic archetype.

With all that pondering out of the way, here's what my structure of ceremony looks like, in brief. As with my structure for the Hero's Journey, which I printed back in TT&T #76, I've marked the more obligatory steps with a solid disc and the more optional ones with an unfilled circle.

  1. Prepare the Ceremony
    • Prepare the Participants
      • Leader
      • Actor
      • Follower
      • Viewer
    • Prepare the Props
      • Dressing
      • Tools
      • Symbols
    • Determine the Space
  2. Begin the Ceremony
    • Consecrate the Space
    • Declare the Intent
    • Invoke the Sacred
  3. Observe the Ceremony
    • Reenact an Event or
    • Mark an Occasion
    • Feel the Catharsis
  4. Ground the Ceremony
    • Bless the Ceremony
    • Close the Ceremony
    • Integrate the Lessons

Examples of Ceremony

With all of that analysis out of the way, I'd like to offer four examples of ceremony, and show how they fit into this structure. Two are well-known ceremonies, one is an existing ceremony in Castle Marrach, and the fourth one I created on the fly using this structure.

The Wedding Ceremony: Probably the best known ceremony in the Western World is that of marriage. The participants include: a priest or civil authority (the leader); a number of groomsmen, best men, flower girls, bridesmaids, ring boys, etc (the actors); a bride and a groom (the followers); and a bunch of people sobbing into their best hankies (the viewers). The props are fairly minimal in most weddings: the dressing usually includes some sort of podium and specific garb for the three participants; there are usually no tools; the symbols include a ring, which shows union; and in more conservative weddings a specific color for the bride's dress, showing purity or the lack thereof. Some types of weddings include many more props, such as the glass that is smashed at Jewish weddings. The space is usually a religious center for religious weddings, a civic center or Elvis chapel for shotgun weddings, or somewhere pretty for weddings of other types.

In the case of a religious wedding the space is already consecrated; little work is done beyond cleaning for most other locales. The ceremony often includes an invocation ("Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the sight of God... ") followed by a declaration of intent ("... to join this man and woman together in holy matrimony.")

The observation of the ceremony can be varied depending on tradition. It is a marking of an occasion rather than a reenactment of an event. It usually includes a number of vows at the heart of the ceremony ("... in sickness and in health .."), an exchange of a ring ("With this ring I thee wed.") and finally a statement of marriage ("I now pronounce you man and wife.") The moment of catharsis is part of the official ceremony ("You may now kiss the bride.").

There is usually a blessing at the end, from the mundane ("Congratulations.") to the religious ("What God has joined, let no man pull asunder.") The ceremony is closed with a very traditional feast and dancing, and finally the bride and groom wander off, the lessons that they have learned — and the promises they have made — coloring the rest of their lives... or at least the next year or two.

The Ticket Ceremony: It's important to note that even if highly structured, a ceremony can still be taken totally out of the religious or social context. A structured ritual can take place between two individuals and still be truly ceremonial. It's easy to see some of these elements in a lot of very mundane seeming interactions, like the ritual when a police officer gives you a speeding ticket.

There are just required two participants: a policeman (the leader) and a driver (the follower), though automobile passengers can also be involved (viewers). A number of props should be at hand, including the policeman's gun and badge (symbols of authority), his notepad and pen (tools), and your own driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance (symbols of your subservience to authority). The ceremonial space is always your motor vehicle, upon some road.

The ritual begins with a clearing of the space (you roll down your window), following by an invocation of the sacred ("CALIFORNIA Highway Patrol, Sir.") and an off-handed declaration of intent ("Do you know how fast you were going?").

Again, this ceremony is about marking an occasion: the specific occasion of your going to fast. The ritual includes a number of distinct phases, including denial ("I'm sure I was going the speed limit."), continued excuses ("I was just trying to pass that other car"), stern authoritarianism ("I'll have to see your license and registration, Sir."), and a description of crimes (the writing of the ticket). Finally, there's a moment of catharsis (the police officer walks away, and you collapse across your steering wheel).

The blessing is more often a curse ("God damn it!") and the ceremony is closed by the police officer and you both driving off. Rather than bringing power back to your community you bring weakness, in the form of new debt.

An Existing Marrach Ceremony: Within the first week of the release of Castle Marrach a ceremony developed around the recitation of poetry. The participants were a poet (the leader) and his admirers (viewers). There were no real props, and the dressing was the location — the poet would always stand in front of the fireplace in the east dining hall.

The space was cleared most frequently by the poet looking up at the ceiling, or, in some other way, glancing about the location. The declaration was usually obvious ("I will be reciting from The Brown Rat today."). There was rarely an invocation.

The ceremony was yet again a marking of an event: this time the recitation of poetry. At the end catharsis was found within the applause of the viewers.

There was no blessing and the closing of the ceremony was typical a bow and a "thank you". The viewers could then take the memory of the poetry and any new knowledge it brought them back into the world.

A New Marrach Ceremony: At this point it should be fairly easy to invent a brand-new ceremony for an online game of your choice just by following the 12-point structure above. I offer as a final example a ceremony for Castle Marrach that probably has nothing to do with what's going on in the game right now and is totally new.

I've decided for my ceremony that I want to highlight something about the backstory of the catacombs beneath the Castle. I don't really have that many ideas beyond this core concept, so I'll invent a cool ceremony, then build backstory from there.

The participants should be people who want to take place in the ceremonies of The Realms Below (followers), and they'll have to be led by a priest (the leader). Viewers are not allowed because this is a secret ceremony. Remembering a plot I wrote about a few weeks ago when discussing the Hero's Journey I've decided to center my ritual around the story of a man who's dreams were lost far below Marrach long ago. I want a symbolic representation of the caves (lichen) and a symbolic representation of dreams (a wine said to be made from the essence of dreams itself and aged for a thousand years). I'm also going to make the dressing related to the Realms Below by having the priest dress in black and conduct the ceremony before a black altar. Even the bottles for the wine can be made out of black glass. The place for the ceremony should clearly be below the Castle, though it can be in some of the highest, least secret caverns.

Clearing the space will be something that all of the participants can take part in; in order for the cavern to be correctly consecrated it must be filled with lichen and fungus from the caves below. This will give the players the opportunity to prepare for the ceremony in advance by collecting or trading the rare mosses. The invocation and statement of purpose will both be part of the Priest's speech ("We are gathered here today under the benefices of She Who Dreams to remember one who lost his dreams in these caverns and to gather our own dreams to us").

The ritual is a very symbolic reenactment. Each participants eats some of the lichen or fungus, representing the travel down into the caverns, and then spills some of the wine to their left (sinister) side, representing the loss of memories. Then, however, each participant takes a drink of wine, to show that lost dreams may still be recovered. The wine is hallucinogenic in nature, resulting in the participants then having vivid dreams, which form the catharsis.

Afterward the priest speaks the blessing ("May She Who Dreams smile upon all who stand here today, and may their lost dreams always be found again.") There is then a feast composed of delicacies made from strange beasts which live far beneath the Castle. Then, the participants head upward, back into the Castle proper, bringing with them the visions, or sometimes memories, which the wine has blessed them with.

It's a lot better than getting a ticket.

An End to Mythtelling

And that ends my discussion of the structure of ritual. It also brings an end to my discussing of mythtelling in general — following three weeks on mythic plot, one week on mythic character, and now two weeks on mythic backstory (and how it may be embodied as ritual). As I've noted before the structure of these articles was partially based on The Elements of Good Storytelling. The only element of good storytelling that I haven't covered in these articles is setting, and for good reason: in general, myths don't have very solid or well-detailed settings because they're meant to be stories that could be set anywhere and could have happened to anyone.

Next week I want to complete some more global discussions of Modern Myth, once more returning to the issues of why myth is disappearing, and what that means for a game designer trying to integrate myth into their online game.

And then it'll be on to other topics... I have a few articles on attracting users in mind, while it's still on my brain due to the continuing release of Grendel's Revenge

I'll see you in 7.

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